Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Streetcar Named Optimism?

In these gloomy times, it is surprising to read a positive report about progress in post-Katrina New Orleans. This blogger has an overactive skepticism gland, but there might something positive happening in the Big Easy. If this is (fair & balanced) highly restrained sanguinity, so be it.

[x City Journal]
Big Easy Rising
By Nicole Gelinas

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com

Five years ago, when Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, even optimistic observers had good reason to doubt that New Orleans would recover. It wasn’t just that the storm had destroyed much of the city, leaving parts of it under 20 feet of water for weeks. New Orleans had long suffered from terrible violence, a poisonous political culture, and a fleeing population. Its public services were iffy on a good day, making it especially unprepared for the storm. What chance did it stand of returning to life—even with the $71.5 billion that the Bush White House and Congress sent to Louisiana for hurricane recovery?

Yet the city has come back more vigorously than most imagined possible, even fumbling its way toward becoming, maybe, an urban success story. With about 365,000 residents, the City That Care Forgot has recovered more than 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population, and its post-storm economy has done well, too: in July, unemployment in the city and surrounding suburbs was 7.5 percent, two points below the recession-battered national figure, while per-capita income is up more than 20 percent since 2004, even as traditional government-aid payments, such as welfare and Medicaid, remain lower. Visit New Orleans today, and you’ll see a busy construction site, not a city laid waste by flooding.

The shock of Katrina, it turns out, produced a surprising renaissance in citizen initiative, one result of which was widespread recognition among New Orleanians that all that federal cash wasn’t going to solve the city’s long-standing problems on its own. Instead, engaged residents have kept local politicians on their toes, making sure that they use the recovery funds to transform and rejuvenate the city. They have taught the rest of the country, still reeling from the financial and economic crisis, a lesson: how to do recovery right.

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was unquestionably failing. During the second half of the twentieth century, the ills that afflicted many other American cities struck it particularly hard. Thanks to technology, the city’s port, once a major driver of employment, needed fewer people to handle cargo. Manufacturers that earlier had moved jobs from the Northeast to the South to escape high costs moved them even farther away, to cheaper Latin America and Asia. Highway construction slashed through historic neighborhoods, many of them black, dissolving community ties. Whites scrambled to the suburbs after the public schools were desegregated. Racial progress elsewhere encouraged aspiring working- and middle-class African-Americans to leave for Los Angeles and, later, Atlanta. As oil prices plummeted during the 1980s, big energy-industry employers got rid of jobs in New Orleans and consolidated their operations in Houston instead—and when the oil industry recovered, Houston, not New Orleans, won the new jobs. By 2005, New Orleans was subsisting largely on tourism.

Escalating violence accompanied and worsened these trends. On the eve of the storm, the city’s murder rate was nearly eight times the national average, with 59 people killed per 100,000 residents, compared with New York’s seven. Residents would dash from their cars to their homes at night, hoping to avoid muggers; many black families’ hope for their sons was just for them to finish high school and leave town alive. The police department gained a well-deserved reputation for sleaze, corruption, and worse: by the mid-1990s, two former cops were on death row. Partly because residents so distrusted the police, witnesses proved hard to come by, intensifying the city’s crime problem. Small wonder residents of wealthier neighborhoods began to privatize law enforcement, paying off-duty cops to patrol and to escort people from their cars to their homes at night. By the time Katrina hit, New Orleans residents had such low expectations of the police that few were shocked when NOPD officers looted stores during the flood. Nor were they shocked when the federal government began charging cops with killing at least four civilians in the storm’s chaotic aftermath.

New Orleans’s dysfunctional political culture could take at least partial blame for the city’s downward spiral. Corruption has been endemic. A longtime city council member, Oliver Thomas, just finished a prison sentence for bribery. Former congressman William Jefferson famously kept $90,000 in dirty cash in his freezer. Katrina-era mayor Ray Nagin, elected in 2002 for his supposed private-sector management expertise, can expect investigations over contract awards and conflicts of interest to continue, even though his two terms in office have expired. His former chief technology officer faces federal kickback charges. U.S. attorney Jim Letten, a Bush appointee, has spent years trying to clean up a culture of low-grade bribery in traffic court.

The city’s public sector wasn’t just corrupt; it was incompetent. Many of the Big Easy’s brightest citizens—black, white, and Asian—had voted with their feet in escaping the city, leaving behind a less capable pool of potential elected officials, bureaucrats, and public workers. Successive mayors and city council members, most of them black, had risen through the ranks of mid-century civil rights and community activism groups. Though they did vital and often heroic work back then, they never mastered the workaday business of government.

Nor were these the only woes besetting New Orleans. The city’s infrastructure had deteriorated. Its schools were dismal; most public school kids failed to acquire basic reading and math skills. The starkest evidence of New Orleans’s failure was the size of its population, which fell from its 1960 peak of 628,000 to 460,000 on the eve of the flood, with much of the middle class leaving the city. And with so few engaged middle-class voters remaining, New Orleans became too politically and culturally weak to revitalize itself, as other cities, New York leading the way, had done during the 1990s and 2000s. New Orleans had indeed become the City That Care Forgot.

But when New Orleanians evacuated to places like Houston after the storm (see “Houston’s Noble Experiment,” Spring 2006), they learned an all-important lesson: cities could govern themselves well. Starting in late 2005, the exiles gradually returned to New Orleans with a new understanding that streets could be smooth, people could walk to their cars at night without fear, and school districts might actually try to educate poor kids from single-parent homes.

Returning residents also felt a new degree of personal investment in their city. Before Katrina, after all, most of them had never chosen to live in New Orleans; they had simply grown up there and remained. After the storm, though, being a resident became a conscious choice. It would have been easy enough to make a go of it in Houston, a place with greater economic opportunity and better quality of life. Those who returned anyway didn’t want to do the hard work of rebuilding only to see appalling urban governance wreck their work.

At first, it seemed as though New Orleanians had learned little. In May 2006, nine months after the storm, they reelected Nagin, who had proved unable to handle the crisis and had blatantly played the race card during the campaign, looking to rally black support. The rest of the country looked on aghast: Why didn’t voters throw the bum out?

It turns out that instead of looking for a heroic potentate to work miracles from on high, New Orleanians were making smaller-scale, bottom-up changes that would truly help their city. Beginning in the same election, voters reshaped the city council: today, only one of the seven council members is a pre-Katrina holdover. More important is that the members’ résumés are subtly different from those of the old days. Fewer have community-organizing or social-services backgrounds; more have had careers in law, real estate, and management. These new members are likelier to view government as a provider of efficient public services than to consider it a weapon for social justice or a dispenser of jobs. They know, too, that city voters are paying attention in a way that they never have before. As new councilwoman Susan Guidry puts it, the biggest change in the electorate is “the level of citizen involvement” in day-to-day issues.

