My Hometown’s Recovery From Sandy Has Been Lackluster, And Could Have Been Better

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I witnessed two Long Island communities, Long Beach and Oceanside, located just 1.5 miles from one another, experience very different fates. Both communities have populations hovering around 33,000 residents, and both faced unprecedented damage during the storm.

However, the main difference between the two is that Long Beach is a city, with its own government and resources, whereas Oceanside is what New York State defines as a hamlet, an unincorporated area with no mayor, no police department, and no other essential services that would be useful in times of  crisis. It is simply a part of the greater Town of Hempstead, which is itself a collection of 37 hamlets and 22 villages. The Town of Hempstead’s total population is 760,000 according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau reports.

When disaster struck, Oceanside, where I grew up, had few resources to rely on: We have an all-volunteer fire department made up of amazing men and women who went without sleep for weeks after Sandy, constantly putting their lives on the line as calls came in non-stop (despite half of the firehouses and trucks flooding, rendering them useless). We have our own U.S. Post Office (unhelpful post-Sandy), a school board with a long-standing and well-respected superintendent of schools (though half of our schools were also seriously damaged), and a public library (that emerged unscathed).

Not only is there no police department in Oceanside, as we rely on Nassau County police officers, there is not even a police station. For sanitation, we rely on the Oceanside branch of the Town of Hempstead’s refuse collection operations, a group of heavily unionized folks who have proved to be inept and unwilling to pick up the mess in this rare time of crisis. There is no mayor, no city council, and of course no professional city management staff.

Long Beach, on the other hand, has 300 city employees. Of these, it has approximately 75 police officers and 30 firefighters, as well as its own Department of Public Works that handles sanitation and sewage issues.

Prior to Sandy, the City of Long Beach distributed over 19,000 sandbags to residents, while also updating its website to keep people up-to-date with the latest information. This was in addition to distributing hurricane preparedness pamphlets to all residents during the summer and organizing a de-facto emergency management office headed by its mayor and Kennedy School of Government-educated city manager.

Yes, like Oceanside, Long Beach relies on LIPA, the beleaguered and bumbling soon-to-be former power holding company, but the failures of LIPA seem to be one of the few commonalities between the two cities (and Oceanside, as it turns out, suffered far longer in total darkness).

In the days after Sandy, Long Beach established its indoor ice rink as a collection point for relief supplies, also making it a distribution center for its residents. Emergency generators were brought in for power. The ice rink was as well-organized as a Target store, with specified loading docks and hundreds of volunteers flocking in from around the country to assist. There were New York State Troopers on site, National Guardsmen, and other federal employees in addition to Long Beach’s own. Things were civilized, and it became clear to residents where they had to go for supplies and information, even when most of the city appeared to be in shambles. FEMA and insurance companies set up shop around the ice rink (also located a short walk from City Hall), where any necessary information or services could be found.

Oceanside, meanwhile, had a host of tired firefighters and community leaders, many of whom lost their own homes, trying to wrap their head around the crisis without being physically able to take much action, because, without power, they still had other responsibilities to their families, employers, and in many cases, the schools or fire department.

Oceanside’s collection efforts were meager in comparison to Long Beach, because there were no individuals able to organize large-scale collection sites and manage the distribution of relief supplies.

There was little outside help. FEMA decided to set up shop in Oceanside Park, located at an edge of town that the thousands of people with flooded cars would never be able to get to, and thousands more, stuck without power, never even knew that this help existed.

The Town of Hempstead was useless. Nassau County was useless. New York State was useless. FEMA was useless. It then fell on the Oceanside diaspora, family, and friends, to convey information. I and others not terribly impacted by the storm set up websites and Facebook pages to provide information to fellow citizens (if and when they could even check these resources), as Oceanside has no web resources of its own. It was old high school friends and acquaintances whom I counted on to get relief directly to Oceanside, because it seemed like our community was not one featured on the news like others (until Oceansiders turned a school press conference into a rally dedicated to venting frustrations with our unreachable power company, as well as our do-nothing Town of Hempstead, Nassau County, and Congressional elected officials…).

As for aid management, Oceanside is now relying on Oceanside Community Service, a small non-profit set up in 1949 to help poor members of the community. This organization is led by the same civic-minded folks who are also members of the school board, fire department, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, etc. And it’s usually this time of year that the organization feeds, clothes, and delivers toys to the needy. Whereas the Long Beach ice rink is now, to their credit, filled to the brim with supplies and a never-ending flow of vehicles dropping off more needed items, Oceanside Community Service was overjoyed that a single tractor trailer recently arrived from Vestal, New York, bringing much-needed supplies.

