Music 2 Titan

New Asset Plan for Investors and Banks

Cited: TheStreet.com

Additional details regarding the Obama administration’s plan to kick-start the market was given to banks who wish to get rid of bad assets and investors who were interested in buying them. A summit was held to discuss aspects and potential impacts of the government’s Public-Private Investment Program (PREA) that was hosted by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) and the Pension Real Estate Association. The PREA is set to begin operation in June. Featured speakers from the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will likely discuss pricing and public scrutiny that so far have caused problems for the endeavor so far.

The PPIP has gained little traction since it was announced with great fanfare over two months ago, calling into question how much success it will ultimately have. One pitfall pertains to a lack of confidence that the government will not spontaneously change the rules of the game to mollify populist rage.

Potential investors have witnessed punishment levied against firms receiving government support in the form of compensation limits, strict oversight and fiery questioning at congressional hearings, with American International Group (AIG:NYSE) being the most prominent example. Banks have also faced a slew of restrictions that were added after accepting funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, money that some firms claim they did not need in the first place.

The retroactive provisions and public scrutiny has made banks eager to repay those dollars as soon as possible. JPMorgan Chase (JPM:NYSE), Goldman Sachs (GS:NYSE), American Express (AXP:NYSE), BB&T (BBT:NYSE) and Northern Trust (NTRS:NYSE) have already applied to do so, and Morgan Stanley (MS:NYSE), Wells Fargo (WFC:NYSE), Bank of America (BAC:NYSE), and others have expressed interest in doing so as well.

“One of the things that has been the most challenging aspects of the federal government’s efforts to put in place programs is the populist backlash against lots of different issues — executive compensation being the classic example,” says Kevin Petrasic, former special counsel at the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Potential PPIP investors were mostly hedge funds and private-equity firms that tend to recoil from regulatory oversight in ordinary times. As a result, few have been eager to participate in the PPIP without explicit guarantees that the same restrictions and public flogging will not befall them.

There is also the initial issue that PPIP hoped to address, but which it may not be able to solve the wide gap that exists between bid prices and ask prices on distressed assets weighing down bank balance sheets. Banks are not selling these “toxic” holdings because managers believe prices offered are far below the intrinsic value. Investors are not offering higher prices because they do not know where the bottom lies, or simply because they do not have to yet.

The government has an unenviable position in this financial crisis. Regulators must use taxpayer dollars to strengthen the banking system by fostering healthier, more profitable lenders. But they must also market their programs as ones that will not allow banks or investors to profit excessively on the taxpayer dime. What “excessively” means is anyone’s guess.

As a result of those contradictory goals, says Petrasic, “you sort of have a half-implemented program that’s not particularly effective because of hesitancy or distrust from private investors who don’t know what could possibly happen. Will the government come in late in the game and change the rules, adversely affecting those investors?”

There are two components to the program, the major one to tackle asset-backed securities that the Treasury Department will oversee, and a smaller one regarding whole loans that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will oversee. While the Treasury portion is still set to launch this month, the FDIC on Wednesday said it would postpone a pilot sale of assets through its Legacy Loan Program until the summer.

“Banks have been able to raise capital without having to sell bad assets through the [Legacy Loan Program], which reflects renewed investor confidence in our banking system,” FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair said Wednesday. “As a consequence, banks and their supervisors will take additional time to assess the magnitude and timing of troubled assets sales as part of our larger efforts to strengthen the banking sector.”

Hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of troubled assets are weighing down the balance sheets of the country’s biggest banks, from behemoths like BofA and Citigroup (C:NYSE), to major regional players like Fifth Third (FITB:NYSE), KeyCorp (KEY:NYSE), PNC Financial Services (PNC:NYSE), US Bancorp (USB:NYSE) and Capital One (COF:NYSE).

Conditions stand to worsen if a resolution is not reached soon, especially for firms that have not written down assets to rock-bottom levels. Those heavily exposed to assets whose performance is still deteriorating, like commercial real estate and credit card debt, or areas of the country whose economies have not yet stabilized, stand to get hit the worst.

On the ther hand, a return to profitability for the banking industry last quarter, and signs of life in the housing market and broader economy has given investors faith that a rebound is at hand. The surge in investor confidence has been evidenced by the tens of billions of dollars banks have raised in the market to fill in capital shortfalls identified by the government’s stress tests.

Petrasic, who now counsels financial firms on participating in the PPIP at the law firm Paul Hastings, says that by installing adequate oversight, being transparent and emphasizing that the PPIP seeks to benefit all participants — including taxpayers — the Treasury Department could successfully launch its pilot program this month with minimal pushback from public advocates.

“You want a program that works,” says Petrasic. “There’s got to be a certain give and take…but I think the key thing is to separate what happened in the past from what happens going forward.”

Chip MacDonald, a Jones Day lawyer who advises banks, asset managers and other financial firms on the PPIP, says a solution can come in the form of a collaborative “bad bank” in which buyers, sellers and taxpayers all share in upside or losses that stem from deals.

Under such a plan, a portion of the financing would come from the FDIC and all three parties would retain an interest in the assets while working to restructure loans for troubled borrowers. It would bring banks closer to offered prices, since they would retain a stake in the potential upside they predict; and bring sellers closer to banks’ demanded prices, since part of the financing comes from the government, limiting downside risk.

Regulators could also install terms that provide significant upside potential in exchange for government funds. In working out troubled loans, regulators can oversee the program to ensure that struggling borrowers become more profitable for the banks without being exploited.