After nearly half a decade’s worth of choosing a new kind of representation for themselves, New Orleanians were ready for bigger change this year, electing Democrat Mitch Landrieu as mayor in February. The election showed that New Orleanians could look past race in voting, something that wasn’t true four years earlier. Though its African-American population has shrunk slightly since Katrina, the city remains 61 percent black, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. But a majority of blacks joined other voters to cast their votes for the person they thought most qualified, who happened to be white.

The new crop of New Orleans politicians knows that the first thing on the populace’s mind is violent crime—and that people now expect results, not excuses. Though she represents a “diverse district,” Guidry says, “people’s needs are not diverse”—they just want to be safe. Unfortunately, crime numbers were one of the first things to recover after Katrina (see “Baghdad on the Bayou,” Spring 2007). Last year, the city racked up 174 killings. Calculating the murder rate is difficult because New Orleans’s post-Katrina population was still in flux in 2009, but it’s roughly 48 murders per 100,000 people, meaning that the city isn’t much safer than it was six years ago.

The city council has started taking steps to change that deeply troubling statistic, in part by putting pressure on the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office. By 2007, Eddie Jordan, a pre-Katrina holdover in that important post, was a disaster, with a nearly nonexistent conviction rate. His biggest claim to fame was bringing a multimillion-dollar discrimination judgment down on his office for a mass firing of white workers. He also made the wrong kind of criminal-justice headlines when newspapers reported that his girlfriend was more than a passing acquaintance of a man suspected of shooting a cop. Facing pressure from the council and the threat of a recall, Jordan slunk off. The stats of the new DA, Leon Cannizzaro, are significantly better. Last year, felony convictions doubled from the previous year, the independent Metropolitan Crime Commission says.

With Landrieu in office, the spirit of competent law enforcement also has someone to push its agenda in the executive branch. “The city of New Orleans is not safe,” the mayor said forthrightly before his inauguration, in a welcome change from his predecessors, who either denied the crime problem or implied that New Orleans, a poor city, just had to put up with it. Landrieu has tapped Ronal Serpas, a New Orleans native who clocked two decades on the NOPD before heading up the Nashville police department, to serve as police superintendent. The move has met with approval from citizen crime watchers. As Thom Kahler, a journalist who runs the Nocrimeline website, observed of Serpas’s Nashville tenure, “The crime rate there... dropped each year,” reaching the lowest levels in 30 years.

Serpas has his work cut out for him in the Big Easy. Because the NOPD has such a bad reputation, it still struggles to attract good candidates: only 25 of the 66 students in its police academy’s most recent class graduated. Potential recruits consider the department an employer of last resort, despite a $43,000 starting salary, more than most new teachers make. Serpas’s admirably high standards should improve the academy’s graduation rate, though it will complicate recruitment, at least in the short term: he will hire only officers with at least two years of college or military service. Another challenge is that he needs more outsiders. Right now, many New Orleans cops are intimately familiar with the neighborhoods they patrol, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, since it isn’t easy to arrest your cousin for domestic violence. A further challenge: though Serpas is pushing active policing to prevent crime, it’s not yet clear that New Orleans will accept the aggressive tactics, including stop-and-frisk, that have helped cut violence in cities like New York.

Serpas knows that the police need to “win the public’s confidence” so that people stop fearing and distrusting them—a perfectly rational attitude in the abuse-ridden recent past. So he and Landrieu have invited federal monitors to offer an outside perspective. Serpas has also opened each precinct’s Compstat meetings, at which commanders and officers discuss current crime statistics and tactics to combat violence, to the public. And he has ordered the posting of reliable crime statistics online, satisfying bloggers like Kahler, who have long complained of delays, omissions, and inaccuracies in reporting the numbers.

After years of cynicism, New Orleanians clearly believe that Serpas can make a difference. “Good guys winning?” Kahler wrote exuberantly on his blog in September. “In the past week, there were only 5 robberies—or attempted robberies—reported in the French Quarter and its environs. And on Friday—Friday of all days!—the... 8th District NOPD [in the Quarter] received absolutely NO reports of crimes.” Confidence in Serpas even kept French Quarter residents from voting this October to pay off-duty cops for extra security. Still, thugs engaged in a gunfight in a poorer neighborhood shot a two-year-old boy to death in late September, showing how far New Orleans has to go.

The ranks of New Orleans’s new crime fighters aren’t filled only by politicians and police officers; citizens, too, have joined the battle. Local judges have been a feckless bunch over the years, so in 2007, members of a new citizens’ group, Court Watch NOLA, started bringing bright yellow clipboards to the city’s courtrooms to monitor casework. The volunteers, many of them retirees, assess the efficiency of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges—for example, one judge took over an hour of unscheduled breaks one day in 2009. This past summer, the group issued a report that harshly criticized a court for being closed when scheduled to be open, “costing countless wasted hours to court personnel, police officers, parties and witnesses who make an unnecessary trip to court to find the courtroom door locked or the judge unavailable.” The same report listed performance stats, judge by judge.

The volunteers are currently tracking 500 felony cases. Though such citizen involvement may sound tedious, it works. As the Metropolitan Crime Commission points out, “judicial efficiency continued to improve through 2009,” with felony cases taking 120 days to close in 2009—longer than the national average of 92 days, but much better than the previous year’s 140. Judges get it: run-of-the-mill felony cases may still generate little press attention, but someone is out there now, watching and taking notes.

Just as energized citizens and their new representatives have begun to transform law enforcement in New Orleans, they’ve demolished the business-as-usual attitude toward another pillar of public order: infrastructure. New Orleanians immediately recognized that the calamitous flooding after Katrina was an infrastructure failure, not a natural disaster. Like Arizona with its aqueducts and New York City with its subways, New Orleans survives thanks to engineering marvels: the region’s federally built and locally maintained levees and flood walls. During Katrina, though, that infrastructure failed to withstand a storm whose force was well within its intended parameters.

Big Easy residents and their state and local pols recognized from the outset that improving infrastructure would be essential to giving people the confidence to invest time and money in rebuilding their homes. So they made sure that a healthy fraction of the federal recovery funds for Louisiana—about 37 percent, or $27 billion—went toward nuts-and-bolts reconstruction. In particular, the Army Corps of Engineers has mostly finished a massive $15 billion project in and around New Orleans to protect people and property from future storms.

New Orleanians understood that fixing their infrastructure would require more than money; they needed to fix infrastructure politics, too. Before Katrina, the “levee boards,” which oversaw maintenance for levees and flood walls for the New Orleans area, were patronage factories, not credible safeguards of crucial assets. Then Ruthie Frierson, a genteel uptown real-estate agent, came along. Frierson helped launch a new group, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, to push for a constitutional amendment consolidating the region’s ten levee boards into two. The reform, the group believed, would reduce waste and concentrate public and press attention on the levees. The citizen-activists also insisted on some radical new provisions—including that the people running the new boards actually know something about levees. The ballot measure passed a year after Katrina, with 80 percent of the vote.

