Featured Post

Ellen, please be kind to the planet, not just to your fellow humans, gorillas in Rwanda

LUNCHTIME IN RWANDA: Ellen DeGeneres, right, and wife Portia de Rossi with a mountain gorilla. The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund  is supp...

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Grand opening of the new and improved M&M recreation center is set for Sept. 14

NEW, IMPROVED AND EXPANDED: Hackensack's new recreation center, above and below, known informally as the M&M Building, will open to the public on Sept. 14.
BIGGER AND BETTER: The project adds 9,800 square feet to the original recreation center, which was 7,700 square feet. The total project cost is $6.2 million. Thanks to Councilman Leo Battaglia for today's tour of the expanded recreation center.
A BIT OF HISTORY: The original M&M Building at 116 Holt Street was built more than 40 years ago on the former site of the Broadway School in what once was one of the biggest Italian-American neighborhoods in northern New Jersey. St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church is across the street.
FROM SMALL TO LARGE: The entrance hall of the original building was small and dark, but the new recreation center has an entrance hall crowned with a skylight, above and below.

GYMNASIUM: A regulation-size basketball court has seating for 400 on bleachers, below, and can be divided into two smaller courts.

FOR SENIORS: A multimedia room for older city residents, above and below, has a flat-screen TV and computers.

MORE RECREATION: Table tennis and a pool table also will be available to seniors.
MORE ACTIVITIES: A multi-purpose activity room for seniors.
LARGE BATHROOMS: One of the two large bathrooms in the new building.
HACKENSNACKS: If you're hungry, you'll be able to buy a hotdog and other snacks here.
THE ORIGINAL: A wall of the original M&M Building can be seen in the left half of this photo. A large generator will allow the new building to serve as a shelter in the event of a major storm and power outage.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Federal regulators are taking on Facebook, but bribery of auto writers goes unchecked

DEEP DIVE: On a all-expenses-paid trip to the nation's capital to cover The Washington Auto Show, I loved my lavish seafood dinner at Cedar Restaurant, including this appetizer of Pan Roasted Diver Scallops prepared without butter or cream -- or what the kitchen called "kosher."
WILD BOAR: The auto writer on my left, a freelancer for The New York Times, tucked into Texas Wild Boar Loin Chops in a bacon vinaigrette.


HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Federal regulators made headlines recently when they hit Facebook with a "record-breaking and history making" $5 billion fine for violations of users' privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection is keeping the world's largest social network under a microscope.

But regulators have only issued "guidance" to writers, bloggers and other so-called  influencers who promote the global automobile industry.

"We've been directing our guidance to influencers in all industries, not specific industries," FTC spokesman Mitchell J. Katz said, citing this example:
"I'm a blogger and a company wants me to attend the launch of its new product [a car, pickup or SUV, for example]. They will fly me to the launch and put me up in a hotel a couple of nights. They aren't paying me.... If I write a blog sharing my thoughts about the product, should I disclose anything?" 
"Yes," federal regulators say. "Knowing that you received free travel and accommodations could affect how much weight your readers give to your thoughts about the product, so you should disclose that you have a financial relationship with the company."

Guidelines often ignored

Those guidelines are often ignored by members of the International Motor Press Association, Washington Auto Press Association and similar groups, which represent writers for newspapers, magazines, blogs and other social media.

I recall meeting a writer for a men's lifestyle blog during the media dinner for The Washington Auto Show in February 2017.

He cut into a large ribeye steak, ate only a few pieces and wearily put down his fork and knife, noting he's gained 30 pounds going on free media trips.

He described a dizzying schedule of six upcoming junkets, including a flight to Hawaii, to see new and slightly revised car models.

That all-expenses paid trip to the nation's capital to cover the auto show, including fine dining, cocktail parties and even two $25 gift cards, was paid for by the auto dealers who sponsored the show.

RIDING THE RAILS: A special Amtrak rail car was arranged to take about 30 auto writers to the nation's capital from Newark, and return them the following night. Describing some of the writers as journalists is a stretch. 

Bribery of auto writers

One of the biggest reviewers of new car models is Redline Reviews, a YouTube a channel with more than 635,000 subscribers.

You won't find anything in the "About" section about the all-expenses-paid junkets to exotic locations the reviewers receive to prepare their glowing reports.