MacDonald still has faith that a public-private program can be successful, citing Grant Street National Bank, a subsidiary of toxic loans that was spun off of Bank of New York Mellon’s (BK:NYSE) predecessor in the late 1980s, as well as Kearny Street Real Estate Co., which held a troubled swath of Bank of America (BAC:NYSE) assets in the 1990s.

“I think it can be done,” he says.

No matter what happens are going to be winners and losers in the banking industry because of the traditional idea prudent lending or aggressive moves to write down or even get rid of bad debt before becomes a problem. With government sweeteners, vulture investors can easily steal these risky holdings or assets at low prices according to Fred Fraenkel, Vice Chairman of the Beacon Trust investment firm. He also added, “The current environment should reward banks who keep their balance sheets and lending capacity intact.”

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Take: I think the banks do need a little more regulation. If they had more regulation, we probably would not be in this massive recession. The money handlers of this world control everything to some extent, maybe even more than I suspect. However, they do have their fingers on the pulse of the world.

I think the main idea here is to help the average citizen with their loans from these banks. If a bank is in trouble, they get nervous and start making outrageous demands on people who cannot fulfill those demands because the economy. It turns into nothing more than a vicious circle.

When someone is stuck between a rock and a hard place, they do not have very many options open to them. I think this program will help remove either the rock or the hard place and give people and businesses a few more options than they have otherwise.

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Considerations for New Equipment

When a particular piece of equipment must be upgraded within an office, construction site or any sort of business that requires a lot of equipment, there are a few different costs associated with equipment financing that go beyond the basic type of financing cost which can be added up over time. Other considerations might include how fast a particular piece of equipment might become obsolete, which would likely impact how long a particular piece of equipment might need to be leased for and when it would be replaced during the normal course of use during its lifetime.

Wifi Wins over Fluffy Pillows

SOURCE:  Los Angeles Times

Wi-Fi Hot SpotAsk travelers what they most desire in a hotel stay and they’ll put free wireless Internet at the top of their list, above comfy beds and extra pillows, according to a new survey of 53,000 travelers.

The survey by J.D. Power & Associates found that free Wi-Fi was the most important for guests in nearly every segment of the hotel industry, from luxury hotels to budget lodging.

As most travelers know, not every hotel offers free Wi-Fi. In fact, the survey found that the most expensive hotels were the least likely to offer it free of charge.

Of guests staying at mid-scale hotels, 96% said they got free Wi-Fi, as did 64% of guests at budget hotels, according to the survey of guests who stayed in hotels from May 2009 to June 2010. None who stayed in luxury hotels said they got free wireless Internet.

Hotels are likely to feel more pressure to offer the service free of charge, said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power. He noted that travelers can now get free Wi-Fi from many businesses, including Starbucks coffee shops and McDonald’s restaurants.

At the Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel chain, the fee for Wi-Fi access is a top complaint among guests, said Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Vivian A. Deuschl. (The new Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles charges $12.95 a day.)

“We know that it is an irritant to guests to have to pay for Internet access,” she said. “It comes up very frequently.”

Although some Ritz-Carlton hotels offer free Internet access in the lobbies and other public spaces, the hotel chain based in Maryland will continue to charge for the service in guest rooms, she said.

“We have no immediate plans to change the policy, but it’s an ongoing subject of discussion,” Deuschl said.

• American Airlines is upgrading its planes

American Airlines, owner of the nation’s largest fleet of MD-80s, is moving to replace its 250 or so aging McDonnell Douglas aircraft with more efficient and roomy Boeing 737-800s.

The upgrade began last year and is expected to be completed by next year.

The new Boeing planes burn 20% to 30% less fuel and can seat about 20 more passengers than the MD-80, depending on the seating configuration.

American Airlines also announced a few months ago that it had hired Boeing to retrofit its existing fleet of 737s to include all the amenities in the newer 737-800.

The upgraded planes include economy seats that have a higher reclining pivot point, offering more knee room even when the passenger in front of you reclines. The cabin will also include several electrical outlets and drop-down 10.4-inch LCD monitors to watch movies and TV shows.

The overhead bins have been redesigned to nearly double the storage space.

Despite the added bin space, American Airlines spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said, the air carrier will continue to impose the same limits on carry-on bags mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are trying to make the travel experience the best for our passengers,” Wallace said. “But we will continue to follow FAA guidelines.”

• Keep children away from other passengers?

Even with roomier, more comfortable cabins, an airline flight can be a hair-pulling experience if you get seated next to a fidgeting child or a screaming infant.

That may explain why nearly 80% of respondents said they support the idea of creating a “family-only” section on planes, according to a poll on Farecompare, a travel website.  Although no one mentioned the idea of separate metal detectors to help transition kids on to the planes with their families more smoothly.  There were no suggestions for establishing separate walk through metal detectors for children only to make them more kid-friendly.

The other 20% objected to the idea of separating parents and their children from other passengers, calling it a form of “family bashing.”

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MY TAKE:    I’d think that there might have been a large demand or interest in a better selection of in-room entertainment, including options to download new movies on in-room flat screens, not just access to a pay-per view site where the movies are already chosen for you.  With options for movie downloads you might as well go one step further and ask for TIVO so you can save your selections in case you have to get to a meeting or if traveling can take the selection to your next destination and pick up watching where you left off.

Airlines can also upgrade air cargo security if you ask me. The degree to which we spend waiting for planes to manage cargo handling in the name of security is outrageous.

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OTHER RESOURCES

Yosemite 120 Years Old

SOURCE:  Los Angeles Times

Yosemite National ParkYosemite marks its 120th year as a national park Friday, a celebration of a beautiful open space that attracts some 4 million visitors per year.

