All posts by Ben

Maker Faire

I spent the afternoon at the World Maker Faire, on the World’s Fair grounds in Queens. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay $40 for the opportunity to window shop stuff that I don’t intend to buy, even if it’s really cool stuff, but I heard through the grapevine that the EFF needed volunteers to help out at their booth. Worthy cause + free entrance = no-brainer.

I spent about three hours at the EFF table, handing out stickers and t-shirts. The amount of love was just staggering. We handled a nonstop flood of EFF fans, signed up and renewed a ton of members, and handed out a huge number of stickers. (So much love for stickers!) As a total EFF fan, the firehose of support was absolutely heartwarming. It’s just a joy to know that at a fair whose purpose is mostly to sell silly electric toys, there is also enormous willingness to invest in building a better society.

Speaking of silly electric toys, after my shift at the booth I

  • Saw Google’s prototype delivery drone
  • Watched three failed attempts in a row to demo HP’s Sprout 3D scanner/computer. Seems like it would be cool if it worked.
  • Watched two belt-sanders race at the power tool derby
  • Saw an octocopter with an 8-foot wingspan … and an Intel motherboard with a PS/2 port.
  • Watched a quadcopter race on an enclosed circuit, between pilots wearing 3D goggles for a first-person view. Only one managed to finish the race; the others got snagged in the enclosing safety net.
  • Picked a 5-pin Master lock at the TOOOL lockpicking lesson. My first lock!

It was just the right amount of Maker Faire, for just the right price.

Ringing in the New Year properly

Last night was my parents’ annual break-fast, celebrating the end of a day-long fast that most of the guests do not observe.  Most years we just nosh and schmooze, but this year the Pasternak family joined us, and brought more than one instrument apiece.  Our sedate and sedentary affair was transformed into a lively sing-along with a side of dance, not just briefly but for hours.

It didn’t hurt that one of the musicians was Ada Pasternak, who performed today at the UN for a women’s Middle East Peace event.

She made sure to let everyone know to come to her show at The Metropolitan Room next month, so I figure I should pass it on.  Lovers of violin pop with a hint of klezmer are unlikely to be disappointed.

EDIT: My mother’s inventive take on the traditional round challah.


Idly wandering the net looking for something to do last night, I stumbled across a listing for a showing of Olvidados (Forgotten), Bolivia’s official entrant in the Academy Awards foreign film competition.  It also mentioned that one of the actresses in the movie, Carla Ortiz, would answer questions after the showing.

From the opening credits, it’s clear that this is not a Hollywood movie.  The production was 100% “Iberoamerican”, with a style that is less Almodovar and more telenovela.  Indeed, most of the actors are drawn from the world of Spanish-language TV soaps, and I suspect that the crew and editors are as well.  The younger actors in “oldface” for the present-day opening scenes are not going to win  the makeup Oscar either.

What’s different, to start, is the subject matter.  Olvidados is a film about Operation Condor, a CIA-backed initiative to help the military juntas that governed most of South America in the 1970s to work together to crush the lingering traces of Che’s Marxist revolution … at least, that was the theory. In reality, anyone deemed hostile, irritating, or suspicious could easily be scooped up, “renditioned” (in the parlance of our times) to a facility in a neighboring country, and brutally tortured to death for no reason. This happened on a massive scale: Argentina alone killed something like 30,000 people this way. It’s also the main focus of the movie: depicting the torture and murder of innocent people in disturbing, graphic detail.

Not your average telenovela.

Apart from decrying what happened, the movie avoids introducing any other themes (or maybe I missed the allusion). There is, at most, an implication that the atrocities of that time are still reverberating today. The goal is right in the title: to ensure that this history is not forgotten.

The film’s style starts firmly in telenovela, but strangely elevates itself as the cast is arrested and driven up into the Andes. The claustrophobic urban soundstages apartments give way to thrilling panoramas of mountainous terrain and Inca villages. The pristine beauty of these places contrasts strangely with the evil being done.

Carla Ortiz engaged the audience at the end of the film, to the smallest movie theater in New York, half-empty. Many in the audience had fled South America to escape this violence, some in the 1970s, but one as late as 2000 — he published an expose on the taboo subject, and found himself threatened and ostracized. Most movingly to me, his school expelled his daughter as a means of punishment.

Ortiz’s character is the protagonist, or at least the most prominent character who is not a monster. Watching the credits, it’s clear that this is really her movie: she was also the producer, co-screenwriter, and is even credited as a translator. She explained her goal explicitly in the discussion: to promote social media activism against abuses in the present day.

I’m not sure how much I believe in social media activism, but I think if you want to engage South American audiences in an open discussion about these atrocities, a film that starts as telenovela but pivots to unflinching horror might be a winning strategy.