Beyond its waterfronts, New Orleans has become an enormous construction site, as a mass of startlingly new infrastructure is built alongside the crumbling old. Soon, a new $803 million, 5.5-mile bridge will connect the city to affluent commuter towns across Lake Pontchartrain, replacing an outdated 45-year-old model. Local roads, already a neglected disaster before Katrina made them worse, are receiving a nearly $700 million refurbishment. Spruced-up streetcars and brand-new buses traverse them. Here, too, local officials realize that citizens are watching. One of Mayor Landrieu’s first acts was to roll out a detailed list of road, playground, and library projects costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars apiece to a few million, so that neighborhoods could track progress.

Katrina also washed away much of New Orleans’s sorry public school district, where majorities of students consistently failed. Once again, citizens are improving on what they had. The city’s biggest education reform is that the majority of its 35,000 public school kids now attend charter schools overseen by a state-run school district. It’s too early to tell much from test-score results, but it’s clear that the success and optimism of charter school operators—from the national KIPP outfit to local nonprofits—at getting schools up and running has been a big factor in residents’ decisions to return home.

Tiffany Monier, who works in finance at a private firm, came back to New Orleans in 2006 after seeking shelter from Katrina in Houston and Baton Rouge. She enrolled her fifth-grade son, Dante, in the inaugural class of KIPP Believe College Prep, a new uptown school. Teachers and staff there challenged her son—“a bright kid,” she says proudly—to prepare for admission to one of New Orleans’s top private high schools this fall. “He came home every day and talked about what he had learned in school,” she says, and he won admission to the high school. His classmates, many of them from poor, single-parent homes, also benefited from KIPP’s orderly environment, Monier adds.

New Orleans would do well, though, to take a more practical approach to paying for its new schools. Before Katrina, the city spent about $8,000 per student. In 2008, its schools (both in the state-run district and in the smaller traditional school district) spent $15,000 to $16,000 per child—the one area of New Orleans’s budget in which operating spending has increased dramatically. Much of the extra aid has come from the feds, who provided more than half of the state-run district’s revenues in 2008, up from the 15 percent that they sent to New Orleans public schools before Katrina. When the federal money runs out, New Orleans will have to cut back elsewhere, or hike taxes, to fund its newly expensive school system.

To avoid that result, the city and state should require enterprising charter school administrators to compete on cost as well as on results. Some charters seem perfectly capable of operating on a shoestring. As Mark Nguyen, education coordinator of the economic development arm of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, says of his group’s charter school, “We just want a building”—to get out of the leaky trailers in which it has been teaching kids.

Even New Orleans’s economy has adjusted to what a few years ago would have been unimaginable upheaval. It remains largely dependent on tourism and conventions, true, but start-ups in other industries are beginning to call New Orleans home. Nic Perkin and Justin Brownhill, both New Yorkers with no ties to New Orleans, decided in 2007 to make the Crescent City the headquarters for a venture that would let companies raise cash by selling financial assets called receivables.

Perkin and Brownhill picked New Orleans for hardheaded reasons, not emotional ones. They needed the East Coast time zone to run a financial business, as well as a legal environment favorable to trading receivables (Louisiana had it—who knew?). They also wanted someplace cheap. At a start-up company, Perkin explains, “every dollar makes a difference.” New Orleans, with low taxes and inexpensive commercial and residential real estate, fit the bill. Three years on, Perkin thinks that he and Brownhill made the right call: their company, the Receivables Exchange, has grown from five local employees to 55. The partners have found that many of the talented people who left the city for better economic opportunity long before Katrina are eager to return, helping reverse the brain drain—a sign of the resurgent hope in New Orleans. And Perkin and Brownhill have discovered a benefit in the ease of persuading potential clients or vendors to come to New Orleans for a meeting: it’s a short flight from both coasts, and visitors enjoy the food and the sights.

Perkin and Brownhill are far from alone in choosing New Orleans. Their offices—on Camp Street, in the Central Business District—are surrounded by start-ups. On his blog earlier this year, business consultant Taylor Davidson listed 58 such companies, from Audiosocket, which licenses music rights to entertainment companies, to TurboSquid, which deals in 3D modeling. “There’s a lot going on in New Orleans,” Davidson says.

The companies keep coming. Perkin says that he receives “at least one e-mail a month” from a friend or colleague moving to New Orleans. “The cost of living is 30, 40, 50 percent less” than living in New York, he observes. As for quality of life, Perkin acknowledges concerns about crime. But he draws on his experience growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s. In New York, he says, change came gradually; it happens on a weekly basis in New Orleans. “I never thought that I would see two cities reinvent themselves,” he adds.

New Orleans’s recovering economy contrasts starkly with that of the nation as a whole, where investors remain paralyzed—shocked by the financial and economic collapse, terrified of arbitrary Washington actions, and crowded out by government activity. And in many ways besides investment, strange though it may sound, New Orleans provides a model for the rest of the country in the wake of the financial crisis.

Above all, the city has refused to spend the past five years pretending from a fiscal standpoint that the storm never happened. Before Katrina, New Orleans employed 7,406 full-time workers. By late 2006, it had slashed its workforce 36 percent, to 4,735, and the number hasn’t risen much since. Even though tax collections still fall short of pre-Katrina collections, the city faces a $70 million deficit this year against a $1.2 billion budget, hardly disastrous. In fiscal terms, it’s very different from cities and states around the nation, which, bolstered by federal “stimulus” funds, continue to throw money around as if the property and credit bubbles had never burst.

New Orleanians have cut back in part by taking the same pragmatic approach to basic government services that they did to politics. Last year, for example, the city’s Regional Transit Authority handed over operations to France-based Veolia Transportation under a five-year contract, seeking to reduce excessive labor costs and improve service. It took Katrina to help New Orleans figure out that the purpose of transit is to serve customers, not government employees. Again, that’s a realization that has eluded many states and cities whose payrolls keep swelling.

Then there’s that $27 billion spent on infrastructure—the nearly 40 percent of the money that the feds sent Louisiana, a fraction that easily bests the federal stimulus of 2009, which devoted less than 20 percent of its funds to the infrastructure that the country desperately needed. But perhaps the most instructive recovery success story in New Orleans is an $8.6 billion program—a federal one—called Road Home, which encouraged owners of damaged or destroyed homes to accelerate their decision whether to rebuild in New Orleans or make their evacuation permanent. If they decided to rebuild, they would receive a $66,000 grant, on average, to help. Alternatively, they could sell their homes to the state, with the proceeds first going toward paying off mortgages and liens. The state would raze what was left of the house, if anything, and sell off the property, offering the first bid to next-door neighbors.