First, rangers don’t dance with bears anymore. (Enid Michael, above, served in the park as a naturalist and ranger from 1921 to 1942.) There is no more model train power supply.  In fact there are no more model trains running in the displays at the visitor center.

Second, parts of the park — the mega-popular Valley and Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias — were protected much earlier, in 1864, after President Lincoln signed a bill to protect the two tracts.

The National Park Service isn’t planning anything special for the park’s 120th birthday, but that doesn’t preclude you from honoring the country’s third official national park (after Yellowstone and Sequoia). Here are some ideas to get the party started.

”National Parks: America’s Best Idea”: Even if you’ve seen it before, watch Part 1 of Ken Burns’ six-part documentary (or the whole series) that chronicles the history of John Muir and Yosemite, or read the accompanying book of the same title. Then craft your own travel plan; for inspiration, read the L.A. Times story  “Trip to Yosemite – in an Airstream.”

>”Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, 1904”: This stage show at the park features ranger Shelton Johnson, who presents the overlooked story of the African American Army regiment tasked with protecting Yosemite and serving as the first park rangers after the Civil War. 7 p.m. Sunday, Yosemite Theatre LIVE.

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MY TAKE:  I don’t care if you’re a Brockville drinking and driving lawyer, a Manhattan taxi driver, or a Dallas school teacher, if you haven’t been to Yosemite and there is any remote possibility you might not ever go if you don’t plan for it now, quit your job, or get a vacation approval, and head up there now.  That goes for you too, Toronto criminal lawyer.  This is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but take it from an insider: The landscape will blow any Piermont homes or Palisades real estate owner out of water, but you will enjoy it more if you go in late summer or late Autumn.  Fewer people, more wildlife.

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Jewelry with Meaning

There are some beautifully crafted bracelets on the market right now that have been designed by small scale jewelry designers and are such that they would be a wonderful gift for anyone seeking a very special design regarding wholesale bracelets. Bracelets are often a very personal type of give because they’re always in full view of the person who is wearing the accessory unlike some necklaces and earrings which aren’t usually something that a person who is wearing such items will notice except in the morning when they put their jewelry on as they get ready for work.

Economy Affects Marriages

.SOURCE:  Associated Press

According to new data, the economic downturn has prompted a rise in the number of pleas for food stamps and spurred more troubled marriages as the gap between rich and poor has grown to its widest ever.

The long recession technically ended in mid-2009, economists say, but U.S. Census data released Tuesday show the painful, lingering effects. The annual survey covers all of last year, when unemployment skyrocketed to 10 percent, and the jobless rate is still a stubbornly high 9.6 percent.

The figures also show that Americans on average have been spending about 36 fewer minutes in the office per week and are stuck in traffic a bit less than they had been. But that is hardly good news, either. The reason is largely that people have lost jobs or are scraping by with part-time work.

“Millions of people are stuck at home because they can’t find a job. Poverty increased in a majority of states, and children have been hit especially hard,” said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau.

Economic indicators “say we’re in recovery, but the impact on families and children will linger on for years,” he said.

Take marriage
In America, marriages fell to a record low in 2009, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock, compared to 57 percent in 2000.

The never-married included 46.3 percent of young adults 25-34, with sharp increases in single people in cities in the Midwest and Southwest, including Cleveland, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, N.M. It was the first time the share of unmarried young adults exceeded those who were married.

Marriages have been declining for years due to rising divorce, more unmarried couples living together and increased job prospects for women. But sociologists say younger people are also now increasingly choosing to delay marriage as they struggle to find work and resist making long-term commitments.

In dollar terms, the rich are still getting richer, and the poor are falling further behind them.

The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year by the largest margin ever, a stark divide as Democrats and Republicans spar over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans (those making more than $100,000 each year) received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by the bottom 20 percent of earners, those who fell below the poverty line, according to the new figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

At the top, the wealthiest 5% of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, the data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

Three states — New York, Connecticut and Texas — and the District of Columbia had the largest gaps between rich and poor. Big gaps were also evident in large cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta, home to both highly paid financial and high-tech jobs as well as clusters of poorer immigrant and minority residents.

Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Hawaii had the smallest income gaps.

“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”

Lower-skilled adults ages 18 to 34 had the largest jumps in poverty last year as employers kept or hired older workers for the dwindling jobs available. The declining economic fortunes have caused many unemployed young Americans to double-up in housing with parents, friends and loved ones, with potential problems for the labor market if they don’t get needed training for future jobs, he said.

Homeownership declined for the third year in a row, to 65.9 percent, after hitting a peak of 67.3 percent in 2006. Residents in crowded housing held steady at 1 percent, the highest since 2004, a sign that people continued to “double up” to save money.

Average commute times edged lower to 25.1 minutes, the lowest since 2006, as fewer people headed to the office in the morning. The share of people who carpooled also declined, from 10.7 percent to 10 percent, while commuters who took public transportation were unchanged at 5 percent.

The number of U.S. households receiving food stamps surged by 2 million last year to 11.7 million, the highest level on record, meaning that 1 in 10 families was receiving the government aid. In all, 46 states and the District of Columbia had increases in food stamps, with the largest jumps in Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin.

Other findings:

The foreign-born population edged higher to 38.5 million, or 12.5 percent, following a dip in the previous year, due mostly to increases in naturalized citizens. The share of U.S. residents speaking a language other than English at home also rose, from 19.7 percent to 20 percent, mostly in California, New Mexico and Texas.

