At 65, Do You Have the Right to a Subway Seat?

Dear Diary:

A month or so ago, I was on the No. 1 train heading south. I was reading my Kindle book using the iPhone app, and feeling fairly contemporary and wired in.

I was standing in front of two 20-somethings. One offered me his seat. I thanked him, but refused the offer, my self-concept somewhat bruised and, frankly, just a bit annoyed by his gracious offer.

Last weekend, I was on the No. 1 train again, this time heading north with my wife and several friends. I was seated next to a friend, engaged in a conversation. A young man exiting the train said to me, “By your age, you should have learned some manners.”

I asked my friend whether he heard this comment, and he had, but neither of us had any idea what he was talking about. When we got off the train and reunited with our group, I told them what had happened. One of them related that an older woman had been standing in front of me trying to make eye contact and coveting my seat. Neither my friend nor I had noticed her.

I guess, as I turn 65 this month, that when it comes to the right to a seat on a New York City subway I am just at an awkward stage!

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Where Do You Come From?

Dear Diary:

As a first-generation Asian American in Lower Manhattan, I’ve experienced all different kinds of comments, curiosities and remarks through the years regarding my race and appearance. Some of these remarks have been inspired by sincere curiosity, and others have come from a different and perhaps not so friendly place.

Regardless, most interactions have been harmless, and most of my conversations are with taxi drivers, who themselves are often from faraway places and love to know from where it is I hail (no pun intended).

One such interaction started as commonly as many others:

He: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Queens.”
He: “No, where are you really from? China? Japan?”
Me (sigh): “Neither.”
He: “Hmmm. I know! South Korea!”
Me: “Yes.”
He: “You know what’s funny; I never meet anyone from North Korea.”
Me: “Yeah, probably not anytime soon, either.”

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When an Imprecise Forecast Could Hurt the Forecasters

One thing is for sure: No New Yorkers can say they weren’t warned about the potentially devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy and the need to take precautions. Yet some bristled at the cascades of warnings that went on for days. This is New York, after all.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Those prone to bravado puffed out their chests and refused to leave areas threatened with flooding, no matter how often the president, the governor and the mayor told them that they were endangering not only themselves but also rescue workers prepared to sacrifice themselves in an emergency.

The daring — or, if you prefer, the foolish — could cite recent history: the experience with Hurricane Irene last year. The city was supposed to be hit hard then, and other parts of the state relatively spared. Instead, the city squeaked by with little damage while others were pounded. For those disinclined by nature to trust authority, it was evidence that the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.

You could hear that reaction in some places as Hurricane Sandy approached. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for one, had no patience for the notion that “Hurricane Irene was a bust.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mr. Cuomo said at one of his public appearances on Monday. Hurricane Irene, he said, inflicted “a tremendous amount of damage.”

“The projection on where the damage was going to be was off,” he said, “but that storm wreaked havoc in people’s lives.”

Here’s a question, then, for future storms. Hurricane Sandy was every bit as fierce as predicted. But when projections are off, can meteorologists be taken to court for needlessly disrupting some people’s lives and for lulling others into a false sense of safety?

If Consolidated Edison can be deemed responsible when power is knocked out for long periods, and if the Army Corps of Engineers can be held liable in court (as it was) for its failings in Hurricane Katrina, might the weather people not reasonably take the fall when their forecasts are off?

We’re in no way suggesting this would be desirable, but the idea is not as outlandish as you may think. There is a disturbing precedent, set only a week ago. It isn’t local, but it ought not be ignored.

In Italy, a judge found seven earthquake experts guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in prison for having given inadequate warnings to L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region east of Rome, where 309 people were killed and thousands of others left homeless by an earthquake in April 2009. The defendants, most of them seismologists and geologists, were also ordered to pay damages of more than $10 million.

There had been frequent tremors in the months before the big one. Naturally, local people were nervous. The scientists, members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, met six days before the quake, and concluded that the smaller tremors did not signal grave danger.

Prosecutors argued to the judge’s satisfaction that this reassuring assessment did not reflect the true risks and it rendered L’Aquila residents helpless to make informed decisions about whether to stay in their homes or leave.

Understandably, the ruling, which the defendants vow to appeal, sent scientist heads spinning everywhere. Are scientists to be imprisoned for not predicting the imponderable with precision? Nature, a science journal, despaired in an editorial that “the verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous.”

Luciano Maiani, president of the Italian risks commission, warned that the ruling would inhibit scientific experts from offering their professional opinions for fear of criminal repercussions. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Maiani said.

That may not be quite accurate. Is there a more litigious people than Americans, especially in this city that has more lawyers per square inch than any spot on the planet?

Over the years, people have died and billions in property damage have been lost as a result of inaccurate weather forecasts — and bear in mind that meteorology is supposed to be a more precise science than seismology.

With a ruling like the one in L’Aquila as an international precedent, can we really be sure that the day won’t come when a meteorologist here is put in the dock for the crime of failing to get it exactly right?

E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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Refusing to Give Credit Where Credit Is, Perhaps, Due

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was a reassuring presence over the weekend, keeping New Yorkers informed about preparations for the approaching storm in his characteristically no-drama, we’ll-get-through-this voice.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

But any mayor would have done what he did in the crisis. So why give him credit?

Does that sound harsh? It does to our own ears. But we’re simply applying the same standard that Mr. Bloomberg uses for other leaders. He has a way of finding them unworthy of praise for even their most critical decisions.