Similarly, Scotty Reiss, founder of A Girls Guide To Cars and president emeritus of IMPA, doesn't go into any details about the arrangements that allow her and other writers on the site to appraise the newest models or post travel articles.

This week, Reiss' review of the gas-guzzling 2020 Lincoln Aviator notes the monstrous SUV "sets new standards for American luxury" -- echoing the brand's TV commercials.

Blogs, newspapers

Citing agency guidance, the FTC spokesman noted reviewers for newspapers and TV stations have an audience that "probably understands that your job is to provide your personal opinion" on behalf of the paper or station.

"In that situation, it's clear you did not buy the product yourself -- whether it's a book or a car or a movie ticket," he said, adding:
"On a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the readers might not realize that the reviewer has a relationship with the company whose products are being recommended.
"Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review."

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Planning to rent a car at Miami's airport? First, you'll have to walk, walk and walk

WALK, THEY SAID: After my flight from Newark to Miami, I picked up my luggage and set off for the rental-car center, using elevators, 4 or 5 moving walkways, above and below, and a train. After I returned the car at the end of my vacation, I had to walk farther than normal when I found the elevator to my terminal was out of service.
MORE WALKING: These photos of the walkways and train, below, were taken on Aug. 3, when I dropped off my rental car and set off for the terminal, which is about a half-mile away from the rental-car center at an airport that puts travelers second.
NO SHUTTLE BUSES: At Miami International Airport, Alamo and other rental-car agencies don't operate small buses to shuttle customers between terminals and the rental-car center, as they do at other airports.

Editor's note: The highway tolls the rental car agency told me about were billed to my credit card on Aug. 26, Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, for a total of $38.18 over 4 days. Even if you live in New Jersey, as I do, where our two major highways are toll roads, that's highway robbery.


HACKENSACK, N.J. -- What's the last thing you want to do when you get off your first flight to Miami from Newark?

Take elevators, push your luggage over several moving walkways and then take a train to the rental-car center a half-mile or more away from the terminal.

But that's what was awaiting me and other travelers on July 3o, when I had reserved an Alamo rental car for my 4-day vacation.

In Miami for some reason, the rental-car agencies don't operate those small shuttle buses I was familiar with from other airports.

A funny thing happened...

Once I got to the Alamo counter, I asked if any gas-electric hybrids were available, and was told I could have a Ford Fusion hybrid for an additional $15 a day over the $151.45 rate for a premium car I got from CostcoTravel.com (for or a total of $222.78 with taxes and fees).

But a funny thing happened when I pulled into the parking lot of my hotel, the Hyatt House Miami Airport:

The car's engine was still running, but I couldn't find the key fob; it wasn't in the cup holder or on the floor, front or back.

The Ford Fusion, like the Toyota Prius hybrid my wife drives, has a push-button start, and the engine will start as long as the key fob is in the car.

I looked everywhere: In the trunk, between the driver's seat and transmission tunnel, under the seats.

Back to Alamo

I called Alamo road service, and was told to return to the rental-car center.

A young woman greeted me when I arrived, and the search for the key fob commenced. She finally found the fob in between the front passenger seat and transmission tunnel.

And because I complained the interior of the car stank of smoke, she gave me another Ford Fusion hybrid, and knocked $70 off the rental price to compensate me for the inconvenience and what she called a "dirty car," for a final total of $139.56 for 4 days.

That's great customer service.

Toll penalty

But Alamo lost points when it came to the system for charging me and others for tolls on Miami's extensive highway network.

Instead of giving me a SunPass, the equivalent of the E-ZPass transponder we use in New Jersey, cameras captured an image of my license plate, and charged me twice the toll I'd pay with a SunPass.

Alamo also levies a $3.95 a day convenience fee for the toll system, up to a maximum of $11.95.

Alamo says the tolls will be billed to me in 4 weeks to 6 weeks.