The poorest poor hit record highs. More than two dozen states had increases in the share of people below $10,977 in income, half the poverty line for a family of four. The highest shares were in the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas. Nationally, the poorest poor rose to 6.3 percent.

Women’s average pay still lags men’s, but the gap is narrowing. Women with full-time jobs made 78.2 percent of men’s pay, up from 77.7 percent in 2008 and about 64 percent in 2000, as men took bigger hits in the recession.

More older people are working. About 27.1 percent of Americans 60 and over were in the work force. That’s up from 26.7 percent in 2008.

The census figures come weeks before the pivotal Nov. 2 congressional elections, when voters anxious about rising deficits and the slow pace of the economic recovery will decide whether to keep Democrats in control of Congress.

The 2009 tabulations, which are based on pretax income and exclude capital gains, are adjusted for household size where data are available. Prior analyses of after-tax income made by the wealthiest 1 percent compared to middle- and low-income Americans have also pointed to a widening inequality gap, but only reflect U.S. data as of 2007.

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MY TAKE:  These census results are always pretty shocking for some to hear. The fact that women still make less than men for doing the same job, whether it’s marketing e cigarettes or running a licensed daycare center, is beyond. Not the selling electronic cigarettes and childcare share anything in common with one another as jobs or careers, but that the fact women can’t yet be seen as equal players in roles at companies everywhere, no matter what the product is no matter whether you believe in it or not.

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Planning a Las Vegas Trip?

Are you planning a trip to fabulous Las Vegas? Let these Nevada Hummer limousines be your VIP connection for your ultimate party experience. Enjoy the most memorable night of your life in Las Vegas being treated like a rock star! Your party will avoid wasting precious time in long crowed lines at all the hottest clubs in Las Vegas. These limos will accommodate any size party up to 25 passengers. It makes no difference if you are here for pleasure or business, a dinner party or a birthday party, wedding, corporate event, bachelorette party or Las Vegas bachelor parties, or just a get away to have fun in Las Vegas.

Business Shipping Issues

Security is something that is important every one today.  Security is needed in the home, office, car and the airport.  Industrial security is even more important for developing countries.  It generates more revenue and employment opportunities with industrial growth.  In fact, industrial security is important for every country’s economy.

With the increase of terrorism, theft and other criminal activities is even more important.  Industries need to make sure that there products go through air cargo security quickly and safely.  Air cargo is shipped all over the world and is an easy access point for terrorist.  It is the duty of any business to ensure proper security to all its employees and customers for better growth of industry and economy.

Asset protection, crime control, intelligence, safety and disaster management are all part of industrial security.  They prevent all types of losses and add to productivity, which dispels the myth that putting money into security has no ROI.  Making sure that air cargo handling is safe and secure keeps the business and the country safe.

Not only does an industrial business need to make sure that it has a good security plan and policy in the back, but it also needs to make sure that security at departure and arrival points is also good.  For example, air cargo screening can be done for shipping as well as after products are shipped.

Because of the increase in multidimensional threats such as international terrorism, cyber and white-collar crimes, and bomb threats, industries need to make security changes.  Industries need to make sure that they have locksmiths and security forces on the job 24/7 to ensure that their products are not tampered with before or after shipping.  A classification system for various products and access control systems with different levels of access should be installed to prevent unauthorized entry of anyone.

Regular security checks and unexpected inspections are an effective way to ensure security of industrial facilities and their products.  If any weaknesses in that security system are found, they should be reported immediately to a locksmith and upper management.

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention goes a long way!”

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Other Resources

Permissible Wage Deductions

There are a number of wage deductions that an employer can legally take out of a person’s paycheck and if a federal employee believes that they have had wages reduced illegally, the best solution would be to speak with a federal employee attorney who would be able to define all of the legal options for employers to reduce wages. Such permissible deductions from wages include items such as payments made toward covering the cost of insurance premiums and money required to pay various labor organizations for dues that are paid each year or other costs associated with such membership.

Need Dental Care?

For a dentist Virginia having an extraordinary staff of committed professionals, some of the top dentists and cosmetic dentists in the business, all of whom are highly experienced in all facets of general dentistry, is something that is done for the patient. The service includes a Chantilly VA cosmetic dentist, periodontics, implant restoration and restorative care, veneers and whitening. Most importantly, the goal is to help you maintain optimal dental health. We strive to provide exceptional customer service and individualized care to each patient at every visit. Each dentist, hygienist and support staff member will make it his or her priority to make it your best dental experience!

Early Music in the Village of the City

cited: New York Times

New York has always been known as a trend-setting capital of the world. Now, the newest thing in the Village is old-time music- think the 18th century and before. It’s a repertory, comprising music that celebrated the philosophy of performances that blossomed throughout the 20th century. It has taken the form a smourgasbourg of era-sampling that has been the hallmark of American music since region-sampling went passé.

Now, at least in New York, early music has also become a scene. The two-year-old Gotham Early Music Scene lived up to its name this week with the GEMS Project, a series of three programs at Le Poisson Rouge, the trendy Greenwich Village club that is taking the classical music world by storm.

By any definition, early music is wildly diverse. The project’s format, developed in previous concerts, presented three groups per evening, and the first program, on Wednesday, was diverse perhaps to a fault.

Uncommon Temperament, a group of young Baroque performers, opened with works of Handel: a trio sonata and a soprano version of the cantata “Mi Palpita il Cor,” sung by Ariadne Greif.