Though stories abound about Road Home’s inefficiencies, inconsistencies, and potential for fraud, the program led to massive housing reinvestment across the city. Despite early criticisms that the program would subsidize an exodus from southeast Louisiana, 89 percent of New Orleans families who participated in it opted to rebuild. The certainty that it created, in turn, encouraged further private investment: homeowners wouldn’t have to worry that they would rebuild only to wind up living next to a decaying shell. In the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Lakeview, where Katrina rendered about a third of all lots vacant, residents initially cringed at the bargain-basement prices that the lots fetched—as low as $50,000, less than a third of their pre-storm values. But as a stable environment emerged, prices rose as high as $80,000. Prices had to go down steeply before they could go back up again.

That’s a concept that the federal government still hasn’t grasped in other areas. In the rest of the nation—for example, the Florida and central California neighborhoods that have faced a similar vacancy problem since the housing bubble burst four years ago—federal aid to financial institutions and home borrowers has helped people deny reality rather than face up to it. The Obama administration has helped people stay in homes that they can’t afford via new, federally subsidized teaser-rate mortgages; it has rescued lenders, too, who have used the federal support to delay necessary losses and foreclosures. A genuine national recovery program would follow the Road Home model, helping people and institutions realize their losses and start over, even if it hurts at first.

New Orleans could still fail, of course. The city has yet to prove that it has the political fortitude to drive down crime and keep it low. Social problems, including young single motherhood, still pervade whole neighborhoods. Complacency and voter apathy could return. The infrastructure that the feds are building could remain unfinished. The newcomers could give up—just as previous New Orleanians, both native and transplanted, reluctantly gave up on the city before Katrina.

But for now, New Orleans has something that it hasn’t had in decades: optimism. That’s an asset that the whole country could use a dose of. Ω

[Nicole Gelinas, a City Journal contributing editor and the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a Chartered Financial Analyst and the author of After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street—and Washington (2009). Gelinas graduated from the Newcomb College of Tulane University with a B.A. in English literature.]

Copyright © 2010 The Manhattan Institute

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hey, Clarabelle! Call "Ruben" in Ponca City, OK & Hire Him To "Visit" Vitaly In Brooklyn!

AnyWho tells us that Vitaly Borker (aka Stanley Bolds or Tony Russo) can be found at

56 Beaumont Street, Brooklyn, NY 11235

AnyWho even supplies a map of Borker's neighborhood. In the meantime, consider the dark region of online commerce described below. If this is a (fair & balanced) cautionary tale, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
A Bully Finds A Pulpit On The Web
By David Segal

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com
Click here to enlarge the image.

Shopping online in late July, Clarabelle Rodriguez typed the name of her favorite eyeglass brand into Google’s search bar.

In moments, she found the perfect frames — made by a French company called Lafont — on a Web site that looked snazzy and stood at the top of the search results. Not the tippy-top, where the paid ads are found, but under those, on Google’s version of the gold-medal podium, where the most relevant and popular site is displayed.

Ms. Rodriguez placed an order for both the Lafonts and a set of doctor-prescribed Ciba Vision contact lenses on that site, DecorMyEyes.com. The total cost was $361.97.

It was the start of what Ms. Rodriguez would later describe as one of the most maddening and miserable experiences of her life.

The next day, a man named Tony Russo called to say that DecorMyEyes had run out of the Ciba Visions. Pick another brand, he advised a little brusquely.

“I told him that I didn’t want another brand,” recalls Ms. Rodriguez, who lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. “And I asked for a refund. He got rude, really obnoxious. ‘What’s the big deal? Choose another brand!’ ”

With the contacts issue unresolved, her eyeglasses arrived two days later. But the frames appeared to be counterfeits and Ms. Rodriguez, a lifelong fan of Lafont, remembers that even the case seemed fake.

Soon after, she discovered that DecorMyEyes had charged her $487 — or an extra $125. When she and Mr. Russo spoke again, she asked about the overcharge and said she would return the frames.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with these glasses?” she recalls Mr. Russo shouting. “I ordered them from France specifically for you!”

“I’m going to contact my credit card company,” she told him, “and dispute the charge.”

Until that moment, Mr. Russo was merely ornery. Now he erupted.

“Listen, bitch,” he fumed, according to Ms. Rodriguez. “I know your address. I’m one bridge over” — a reference, it turned out, to the company’s office in Brooklyn. Then, she said, he threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.

Ms. Rodriguez was shaken but undaunted. That day she called Citibank, which administers her MasterCard account, and after submitting some paperwork, she won a provisional victory. Her $487 would be refunded as the bank looked into the charge and discussed it with the owner of DecorMyEyes. A final determination, she was told, would take 60 days.

As that two-month deadline approached, Mr. Russo had dropped his claim for the contact lenses he’d never sent. But, she said, he began an increasingly nasty campaign to persuade her to contact Citibank and withdraw her dispute.

“Call me back or I’m going to drag you to small-claims court,” he wrote in an e-mail on Sept. 27. “You have one hour to call me back or I’m filing online.”

A few hours later, Mr. Russo sent details of what appeared to be a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn. It included a hearing date and time, the address of the court, a docket number and a demand for $1,500, which, the e-mail said, “includes my legal fees.”

Ms. Rodriguez did not respond. A few hours later, Mr. Russo raised the stakes sharply by sending another e-mail, this one with a photograph of the front of the apartment building where she and her fiancé lived.

Then her cellphone started ringing. And ringing. Ms. Rodriguez and her fiancé went to the police station at 1 a.m. to file a complaint.

“At that point,” she says, “I was scared.”

An officer assured her that the police would take the issue seriously. Two days later, she received another e-mail from Mr. Russo. “Close the dispute with the credit card company if you know whats good for you,” he wrote. “Do the right thing and everyone goes away. I AM WATCHING YOU!”

That same day an e-mail from Citi arrived.

“Thank you for contacting Citi Cards,” it read. “We have closed our investigation since you have indicated that you accept responsibility for this charge.” And there was this: “we have rebilled your account for this charge along with any related fees and interest charges.”

Someone posing as Ms. Rodriguez, she says, had called the bank and said she had changed her mind and no longer wanted a refund.

“I called the bank right away and said: ‘This is nonsense. I never called you and told you I’m withdrawing my dispute,’ ” she says. “I was on the phone with a woman from the fraud department, and it was amazing — she just didn’t care. I asked if they had a recording of the call I’d supposedly made. She said no. When I explained the whole story, she said: ‘Listen, this isn’t our problem. This has nothing to do with us.’ ”

By then, Ms. Rodriguez had learned a lot more about DecorMyEyes on Get Satisfaction, an advocacy Web site where consumers vent en masse.

Dozens of people over the last three years, she found, had nearly identical tales about DecorMyEyes: a purchase gone wrong, followed by phone calls, e-mails and threats, sometimes lasting for months or years.

Occasionally, the owner of DecorMyEyes gave his name to these customers as Stanley Bolds, but the consensus at Get Satisfaction was that he and Tony Russo were the same person. Others dug around a little deeper and decided that both names were fictitious and that the company was actually owned and run by a man named Vitaly Borker.