FORD FUSION HYBRID: I drove a total of 240 miles on my 4-day vacation, mostly on highways at speeds of 60 mph or a little higher, averaging about 42 mpg, according to the car's computer. I bought regular gas at a Costco Wholesale station for $2.36.9 a gallon.
ROCKING CHAIRS: A homey touch is rocking chairs in one of the terminals at Miami International Airport. I saw about a dozen.
BLUE, NOT FONTAINEBLEAU: This curved building is an apartment tower in Miami called Blue.
MIAMI BEACH: The island city on an overcast day, as seen from one of the many pleasure craft.
WYNWOOD: Murals line the streets, above and below, in a Miami neighborhood called Wynwood.
COFFEE AND TACOS: I had a cafe latte with macadamia-nut milk at Panther Coffee while I was waiting for my nephew, and then we had lunch at Coyo Taco next door. Both places were packed and noisy, and Panther, with loud music, resembled a bar more than a coffee house.
LIVING LARGE: Motor yachts on the Miami River.
SPANISH COLONIAL: A home in the city of Coral Gables with roof tiles that are a distinctive feature of Spanish Colonial architecture.
CORAL GABLES: I paid to park in the lot at City Hall during a visit to Coral Gables on an overcast day, and noticed at least two all-electric municipal vehicles.
NO SECURITY: I was struck by the total lack of security when I entered Coral Gables City Hall. No one questioned why I was there, and offices had open doors.
GRAND LOBBY: This is the grand lobby of a building with a hotel and offices on a street in Coral Gables that is referred to as the Miracle Mile. The ornate facade of the building is shown below.
A MIAMI COSTCO: At the Costco Wholesale warehouse on West Flagler Street in Miami, I saw two things missing at the Teterboro, N.J., warehouse I frequent: Self check-out, above, and recycling containers, below. However, the Costco gas station is self-serve. I didn't find any lines because only members are allowed to fill up there.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

In Miami, lots of seafood, traffic and tolls; plus don't miss Everglades National Park

COYO TACO: A pair of scrumptious Camaron Tacos were $9 at Coyo Taco in the colorful Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, where streets are lined with murals. But the staff was flummoxed when I asked whether the shrimp wrapped in flour tortillas were wild-caught and from the Gulf of Mexico.
CATCH OF THE DAY: This over-the-top special appetizer at Catch of The Day Restaurant near the airport in Miami is Shrimp Tapas Hemingway or wild Gulf Shrimp with guacamole over large tostones (twice-smashed and fried green plantains). I split them with my nephew, who treated me to dinner on my last night in Miami.


HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Florida's biggest city speaks with a pronounced Cuban accent.

That's no surprise:

For more than 60 years, Miami has welcomed generations of Cubans leaving the Caribbean's biggest island.

On a 4-day vacation last week, I encountered many of them working for a rental-car agency, at my hotel, in restaurants and just about everywhere else.

And I enjoyed reuniting with a Cuban family that opened their Havana apartment and cooked meals f0r me on most of my 7 trips to the island through 2004.

They prepared a wonderful meal of Cuban classics for me -- fish in tomato sauce, codfish fritters, tamal, congris or black beans cooked with white rice, salad, beer and coffee -- and they gave me a bottle of Havana Club Cuban Rum so I can prepare mojitos at home.

Driving, tolls 

What I wasn't anticipating was all of the highway driving I had to do, and all of the tolls I had to pay, not to mention the app that charges $3.25 to $4 an hour for street parking. 

When I picked up a Ford Fusion hybrid at the airport, the Alamo agent explained that cameras on highway ramps would capture my license plate, and tolls would be billed to me later. 

What he didn't say is that without a SunPass, the equivalent of our E-ZPass, I would be charged twice as much.

Highway construction is booming, especially flyovers. During rush hours, roads and highways are jammed. 

Did I land in Los Angeles?

After I posted this initially, I found a notice from Alamo that in addition to tolls, I would be charged $3.95 per day as a "TollPass convenience charge," with billing in 4 weeks to 6 weeks.

Streets, highways

Miami has an ultra-modern street and highway network unlike anything in northern New Jersey, where I live and curse patched and potholed local streets little changed since the 1960s, and where the turn lane seems to be an alien concept.

Still, in Miami, I drove 240 miles in 4 days, and spent a lot of time staring at tail lights in bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

And I never saw a single driver stopped for speeding, racing, slaloming through traffic at 20 mph above the speed limit, tailgating and other reckless behavior.

SLOW AND EXPENSIVE: Bumper-to-bumper traffic is common in Miami. You have to pay for street parking mostly through apps downloaded onto your smartphone.
STAY LEFT: At this underpass, the usual traffic pattern is reversed, and drivers like me hoping to jump on the highway stayed left, not right.