The performances were accomplished and winning, and Ms. Greif made a game attempt to turn the cantata, a young man’s expression of coronary twitter in the face of budding love, into something mildly dramatic. Reclining in a chair, she enacted the work as a psychiatric session: alas, a one-line joke that without real character development wore thin long before she scribbled the check at the end.

East of the River, another group led by the recorder virtuosos Nina Stern and Daphna Mor, brought a spirit from east of East River, Brooklyn, to music more or less east of the Danube, as Ms. Stern suggested in preperformance remarks. The listing of Armenian, Macedonian, Italian, Bulgarian and Greek tunes suggested greater variety than emerged from the stage, where an air of modern-day klezmer seemed an insistent presence.

The Clarion Music Society looked to be an alien presence in this setting, taking the stage in concert garb to present music from the court of Catherine the Great. This is a theme, mixing Western European influences and indigenous composition in St. Petersburg, that could barely be suggested in a third of a concert. Ilya Poletaev gave a charming performance of a harpsichord sonata by Baldassare Galuppi. A two-movement string quartet by Anton Ferdinand Titz and arias from operas by Yevstigney Fomin and Bortniansky made little impression, bereft of context.

Except that provided in an overlong spoken introduction by Clarion’s music director, Steven Fox. In general, the talk, guided by Gotham’s executive director, Gene Murrow, proved awkward, finding little middle ground between forced banter and scholarly disquisition.

Director Murrow claimed “the perfect place” to listen to and play early music was there- with “friends eating and drinking”, among the clanking of dishes and tables. The noise from the inferior sound system and obstructive ventilation system were a worse complement to the performances.

Hopefully, if these buffet-style shows continue, the organizers will find a way to make each disparate dish go together as opposed to making a stomach-churning mix.

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My Take: While young Americans appropriate fashion, art, and food from all across the world, it was only a matter of time until they stretched through time for inspiration. This is the temporal equivalent of the Chinese/Mexican restaurant, or the liberal gathering of Tibetan prayer beads, African prints, and mate tea.

A question almost as old as being impressed with another’s culture: at what point does admiration become an almost mockery, as the admirer goes further to imitate the original?

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Minecraft Resembles Other Games

Bella Donna, Mi Donna

You can be as classically glamorous or seductively sweet as you want. Now, you have the option of doing so without chemicals or animal cruelty. There is, for example, erbaviva skin care, which is gentle enough to be used on a baby yet nourishing enough to belong on a mama’s nightstand. With these advances in technology, there’s no reason not to use natural beauty products and let your natural self shine through.

Oh, Canada! Oh, Traffic Ticket!

Getting a traffic ticket sucks. There’s usually nothing to do but appear in court and pay the fine. Now, you have options if you’ve committed an Ontario Canada provincial offence. You can get someone on your side and fight city hall to keep your own paycheck in your pocket. Even Ottawa traffic tickets are arguable- find a proper lawyer and get your case together today.

A New Smoking Experience

The electronic cigarette cartridge is what makes this smoking experience unique. The one piece, self contained unit includes a built-in atomizer, nicotine/water solution and your choice of flavoring. The E cig provides a clean and comfortable smoking alternative.  Smokeless cigarettes look like traditional cigarettes, but there are some differences. The e cigarette does not contain any of the harmful substances that are in a traditional cigarette, such as tar or carbon monoxide. Best of all, there is no smoke!  You can smoke virtually everywhere that smoking has been prohibited!  If you are ready to make the switch to smokeless cigarettes, the electronic cig can make it possible.

Opera Revamped

cited: New York Times

Perhaps opera may do better to step out of the velvet corsets and Romantic sets, and bring the medium into the 21st century. The question burns, however: is it sacrilege to bring the likes of Verdi into the realm of a Pink Floyd laser show? Revisions of opera has seen far less enthusiastic reception than similar re-workings of Shakespeare. Are opera fans simply too die-hard, or is there something intrinsic about the vibrato craft that makes its antiquity timeless?

That protectionist sentiment probably accounted for the vehement booing that greeted the director Luc Bondy and his production team when the Metropolitan Opera introduced its new staging of Puccini’s “Tosca” on Sept. 21. The show is no Eurotrash outrage. Mr. Bondy does not even update the setting, let alone turn things surreal or present the story of Tosca, a famed prima donna; her hotheaded rebel lover, Mario Cavaradossi; and the twisted chief of police, Baron Scarpia, as a rehearsal of a modern-day opera company’s “Tosca” production.

The problems arose, it would seem, because for all its contemporary trappings, the production was essentially traditional. So even little deviations from the source seemed like a self-conscious attempt by Mr. Bondy to shake up “Tosca” and rattle “Tosca” lovers.

Now, for an unabashedly avant-garde approach to a staple, there is the Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, directed by Achim Freyer, which is being introduced in installments, so far to mixed reactions. I saw “Die Walküre” last spring and will attend the recently opened “Siegfried” on Wednesday. (“Götterdämmerung” arrives in April, and three complete cycles will be presented in May and June.)

Mr. Freyer, a German theater artist, painter and director, who is overseeing all aspects of the production, tries to capture the magical elements of this mythological tale through weirdly abstract costumes, sets and staging. Characters wield neon spears that look like Jedi light sabers. Alien creatures descend from above and infiltrate the action, a lot of which is not depicted, so that Mr. Freyer can delve into Jungian resonances.

When the long-separated twins Siegmund and Sieglinde meet during Act I of “Die Walküre” (Plácido Domingo and Anja Kampe in the performance I attended), they are surreal, half-complete figures: Siegmund’s face is painted white on one side, black on the other; Sieglinde’s, in reverse. Rather than falling helplessly into a sensual embrace, for long stretches of the act the two are sequestered atop small platforms on opposite sides of the stage, facing forward, seldom looking at each other.