My call to action is that Oceanside immediately incorporate as a village. In times of crisis, all areas need police departments, management professionals, and full-time leaders. Unincorporated areas cannot and should not rely on incompetent bureaucrats at the county or township levels. Incidents like Sandy may not happen often, but when they do, citizens should know that they will be looked after, and that disaster management on the local level will never again be such a debacle because a hyperlocal government is not in place.

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic.

From Narrative.ly: The Intact-ivists

The Intact-ivists

A diverse group of men who are opposed to circumcision share a common, if unorthodox, mission—to restore their foreskins.

By Stephen Robert Morse

After twenty-seven years on this planet, I learned last week that I am not only a victim of mutilation, but also an amputee; I just hadn’t known it. Like millions of other men, I was, as a baby, circumcised. I never really thought anything of it until my editors directed me to a Yahoo! Group—yes, they still exist—that serves as the online home of the New York City chapter of NORM, the National Organization of Restoring Men.

Since the early ’80s, men who have been unsatisfied by their “cuts” have banded together for the cause and formed acronym-heavy groups with varying degrees of wit: Brothers United for Future Foreskins (BUFF), UNCircumcising Information and Resources Centers (UNCIRC), and Recover A Penis (RECAP), among many others. The spectrum is wide, yet the mission remains relatively stable: These dudes want their foreskins back, and they want them now. Plus, they don’t want any more unsuspecting babies to get snipped.

NORM is the restoration organization that reigns supreme today, with dozens of chapters in seven countries around the world. To complement the techno-prowess of the aforementioned Yahoo! Group, there is also, I kid you not, a Foreskin Restoration WebRing. (For those of you who haven’t heard the term since the late ’90s, a WebRing is a collection of websites that are all linked to each other, forming a chain of sites around a central topic, in this case foreskin restoration.)

Though I’d never previously thought about my amputee status/victimhood, while perusing these online forums I discovered there are people who think about their circumcisions every single day—particularly those in the midst of the painful restoration process, which oftentimes means having a mechanical clamp attached to one’s penis for hours at a time over a period of months or even years

Intrigued, I embarked on my Foreskin Restoration Information Deep Gathering Expedition (FRIDGE). If they can do acronyms en masse, so can I. Step one was to attend the monthly meeting of the New York City chapter of NORM, described on its Yahoo! Group as a “community of men seeking to restore our foreskins, an important part of the male sexual anatomy that most of us were wrongfully deprived of at birth.”

*   *   *

While the origins of circumcision are murky, in terms of both the reasons why cutting began, as well as where and when it first occurred, the practice most certainly dates back several millennia. Of course, circumcision has long been practiced by Jews, Muslims and other groups around the world. As fifth century BC historian Herodotus wrote in his still-widely regarded work, “The Histories,” the Egyptians “practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.

Records show that other groups from Before the Common Era, including many cultures from across the African continent, circumcised their young. In some cases this is thought to have signified an ascent into manhood (when the act was performed in the pubescent stage) or to discourage masturbation (we all know how well that works…).

In recent years, the ancient practice has found considerable scientific validation from medical professionals, with studies showing that circumcised men may be less likely to acquire sexually transmitted diseases than their intact counterparts—as well as some highly debatable stats that circumcision may reduce risks of penile and prostate cancer.

The New York Times reported on August 27 of this year that the American Academy of Pediatrics had “shifted its stance on infant male circumcision,” announcing that new research, “including studies in Africa suggesting that the procedure may protect heterosexual men against H.I.V., indicated that the health benefits outweighed the risks.”

Despite these studies, the fast-growing anti-circumcision movement traces its routes back several millennia as well. “Foreskin restoration also has a history stretching back to the Hellenistic world,” says Daniel O’Neill, a 42-year-old graphic designer who lives in the Inwood section of Manhattan and is the coordinator of NYC-NORM. “Jewish athletes would stretch their foreskin, as circumcision was a much less radical procedure in those days, to fit in. Athletes competed in the nude, and exposing the glans was considered obscene in the Greek world.”

Daniel O’Neill, coordinator of NYC-NORM, at home in Manhattan (Photo by Emon Hassan)

Records of circumcised and uncircumcised men in ancient Greece are of particular interest to the restoration community. A clothing accessory from that era, the kynodesme, has been taken up by the NORM folks as historical evidence of the ills associated with the exposure of the glans, or as it is better known, the penis head. Non-Jewish Greeks weren’t circumcised, but it was considered, um, un-Kosher for the glans to be exposed during athletic competitions. Thus, the kynodesme, a leather strap of sorts, was worn by male athletes who lacked sufficient foreskin to cover the entirety of their glans.