Today, when reading the dozens of comments about DecorMyEyes, it is hard to decide which one conveys the most outrage. It is easy, though, to choose the most outrageous. It was written by Mr. Russo/Bolds/Borker himself.

“Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

That would sound like schoolyard taunting but for this fact: The post is two years old. Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.

Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.

Which means the owner of DecorMyEyes might be more than just a combustible bully with a mean streak and a potty mouth. He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship — utterly noxious retail — that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.

Nice? No.


“Very,” says Vitaly Borker, the founder and owner of DecorMyEyes, during the first of several surprisingly unguarded conversations.

“I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

The World Wide Web handed shoppers a few rounds of new ammo, like a way to compare prices and a big podium for ranting about transactions gone wrong. But it gave retailers some weapons, too, and for years consumers have howled that unscrupulous sellers have used the Internet the way bank robbers use ski masks.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, a partnership between the F.B.I. and the National White Collar Crime Center, announced two weeks ago that it had received its two millionth complaint since it began in 2000. Consumer losses are estimated at $1.7 billion.

The story of DecorMyEyes suggests that 15 years after the birth of online commerce, the Internet is still strewn with trap doors, and that when consumers take a tumble, they are pretty much on their own. Mr. Borker is skilled at tunneling under the few obstacles in his way, but he has hardly been hiding. With a few tweaks and added vigilance from an array of companies and public institutions that are supposed to monitor e-commerce thuggery, Mr. Borker’s approach to retail might be impossible to sustain.

But here’s the first question: Is Mr. Borker’s enterprise actually viable now? And the most important question: Is it true, as Mr. Borker says, that Google is unable to distinguish between adulatory buzz and scathing critiques when it scours the digital universe and ranks the best and the brightest?

A call to Google was returned by a member of its publicity team, who agreed to speak only if his ideas would be paraphrased and not directly quoted. He said that he would send a follow-up e-mail that could be quoted, but that e-mail never arrived.

The spokesman initially sounded skeptical that a company could leverage online criticism against it for a better position in search results. Any search of “DecorMyEyes” — the name of the company alone — yields plenty of alarms.

True, but what about people, like Ms. Rodriguez, who search by using brand names, like “Lafont” and “Ciba Vision”?

A crucial factor in Google search results, the spokesman explained, is the number of links from respected and substantial Web sites. The more links that a site has from big and well-regarded sites, the better its chances of turning up high in a search

Web advocacy sites like Get Satisfaction are vast and score high on Google’s augustness scale. The spokesman surfed the Web as he spoke and said he could see scads of links between RipoffReport.com and DecorMyEyes. But nearly all of those links, as well as those from other consumer sites, were tales of woe and obscenities.

So, again: Can’t Google separate catcalls from huzzahs?

For competitive reasons, Google won’t disclose whether its algorithm includes “sentiment analysis,” which would give points for praise and subtract for denunciations.

Ultimately, the spokesman sidestepped the question of whether utterly noxious retail could yield profits. The best he could do was decline to call Mr. Borker a liar for saying that it did. Then he recommended talking to Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land.

“Google is just cagey about everything,” Mr. Sullivan explains. That, he said, is because the company is perpetually worried that the more it reveals about the vaunted mathematical formula it uses to drive search results, the more people will try to game it. Mr. Sullivan says he does not believe that Google uses sentiment analysis, and he sees potential pitfalls if it were to start.

“If you have a lot of people who hate Obama, for instance, and you decided to rank on love or hate, you might not be able to find the White House and that would be terrible,” he says.

But Google, he adds, doesn’t need sentiment analysis to help people like Clarabelle Rodriguez. It could simply become better at incorporating consumer reviews on the main page of its search results.

The company has already started doing that in other realms of commerce. Today, after you tell Google your ZIP code, a search for “pizza” yields a bunch of links in the middle of the page for pizza joints near you, along with a rating of one through five stars and a link to review sites, like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

But this feature hasn’t yet been rolled out to online commerce.

“They tend to focus on the squeaky wheel,” Mr. Sullivan said, and apparently the local business wheel was squeaking louder than the online commerce wheel.

The strange part is that Google is intimately familiar with the rage inspired by DecorMyEyes. If you type the company’s name in a Google Shopping search, you’ll see a collection of more than 300 reviews, many of them arias sung in the key of livid.

“Robbery!” wrote one reviewer. Another wonders if primates are running the place. Another quotes a DecorMyEyes e-mail to a disgruntled customer which included this pungent adieu: “do you think I would think twice about urinating all over your frame and then returning it? Common.”

In short, a Google side stage — Google Shopping — is now hosting a marathon reading of DecorMyEyes horror stories. But those tales aren’t even hinted at in the company’s premier arena, its main search page.

“It’s fair to say,” Mr. Sullivan concludes, “that this is a failure on Google’s part.”

Google is not the only digital enterprise that inadvertently enables Mr. Borker. EBay does, too — by giving Mr. Borker a large and easily available inventory.

DecorMyEyes doesn’t stock the merchandise it sells; it simply takes orders, then buys from an assortment of merchandisers, including several on eBay. Then Mr. Borker instructs those sellers to send products to his customers.

The problem, several sellers on eBay say, is that Mr. Borker often wants glasses sent to customer addresses that have not been “confirmed” by PayPal, eBay’s online payments system. (Only items sent to confirmed addresses are covered by PayPal’s refund system, which assures sellers that they will get their money back if a transaction goes south.)

When sellers decline to ship to one of Mr. Borker’s unconfirmed addresses, they say, he has exacted revenge by leaving negative feedback, which can be reputational poison to an eBay business.

“EBay allows you to block certain people from bidding on your merchandise, but when I did that he would just register under a different name,” says one seller, who requested anonymity because, as he put it, “I hear the guy is dangerous.”

This seller says he spent countless hours on the phone with eBay reps, persuading them to scrub negative feedback left by Mr. Borker, and then urging the site to banish whatever user name Mr. Borker operated under at the time. But this seller wonders why eBay has never bounced Mr. Borker off the site for good.

“I still live in fear that I’ll sell a pair of glasses and it will be him,” says the seller, “and I won’t know until after the fact.”

Vitaly Borker lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a large brick house. His welcome mat is emblazoned with a Russian phrase that roughly translates to “go away.”

I am standing on that mat a day after my first conversation with Mr. Borker, a chat that ended abruptly after a few minutes when, as he later told me, his phone died. He didn’t return a follow-up call. But he was easy to find because his address is posted on DecorMyEyes.

A young woman, an assistant with a Russian accent, answers the door. She fetches Mr. Borker, who emerges a minute later — a lean, 30ish man with light hair, about 6 feet 3 inches tall and wearing a T-shirt, sweatpants and a white baseball cap turned backward. Although it’s noon, he rubs his head as if he’s just woken up. With a day’s worth of stubble, he could be an N.B.A. point guard recuperating from a bender.

“I slept in for the first time in a while,” he says. He looks wary and begs off a request to continue our interview, saying he’s too busy. But as we discuss setting up another time to talk, he invites me in.