I terribly miss the human dimensions of the characters in this sci-fi “Ring.” After all, Wagner meant for us to see ourselves in this story of a tormented, overreaching god and his dysfunctional family.

But say what you will, Mr. Freyer has a strong production concept, which he conveys through elaborate, sometimes dazzling and very expensive imagery and stage effects (costing more than $32 million). The lesson seems clear: If you decide to go with a concept, stick with it.

No similarly strong take emerges in Mr. Bondy’s convoluted “Tosca,” which replaces the Met’s lavishly realistic Franco Zeffirelli production. At least Mr. Zeffirelli’s popular show had luxurious style, something you can’t say of Mr. Bondy’s anti-Zeffirelli staging, with its cold, spare, emaciated sets.

Mr. Bondy seemed determined to show what a sexually sadistic monster Scarpia is. Actually, I have never seen a production of “Tosca” in which Scarpia’s lechery and ruthlessness has not been utterly evident. The bigger challenge for a director is to convey Scarpia’s other side, the aristocratic bearing and courtly manners that he can turn on as the occasion demands.

A similar problem afflicts many productions of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Determined to show Giovanni as a reprobate who runs through women, directors fail to convey his high-born swagger and rakish charm.

It is understandable that a director might want to clear out the theatrical clichés that have attached to a classic, even to the point of discounting stage directions. But if the production is essentially traditional, that director had better come up with compelling alternative action.

Take the ending of Act II in the new “Tosca.” When Scarpia makes his proposition — if Tosca will succumb to him just once, he will retract Mario’s death sentence and set the lovers free — she is forced into the unthinkable: she must kill him.

As the music, the stage directions and what we have learned about Tosca so far in the opera all suggest, she stabs Scarpia in a fit of desperation and will. This comes through in the vehement phrases she sings as Scarpia dies, affirming, almost in an existential rant, what she has done: “This is Tosca’s kiss!” “Look at me! It is I, Tosca, O Scarpia!”

But in Mr. Bondy’s staging, Tosca (the charismatic soprano Karita Mattila) plots the murder, albeit quickly. Devising an entrapment for Scarpia, she reclines, alluringly, on a couch, the knife hidden behind her, awaiting her prey. That Tosca would be so calculating at this moment seems all wrong. There I go, sounding like an opera fanatic saying, “Tosca would not do that.” But directors like Mr. Bondy drive you to it.

Then, as the stage directions indicate, during a long span of eerily subdued orchestral music Tosca enacts a ritual, placing candles on either side of Scarpia’s body and a crucifix on his heart. This theatrical stroke is clearly too familiar and melodramatic for Mr. Bondy.

Instead, he has Ms. Mattila climb to the threshold of a window, where she considers leaping to her death. But she collects herself and slinks onto a couch next to the one over which Scarpia’s body is sprawled. As the curtain falls, she appears to be musing on what has happened and what to do next.

What of the candles and crucifix? That Tosca is a devout believer is central to her character. Yes, she is having an affair with Mario, which is technically a sin. But Tosca has a deeply personal relationship with the Madonna. They speak woman to woman. Tosca is an artist; she cannot follow norms. She is sure that the Madonna understands this.

So when Tosca kills Scarpia, even though he was evil, she must both expiate her sin and enact a sacred ritual for his sorry soul. A director who ignores this staging idea, the work of another production team (Puccini and his librettists), had better have a brilliant substitute. “Should I kill myself?” hardly qualifies.

Many opera directors have revealed fresh insights into works through the simple device of updating. Updating has gotten a bad rap. Shifting a story to another era can easily seem a glib and arbitrary maneuver. But done with imagination, an updated production can take today’s audiences to the core of a familiar work. Jonathan Miller’s inspired production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” for example, first presented at the English National Opera in 1982.

Mr. Miller relocates the story from 16th-century Mantua to Little Italy in Manhattan in the 1950s. The Duke of Mantua becomes a powerful, preening head of a Mafia gang. And in an ingenious stroke, Rigoletto, Verdi’s hunchbacked court jester, who must keep the Duke and his entourage amused and be the butt of jokes, becomes the bartender at the gang’s favorite hangout.

One of the stated missions of Peter Gelb as general manager of the Met is to entice new audiences into the opera house with boldly theatrical productions. But who is the target audience for this muddled half-and-half “Tosca,” no experiment in audacious modern theater?

Joseph Volpe, Mr. Gelb’s predecessor, took more risks in recruiting directors than he is generally given credit for, though mainly with operas of second-tier popularity. Robert Wilson’s boldly abstract staging of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” was booed on opening night in 1998 but cheered the next season, after audiences had adjusted to the look and concept of the work, and after the cast’s original stylized hand and arm gestures had been toned down considerably. Herbert Wernicke’s wondrous fairy-tale staging of Strauss’s “Frau Ohne Schatten” remains one of my all-time favorite Met shows. Other standouts included Jürgen Flimm’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” placed in some vaguely contemporary repressive state, and Francesca Zambello’s elegantly mystical rendering of Berlioz’s “Troyens.”

But for the bread-and-butter works, like “La Bohème” “Turandot,” “La Traviata” and, yes, “Tosca,” Mr. Volpe wanted productions from which the Met could get some mileage and pack in audiences even when the casts were routine. This usually meant ordering up another Zeffirelli extravaganza.