The contemporary restoration activists, who call themselves intactivists, stand by this ancient belief that the glans should not be exposed, and therefore circumcision is nothing less than mutilation.

*   *   *

Despite spending years as a kid at Jew-ish summer camp (approximately 97.5% of the attendees were Jewish by my unscientific count) where circumcised penises abounded in the bunks, as a straight man and germaphobe who avoids locker rooms in favor of outdoor exercise I have only seen a handful of my intact brethren. And, truth be told, I’d never wondered much about whether I was missing out on anything by being cut. I suspect this is the case for the vast majority of cut men.

Until embarking on my research for this piece, I had little idea that the penis in its natural, uncut state, is quite similar to the vagina, whereby it is a moist organ that has some pretty sophisticated and highly sensitive nerve endings. Sounds like something that could be useful. If I weren’t circumcised, I would have my very own built-in Manhattan Mini Storage, a place where my glans would be protected from things like touching the interior of my pants, or from that small scrape I gave myself in high school when I  accidentally zipped my fly over the glans. As the kind of person who uses a huge shatter-proof case to protect his iPhone, always wears a seatbelt when in a car, and a helmet when on a bike, given the choice I’d like to keep my one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable organ covered, too. Of course, I didn’t get to make that choice myself. My parents and a knife-wielding mohel, made that decision for me.

I turned to a Semitic pediatrician friend for literature about circumcision and was promptly handed a copy of “Jewish Medical Ethics,” a definitive volume written by Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz, the now-deceased former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, and an internationally respected public intellectual of the twentieth century. In this work, Jakobovitz writes, “The method to be adopted is laid down thus: ‘One excises the foreskin, [that is] the entire skin covering the glans, so that the corona is laid bare. Afterwards, one tears with the fingernail the soft membrane underneath the skin, turning it to the sides until the flesh of the glans appears. Thereafter, one sucks the membrane until the blood is extracted from the [more] remote places, so that no danger [to the infant] may ensue.’”

Objectively, this sounds nothing short of horrific, and if it didn’t have a heavy dose of religious backing combined with a loose medical coalition behind it, I imagine the practice might one day be looked back upon as barbaric in the same vein as eugenics, bans on interracial marriage or other once-normal cultural taboos.

The sucking component of circumcision has aroused much (warranted) criticism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not only for its obvious pedophilic qualities, but also because of incidents whereby the person performing the sucking has transmited an STD to the child. Though this part of the procedure is no longer widely practiced, it is still prevalent in some Orthodox Jewish sects. (Take a puke break, then keep on reading.)

Back to me and NORM. After explaining my journalistic affiliations to the NORM-NYC Yahoo Group, O’Neil cordially invited me to sit in on their December monthly meeting.

*   *   * 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

At seven p.m. on the dot, I enter a high rise building in Hell’s Kitchen, where I announce myself to a doorman and proceed to take an elevator to an upper floor. Other than exchanging some email courtesies and getting permission to attend this gathering from O’Neil, I have absolutely no idea what to expect and no idea who these restorers are.

I am greeted by a man who asks me to remove my shoes. I enter a well-kept apartment, realizing I am the first person to arrive. Tom Gualtieri, the host, is in his early forties but looks much younger and has a toned physique. “This is the first time I’m meeting this group,” Guallatiri tells me. He’s previously only had one-on-one conversations about restoration and participated in online forums through NYC-NORM and another group, RestoringForeskin.org.

Guillatiri says that he’s known he has a problem for his entire life. “My issue was that, at a really young age, when I first started exploring my own body sexually, I just knew there was something missing,” he says confidently. “I recognized there was something different about my penis. Even though I hadn’t seen other people’s penises, there was like an instinctive thing that I knew something was wrong.”

“But is this a psychological or physical problem?” I inquire. “What’s missing?”

“I can’t put my finger on it because I was so young when I started playing with myself. Looking back on it, I was trying to push my penis head back inside my skin. I used to push the glans back into my shaft because I wanted it to be covered up. I guess there’s something instinctive about wanting to be protected.”

Interesting. Logical. He’s not crazy as, I must admit, I suspected some of this group’s members to be.

Guillatiri continues: “Also, my father’s not circumcised. We were a fairly liberal household, in that I would see men in my household naked, whether when swimming or whatever, and I remember looking at his penis and trying to figure out what was different about it. When I asked him why I was circumcised, my father said, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s better, it’s healthier.’ And when you’re nine years old, you’re like, ‘okay.’”

“But when I became sexually active this was not so fine to me. I’m bisexual and recognized that many of my sex partners have been uncircumcised since I was first sexually active when I was nineteen, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s wrong.’”