Fresh seafood

Miami is known for great seafood restaurants, and as a pescatarian, I was looking forward to exploring them with my nephew, who moved to Miami 27 years ago.

At Catch of The Day Restaurant, we split a great appetizer of Shrimp Tapas Hemingway -- jumbo Gulf Shrimp with avocado served over crunchy tostones.

My entree was sliced Yellowfin Tuna, prepared rare, served with a bowl of soupy black beans, some of the best I've ever had.

We finished our meal with a colada: Strong, sweet Cuban coffee served in a styrofoam cup, then poured into thimble-size plastic cups.

"The colada is the ultimate symbol of Cuban camaraderie," containing 4 to 6 shots of sweetened espresso "that is shared amongst friends," says Jody Edy of Kitchn.com.  

$23 lunch promotion

We had another great seafood meal at Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill, where our shaded outdoor table overlooked the Miami River.

A 3-course lunch was only $23 during the city's 2-month-long restaurant promotion, called "Miami Spice."

At Coyo Taco, a noisy counter-service restaurant and bar in the Wynwood neighborhood, I demolished a large bowl of Organic Salad with guacamole, pumpkin seeds, queso fresco and chipotle ($8), along with a pair of Shrimp Tacos ($9).

My nephew ordered a pair of Carne Asada Tacos ($9). 

When I looked at my Coyo Taco receipt later, I saw that Jacquelyn C., the woman who took our order at the counter, charged us $2.50 for 2 plastic cups she gave us after we said we wanted to drink water (dispensed by a soda machine).

The receipt listed the $2.50 charge under "Fountain Drinks."

CATCH OF THE DAY: My entree last Friday night at Catch of The Day Restaurant in Miami was this rare steak of melt-in-the-mouth of Yellowfin Tuna, served with a soupy bowl of Cuban-style black beans.
COLADA: The strong Cuban coffee we drank from thimble-sized plastic cups to end our meal was sweet enough to stand in for dessert.
NOTHING FISHY: The entrance to Catch of The Day Restaurant, where outside tables afford a view of passenger and cargo jets landing at Miami International Airport. Valet parking is $3.
MY SALAD DAY: The wonderful Ensalada Organica or Organic Salad ($8) at Coyo Taco in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.
RIVERSIDE DINING: At Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill on the Miami River, I ordered the Fish Ceviche appetizer, above, prepared with a citrus blend, purple onions, glazed yams and toasted corn. My entree was Braised Mahi-Mahi Escabeche Style with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, onion and olives, below. The 3-course Miami Spice lunch was $23, including dessert. 
MIAMI SPICE: More than 250 restaurants in and around Miami are taking part in the Miami Spice promotion through Sept. 30, 2019, with 3-course lunches for $23 and 3-course dinners for $39.
CRUISING: As we were eating lunch at Casablanca Seafood, a boat motored slowly past our riverside table, then tied up, and a family came in and sat down for lunch.

The Everglades

After the complimentary breakfast at my hotel on July 31, I drove southwest to Everglades National Park, billed by the National Park Service as "the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States."

I parked in the free lot at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, and went inside to see what activities were planned.

On a day when temperatures soared past 90, along with oppressive humidity, I joined a 10:30 a.m. guided walk along the Pine Island Trails of a freshwater marsh filled with alligators, large soft-shell turtles and tropical fish that people dumped in canals.

I sprayed my arms and legs with mosquito repellent and sunblock, and carried 2 bottles of water.

Lubber grasshoppers, intent on mating, littered the walkway, both alive and dead, crushed by tourists gawking at their surroundings.

SHADE LOVING: We saw alligators after our noisy group disturbed them and drove them to find another shady spot to escape the relentless sunlight.
MATING SEASON: Two Lubber Grasshoppers mating on a walkway, oblivious to passing tourists. The smaller grasshopper on top is the male.
TAMING NATURE: The 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables are filled with plants I have never seen before.
RAIN CLOSED THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE: It was raining on the day I visited, bringing comfortable temperatures in the 70s, but the butterfly house was closed and tram tours were suspended. I was admitted for free.
TREES WITH FLOWERS: More exotic flowers hang from the branches of a tree.