Maybe you can mock Mr. Volpe’s realism, but he knew what he was talking about. Maybe this season’s stagings of Rossini’s “Armida” by Mary Zimmerman’ or Pierre Audi’s production of Verdi’s “Attila,” are a venture, so what? Opera fans are not about to have their hearts broken by re-interpretations of these pieces. The Met, however, has quite the disappointing burden to carry with Mr. Bondy’s “Tosca”.

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My Take: What ever happened to “go big or go home”? The reason so many Shakespeare plays have been successfully adapted is largely the directors’ dedication to the theme. The first example to rise in my mind is the Romeo + Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo diCaprio. Baz Luhrmann was dedicated to vintage-inspired, southern California street violence that it completely sold the world. Had Luhrmann merely half-done Verona Beach, the movie would have been less a gut-wrenching tear jerker, and more of a snooze.

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50 Cent Show Worth Far More

cited: New York Times

50 Cent’s Saturday concert looked like a détente between schools and generations of hip-hop. The This Is 50 Festival, on Governors Island’s Water Taxi Beach, began with insightful, still-sweet rappers Kid Cudi and Wale. 50 Cent, one of the last of the big-time gangsta rappers, who had multimillion-selling albums in 2003 and 2005 before gangsta lost momentum, also performed.

But that was a fake-out. After amiably received sets by the newcomers, 50 Cent took over with a two-and-a-half-hour gangsta extravaganza. The set was crammed with guest slots — friends, allies, disciples — and insisted gangsta was still alive, rough and ready to compete.

The songs were about danger and outlaw excess — guns, drugs and sex — with crude, shout-along hooks. The neat backup tracks of the openers gave way to thudding, cranked-up bass lines and distortion, punctuated by the sounds of gunshots and breaking glass from the D.J., Whoo Kid. As at old-school New York rap shows, the stage was filled with onlookers; rappers demanded, “Put your hands up!” — as a dance move, not a holdup. And the sold-out crowd exploded. This was the bad-guy party they came for.

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With his baby face, his boyish grin, his genuine gunshot wounds and the singsong choruses of his hits, Curtis Jackson, a k a 50 Cent, established himself as a gangsta rapper who could also be a charmer: gruff and belligerent, but also amused. His next album, “Before I Self Destruct,” has been delayed repeatedly, and his recent mixtape, “Forever King,” presents a paranoid, embittered character, but he was smiling broadly onstage. He was as much host as star: performing a song or two, mostly from his first albums, and then announcing a surprise and bringing on another guest.

They included not only his own G Unit (with Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks), but also D-Block (formerly the Lox), Wyclef Jean, Maino and Red Cafe. Between songs about lust and crime were celebrations of upward mobility despite the odds, like “We Gonna Make It” by Jadakiss of D-Block and Maino’s triumphant “All the Above.” But less righteous boasts, like 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta” and “P.I.M.P.,” drew even stronger reactions.

There were more guests before 50 Cent made his entrance: Jim Jones and Juelz Santana, along with Al Be Back, Uncle Murda, Cory Gunz, Papoose and the four-rapper group Slaughterhouse. Mr. Gunz showed off a virtuosic delivery, accelerating and decelerating. Papoose started rapping his way through the alphabet, with long strings of words all starting with the same letter; he got to G before his time ran out.

The openers made every effort. Kid Cudi, although he appears on the new album by Jay-Z, is an oddball in hip-hop. He’s somewhere between rapper and singer, intoning his rhymes on a few notes, and instead of boasting, he presents himself as an introvert, confessing to his vulnerabilities and uncertainties, imagining himself as a visitor from another planet. It’s a persona better suited to headphones than to an outdoor concert. Wale, a Washington, D.C., rapper who thinks hard about the state of hip-hop when he’s not bragging about being “the brightest of the youth,” was more vigorous and endearing.

This concert’s right was no match for the huge number of stories of wrongs, even those years old. Only time will tell if this is the marking of a new era in rap, or a new movement towards hip-hop nostalgia.

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My Take: The first time I heard a radio station that promised to play the “best of the 80’s, 90’s, and today”, my father- who was also in the car- turned down the volume and said, ‘it’s official: you have nostalgia music’.

As bizarre as it is to think of “P.I.M.P.” as indicative of a specific time and place now gone, the good news is, we’ll probably have something to gab about as we sit in our rocking chairs on our front porch. Wait, I meant front stoop.

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Brooklyn Reggae Star gets Stabbed

cited: New York Times

Reggae StarSunday morning in Brooklyn took a bloodier turn than normal this past week, as reggae singer Major Mackerel was stabbed with a sword by a neighbor. Garfield Dixon, also known as Major Mackerel, after a confrontation with a neighbor over the neighbor’s wife, the police said. When the fight was over, the police had arrested Oscar Joseph, 37, on charges including assault with intent to cause serious injury — in this case, to his neighbor the singer, whose real name is Garfield Dixon, 41.

The police said that about 8 a.m., they were called to a two-story brick house on East 91st Street near East New York Avenue, where Mr. Dixon and Mr. Joseph live on different floors. They found Mr. Dixon “with lacerations to the head, arm and hand.” They arrested Mr. Joseph and recovered a two-foot-long sword.

Mr. Dixon, who achieved notice as a dancehall reggae artist in the late 1980s and early ’90s, was taken to Kings County Hospital Center.

Mr. Dixon’s companion, Novia Watson, 51, said the fight started after Mr. Dixon returned from buying cigarettes.