The doorman calls up to the apartment. Another guest is heading upstairs.

Nick, twenty-seven, tall, effeminate and good-looking in an almost model-esque way, walks in and introduces himself.

I continue chatting with Guillatiri, asking, “Do you think sex is less pleasurable for you than for your partners?”

“I do,” he replies. “But based on what I’ve read, it’s not the amount of pleasure, it’s the quality of pleasure. Whenever I have a friend who’s going to get their baby circumcised, I say to think logically about what a penis does and what it’s built for. If you cut off all that skin, all those nerve endings, and all of that vascularity, it’s got to have some effect. I think that sex is less pleasurable.”

While there is a dearth of scientific evidence to back up or contradict that statement, many believe it to be true. One 2006 study of males in Korea who were circumcised after age twenty did find that a majority reported decreased masturbatory or sexual pleasure after being circumcised.

I turn to Nick, the new guy, who says, “I started restoring in college. I studied abroad in London, and I was talking with some English friends of mine. They asked why Americans were all circumcised, and I said I had no idea. So I went home to my dorm and researched online. I’d had difficulties in college with orgasming. I hadn’t found oral sex to be particularly stimulating, and sex with a condom was very difficult too. I couldn’t climax. I said to myself, ‘One day I’ll have a boyfriend and I’ll have sex without a condom and that will make everything better.’ However, the more research I did, circumcision seemed to be a reasonable cause of this lack of pleasure.”

The doorbell keeps ringing and soon there are eight men present, in addition to me.

The meeting opens, as I’d expect some type of AA meeting to begin, with the group’s leader taking the floor. “I’m Daniel, I’m forty-two,” he says. “I have been restoring now for almost two-and-a-half years. For the extent of time that I’ve been restoring, I’ve been using the dual-tension restorer, or DTR, and the tugging mode more recently to manually inflate the skin. I guess the reason I’m doing it is that I feel like there’s a part of me that’s missing, that should be there, and some sense that I’ve been mutilated.”

Next.

“I’m Nick. I’m 27. I started restoring in college, with tape.” (“Taping” is a basic restoring method in which tape is applied to the foreskin along with an elastic band, working to stretch the skin forward.) “I was taping for a year or two, and I got some pretty good results, surprisingly, using just that method. I just got a DTR. I’m a little uncomfortable, but I’m still getting used to the sensation of that device. I got the DTR because one of my biggest problems with the restoration process is that my scrotal skin has more hair on it, and it was causing some pain. Now I’ve been alleviating that problem by stretching more skin toward the top of the shaft. I’m doing that because I want a little more skin to cover up the head of my penis. There’s a little bit that’s exposed since what I did in college. But I want a permanently covered glans. As I said earlier, I’m trying to regain more sensitivity sexually.”

“Has that worked so far?” I ask.

“Yes. With masturbation it’s now easier to be pleasured. So I did notice improvement, even within a month or so.”

Next.

“I’m Anthony Losquadro,” says a well-built Italian-American with a thick Brooklyn accent, promptly reaching across the room to shake my hand and pass me both a business card for his site, intaction.org, and a pamphlet with a cover that reads, “Intact Babies Are Happier Healthier Wholesome & Natural.”

“I do a lot of things, but I’m here mainly as an intactivist, or an activist who advocates for people to keep their children intact,” says Anthony. “I’m forty-seven. I’ve been involved for three years. I’ve been to the Berkeley symposium three years ago, the Helsinki symposium, New Orleans, Boston… I run a non-profit and we do what we can to raise awareness on the issue. Baby shows, pregnancy expos.”

They go on like this, eight men with eight different stories and reasons for being here. About half are gay or bisexual; a few are straight. There’s Kevin, twenty-nine, better known as the Barefoot Intactivist, who believes his sexual problems stem from a botched circumcision. There’s Tim, who wanted to start restoring a couple of years ago but had a boyfriend who was against it; Dave, a sixty-year-old, who recently ordered a Tugger online but has used it only irregularly. Tom, whom I talked with before the others arrived at his apartment, adds that in addition to restoring for the past eighteen months, he has convinced several friends not to circumcise their babies.

A good-looking, boy-next-door type, wearing a business suit with his tie removed, stands up to speak.

“My name is Adam,” he says. “I was fifteen when I first heard Howard Stern screaming on the radio that circumcision is mutilation. For some reason it just really hit home with me. I was deeply affected by it, very angry that it existed. Here I am walking around with a scar on my penis, growing up in this world where you’d think that bodily rights are the first thing that come with being alive.

“I started restoring in high school, using T-tape,” Adam goes on. “I bought a DTR two years ago.”