This tendency is reinforced by the publication of an interview with him in the new issue of The Atlantic magazine. In an eyebrow-arching exchange, the mayor was asked if President Obama deserved credit for ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year.

No way, he replied.

“That’s like giving Harry Truman credit for dropping the bomb: any president would’ve pushed that button, any president would’ve dropped the bomb,” Mr. Bloomberg said. He was referring, of course, to the American atomic bombs dropped on Japan to speed the end of World War II — first on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, then on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Japan announced its readiness to surrender on Aug. 15.

As cosmic decisions go, hitting your enemy with the most devastating weapon known to humankind would seem at the top of the list. (Whether one should get “credit” for it is an argument best left for another time.) But Mr. Bloomberg was more impressed by other actions taken by President Truman. Not every leader, he said, would have relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of command during the Korean War or integrated the Army or approved the Marshall Plan to help rebuild a war-shattered Europe.

“But dropping the bomb, no,” he said, “and I don’t think, in this case, Osama bin Laden.”

The evidence shows, though, that not every president would have surely ordered the Navy SEALs raid that sent Bin Laden to wherever he is now. President George W. Bush had no such mission on his radar, and in 2007 Mitt Romney said, “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” He did add, however, that he supported going after the entire “Islamic jihad movement.”

Even at the highest ranks of the Obama administration, some had doubts about the operation, including whether Bin Laden was in the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that was the target. This was hardly a gimme, said Mark Bowden, author of a new book called “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

“It seems to me a lot of presidents might have been more inclined to take the less risky option of firing a missile or, in the case of Vice President Biden, waiting until they had more information to be certain the target was really Bin Laden,” Mr. Bowden told Azi Paybarah, a senior writer for the Web site Capital New York. “President Obama made the decision to take the riskiest course.”

He called Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks “kind of small-minded,” adding that “any fair-minded person, it seems to me, would give Obama credit for having handled this well.”

As for whether anyone sitting in the White House would have dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, that is certainly questionable. (For that matter, so is the matter of whether the bombings alone hastened the end of combat. Some historians are inclined to credit the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan on Aug. 8, 1945.)

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Truman’s successor as president, said he’d been informed about bomb preparations in July 1945, when he was supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that he had told the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, that he had “grave misgivings.” Among his reasons, he said, was “my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

Even the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, on its Web site, says that while Truman chose the nuclear course, he had “many alternatives at his disposal to ending the war.” Clearly implied is that other leaders might have decided differently.

So as eager as we are to credit Mr. Bloomberg for his calm handling of preparations for Hurricane Sandy, it’s hard to see how to do so and stay true to the test of leadership that he himself set.

E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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Steal a Penny, Steal a Wish?

Dear Diary:

I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 23. While resting on a bench in the newish Roman wing, I overheard a young, harried mom say to her three young daughters, “Do not take money out of the fountain.”

Guess she didn’t want any wishes disappearing.

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Transit Shutdown Under Way for Second Time in History

What was once without precedent will now happen for the second time in 14 months: New York City’s transit system is going dark.

But while the shutdown before Tropical Storm Irene last year began at noon on a Saturday — and the restoration of subway service began before the Monday workday — the suspension of subway, bus, and railroad service this time could prove particularly disruptive.

Joseph J. Lhota, the authority’s chairman, suggested that the city could be without most of its transit system for two full weekdays. By Wednesday, he hoped, some service might be restored.

The subways will begin suspending service at 7 p.m. on Sunday, but some buses could remain on the road until 9 p.m. It takes about eight hours to shut down the subway system, but the bus system requires only six hours to close.

Emergency preparations began at the transit agency well before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement of the closings on Sunday morning.

The authority’s hurricane plan calls for service to be suspended if sustained winds reach 39 miles per hour. Thousands of buses and subway cars have already been removed from service and moved to safe locations. Flood-prone subway yards and depots have been cleared, and stations in vulnerable areas, like Lower Manhattan, will be evacuated.

The authority said that “critical track-level components” were being removed from beneath the river tubes to protect the materials from the corrosive effects of salt water in the event of flooding.

On Metro-North Railroad, equipment was to be removed from low-lying areas like the east end of a New Haven yard in Connecticut and the Highbridge and Mott Haven yards in the Bronx. Some trucks, cranes, bulldozers and other equipment were being moved to higher ground. Plans included bringing trains into Grand Central Terminal for shelter.

Some wooden crossing gates were also removed and secured on both Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

Riders were warned that a suspension of service did not imply that power would be cut to the third rail or overhead wires.

The authority’s paratransit service, Access-A-Ride, suspended its outbound trips at noon on Sunday; return trips were expected to continue until 5 p.m.

The authority said the Staten Island Railway would continue operations for as long as the Staten Island Ferry was in service, if conditions permitted, so that no riders would be stranded at the ferry terminal.

The authority’s bridges will close to all traffic if sustained winds reach 60 miles per hour. Required slowdowns are likely be put in place if winds exceed 39 m.p.h.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that PATH train service would be suspended beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday until further notice.

Operations remained normal at local airports, the agency said, but travelers were encouraged to check with their airlines.

Though Mr. Lhota expressed optimism about restoring service by Wednesday, a return to normal operations is likely to come in fits and starts.

A little over 24 hours after subway, bus, and rail service was suspended for Tropical Storm Irene, some limited bus service returned. About 14 hours after that, the subways began running. Commuter railroad service was restored on a line-by-line basis. Some of them required substantial cleanup of debris and mudslides, and others waited on power to be restored.

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