When she went to open the door for Mr. Dixon, she saw Mr. Joseph waiting in the foyer. Mr. Joseph raised the sword, she said, and the two men started arguing and fighting over the weapon.

“I was trying to take it from him myself,” Ms. Watson said.

The fight spilled out onto the sidewalk, and Mr. Joseph accused Mr. Dixon of harassing his wife. When Ms. Watson returned from calling the police, Mr. Dixon was pacing on the sidewalk, blood seeping from a deep slash across the palm of his left hand.

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Ms. Watson said the police arrived within minutes and arrested Mr. Joseph, who continued to shout at Mr. Dixon, saying he made rude, suggestive comments to his wife. Ms. Watson said doctors stitched up Mr. Dixon’s hand and told him they might have to operate.

Later on that eventful Sunday, Mr. Dixon made his way homr from the hostpital. He still wore his hospital gown, accessorized with a cast on his left hand and  white gauze covering his dreadlocks (a bandage, not a trandy fashion decision). He claimed not to have harassed Mr. Joseph’s wife.

“I was singing my song, then I see him with a sword,” he said.

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My Take: From Bob Marley to Major Mackerel- why do reggae singers find themselves with such violent fates? This would be expected of hip hop or death metal artists, but these singers devoted their lives to songs about love and peace.  Where is the love for them?

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LA Hears New Conductor

cited: Los Angeles  Times

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Philharmonic welcomed its 11th conductor, Gustavo Dudamel with a free concert at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night, as opposed to a staid program in Walt Disney Hall, the orchestra’s home. The more formal show is on Thursday. “Bienvenido Gustavo!,” as the concert was called, ended with a vivacious and exploratory rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Mr. Dudamel. The orchestra collected a range of superb vocalists to solo, backed with a chorus of 200 handpicked from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, the Our Lady of Los Angeles Spanish Choir, the Philippine Chamber Singers and other local ensembles.

But there has never been a gala quite like this to celebrate the arrival of a conductor to a major American orchestra. For more than two hours before Mr. Dudamel appeared, there were performances that brought together renowned artists from pop, jazz, gospel and the blues with young area musicians. Andraé Crouch, the Grammy-winning gospel singer and songwriter, performed with his New Christ Memorial Church Adult and Children’s Choir. The bass and trumpet player Flea — a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, like Mr. Dudamel, a musician devoted to musical education — performed songs with an ensemble of youngsters from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, which he opened in 2001.

The Latin rock musician David Hidalgo, the blues great Taj Mahal and Alfredo Rodríguez, a young Cuban pianist, also took part. And the jazz giant Herbie Hancock played with an ensemble from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. When the actor Jack Black, introducing Mr. Hancock, paid tribute to Mr. Dudamel for galvanizing Los Angeles (“This dude’s on fire,” he said), the audience, which packed the 18,000-seat bowl, cheered and shouted, “Bienvenido Gustavo!”

That Mr. Dudamel, who made his American debut conducting the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, has already had an enormous impact on the cultural life of this city was clear when he made his first appearance of the night, conducting the YOLA Expo Center Youth Orchestra. YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) is part of a two-year-old initiative by the Philharmonic to provide instruments and orchestra training to students, modeled on El Sistema, the vast music education system in Mr. Dudamel’s native Venezuela.

Some 100 students were selected to perform on Saturday. At 28, his shaggy locks somewhat trimmed for the occasion, Mr. Dudamel looked like the youngsters’ cool older brother. The students, mostly from minority neighborhoods in South Los Angeles, gamely played through an orchestral arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Steven Venz, and their families had pride-of-place seating in the first rows of the bowl.

All American orchestras now espouse music education and reaching out to the community. But Mr. Dudamel, as a product of the Venezuelan program, shows a particularly intense desire to connect with young people and make music accessible to all. If, working with Deborah Borda, the president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he can make it central to the education of students in Los Angeles, Mr. Dudamel could change the template for what an American orchestra can be.

None of this would matter, though, if Mr. Dudamel did not have the musical substance to back up his vision. The depth of his skills and artistry is about to be tested vigorously.

He met the first test on this night with the performance of the Beethoven Ninth. It is always hard to assess the quality of an orchestra’s performance at an amplified outdoor space. The vocal soloists and the choristers were overamplified. In the finale, when Matthew Rose sang the first words of Schiller’s text, he sounded like the Bionic Booming Baritone. The soprano Measha Brueggergosman, the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and the tenor Toby Spence, all exceptional singers, came through with a more balanced acoustic.

But Mr. Dudamel’s intentions were mostly realized. This was not the Beethoven’s Ninth some might have expected from a young dynamo. The tempos were restrained. Even in the scherzo, he strove for an organic steady pace. The slow movement had breadth and quiet intensity. And the finale, the choristers fired with enthusiasm, was exhilarating. It was affecting to hear Schiller’s references to the “starry canopy” performed outdoors on this balmy night.

After the prolonged ovation, Mr. Dudamel addressed the audience, which included many Latino families, in English and Spanish.

He spoke of being a proud Venezuelan and a proud South American but also a “proud American,” saying that there should be no north and south but “one American continent.”

As the fireworks began to light up, he then repeated the ending section of the finale. The maestro’s name lit up like a marquee above the performers- the perfect touch for the Hollywood Bowl to welcome Hollywood’s newest conductor.

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My Take: It’s all-too-common for a rookie to come out of the gate full-force. It’s a relief to see the young conductor keep his head about him and deliver a soulful, restrained program- even when the orchestra around him is so devoted to giving him a glitzy, LA welcome complete with fireworks and lights.

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