At this point, Daniel pulls his DTR out to show the group. It looks like some kind of S & M pain-inducing mechanism, with a conical shape, plastic head, and some tubes sticking out of it.

“I have about another year to go before I’m finished,” Adam says. “Right now, when I’m flaccid, the skin can probably halfway cover the glans. The most annoying thing about restoring is it’s like somebody is pinching your skin all day long. You’re constantly aware of it.”

It now dawns on me that many of these men may right now have these complex devices on underneath their pants, attached to their penises. Bizarre. Painful. Well, relatively, compared to the act of circumcision, I presume.

O’Neill displays his restoring equipment, including: silicone adhesive, adhesive remover, a Dual-tension Restorer adapted with a balloon to induce tension through inflation, and “Manhoods”—socks to wear over the penis when not actively restoring (Photos by Emon Hassan)

“I only tell girlfriends who are girlfriends for a long time,” says Adam. “Random hookups, I never tell. I just pull the gripper piece on and off my penis.”

After a continuous round of questioning, Daniel points out that it’s time for me to go, so that the members can interact freely, without a member of the press present. I have no idea if that half of the meeting includes displaying restoration progress for the group, or just continuing discussion as it was while I was there.

But my overall takeaway from NORM is that these guys are pretty darn normal.

*   *   *

When I emerged from the NORM meeting, I immediately called my dad to ask him about my bris, an event that I knew took place nearly three decades ago with some fanfare, but one that we’ve never properly discussed. All my dad muttered was, “Traumatic. Traumatic. It was completely traumatic. Some guy just picks up your son and…” He couldn’t finish the sentence but I imagine my eight-day-old self being clamped and sliced by some Jewish Gordon Ramsey.

The writer Joel Stein, who has been a career and life mentor to me for more than three years, penned a TIME Magazine column in 2009 about whether or not to circumcise his forthcoming son. “All I knew was that this is clearly not a decision I should be making for another human being,” wrote Stein. “What school he attends, what he eats, which bouncy seat he should bounce in—sure. Whether to alter your genitals for aesthetic reasons is a question meant for your mid-twenties at Burning Man.”

Stein’s wife, however, felt differently, primarily for aesthetic reasons. He said, “My casual conversations with a range of people show a widespread aesthetic preference for circumcised penises over those that are au natural.”

Hoodies just aren’t ever fashionable it seems!

Stein continued: “I started asking every medical professional, woman and gay man what kind of penis they preferred, which, to my shock, got me a lot of dinner invitations. Though there seemed to be a slight aesthetic preference for not wearing a hat and a slight functional preference for keeping one on, no one had a really good argument for giving your baby plastic surgery. A pediatrician told me the sole reason he circumcised his son was so that the kid looked like him. If my son looks at my penis and the biggest difference he notices is foreskin, I have far more serious problems. Plus, if I wanted my son to look like me, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to marry someone better-looking than I am.”

I asked Stein—who ultimately consented to having his son circumcised—how he feels about the growing intactivist movement. “I think it’s a smart movement,” Stein told me. “I would have been happier not circumcising my son if we lived in a demographic that also didn’t circumcise. It does seem barbaric and probably cuts down on pleasure. But those STD studies are pretty convincing and that ultimately put me over the edge.”

“A lot more women and gay guys in our demo don’t dig the uncut,” he continued. “My son needs as many advantages as he can get if he’s anything like me. So, no. No change in thoughts. I will say that the surgery seemed to cause less pain than I would have imagined. I think lots of things are painful that first week. Like crapping.”

The one thing I have concluded for certain is that, whether beneficial or not, the circumcision process is unnatural, peculiar, and most certainly a painful intrusion—and one that is performed largely on newborns who have not requested any such procedure

But should I ever be put in Stein’s situation, I’ll have to seriously consider what I should do. I’m no card-carrying intactivist and I don’t think I’ll be restoring any time soon, because, knock on wood, my sexual experiences have been pleasure-full enough. But just because I won’t be strapping on a DTR, doesn’t mean I won’t wonder—or even empathize, in some weird way. It’s now like I’ll always have a severe case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a term my friend Miko uses when she can’t make it to two events that are happening simultaneously, about what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been snipped.

This piece originally appeared on Narrative.ly and was syndicated by The Huffington Post and Salon.

Sheldon Adelson is Buying the 2012 Election, But He Bought Young Jews a Long Time Ago

I’m throwing Sheldon Adelson to the wolves. Does that mean I’m a neurotic Jew, a self-hating Jew, a liberal Jew, a secular Jew, a kvetching Jew, an ethical Jew, a mentschy Jew, or some combination of the above?