“What do you want to know?” he asks.

We sit on a leather sofa on the first floor of the large brick house and home office where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old child. Toys are all over the floor. Workers are noisily drilling nearby, renovating the garage.

Mr. Borker perks up, explaining his business philosophy like a professor unveiling new research, talking at a frenetic pace, tossing in plenty of profanity and ending sentences with “do you understand?” to make sure I’m keeping up. His accent carries a hint of Brooklyn and only the faintest trace of Russia.

“When I fly to Las Vegas I look down and see all these houses,” he starts. “If someone in one of those houses buys from DecorMyEyes and ends up hating the company, it doesn’t matter. All those other houses are filled with people, too, and they will come knocking.”

Selling on the Internet, Mr. Borker says, attracts a new horde of potential customers every day. For the most part, they don’t know anything about DecorMyEyes, and the ones who bother to research the company — well, he doesn’t want their money. If you’re the type of person who reads consumer reviews, Mr. Borker would rather you shop elsewhere.

“I’m not a salesgirl at Macy’s,” is the way he puts it, “following a customer around the store to make sure you’re happy.”

It’s almost painful to say, but Mr. Borker is amusing company. He is sharp and entertaining, although much of the entertainment comes from the way he flouts the conventions of courtesy, which he does with such a perverse flair that it can seem like a kind of performance art.

When he first heard about Get Satisfaction, it was by e-mail from one of the site’s employees, who was trying to mediate on behalf of unhappy customers.

“They wrote to me, ‘We’d like to talk to you; we should take a proactive approach.’ ” Mr. Borker sneers and rolls his eyes. “I sent him a photograph of this,” he says, raising his middle finger.

He was born in Russia, he reveals, and moved to the United States as a child, although pinning down how old he was when he emigrated proves difficult. His professional career has been varied, to put it mildly.

He attended John Jay College, graduating in 1997, according to the registrar’s office. Afterward, he decided to become a cop and says he walked a foot patrol assigned to public housing on Sutter Avenue in Brooklyn. A woman in the verification department for the area where Mr. Borker says he worked had a different story. She says records show that he was a cadet, which means he worked in an office, not in the field.

Regardless, a career with the police wasn’t for him, he decided. So he spent six months at a rather unusual computer programming school. The courses were in English, but all the teachers and students were Russian immigrants, he says. You would learn the bare minimum to land a job, and the school would help you fake a résumé filled with previous experience.

“There were a lot of schools like this,” he says. “They’ve all been shut down.”

He gravitated to Wall Street and found work at a variety of firms, he says, including Lehman Brothers, where he handled the back end of computer systems for the company’s mutual fund shareholders. But the pay wasn’t great, and a friend with a brick-and-mortar eyeglass store invited him to create and run an online version of the place.

In 2006, court documents show, he was sued by several luxury manufacturers, including Chanel, that accused him of peddling counterfeits. In one case, filed by Chloé and Montblanc, the plaintiffs won a $300,000 settlement against Mr. Borker and two other defendants.

But litigation did little to impede his day job or his online ventures, and for years he worked on Wall Street and ran DecorMyEyes and other sites — which he wouldn’t name — at the same time. A few months before Lehman imploded, he says, he quit to focus on Internet sales.

He stumbled upon the upside of rudeness by accident.

“I stopped caring,” he says, and for that he blames customers. They lied and changed their minds in ways that cost him money, he says, and at some point he started telling them off in the bluntest of terms. To his amazement, this seemed to better his standing in certain Google searches, which brought in more sales.

Before this discovery, he’d hired a search optimization company to burnish his site’s reputation by writing positive things about DecorMyEyes online. Odious behavior, he realized, worked much better, and it didn’t cost him a penny.

“Look,” he says, grabbing an iPad off a small table. He types “Christian Audigier,” the name of a French designer, and “glasses” into Google. DecorMyEyes pops up high on the first page.

“Why am I there?” he asks, sounding both peeved and amazed. “I don’t belong there. I actually outrank the designer’s own Web site.”

The only explanation, he figures, is online chatter about his appalling ways. He swears that a vast majority of his transactions are amicable, and he is adamant that all of the customers he verbally attacks deserve it.

“Psychos” is his favorite term for these unhappy shoppers, and when they grumble about reporting him to the Better Business Bureau — nearly 300 have done so in the last three years — he urges them to grumble to Get Satisfaction as well.

When online fury about DecorMyEyes drops off, he dreams up new ways to stoke it. He briefly considered fabricating a story that Tony Russo had committed a murder — where he would have posted this story he doesn’t say — which he then planned to link anonymously to Get Satisfaction.

Nah, he ultimately decided. Too far.

The only real limit on his antics is imposed by Visa and MasterCard. If too many customers successfully dispute charges in a given month, he can be tossed out of their networks, he says. Precisely how many of these charge-backs is too many is one of the few business subjects that Mr. Borker deems off the record, but suffice it to say he tracks that figure carefully and dials down the animus if he’s nearing his limit. Until the next month arrives, when he dials it back up again.

In other words, Mr. Borker is perfectly capable of minding his manners. And he does so, right now, with every order that comes through a store he runs through Amazon.com’s affiliate program. (He declines to provide that store’s name.) He handles those transactions like a Boy Scout because Amazon doesn’t mess around, he says — the company just kicks you off its site if you infuriate customers.

MasterCard does not inspire such fear, and for good reason. Executives there say Mr. Borker was bounced from its system last year for excessive charge-backs, but he simply signed up through a different acquirer, as the banks used by merchants are known.

How Mr. Borker eluded the many safeguards that MasterCard has in place to prevent exactly such a round trip is a mystery, says Noah J. Hanft, the company’s general counsel.

“No system is perfect,” he says. “But there are checks and balances to weed out bad apples. Keep in mind, millions of transactions are conducted on our system every day, with 30 million merchants. But if even one of those transactions is unhappy we want to know about it.”

MasterCard will look into DecorMyEyes, he adds, which might lead to additional safeguards.

Good luck, says Mr. Borker.

“There is no such thing as shutting someone down on the Internet,” he said during our initial telephone interview. “It isn’t possible. If Visa and MasterCard ever shut me down, I’d use the name of a friend of mine. Give him 1 percent.”

Clarabelle Rodriguez is a petite woman with the lean physique that comes from running marathons. She was raised in Spain but has lived in New York for a decade and has worked as a speech therapist, among other jobs. She is sitting in her apartment with her fiancé and their French bulldog, which has had surgery and is recuperating in a red Radio Flyer wagon.

Ms. Rodriguez has a meticulous record of all things Russo. Sitting at a table with a laptop, she reads some of his e-mails and plays several saved messages left by him on her phone. It is unmistakably Mr. Borker.

“I’m stubborn,” she says when asked about her persistence in the last few months. “I wasn’t going to let this guy push me around.”