Fire Island

Last week I joined in for reunion of my mother and her cousins (on her father’s side). We all went to Fire Island, a beach retreat that I’d heard mentioned many times growing up in Connecticut, but never really understood. As it turns out, it’s a really strange place. The “streets” are about the size and shape of a typical city sidewalk. The houses, which are really bungalows, don’t have garages, and are all cutely packed together into the grid. Bike racks substitute for driveways, and every house has at least one “Radio Flyer” style pullcart for running errands on the island. Nowhere is more than a few blocks from the beach. Everyone locks their bicycles, but no one locks their front doors.

The bungalow we rented claims to be where Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are.

This group of cousins has a colorful history. My great grandfather, Samuel(?) Schusheim, was born in Romania. Family legend (that I first heard last week) claims that he was a floor polisher, which gave him very strong arms. The story goes that some time around 1906, a man called him a dirty Jew (in Romanian, presumably), and he punched the man so hard that he killed him with one blow. He promptly fled the country, which is how he wound up in New York City.

Anyway, that’s the story.

Samuel had 4 sons, and one of them was Marcus Schusheim (Mark). It seems they all spent a lot of their childhoods hanging out at the Boys Club in New York, which had a ping-pong table, and Mark, having not much to do, started to spend a lot of time playing, and organizing tournaments. To make a very long story short, in 1932 he was the national champion at table tennis, for the second year in a row.

He had no intention of being a professional ping-pong player. Instead, he used his fame to benefit his business: the Rapid Messenger Service, a courier company that would dominate the New York City market until the fax machine. Mark employed his brothers (including my grandfather Murray) as managers of branch offices. He made a fortune, and his brothers didn’t do badly either. As a result, the brothers, and their children, were all as close as can possibly be. They even changed their family name, all together, from Schusheim to Matthews. (Family folklore says this was for the sake of the company: too many people wouldn’t do business with Jews.)

This reunion was a first for the family, the first time all the cousins had been together … maybe ever, and certainly since 1950, when Mark divorced his wife Dorothea and effectively disowned their children. The brothers depended on Mark for their own livelihood, and so did Dorothea, who was guaranteed a luxurious child support, at least in theory. Dorothea and Mark sued each other nonstop for the next decade over child support and custody, resulting in a series of cases all named Matthews v Schusheim or Matthews v Matthews.

Mark’s brothers all testified for him … too zealously, say some of the cousins who sided with Dorothea. Accusations of fraud, bribery, assault, perjury, and infidelity still fly today, and I think it’s entirely possible that they are all true. The brothers were a rough and tumble bunch; another legend says that as payback for a dispute, one of them once hid in the doorway of their Lower East Side tenement and put out a lit cigar on the other’s head. Regardless, Mark’s children and the rest of the cousins hardly saw each other again.

The retreat was a magical moment, a time of healing for a family long divided. We ate together, told old stories, watched home movies of babies who are now in their early 70s, read eulogies to people who’d missed the funeral, and swam in the ocean.


Fire Island is a beautiful place.


The US pop charts have been full of Spanish-speaking singers for most of my life: Enrique Iglesias, Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Shakira, even Jennifer Lopez. These musicians all speak Spanish as their first language, but they all produce records in English, or largely English, for the US market, which is why I’ve heard of them. Juanes, then, might be the most famous Spanish-language pop singer who doesn’t sing in English. As such, I’d never heard of him until last week.

As it turns out, a friend of mine is a lifelong fan, and so I went to his concert at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday. The audience was diverse in age, but mostly seemed to speak Spanish como lengua materna. To prepare, I listened to as many of his songs as I could, so I would know what I was hearing (and so I had a chance to look up any words I didn’t know).

The concert was almost nonstop singing, with very little in the way of banter. He sang 22 songs in total, which seemed like a lot, and included all his hits that I’d heard of.

I think my favorites are Mil Pedazos, Volverte a Ver, Juntos, La Camisa Negra, Mala Gente, and A Dios le Pido … which is a lot of favorites, really.

On the periphery of the Jazz Age

Twice each summer, a group of anachronistically inclined New Yorkers puts on the Jazz Age Lawn Party, an all-day outdoor event on Governor’s Island. It’s essentially a ticketed picnic with Jazz and Swing bands, except that everyone is dressed like they are going to the poshest possible event in 1925. (Most take this quite literally, but some modern warm-weather adaptations were also on display.)

The tickets sold out long ago, but there’s nothing to stop a curious tourist, dressed like a 2015 schlub, from paying the $2 ferry fare, lying down on the grass under the trees, right next to the fenced-off area, and listening to the nightclub jazz echoing off of the disused and decaying navy barracks at 4 in the afternoon.

Also, on the other side of the barracks, hidden down one of many twisty paths, are a trio of hammocks, which are very nice.

Coincidentally, as the lawn party was winding down, the next event was setting up nearby: an Electronic Dance Music “party” (hard to call it a performance if it’s all electronic). In Manhattan, the ferry emptied its load of flapper dresses, floral headbands, seersucker suits, and straw boaters, and replaced them with a young screaming crowd in spandex, sunglasses, and glitter.

Maybe their music, and fashion, will be faithfully replicated by a sedate and studious crowd 90 years hence, in the early afternoon.