Here’s the history of my relationship with Sheldon (and no, it’s not sexual):

In 2006, I traveled to Israel with Birthright Israel, an organization that sends Jewish youth, ages 18-26, on free 10-day trips to their “homeland.” To date, some 300,000 Jews from around the world have participated in this program. I loved practically every minute of this adventure, which was coordinated by a fairly secular tour provider, Oranim (unfortunately, no longer affiliated with Birthright).

I subsequently returned to Israel three times as a “leader” of Oranim Birthright Israel trips. Yes, Birthright Israel produced the desired effect of giving me strong and lasting connections with Israeli people, culture, history, and heritage. Of course, there was a little propaganda along the way, but there wasn’t enough to dissuade me from encouraging dozens of my friends to take trips of their own to check it out. After all, a free trip is a free trip.

I remember when, about five years ago, I learned that a Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, was donating $20 million to Birthright Israel. I didn’t really think too much about who Adelson was at the time, and he most certainly wasn’t known as the the polarizing far-right wing zealot that he is today. Back then, I was thrilled that Adelson’s generosity would allow Birthright to continue, and perhaps even put the organization in a financial position to expand its offerings. In addition to supporting Birthright, Adelson gave $25 million in 2006 to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, another worthy cause. I had no reason to think that Sheldon Adelson had alterior motives, especially when he presented himself as a typical Jewish philanthropist.

I won’t tell you anything you don’t already know: Sheldon Adelson is trying to buy the 2012 Presidential election, and even though he isn’t breaking any laws, his rhetoric and style are distasteful. Ever since his lackey Newt Gingrich dropped out of the race, Mitt Romney has become his new favorite son. In Jerusalem last week, Adelson was Romney’s puppeteer; Romney is basing his Middle East foreign policy on a single individual who controls his purse strings. And that, for lack of a better term, is just plain wrong. A 79-year-old crazy who will, statistically, likely be dead within the decade, should not be putting millions of people’s lives at risk as the threat of a war with Iran remains on the table. (And it’s not like I’m feeling bad for the Chinese government or anything, ’cause they pretty much suck too, but Sheldon’s businesses in Asia are pretty shady.)

That said, AARP Adelson epitomizes the theory that as people age, they shift further to the right politically. And all of this grandstanding is making secular Jews and political moderates like me lean away from organized religion and further to the left politically. What it comes down to is simple: Sheldon Adelson is not like me. Mitt Romney is not like me. And Paul Ryan is not like me. I don’t trust that any of these men have my short or long-term interests in mind.

So, I want this to be a dialogue for fellow Jews, especially those people who have participated in Birthright Israel trips. (I’d also like to have Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times’ new ethicist, chime in) Should I now give any money that went toward my Israel trip back to Sheldon Adelson? Should I give it to an organization that opposes Adelson? Or should I sit back and do nothing? I’d love to hear your thoughts, because, at this moment, this is quite the quandary.

Best & Worst of New York Food: Volume 1

Best: Fairway Market. Great prices. High quality produce. Brilliant selection. Trader Joe’s (for its prepackaged nonsense) and Whole Foods (for its “Whole Paycheck” pricing) can shove it. New Yorkers, make the trip to Fairway. Both your wallet and body will be thankful.

If you eat at Eatily, you will probably look like this...and perhaps develop diabetes too.
Photo by Charles Haynes, used with a Creative Commons License.

Worst: Mario Batali’s Eatily (which I will not link to, as I don’t want to build its credibility). Beyond the overcrowding, long lines, inability to sit (or even stand) in places that you like without being shooed away by staff who say things along the lines of, “I’m sorry, sir, you’re not allowed to eat a sandwich at this standing table in the pasta section,” the quality of the food on sale at this market/deli/restaurant hybrid is terrible . If you’ve never been to Italy, you may enjoy Eatily. But if you’ve stepped foot in a place where decent food is the norm (France, California, Japan…), then you’d be appalled by looking at the ingredients of what Batali sells. One egregious example: I picked up a $10 chocolate bar to see that the first ingredient on the damned thing was sugar…and it wasn’t even an organic chocolate bar. This is just another example of marketing over quality. Typical America. And suckers line up by the boatload for it. Overpriced. Bad food. And he must pay a fortune to rent this huge space near the Flatiron…When will Americans learn?

Sympathy with the devil: Why former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi should be found not guilty on all charges

When I recently Googled “Dharun Ravi supporters,” I was shocked that not a single hit appeared that indicated any type of support for the 20-year-old accused of “15 counts of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence and a witness.” While it is certainly tragic that Ravi’s roommate Tyler Clementi felt so humiliated that he took his own life by jumping from the George Washington Bridge, it is not fair to make a scapegoat of Ravi for using his webcam as a “bias intimidation” mechanism or “invasion of privacy” tool.