She recounted the days leading up to and immediately after the unhappy resolution of her Citibank dispute, when her cellphone would ring several times a night, often as late as 3 a.m. Whoever was calling would just hang up, and if she didn’t answer, no message was left.

“I contacted T-Mobile to let them know I was being harassed,” she says, “but they said there was nothing they could do because it was coming from a blocked number.”

Soon after, she posted a message on Get Satisfaction urging anyone who’d been scammed by DecorMyEyes to get in touch via e-mail. Her goal was to buttress her case against the company by forwarding complaints of other consumers to the authorities.

“You must be prepared to sign an affidavit if contacted by a detective,” she wrote on the site.

This angered Mr. Russo, and he let Ms. Rodriguez know it. She received an e-mail from him that promised, in a vague but creepy way, that she would end up on the evening news. Another read, in part, “you put your hand in fire. Now it’s time to get burned.”

Those e-mails left her trembling.

“This might sound like exaggeration, but I feared for my life,” she says. “I was actually looking over my shoulder when I left my apartment. Because I had no idea what he was capable of. Psychologically, he had gotten to me.”

Back she went to the police. Again, they were empathetic, but, she says, they told her that they were still trying to build a case.

“I wanted them to know,” she says, “that if anything were to happen to me, they were responsible.”

For months, Mr. Borker and Ms. Rodriguez were essentially working opposite sides of the Internet. He operated in the seams and cracks of the Web’s underbelly, while she was pleading for help with what is supposed to be the Web’s protective layer: a variety of corporations and law enforcement entities that could have intervened.

None did. Not Hostek.com, which provides DecorMyEyes’ Web hosting service. She wrote to the company and asked why it would associate with an online seller that has mistreated so many consumers.

She never heard back. More recently, Brian Anderson, the Hostek chief executive, replied to an e-mail request for an interview. He wrote that his company was recently made aware of some of Mr. Borker’s business practices and had already told him that it planned to sever ties. On Wednesday, Mr. Anderson wrote to confirm that those ties had been severed.

When contacted by a reporter, a Citigroup spokeswoman, Janis Tarter, sounded mortified by the treatment that Ms. Rodriguez says she received from the bank. Ms. Tarter said a representative would get in touch with her.

“Naturally, our customers are not responsible for any charges that they have not made or that were not authorized by them,” Ms. Tarter wrote in an e-mail.

Two weeks ago, a Citibank representative called Ms. Rodriguez and said that her refund would be restored. Ms. Rodriguez said no apology was offered.

After looking into DecorMyEyes, MasterCard said that Mr. Borker has once again been ejected from its system and this time has been placed on a special list that will make it harder for him to get back in. The company is now investigating why Mr. Borker wasn’t placed on that list last year.

EBay has conducted its own review and decided to bar Mr. Borker permanently from the site, having found what it called violations of its policies for buyers as well as accounts that were linked to previously suspended accounts.

A company spokesman, John Pluhowski, said eBay had recently started new systems that would make it easier to track abusive buyers.

“We think the tools we put in place in October will facilitate more aggressive monitoring,” Mr. Pluhowski said. He went on: “We are taking aggressive action against Mr. Borker and have taken steps to ensure that manufacturers and law enforcement authorities are aware of his practices.”

The New York City detective assigned to Ms. Rodriguez’s case, whose name — seriously — is Geraldo Rivera, told a reporter last week that he was still building a case and told Ms. Rodriguez that he couldn’t arrest Mr. Borker until he had more evidence.

Ms. Rodriguez says she made a handful of calls to the New York State attorney general’s office, and she also contacted IC3. She says that she never heard back from IC3, and that New York authorities got in touch only after she left a message that recounted some of the most graphic threats she’d received. Eventually, she said, she was asked by a lawyer at the attorney general’s office to fill out an affidavit.

When a reporter called the attorney general’s office last month, a lawyer there declined to comment. Yet the office has apparently been on the case. New York state criminal court records show that Mr. Borker was arrested on Oct. 27, accused of “aggravated harassment” and “stalking” involving Ms. Rodriguez. While Mr. Borker confirmed that he’d been arrested, he played down the charges, contending that the matter had already been dismissed. But a court document sets an arraignment for next month. When asked last week about the arrest, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office said he was unaware of it and was unable to verify that it had occurred.

This will not be Mr. Borker’s first encounter with the law. About 18 months ago, he says, a detective showed up at his door and arrested him on an accusation of physically threatening a woman who was a customer.

“She must have known somebody who knew somebody,” he says, meaning that this is the sort of trouble you encounter only when you cross well-connected people. He says the case was dismissed but contends that since then, he’s been careful not to make physical threats against customers — Ms. Rodriguez included.

I mention that sending that photo of her apartment building sounds kind of threatening.

Nothing but an image he copied off of the Web, from Google Earth, Mr. Borker says. He says he sent it to her only to underscore that when it came time to hire a process server to commence litigation, he’d find her. The “hand in fire” threat? Metaphorical, he says. Then again, he acknowledges with a sly grin, if Ms. Rodriguez thought that Tony Russo seemed a little scary, that was fine.

But in his telling of events, he is her victim, not the other way around.

“She’s a psycho,” he says, adding that she still has the glasses he sent her.

(Untrue, Ms. Rodriguez says.)

Despite the fear he has inspired, Mr. Borker doesn’t regard himself as a terror. He prefers to think of himself as the Howard Stern of online commerce — an outsize character prone to shocking utterances.

Except that Howard Stern doesn’t issue threats, I say.

“People overreact,” he pshaws, often because they’re unaccustomed to plain speaking, New York-style. Anyway, he adds, if somebody messes with you, and you mess back, “how is that a threat?”

During our initial phone conversation, Mr. Borker described his business as fantastically profitable. At his home, that seems unlikely. He won’t get specific about his annual income, but he tallies the business from the day before: 120 orders, gross revenue of roughly $20,000, which yielded perhaps $3,000 in profit, out of which he had to pay his employees — mostly women who answer phones and e-mail, off-site — and advertising.

“I’m doing fine,” he says.

We had moved upstairs by then, to his office, a small room with a computer and walls lined with hundreds of eyeglasses in their cases. These are all returns, he says wearily. Prada, Oliver Peoples, Cartier, Tiffany. Maybe $500,000 in inventory, he guesses. Each set of eyeglasses represents lost revenue and a brawl. He looks around the room with fatigue and disgust.

Which gets to the real impediment to capitalism, Borker-style, and the reason it is unlikely to catch on: it is physically exhausting. Mr. Borker typically works from about 10 a.m. until 5 the next morning, spending much of that time feuding with unhappy customers. He describes this grueling regimen of confrontation with a heaviness that is enough to make you want to give him a hug.

“I’m sure this is taking a toll on my health,” he complains. “I probably won’t live as long as you.”

Maybe he should find a more mellow job, I suggest — become a shepherd or something.

“I love this,” he counters, brightening. “I like the craziness. This works for me.”

