It’s been a long, long time

Hello Blog World,

I realized I haven’t posted in about a year. It’s been a busy one. I’ve been in Oxford, working on my MBA at the University of Oxford and that is now nearly finished. It has been an exhilarating and amazing experience every single day to live in this beautiful city. One reason that I haven’t written much here is that I have been blogging about my experiences on a regular basis at the Financial Times.

On a professional front, I’m proud to report that Skillbridge was sold to TopTal in April. It was a great experience to grow a company from almost nothing into something much bigger. And I was able to work with super talented people along the way. I’m gonna miss that.

My other big announcement is that a film that I have worked on for over 5 years has now come to fruition. Catch AMANDA KNOX on Netflix as a Netflix Original starting September 30. And if you’re in Toronto earlier in September, come check it out at the Toronto Film Festival where it will be premiering. It is so gratifying when hard work pays off.

I’m also happy to report that my passion for healthy living is still in order. I was lucky enough to have the Green Templeton College gym in my backyard this year, eliminating my need for ClassPass. I feel as good as I ever have.

As much as this is a time of endings for me (Oxford, Skillbridge, Amanda Knox), I am excited about many new beginnings. I don’t know where the world will take me next, but I’ll be sure to update you as soon as I find out.

Talk soon,

Stephen

 

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Want More Millennials in Office? Then It’s Time to Ditch the Two-Party System

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If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial, there’s a high chance that you’re a a political independent. A plurality (45%) of millennials identify as independents, compared to 33% who identify as Democrats and 23% who identify as Republicans. I am proudly a member of this 45%. And this isn’t because I’m uninterested in politics, but because I am uninterested in the two political parties that I have to choose from.

At different times, I have felt disgusted by both political parties. Yes, there are certainly some smart people who accept their party’s faults and work within them to make changes… and then there are the slimeballs who we see on TV every day. It seems like most millennials would prefer to run the other way from the rats.

If America had a parliamentary system, like the UK or Australia or Canada, life would be very different, and I can almost guarantee that our generation would already have a strong political presence in Congress. But instead, the two-party system is dominant, and that has made life horrible for anyone trying to work from outside the political system to break in. The American political system has been carefully designed to screw over outside contenders from third parties and political independents, so that Democrats and Republicans gain instead.

Only in rare cases have independent politicians made any strides in America. Sure, George Washington is the most notable example, but it’s been all downhill ever since. Yes, we have Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) used some trickery to run (and win) under the Connecticut for Lieberman Party after he lost the Democratic primary in 2006, but that’s about all we’ve had at the national level recently.

But what happens when you try to run for office from outside the system?

For example, take Carl Romanelli, who was almost the Green Party’s 2006 United States Senate candidate for Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, to even get on the ballot, the cards are completely stacked against you if you are not a Democrat or a Republican. In order to qualify for the ballot in Pennsylvania, the major parties have to submit only 2,000 signatures, but third-party candidates have to collect 20,000 or more signatures.

According to Pennsylvania law, candidates who are not Democrats or Republicans must collect signatures equal to two-thirds of the number of votes that the highest vote-getter received in the last statewide election. This is complete and utter nonsense for anyone who wants to run as a third party candidate. (I made a feature-length documentary about Romanelli’s plight that you can watch for free.)

America also creates a system where there are many candidates who literally never face an opponent in elections: In the 2012 elections in Pennsylvania, of the 203 state House races, 96 were unopposed, and nine out of 25 candidates were unopposed in state Senate races. This would never happen in a parliamentary democracy, or in a society that values its citizens’ opinions.

As Melissa Daniels writes on Watchdog.org, “in many unopposed races, a strong party in one region may deter its opposition from putting up a candidate. For example, the majority of the House delegation running this year in Philadelphia is unopposed Democrats, and in northern Pennsylvania, incumbent Republicans run unopposed.”

So what is the real Step One in terms of how to create a true democracy in America? Change all of these laws that favor the ruling elite and prevent newcomers and those affiliated with third parties or no party at all from running in elections. Because right now, millennials are prevented from running for office our way, as independent-minded people who are not affiliated with the two major parties. And yes, in this case, Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame.

NYC Marathon Cancelled: Why We Had to Protest the Bloomberg Decision to Hold the Race

When I first heard the news that Mayor Bloomberg was planning not to cancel the New York City Marathon, I was completely shocked. When I learned that 40,000 hotel rooms that could be used to house storm victims were allocated for out-of-town runners, I was more than shocked. When I learned that generators would be used for the race and medical staff provided for the runners, as people and thousands of locals businesses are still without power in all of downtown Manhattan, and residents of Staten Island are stuck without shelter, food, and other basic necessities, I was overcome with a disgust that I cannot ever remember feeling.

When thousands of police officers are used to block roads (of course, at overtime rates, shattering the economic benefits of the race argument), and the only methods of transportation from outer boroughs are sealed off completely, it is mortifying that a public health hazard is taking a back seat to a recreational event. People will die because they cannot reach hospitals during this race. Mayor Bloomberg, along with his advisers and the sponsors of the race, will have blood on their hands.

I fear that Mayor Bloomberg’s government has become an authoritarian force that is not acting in the people’s best interests. When government steps on the will of the people, in this case to benefit the few at the expense of the many, it is the job of the citizen in a democracy to stand up and do something. So I created a StopTheMarathon page and a petition (for all of you to sign and spread, my dear fellow millennials!) encouraging the mayor to rethink his poor decision.

(Should the mayor proceed, we should form a human chain to prevent the marathon from being run, but that’s only a last resort if the mayor and his cronies don’t change their decision immediately.)

Supporters of continuing the marathon have cited the philanthropic efforts that are underway to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s quite clear that $500,000 coming from ING (the race’s sponsor) and the rebranding of the marathon as the “Race to Recover” is just corporate social responsibility nonsense which fails to correct a poor decision. ING should cut their losses. But we know why they’re doing it: ING, along with real estate developer Jack Rudin, who donated $1.1 million to the recovery efforts in the name of the race, will happily be claiming their tax write-offs for their philanthropy in a couple of months.

I’m not saying that they should cancel the 2012 marathon forever. But this is the the worst week ever to run it. If the city waited a mere two weeks, the event would have greater integrity, be more safe, and be less damaging to the city.

Of course, Michael Bloomberg lives in a bubble. If you were a multi-millionaire mayor of a major city, you would too.

A large part of New York City is still without power. People are lacking food and water and other necessities. It is a stark reality that critical New York City resources will have to be diverted to permit the marathon to be run. In what rational world can we justify benefiting 40,000 individuals as millions suffer? Imagine if instead we put all of the runners to work helping storm victims rebuild their lives.

In 1980, the United States boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia, because we stood up for what we believed in. Would we have held a marathon less than a week after 9/11? Would we have held a marathon less than a week after Hurricane Katrina? Of course, the answers to the above questions are no and no.

New York will always be a tourist hub. Yet it is unthinkable that there are millions of people without power, and thousands of businesses that are currently closed while a small number of people take part in a recreational activity. Citizens must band together to prevent this marathon from being run. We have 48 hours to make our cause known to the world!

How 21% of Americans Will Hold Election 2012 Hostage to Partisan Tools and Fools

Election Day is three weeks away, but that doesn’t mean much to me, because I’m not voting. I’ll go into work, read PolicyMic on my computer, check some exit polls in the early afternoon, and hopefully not encounter any radical offshoots of the New Black Panther Movement. It will be business as usual. That’s because I’m a member of the 79%, and until the Electoral College is abolished, my vote, as a resident of New York state, will be absolutely meaningless. The Electoral College has already awarded three elections to losers of the popular vote (not to mention that the “electors” are a bunch of partisan tools and fools).

The top 38.5 million Americans who live in “swing states” are the 12.1%. Their votes matter most, and therefore they get the best promises and treatment from presidential candidates. The people who reside in Florida (19.05 million), Ohio (11.54 million), and Virginia (8.10 million) are this lucky 12.1%. (Of course, the above figures recognize that not all eligible voters vote, and that ineligible residents, like children, are included in these statistics.) Like it or not, this year, these folks are the cream of the crop.

Then, just below them are 27.6 million people, our second, or “business” class of citizenry, the fine people who live in New Hampshire (1.32 million), Nevada (2.72 million), Colorado (5.17 million), Iowa (3.06 million), Wisconsin (5.71 million), and North Carolina (9.66 million). These people represent 8.8% of the population, and their votes, collectively, could effect the outcome of the election.

This above population represents 21% of America. The rest of us, we are the 79%. Let’s put that number out there. Let’s make it as ubiquitous as the 1% and the 99% and the 47%!

We are the 79%. We are useless. We are slaves to the 21%. The only way that we can vote, paradoxically, is with our money, by donating it to our limited choice presidential candidates and political parties and PACs and other quasi-shady organizations who can then bombard these 21% with enough media propaganda to make them see the light. (Yes, our situation could be regarded as worse worse than the 3/5 compromise. I’d take 3/5 of a vote over none!)

Sure, as a member of the 79% you can still help elect Senators, Governors, Congressmen (and women), and local officials, but that’s not the crux of why you’re proud to be an American. You want to be electing the person who comes out on top, the person who will be, for the next four years, the leader of the free world. You don’t want to be relegated to the minor leagues, yet you are. Perhaps, forever. Abolish the horribly antiquated Electoral College, and then the 79% will be free.

Bob Dylan of Detroit Sixto Rodriguez Should Be Honored By Kennedy Center

If you haven’t seen the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then consider this a spoiler alert. If you’ve already seen it or you’re not going to see it any time soon, then keep on reading. (But first, take a second to sign this Change.org petition!)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez created brilliant music that was the stuff of legend, but for whatever the reason, his records didn’t sell in America. And he fell into obscurity.

It is rare that a documentary elicits emotions that I carry with me for days and weeks after I have seen it. But that is just what Searching for Sugar Man did. This film tells the story of Rodriguez, whose songs inspired the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and whose lyrics became anthems of change for people around the world.

However, nobody knew what happened to the artist, and ghastly rumors about his demise abounded. In this genre-defining music-mystery, the filmmakers set out to determine what happened to Rodriguez, whose lyrics were favorably compared to Bob Dylan’s based on their insight and calls to action. This led to another question: Why did Rodriguez never make it in America, even though he hailed from Detroit? This question (and many others) are answered in the film, but ultimately Rodriguez emerges as a larger-than-life character who remains humble and true to his roots and beliefs.

After not finding mainstream success as an artist, Rodriguez spent some fifty odd years as a humble laborer in Detroit, remodeling homes while also heading to college later in life to earn a bachelor’s degree. He was never bitter about the twist of fate that prevented him from achieving fame in America. And even while achieving success (due in part to the film) in recent years, he distributes the money he earns to his family and friends.

Any marketing student would tell you that when a customer evangelizes for a brand, that symbolizes the pinnacle of success. And while I rarely see myself as a brand ambassador, I now find myself telling friends to go see this film, listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and even going so far as to wait in line for four hours last week in hopes of scoring a last-minute ticket to see Rodriguez perform live in New York City.

Rodriguez pays great lyrical homage to the downtrodden of Detroit, where he has lived all his life:

Sugar man, won’t you hurry
‘Cos I’m tired of these scenes
For the blue coin won’t you bring back
All those colors to my dreams

But it was his more universal themes that inspired revolution against the apartheid regime in South Africa and the country’s repressive ethos:

I wonder how many times you been had 
And I wonder how many dreams have gone bad
I wonder how many times you’ve had sex
And I wonder do you care who’ll be next

Seeing Rodriguez live, he seemed older, slower, and quieter than he appears in the film. I watched as an assistant escorted him to and from the stage, as he was too frail to walk alone. And then I realized: Rodriguez may not be able to perform for much longer, and while there is all of this fanfare and hype around him and his work right now, what can I, as one of thousands of his fans, do at this moment, to bring him his overdue recognition?

A little research showed that grassroots efforts are an acceptable way to petition Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., to nominate someone for a Kennedy Center Honor (lifetime achievement award). I created a Change.org petition, with a target of 50,000 signatures to get Rodriguez the recognition he deserves. Please sign here, and show that, right or left, Democrat or Republican, you support recognition for a man whose recognition is long overdue, and stands for all that makes America great.

The New York City War on Tennis: Mayor Bloomberg Bans Smoking and Sodas, But Taxes Those Who Want to Stay Fit

While everyone’s talking about the War in Iraq and the War on Women, I want to shed light on another war: New York City’s War on Tennis Players.

While it may be more of a European past-time than an American one, tennis has always been my most beloved sport to play: The workout, the intensity, the one-on-one (or two-on-two) components … I could go on and on.

With pride, I estimate that 98% of my playing has been done on public courts. After failing to make it to any local New York City courts this summer, a friend and I decided to play a game for fun. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In New York, you cannot just play tennis on a whim. Nope, you need a permit. And there are two options: A $200 permit valid from April through November, or a one-hour, $15 permit.

Then, you have two more options: either purchase permits at the one or two locations in each borough that sells them — they’re not at the courts — or order one online and wait for a week while it’s mailed to you.

If you ever dreamed to experience a life like that of Kafka’s Josef K. in the 21st Century, then attempting to play tennis on New York’s public courts is surely your best option.

There aren’t any mobile apps for booking courts. Parks Department spokesman Philip Abramson wrote me over e-mail, “We have launched a pilot program for online tennis reservations. It is in its early phases of development and we hope to further enhance it with additional services in the future. We don’t have any developments to speak of at this time regarding a mobile app.”

So much for New York being a technology hub or having a “Chief Digital Officer” to make life easier. Blah!

Tennis fees are up 100% since 2010. The New York City Parks Department’s First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh told me, “Prior to 2011, tennis fees had not seen an increase since 2003 … While we recognize that this increase may be unpopular to some, we believe it is fair and necessary. The increase in permit fees goes towards the city’s general fund which helps pay for services such as teachers, police, and sanitation, as well as our parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, ball-fields and tennis courts.” Because of the aforementioned 100% price increases, far fewer people are playing tennis, even though Mayor Bloomberg wants us all to be healthy and fit while not smoking anywhere and never drinking XXL sodas.

In 2010, when a full season tennis permit was sold for $100 for those aged 18-64, and $10 for anyone older than 64, the city sold 12,416 adult permits, 4,2032 senior permits, and 40,778 single play permits.

Yet in 2011, when the fees were massively increased to $200 for those aged 18-64, and $20 for anyone older than 64, only 7,411 adults and 5,202 senior sought permits.

This amounts first to a tax on working-age people, who are paying substantially higher prices for the same services. A 90% senior discount? That’s ludicrous. If diners or movie theaters and theme parks offered 90% off year-round, they’d be out of business. Plus, retirees presumably have a lot more time to play tennis (ahem, 9-5 Monday through Friday), so they also have way more access to facilities than working people and students.

Therefore, to presumably appeal to older voters, who vote at much higher rates than young people, Michael Bloomberg has created a de facto young person’s and working person’s tax on tennis. Per capita income in New York state only changed from $35,448 to $41,108 between 2003 and 2011, yet Bloomberg raised fees on tennis players by 100%. (Of course this is not a problem that a member of the 1% would deal with, as he and his chums just pay the $60-$120 hourly fees that are charged at private courts.)

This makes me wonder: Why doesn’t New York charge people each and every time they play basketball or handball on public courts? Volleyball? Football? Why is there only a tennis tax?

Abramson explained, “Parks has a long tradition of charging for tennis permits to raise revenue for the city, just as there is a fee for leagues to play on ball-fields and for members of the public to use our indoor recreation centers.”

Well, some traditions, like this one, should die. The Parks Department did not answer my repeated attempts for comment about why non-league play in other sports is free while tennis courts are always charged for. And what about low income people who want to play tennis?

“There is no discount based on income but we do have the free and low cost programs for children,” said Abramson, referring to $10 per year access permits.

So while other sports are egalitarian, tennis is still a sport of the elite in New York, but for no good reason. The middle class, working class, student class, and impoverished class of New York —  I’m talking about the 99% here — should rise up against this punishing tax that prevents people from playing one of the greatest games on earth.

Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Let New Yorkers Drink Beer in Public Parks

I roll my eyes every time someone says that New York is the greatest place on earth.

The inhabitants of the greatest places on earth have freedom. The people of New York, well, we have civil liberties that are in line with the plutocracy in which we live.

I spent 2009 through early 2012 living primarily in a collection of places that should be noted for their strong offering of individuals freedoms. One needn’t flex the imagination too hard to extol the virtues of life in San Francisco, where it seems like 99% of all legislation is progressive. From marijuana decriminalization to recycling programs to living wages, San Francisco knows what’s good for citizens in a supposedly enlightened democracy.

(That said, 82 San Francisco bus drivers made more than $100,000 per year during the depths of the recession, which, is not only absurd from the standpoint of a recovering English major who will never rake in such sums, but also a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.)

And I spent a good chunk of the past three years in Denmark, Amsterdam, and the UK, where, with all of their cradle-to-grave protections, one can, at the very least, enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping a beer in a public park with friends, oftentimes paired with a BBQ.

Adults living in a free society should have the inalienable right of beverage choice in public parks. However, in New York, this is not the case. I learned this the hard way on Memorial Day weekend in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, because, while attending friends’ anniversary party, I had the misfortune of being seated beside two completely EMPTY beer bottles when a trio of cops decided to write summonses for having “alcohol in the park” to three of the six of us present. (My anger only heightened when I discovered that being cited in the park isn’t the worst of it, because under New York City’s draconian laws, you can’t even drink a beer on your own stoop.)

Not one to pay a $25 fine for an offense that I didn’t commit, I went to court and fought the ticket. It wasn’t the money that was the problem, it was that I was erroneously issued a summons by one of “New York’s Finest” (I’ll let him save face here by not revealing his name) for a crime that never happened. That said, my summons was issued at the end of the month, and as a shocking episode of “This American Life” revealed, NYPD officers have quotas to fill (even though they usually deny this), and I was more than likely just a victim of the system.

And while this alcohol policy is set by the city, it’s not the city government, nor the taxpayers, who are paying for the majority of upkeep, maintenance, and other critical day-to-day administration of city parks. Rather, it is such groups like the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance that provide the funds to make New York’s parks awesome. The latter pays 2/3 of the park’s $12 million annual budget. That said, these organizations don’t set policy, so their leaders should pressure the municipal government to change these Kafkaesque laws.

Going to court to fight my “alcohol in park” case opened my eyes to an even more shocking problem in the New York City parks: Thousands of ordinary people are charged with being in the park after dark, because New York City parks can close anywhere from dusk until 1 a.m.

During the 90 minutes that I waited to plead my case (which, for the record, I won in about 23 seconds, with the summons being dismissed and the case being sealed), I heard a few dozen other people defend themselves in front of the judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. By far, the most common accusation was for being in parks after dark.

Nobody wants junkies or other nefarious people residing in our parks during off hours, but until the NYPD solved every murder, rape, and robbery, all the way down to the misdemeanor level, enforcement of “park after dark” laws should be the NYPD’s lowest priority (even though a female college student has even been arrested and sent to jail for 36 hours for this crime).

It’s necessary to make a clear distinction between being in a park after dark and subway-jumping — petty crime crackdowns that Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed in his first pop sociology staple, The Tipping Point. In Gladwell’s book, he demonstrates that, according to “Broken Windows Theory,” it is important to reduce petty crimes because the same individuals who don’t pay for the subway are likely to be the same folks who are offenders in more serious cases.

However, the vast majority of the people I witnessed defending themselves seemed to have entered these parks after dark by accident. 

Taking a late night jog to let off some steam after a long day at work? Think again! Going for an after dinner stroll with friends to burn off some chocolate cheesecake? Not so fast. Don’t read English well? You’re SOL.

Tara Kiernan, in the Public Affairs department of New York City Parks, said her department did not keep statistics about the number of offenses committed in parks. She wrote in an e-mail, “Closing times vary by parks but generally parks are open 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. unless otherwise stated on parks signage – rule on our website http://www.nycgovparks.org/rules/section-1-03.”

However, the problem is that New York’s 1,700 parks have wildly stagnating closing times. Some close at dusk. Others close at 10 p.m. There seems to be little logic behind the variation in closing times. And from poking around parks to research this piece, I can say with certainty that many park entrances are not clearly marked, making entering a park after hours incredibly easy.

For the past month, the NYPD has adamantly refused, despite 10 phone calls and four e-mails, to provide me with city-wide data and statistics about the number of “alcohol in parks” and “in parks after dark” violations from recent years. One can infer from what I witnessed at a single court in Red Hook that many thousands of New Yorkers and visitors are affected by this nonsense each year.

So what can New Yorkers do to stop this nonsense?

Step 1: Petition your New York City Council members and the Bloomberg administration to change the silly no alcohol in parks rule so that it is no longer a petty offense to drink alcohol in parks. (If this fails, I imagine that an Occupy Prospect Park Protest, with thousands of New Yorkers linking arms, each clasping beers between them, will be necessary.)

Step 2: Require that the Parks Department post clear signage, in multiple languages, at every possible park entrance. And make it such that it is only an offense to be in a park after dark if you are engaging in some other activity other than merely walking, running, or sitting.

Step 3: Require that the NYPD reveal statistics that show just how many citations are issued for petty park related offenses, as this will reveal how many resources are dedicated to this. (The $25 summons that I had dismissed cost the city way more than that in terms of the amount of time and energy that a judge, clerks, police officer, legal aid lawyer, and administrator had to spend dealing with my case.)

Step 4: Once the laws are changed, enjoy your beer in the park at a time when it is open, and save me one if you can. (I prefer Hogaarden or Guinness.) Thanks.