The media has utterly failed to take into account the order of events that led to Clementi’s death. Mainstream media organizations have treaded lightly over this delicate case because Clementi’s death inspired a wave of successful anti-harassment and gay-awareness campaigns that led to the creation of a widely supported piece of Congressional legislation called the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2011.” Therefore, any defense of Ravi could be misconstrued as anti-gay or pro-harassment.

But we were all once 18-year-old college freshmen. I know that if an unknown older person, regardless of sexual orientation was spending time in my bedroom when I was not there, I too would have been skeptical about whether my belongings were safe. How would you feel if you knew that you couldn’t enter your own bedroom because someone you got a “bad vibe” from (Ravi’s words)was inside your room?

Anyone who remembers the 1999 movie American Pie would know that high school and college kids can use webcams for unsavory purposes: In the film, the hot Czech exchange student Nadia changes her clothing while a webcam records the entire act. (I will always be scarred by this scene, as I awkwardly watched American Pie for the first time with my parents…an experience I will never forget!) Today, nearly all computers have built-in cameras, so it should not be surprising that students use them for keeping tabs on one another.

There are also cultural factors at play that may have caused Ravi to lack maturity or compassion regarding his roommate’s sexuality. At age 18, many Americans are not exposed to homosexual culture or sexual diversity. This may have been compounded by the fact that Ravi was born in India and raised in a household that may not have exposed him to non-traditional lifestyles. But in his interrogation, Ravi came across as genuine, articulate, and not the homophobe that he has been portrayed as by the media. (I find it to be appalling Ravi had no lawyer present and that his interrogation video is publicly available.)

Furthermore, it appears that Ravi genuinely tried to apologize and make amends with his roommate after learning of his intent to take his own life. He wrote to Clementi, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”

Finding Ravi guilty, despite his reputation already being slaughtered by the media, would be reprehensible. One life has already been lost. There is no reason for a second young person, whose life is already in shambles, to be sentenced to prison or found guilty for a situation that may have represented some level of immaturity, but certainly not a crime.

SXSW – Successful Journalism Startups: Global Lessons

Takeaways from Pekka Pekkala’s sustainable journalism business models talk:

Go to http://www.submojour.net/ (Database of for-profit news sites that make money!)

Top findings from case studies of profitable journalism startups:

1. This is not a new thing: The average age of money-making web sites is 6+ years (across the world!).

2. Advertising rules: 75%of people interviewed said they make more than 75% of their revenues from advertising. (Most journalists sell the ads themselves.) They sell weekly or monthly ads rather than CPM-based ads. Avoid Google AdSense.

3. Make money as a consultant. Make 3x as much money as you do as a journalist. But make sure you are an expert.

4. Host events.

5. Syndication.

6. Be frugal. (WordPress is by far the most popular publishing platform. Learn basic tech skills.)

7. Be entrepreneurial. Think about the money from day one.

8. People don’t pay for content…but they are happy to support a cause. (This is true in the US, but perhaps not in other countries.)

9. Find your niche. (Based on geography, taste, interest, or point of view…)

10. Pay your contributors. (Free citizen journalism is the exception, not the norm. 1 out of 10 contributors stay more than a couple of months, and those people hardly ever write again. You invest so much time and money in training people.)

11. It’s about community. (It’s not about you. The people who create the content have to be a part of he community. The Patch.com turnover rate was so high that new editors were not able to form relationships with the people they covered.)

An unexpected eulogy: RIP Andrew Breitbart – The only publisher who gave MyTwoCensus.com a chance at syndication and finding a larger audience

I woke up this morning to an e-mail from a friend that informed me of Andrew Breitbart’s untimely death. At first, I thought it was a joke. But when I learned that it wasn’t, I came to the solemn realization that a difficult-to-fill void had just been created in the American journalism landscape.

That Breitbart was only 43 makes this situation even more tragic, because I pictured Andrew being a ball-buster and rabble-rouser for another 50 years. Whenever I reached out to Andrew to give him updates about the 2010 Census, he always took my calls, which is rare in a day and age where people are generally too busy for in-depth communication with one another. Typically, we chatted while he was driving his four children around LA. But he even made time for me between television interviews as he was breaking Page 1 national news. Though he had no reason to, Andrew Breitbart gave me his ear, listening to whatever I had to say.

As a journalism entrepreneuer, Breitbart was like no other. From his days at the Drudge Report, he realized the direction that journalism was headed, and, ironically, helped Arianna Huffington start The Huffington Post. But he also had the foresight to realize that a liberal aggregator needed a conservative counterbalance. And poof, BigGovernment.com was born.

While I certainly do not agree with many of the tactics that Breitbart sometimes condoned (specifically, the shoddy editing techniques used by James O’Keefe in his “undercover sting” videos and the whole Shirley Sherrod affair), Breitbart created a strong outlet for investigative journalism at a time when such a practice was vanishing under financial constraints. He did his best to provide an alternative voice to what is dubbed the mainstream media. Breitbart was not afraid to take journalistic risks, and for that, he reaped many rewards in the form of powerful scoops, the value of which he was well aware of.

Yes, he was outspoken, but yes, he had many valid points. Andrew Breitbart did not always agree with the Conservative establishment, as demonstrated by the fact that he joined (and within a year resigned) from the board of GOProud group of homosexual Republicans.

Admittedly, I am yet to read his recent book,  a critique of celebrity culture titled Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon — The Case Against Celebrity, but based on the title alone, it seems like something that I will enjoy (and I will now find it for my Kindle).

I personally appreciate Andrew Breitbart because he took a chance on me as a 24-year-old reporter covering a beat (the 2010 US Census) that the mainstream media failed to see as important. Even though few mainstream news organizations have reporters covering demographics issues on a regular basis these days, none of the mainstream media organizations that I reached out to wanted to take a chance by partnering with MyTwoCensus.com, even though it may have filled significant gaps in their reportage.

But Breitbart was different. He took me in board and permitted me to publish whenever I wanted. MyTwoCensus.com has certainly been critical of both Democrats and Republicans, but Breitbart never attempted to censor my critiques of the GOP in any way, shape, or form.  (Some people misconstrued this syndication on BigGovernment.com as proof that I was “Conservative”  even though I was simultaneously working at ultra-liberal Mother Jones magazine while publishing on BigGovernment.)

Andrew Breitbart, you will be missed. Your vision, strategy, and tactics led journalism into the 21st Century. Your feistiness, entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to take risks will be difficult to replicate. And on a personal level, I will never forget that you you gave me an audience to publish for and a sounding board to speak with.

Microsoft is quietly stepping into the citizen journalism business…

Citizen journalism has faced one major obstacle that has prevented it from going totally mainstream: Source verification. This is an issue that I have discuss frequently with my friend and former classmate Torsten Mueller, of MundusMedia in Germany, who is  hoping to find solutions to this problem. As a Poynter blog noted, breaking news often hits Twitter first and then spreads to the mainstream media.

But now, teams of researchers are creating methods to help verify sources:

Late last year, a team of researches at Duke University (alongside a researcher from Microsoft) announced the creation of YouProve. This is an Android based system that I fear may not gain traction simply because it may lead to privacy issues.

Poynter also points to the work of Rutgers researchers.

*Again there is a team member who is a Microsoftian. I have manually verified that she was formerly a Rutgers Post Doc. And if I didn’t fear New Jersey so much, I’d try to meet with this team on their home turf, but perhaps I can coerce them to join me in New York for a bit.*

I suspect that verification has been a problem for citizen journalism sites like London-based photojournalism agency Demotix (that took an undisclosed investment last year from Corbis, which is privately owned by one Bill Gates) and Citizenside (that took an investment from AFP in 2007).

However, questions of privacy still remain, as verification also means that one’s personal information could/should be compromised for the sake of authenticity. This could lead to problems for anyone who hopes to be an anonymous source, especially sources based in America or in countries with oppressive regimes.

Future of crowdsourced fundraising? Dispersed!

Like everyone else, I have been amazed by how Kickstarter has been able to fund business, arts, and journalism projects. But I don’t give. Yes, new projects are cool. But what I’m looking for is return on investment.

In general, the rule of thumb on Kickstarter is that unless you are funding a cool new tech product that will later retail for a higher price (so the creators’ claim), you will only be rewarded with a measly little cupcake. Do I really want a $5 cupcake mailed to me at some random point next year? No, I don’t. And many other people who are mindful of their money don’t want such gimmicks either.

But I am interested in using crowdfunding for other media purposes. However, I want funders to have equity stakes in the projects they fund (which is possibly in Germany as evidence by my friend Lars’ project…check out the 2000 Euro+ levels here).

(As crowdfunding sites proliferate, the costs of building and developing them will go down rapidly, which is demonstrated by the fact that you can now find cloned Kickstarter source code free on the Internet or pay some guys — probably in India — less than $1,000 to build, modify, and maintain a clone site for you.)

But what stands in the way of equity investments in crowdsourced products? The US government’s accredited investor law. More on that soon…