The craziness is essentially a niche that would be impossible without the Internet. Surely nobody, even a guy nourished by antagonism, could handle DecorMyEyes’ steady flow of incensed consumers face to face. In addition, his overhead costs are tiny because, aside from returns, he doesn’t carry inventory. And thanks to Google Earth, he can faux-stalk his customers without leaving his house.

Mr. Borker’s phone rings as we head downstairs.

“Eyewear,” he answers.

It is a friend. Mr. Borker tells the caller that he is busy today and has to go to court in the evening. He hangs up, then mutters something about a tussle over $12,000. He shakes his head in aggravation.

“The customer is always right — not here, you understand?” he says, raising his voice. “I hate that phrase — the customer is always right. Why is the merchant always wrong? Can the customer ever be wrong? Is that not possible?”

We say our goodbyes, and I ask him to sit for a photograph. No, too many psychos out there, he explains. Besides, he doesn’t need his face in the newspaper. What he needs is his company’s name visible for all the world to see — and all the search engines to crawl — in the online version of The New York Times. Along with some keywords, of course.

“Just throw in ‘designer eyeglasses,’ ‘designer eyewear’ and a couple different brand names,” he says, “and I’m all set.” Ω

[Until 2008, David Segal was a senior Style writer for The Washington Post, where he covered business, entertainment, music and other sundry topics he describes as "theater, Wall Street, mobsters, rap stars, hustlers, authors, New York politics, and soap operas." At that time, Segal moved to The New York Times to pursue long-form, online features built around narratives about compelling people and issues in the business world. Segal received a B.A., magna cum laude, in literature from Harvard and a second B.A., in politics, philosophy and economics, from Oxford University.

Toby Lyles contributed research as a News Researcher at The New York Times. Lyles received an M.Ed. from Kent State University and an MLS from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dropping The Hammer

Tom (The Hammer) DeLay won't forget Thanksgiving 2010. This guy, when he was the Dumbo Majority Leader in Congress, lit up a cigar in a DC restaurant. The waiter told The Hammer that federal regulations prohibited smoking in DC restaurants. The Hammer indignantly protested: "The hell I can't smoke! I am the federal government." On the day before the turkey was served, The Hammer heard a Travis County jury return a two-count guilty verdict for violating Texas law barring corporate political donations to candidates for public office. DeLay and his cronies (still awaiting trial themselves) engaged in "money laundering" to conceal the illegal corporate donations. Before he became the federal government, The Hammer operated a pest control business. It takes a rat to know a rat. If this is (fair & balanced) rejoicing, so be it.

[x Austin Fishwrap]
"Last Tango In Austin"
By Ben Sargent

Click on image to enlarge it.

[Ben Sargent drew editorial cartoons regularly for the Austin American-Statesman (1974-2009). Sargent now contributes a cartoon to the Sunday editorial page. His cartoons are also distributed nationally by Universal Press Syndicate. Sargent was born in Amarillo, Texas, into a newspaper family. He learned the printing trade from age twelve and started working for the local daily as a proof runner at fourteen. He attended Amarillo College and received a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1970. Sargent won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1982. He has also received awards from Women in Communications, Inc., Common Cause of Texas, and Cox Newspapers. He is the author of Texas Statehouse Blues (1980) and Big Brother Blues (1984).]

Copyright © 2010 Ben Sargent/Austin American-Statesman

[x Austin Fishwrap]
It's The Fair Trial That Really Grates On Tom DeLay
By Arnold Garcia Jr.

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com

In September of 2005, people who follow politics around here were wondering whether Tom DeLay, then the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, could get a fair trial in Travis County.

Yes, he can, I replied when asked. On the day GOP powerhouse DeLay was indicted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy, I was at a downtown gathering when Ronnie Earle — then the district attorney — walked into the room. People broke into spontaneous applause.

"What now, genius?" I asked myself.

Predictably, DeLay's legal team presented a motion for a change of venue and backed it up with an impressive array of witnesses last August. Pat Priest, the visiting judge assigned to hear the case, denied their request to move the trial elsewhere.

Almost as soon as the guilty verdict been returned last Wednesday, DeLay's supporters jumped back to the question of whether Travis County jurors could be fair to their guy.

Republican partisans love to render Travis County residents and voters in caricature: liberal, bleeding-heart lefties, out of step with the rest of the state. And a segment of Travis County dwellers not only treasures but also cultivates that image.

Caricatures exaggerate reality, however.

Math is often touted as being "fair" — although anyone who ever struggled through algebra would dispute that — so let's take a numerical look at the fair trial question.

In the November 2 general election, GOP incumbent Gov. Rick Perry notched 38 percent of the Travis County vote to Democrat Bill White's 58 percent. Fairly lopsided, granted, but if you apply those percentages to the 12 members of the jury, the mathematical distribution should have been roughly four Republican jurors to eight Democrats.

Remember, one juror can keep the rest of the panel from reaching a verdict. Given that, any bookie worth the name would have laughed at anybody trying to bet a hung jury. Who in his right mind would bet against one given those odds?

If you really believe that the county's GOP/Demo split would insinuate itself into jury deliberations, then you have to believe that there would be at least four hard-core skeptics participating. Toss in another one or two who would question authority just on general principles, and the odds start to shift toward the defendant.

The trouble with trying to apply math to human behavior, however, is that people don't always react like you think they should. Jurors in Travis County or anywhere else don't fit into nice, neat stereotypical or numeric packages.

If the DeLay jurors fit the wild-eyed liberal stereotype being peddled now, they wouldn't have taken three days to reach a verdict. They might have hung around for the free lunch before returning a verdict of guilty.

That would have been the miscarriage of justice that DeLay was complaining about Wednesday.

These jurors took their time, and it's an insult to suggest they went into the case with their minds made up. From what we know now, DeLay got as fair a trial as anybody else gets in Travis County.

DeLay is a fellow who demanded deference, and before the fall, he got a lot of it. Maybe that's what the former majority leader is really complaining about: that he got treated just like anybody else. Ω

[Arnold Garcia, Jr., is the Editorial Page Editor of the Austin American-Statesman. A native of San Angelo, Garcia began his newspaper career as a general assignments reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times. After two years in military service, he resumed his career at the Standard-Times where he remained until coming to the American-Statesman as a courthouse reporter in March of 1974. While at the Statesman, Garcia has been assigned to a variety of reporting and editing duties. He has covered state agencies, the prison system and the Austin school district as a reporter. He was appointed an assistant city editor in 1977 and has also been assignments editor and metro editor (responsible for the design and content of the local section). Immediately before becoming editorial page editor in 1991, he wrote a column on local politics. Garcia holds a bachelor¹s degree in history and government from Angelo State University and did graduate work in government at the University of Texas. In 2002, he served as a Pulitzer Prize juror in 2002 and chaired a Pulitzer Prize jury in 2003.]

Copyright © 2010 Austin American-Statesman

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves