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Medicare chief asked taxpayers to cover stolen jewelry

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The news of the large request for stolen luxury items comes at a time of unusual scrutiny for Verma, who formerly served as a consultant to then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana and has led CMS since March 2017. The $1 trillion health agency administers Medicare, the nation’s health insurance program for seniors; Medicaid, the program for low-income Americans; and Obamacare, among other programs.

Verma has been engaged in an acrimonious feud with HHS Secretary Alex Azar that has spilled over into policy matters and prompted separate closed-door meetings for each official with Vice President Pence. Her spending of taxpayer money has also been under scrutiny by the HHS inspector general, after POLITICO reported in March about her extensive use of outside public relations consultants, some of whom worked to burnish Verma’s personal brand.

The $2.25 million public relations contract was put on hold pending the probe, and Verma has been under investigation from congressional Democrats.

Verma’s luggage was stolen out of her rented Chevrolet Tahoe SUV on July 25, 2018, while she was giving a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, according to statements she gave to the local police and HHS. Verma initially estimated the cost of her lost property as $20,000, according to the police report, before later revising the cost upward when filing her claim to the health department.

POLITICO last month filed a Freedom of Information Act request about Verma’s claims for personal damages and separately obtained the documents and confirmed their authenticity with multiple sources.

A CMS spokesperson said that Verma was one of three staffers whose luggage was stolen, and HHS lawyers instructed them to file detailed claims for all missing items, including Verma’s jewelry. "At her own expense the administrator travels to Washington, DC, from Indiana each week to work at CMS, which was why she was traveling with her personal collection of jewelry," the spokesperson said. Verma‘s family lives in Indiana.

Staff were unaware of a federal health employee previously filing a claim as large as $47,000.

Verma was in San Francisco as part of a scheduled three-day trip to Northern California that included a speaking engagement in Napa Valley and a visit to Palo Alto-based Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. The trip was approved by ethics counsel, a CMS spokesperson said.

Verma’s San Francisco speech marked a notable point in her tenure: It was the first time the nation’s Medicare chief had publicly attacked “Medicare for All” proposals, arguing that Democrats’ ideas for single-payer health care would destroy the federal health program for older Americans and lead to “Medicare for None.”

Verma won plaudits for the speech inside the White House, POLITICO reported, and she touted it online as part of a months-long campaign against Democrats’ proposals. A watchdog group later filed a complaint that Verma’s continued attacks on Medicare for All allegedly violated the prohibition on federal officials engaging in political activity.

According to Verma’s lost property claim, the stolen items included 11 pairs of earrings, five necklaces and three pendants. Verma appeared to have worn the Ivanka Trump pendant on multiple public occasions, according to a POLITICO review of her appearances, including meetings with the president and at a November 2017 speech when she announced her plan to let states impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients and crack down on other program spending. The government spends approximately $5,700 per Medicaid patient.

“Medicaid is too vital a program to let fraud and inappropriate spending threaten it,” Verma said that day.

Clarification: This piece was updated to clarify that HHS does not reimburse employees for jewelry stolen while at work.

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Is it Time to Panic Over the City and State’s Congestion Pricing Preparedness? (Yes!) – Streetsblog New York City

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With 13 months left before the potential debut of America’s first-ever congestion pricing plan, it’s time to ask the key question facing the program: Is New York City prepared to make a congestion toll work? Or are we totally boned?

We’re totally boned, say some experts. Let’s see why:

Transit improvements must come first

European cities that instituted congestion pricing demonstrated that it’s hugely important to expand public transit options before tolling starts. That’s one reason why the Regional Plan Association made “Implement transit and bicycle improvements prior to starting congestion pricing” its number one recommendation in a report literally titled “Congestion Pricing In NYC: Getting It Right.

So on that subject, should we be panicking right now?

“There’s a risk of that we’re setting ourselves up to totally mess this up,” Ben Kabak, the publisher of Second Avenue Sagas, told Streetsblog. “Based on the [deliberate] way the MTA plans work assignments and increases capacity, we’re running out of time.”

The MTA hasn’t released plans that suggest increased bus service is on its way, at least not on the scale of London’s pre-congestion pricing: a 17-percent increase in bus service. That kind of investment was included in New York’s failed 2008 congestion pricing proposal, but not this time.

“That plan would have been paired with hundreds of millions of dollars for bus routes serving the outer boroughs,” said Ben Fried, the communications director at the TransitCenter. “The governor should be thinking about how to do something similar.”

Nick Sifuentes, the executive director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the advantage of adding extra bus service was obvious: the humble bus is incredibly versatile.

“There’s certainly a lot that you can do with frequency improvements and street priority to make bus service much more accommodating of an influx of new riders,” Sifuentes said. “You can increase your frequency and make the bus work better [with dedicated bus lanes, for example]. You can buy the rolling stock, which a lot less expensive and gets delivered faster than a new train car, you do the work of putting the surface priority down and boom, there you go.”

But the MTA’s current plan seems to be that it doesn’t need a plan. Indeed, CEO and Chairman Pat Foye recently suggested that New York doesn’t need to increase capacity in the same way that European cities did.

“London and Stockholm and Gothenburg didn’t have the commuter rail systems we have here in terms of Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, bringing 80 million passengers” to New York, Foye said, referring to the railroads’ annual ridership numbers into the city. The MTA’s head honcho added that “there is latent unused capacity in subways and buses,” given that currently only 75 percent of trips into the central business district are done by mass transit.

“That means that we will clearly be able to handle those who leave their cars and come to mass transit,” he said at a recent legislative hearing.

Transit advocates were unconvinced, to say the least.

“That’s an absurd statement,” Sifuentes said. “One, our commuter rail systems are operating pretty close to capacity. Until we have main line expansion and East Side Access done, and we have more rolling stock, they’re not really able to take on massive amounts of new people.”

Foye’s answer that the commuter rail has excess capacity is a 180 from statements made by previous MTA Chairman Joe Lhota and by the LIRR itself this year. In 2018, Lhota dismissed a report by Comptroller Scott Stringer that claimed the MTA had enough excess capacity to offer $2.75 fares for New Yorkers doing intra-city travel on the LIRR and Metro-North.

In March 2019, LIRR President Phil Eng said that the commuter railroad was operating at capacity. New capacity, in the form of next-generation train cars that were supposed to be in service by 2022, won’t be finished until 2024.

And even if there is the capacity that Foye cited, the fares are too damn high, Sifuentues said.

“If you’re trying to take the LIRR in Queens into the city, you’re still paying six to eight bucks to do that every single day,” he said. “And that’s not affordable compared to $2.75.”

“If we’re going to say that commuter rail is something that people are going to use as this alternative, especially people who live in the city, then we need to be looking at the Freedom Ticket much more seriously, too,” Sifuentues added, referring to discounted one-way fares between Atlantic Terminal and certain LIRR stations in Queens and Brooklyn.

Kabak said he found Foye’s answer worrying and “wrong,” and said that without increasing service the MTA is telling city residents to just deal with crowded rush hour subways and infrequent off-peak bus service.

“If everything is a mess on Day 1 of congestion pricing, the MTA isn’t going to be able to add enough buses on Day 2 to make up for it,” Kabak said.

MTA spokesperson Amanda Kwan said that the MTA was taking congestion pricing into account in its bus network redesigns. But in the Bronx, the bus network redesign was praised by advocates for untangling the unwieldy borough’s routes, but it was criticized for not including investment to ensure service every three to five minute on crucial routes during peak hours.

The city has a role

Crowded buses are workable if they get where they’re going quickly thanks to dedicated lane, or the city creates alternatives for non-drivers, such as more bike lanes.

To that end, Bike New York and Transportation Alternatives put out a wish list this summer pointing to gaps that the DOT can fill in the protected bike lane network inside the Central Business District, plus improvements on key feeder routes, such as Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to Empire Boulevard, Northern Boulevard between the Grand Central Parkway and Queens Plaza, and Skillman Avenue to the Pulaski Bridge.

And when it comes to potential bus improvements, Fried said the city should prioritize Downtown Brooklyn (to unsnarl Jay, Adams and Livingston streets so buses can get through traffic unimpeded), the Queensboro Bridge (with new eastbound bus lanes so Queens-bound express buses can get out of Manhattan), and the Bronx (where crosstown lanes “would really make the borough’s transit network hum,” Fried said).

Oh and one more thing: More busways please! Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recently endorsed a Busway on 181st Street, which could make it easier to institute in the future, but almost every clogged community wants its own version of the Miracle on 14th Street.

For now, thought, the city’s plan is unknown. The mayor himself channeled whatever Brooklyn is inside him and told long-suffering bus riders to “Wait ’til next year” before he unveils new busway-style corridors.

Traffic problems on the mobility review board

The city has also has a role in creating the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a six-member panel that is still entirely unstaffed even though its recommendations for how congestion pricing will be implemented can be issued after Nov. 15, 2020 — less than a year away.

The board will analyze the nuts and bolts of congestion pricing, such as how much the tolls will even cost, if the toll will be one- or two-way, and whether the fee will be flat or if it will change hour by hour (or even minute by minute). The only legal requirement is that the tolls must raise $1 billion per year — enough to generate $15 billion in bonds to pay for the historic 2020-2024 capital plan.

“It’s absolutely fair for us to be asking ‘What’s going on with the TMRB?'” Sifuentes. “It isn’t seated yet, and it should be following the open meetings law.”

The tolling to enter Manhattan below 61st Street can legally start on Jan. 1, 2021, so time’s a-wastin’. The MTA did hire a company to build the tolling infrastructure itself, but Kate Slevin, a senior vice president at the Regional Plan Association, urged the agency to immediately focus on appointing members to the TMRB.

Appointing the board sooner rather than later provides “a benefit as it starts to try to explain the various tradeoffs that you might get from different toll levels,” Slevin said.

As the RPA showed in its congestion pricing report, there are a number of ways the congestion pricing toll can be instituted in order to raise the legally-mandated $1 billion, including the best option: a $9.18 peak-hours toll to get into and out of the CBD.

There are other options (see chart), but the most important thing is for the TMRB to get down to work, so drivers won’t feel blindsided, stakeholders can get their say, flaws can be fleshed out, and people can plan ahead.

“There is an important oversight and independent role that that body will play in the public dialogue,” she said.

For now, the mayor is not ready to announce his one appointee to the TMRB, but is discussing membership with qualified candidates,” City Hall spokesperson William Baskin-Gerwitz said.

By not taking the lead on the TMRB, the de Blasio administration risks disaster, advocates believe.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is a badly botched rollout of congestion pricing,” said Sifuentes. “In this case, we are giving people something, which is better transit. But the fee is coming in some cases before the better transit.”

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‘Sesame Street,’ a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, taught the world how to be nice

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1 Like any grown-ups, then or now, they worried about the power that television had over children. The full-volume blare, the raucously random chaos, the cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs — ka-bam! Pow! Sproiiinng! HEY KIDS!!

The origin story of “Sesame Street,” which has become a permanent piece of cultural history and TV lore, begins at a Manhattan dinner party in the “Mad Men” years. Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer in public-affairs programming, listened to her friend Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president at the Carnegie Corp., describe the way his preschool-aged daughter soaked up everything she saw on TV.

Television is often the problem, but sometimes it’s the answer, too. That dinner party in 1966 started a lasting conversation: What if there was a show that was just as mesmerizing as Saturday cartoons, but instead of breakfast-cereal commercials, the jingles would sell letters and numbers? Or shapes and similarities? And introduce concepts like in, on and under? Could it help kids learn? Could it, in some measurable way, prepare the nation’s less advantaged children for school?

Cooney and Morrisett looked to Harvard University and other institutions, convening curriculum experts, cognitive psychologists and early-childhood researchers to compare notes. There were meetings, seminars and serious arguments about methodology and outcomes.

The experts might have turned the project into a steaming plate of lima beans that no child would ever eat. As described in Michael Davis’s 2008 book “Street Gang: The Complete History of ‘Sesame Street,’ ” some of those meetings grew so tedious that the children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, an invited participant, began doodling pointed cartoons while the academics droned. One drawing was of a child attacking a TV, first with a hatchet, then worse.

“Sesame Street's” Oscar the Grouch. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

2 It’s an ongoing miracle, “Sesame Street” — in the way you remember it, yes, but also as the global humanitarian operation it has become, 50 years after the show premiered in November 1969.

“The way we do [“Sesame Street”] has changed,” says Sesame Workshop President and CEO Jeffrey D. Dunn, who took over five years ago and is credited with bringing the Workshop out of a financial slump, partly by striking a first-run deal in 2015 with HBO, which now foots the bill for “Sesame Street” while still making it available (free) to public-TV viewers.

“But we have stayed relentlessly true to the mission of helping kids grow stronger, smarter and kinder,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in the idea that society is the result of kids growing up. We’re playing a very long game here, looking 30 years ahead at any point in time. . . . Your kids are going to grow up and be the adults of tomorrow.”

“Sesame Street” can feel deeply personal to just about anyone under the age of 55. It taught us to read and count, but it also taught us about kindness and acceptance. It was jazzy and groovy; it had a loose and wild feeling, even with all that PhD scrutiny on every frame.

Today the show is brighter, faster and somehow zippier, set on a cleaner, spiffier Sesame Street (shot on a set in Astoria, Queens) with a community garden and a recycling bin next to Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. Hooper’s Store serves birdseed smoothies and has bistro seating.

Yet the sense of belonging remains. “Sesame Street” was inclusive before anyone really knew what that meant, the first safe space. It is a friend to everyone, which has a lot to do with why it’s the first TV show to receive Kennedy Center Honors.

Cast and crew of “Sesame Street” in 1970. (Robert Fuhring)

Some of its original viewers (Generation X, those lifelong beta-testers) grew up to be some of its most passionate advocates and caretakers, filling key positions today as executives, creators, writers, artists and puppeteers at the Sesame Workshop, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop.

At the nonprofit corporation’s headquarters across Broadway from Lincoln Center, where more than 500 employees work, every cubicle is festooned with “Sesame” toys of all shapes and sizes — even more as you turn a corner toward the creative wing, where all heck is encouraged to break loose. Everyone here has a story about how the show affected them. When they meet you, they’re eager to hear yours.

“When people talk to us [about ‘Sesame Street’], frequently it is about the literacy. They’ll say, ‘I learned to read because of it,’ ” Dunn says.

“But the second thing is that everyone sees themselves as somewhat unique, and what they saw was some friend that spoke to them, that let them know, ‘I’m a good person, I’m okay,’ and that there are people who are different, and that’s okay, too. The idea that everybody is deserving of respect.”

You can sense where this is going.

Look around, America. Have you forgotten how to get to “Sesame Street?”

“We’ve never been needed more,” Dunn says.

From left, “Sesame Street” characters Rosita, Elmo and Cookie Monster. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

3 Nothing in Cooney’s original 45-page report to the Carnegie Foundation predicts “Sesame Street’s” luckiest break, when the nascent production hired a wildly imaginative young puppeteer (and 1960 University of Maryland grad) named Jim Henson, who immediately understood the concept and assembled a team of puppeteers, including Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney. Together they gave personalities to a group of new friends. In concept, these creatures represented emotional archetypes: a cranky, antisocial monster who lives in a trash can. A furry maniac obsessed with cookies. A thoughtfully empathetic frog.

And more: a scrawny-armed, hapless-yet-optimistic monster; a pair of companionable roommates whose opposite moods adhere to old vaudeville routines; and a sweetly naive canary who stands eight feet tall and keeps a nest in the alley. (“I’m a very nervous bird — I nearly laid an egg right here on Sesame Street.”) In test runs, they clearly were the star attractions.

This raised even more concerns from the experts: How would children, who can be so literal, reconcile the commingling of puppets with the show’s human world, the backdrop of which would resemble a busy block of working-class apartments and retail shops on a shabby (yet cheerful) New York street? Would it make sense?

“Sesame Street's” Ernie, left, and Bert. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

4 “This is near,” says Grover, our old friend with the red nose and matted blue fur, standing close to the camera. Then he runs off in the distance and turns back around.

“And this is FAR!” he screams.

To watch just one old “Sesame Street” clip is to fall giddily down a never-ending YouTube spiral of classic sketches, songs and moments. You remember the feeling of being 3 or 4, when you started to realize you’re you, which is no small thing. It’s an addictive form of time-travel for adults, a flicker of joy with a trace of the melancholy. It’s Proust, covered in felt and feathers. It is near, and it is far.

On a recent afternoon’s binge, I watched one “Sesame” musical number from 1975 called “The Subway!” several times in a row. It’s funny and impressively clever — edgy, even, when compared with the show’s present-day tone. “You could lose your purse; or you might lose something worse, on the subway,” sang an old-lady Muppet, squeezed into a subway car with a trenchcoated Kermit the Frog, a testy Bert and too many others.

During one of my visits to the headquarters this fall, Sesame Workshop archivist Conrad Lochner indulged me by bringing out some ancient treasures, dating to the first financially savvy decision by the Children’s Television Workshop and Henson to license the Muppet characters for books, toys, clothing, record players, you name it. Through generations — including the Tickle Me Elmo frenzy of Christmas 1996 — the merchandise helped “Sesame Street” thrive.

Lochner, who grew up in Las Vegas, likes the way children could absorb an idea of New York from the show. “There was something about the way they showed the sort of grittiness of Sesame Street in a positive way that said [to children], ‘Hey, you know, there’s more out there in the world than just your street, and not all streets are the same,’ ” he says. “It’s that sense of worldliness in your own neighborhood.”

As the show’s 50th anniversary neared, the present-day keepers of “Sesame Street” took time to consider its evolution — where it had been, where it might yet go. Sesame Workshop typically steers clear of nostalgia, focusing on the needs of its present viewers who are just discovering it, usually on smartphones and tablets.

The Muppets themselves are perpetually 3 to 6 years old; some of them may recall that they once met Lena Horne or Johnny Cash and more than 600 other guest stars, but their institutional memory is spotty by design.

Quite happily, however, they remember the words to their entire songbook. At a weekend of anniversary concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center in late October, the puppeteers who play Grover (Eric Jacobson), Ernie (Peter Linz), Big Bird (Matt Vogel), Elmo (Ryan Dillon), Abby Cadabby (Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) and others performed some of “Sesame’s” most beloved oldies, including “Ladybugs’ Picnic,” “People in Your Neighborhood” and “Put Down the Duckie.”

The concert audiences included children and sentimental adults, who got the somewhat rare chance to see the usually off-camera “Sesame” puppeteers at their labor-intensive best as they operated the Muppets, which they hold above their heads, while moving on and off the stage on rolling seats.

What’s most striking is the intimacy of this work (person and puppet), which often requires two puppeteers if a character is using both hands. In ensemble, the Muppets come fully alive because of the tangle of human limbs and bodies and voices below.

Carmen Osbahr, who was recruited by Henson not long before he died suddenly in 1990 at age 53, originated and still plays the character of Rosita, a turquoise Spanish-speaking Muppet who plays guitar.

Puppeteer Jim Henson, holding Bert, amuses a baby during rehearsal for an episode of “Sesame Street” at Reeves TeleTape Studio in 1970 in New York City. (David Attie/Getty Images)

At a point in the concert where the gang performed their 1971 song “Sing” (“Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear”), Osbahr rolled out toward the audience, her hands and arms busy with Rosita, and saw an older man fighting back tears.

“Of course, Rosita had to stop and say, ‘I hope you’re not crying because of my singing,’ ” Osbahr says, “and he said no, and he touched his heart. There’s just so much love for it.”

Christine Ferraro, a longtime “Sesame Street” writer who was tasked with conceiving the show’s 50th anniversary special (which aired on HBO and PBS in November), says she was glad to bring back some seldom-seen old-school characters, such as Roosevelt Franklin and Guy Smiley. But she thought better of just relying on a parade of old clips.

Instead they used “Forrest Gump”-style tricks to insert the host of the special, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into vintage moments, as if he’d been part of it all along — a way of indicating that all of us, no matter our age, always felt as if we belonged there.

In another scene, pop singer Solange re-creates one of the show’s oldest animated shorts, in which a mother sends her daughter to the store for “a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter.” In 2019, it becomes a catchy, modern R&B groove about self-assurance — a sublime merging of past and present.

“What show would still be around like this if it hadn’t changed in 50 years?” Ferraro says. “If ['Sesame Street'] hadn’t changed, it wouldn’t appeal to today’s kids. . . . Every year we’ve called it our ‘experimental season,’ constantly trying to find ways to keep it fresh.”

Elmo of “Sesame Street." (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

5 “When people die, they don’t come back,” one of “Sesame Street’s” adults, Susan (played by Loretta Long), explained to Big Bird in 1983, as the show mourned the death of its friendly shopkeeper, Mr. Hooper (played by the late actor Will Lee). Filmed in one take, it was a profound but basic lesson in processing grief.

It reaffirmed a belief at the Workshop that “Sesame” can take on all kinds of crises its young viewers might be facing. It can be addressed on the air or through specially created content that is made easily available to parents and teachers.

There are studies (there are always studies) that show the learning gap is as dire as it was back when Cooney and company first pitched their concept, especially wherever there is poverty, inequality or other barriers to learning. But there is also proof, says Sherrie Westin, the Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, that “Sesame Street” can help enormously when it gets to the children who need it.

Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) with Bert, left, and Ernie. (Sesame Workshop)

The cast of “Sesame Street” during a celebration of their 50th season of the popular children's TV show. This first episode of “Sesame Street” aired in the fall of 1969. (Richard Termine/AP)

LEFT: Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) with Bert, left, and Ernie. (Sesame Workshop) RIGHT: The cast of “Sesame Street” during a celebration of their 50th season of the popular children's TV show. This first episode of “Sesame Street” aired in the fall of 1969. (Richard Termine/AP)

“Sesame” has helped its viewers cope with divorce, the incarceration of a parent and the deployment of family members in the military. Julia, a Muppet with autism, made her 2017 debut on the TV show to wide acclaim and gratitude from parents. The Workshop reaches children affected by war or hurricanes and other disasters. In Afghanistan, it showed that girls can and should go to school. In South Africa, an HIV-positive Muppet, Kami, helped lessen the stigma of getting tested for the virus.

But there remains, between Muppets and us, something beyond research data; it even transcends the boundaries of performing arts. It’s an ineffable, lasting and mutual love. Children rush toward the Muppets wherever they appear to hold their hands, ask them questions and listen raptly.

While I interview Osbahr on a recent afternoon, Rosita makes a cheerful and talkative appearance, rising from the table to meet me. Her Henson eyes lock with mine and we immediately become friends. One can hardly describe it as anything but life itself.

The work can be isolating, says puppet captain Matt Vogel, best known for playing Big Bird. (He took over the role after years of study with Caroll Spinney, who was Big Bird for more than 40 years.) When he’s fully encased in the feathered costume, Vogel stretches his right arm up high inside the head to control the beak and eyes, while his viewpoint is restricted to a video monitor strapped to his chest. Still, when Big Bird meets and interacts with a child, the mechanics give way to a soulful connection.

On a Make-A-Wish trip to visit a child in California, Vogel says he will never forget the way “her eyes lit up” — as well as the faces of her relatives — when Big Bird stooped low and entered the family’s home. “Who this character was and what this character meant to them — and how valuable this one little moment was that we had with this child.”

Vogel pauses to consider all the people Big Bird has known and all the people who feel like they know, truly know, Big Bird. “You can’t do that with something like a cartoon,” he says.

From left, “Sesame Street's” Julia, Rosita, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

Story by Hank Stuever. Portraits by Mark Mann. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Design by Eddie Alvarez.

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Never Surrender is a heartfelt tribute to sci-fi action comedy Galaxy Quest

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Galaxy Quest, the glorious 1999 science fiction action comedy starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver (among others), will turn 20 on December 25 of this year. And what better way to celebrate this important milestone than with a documentary feature? Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is an entertaining, heartfelt tribute that comes to us (believe it or not) from the same folks behind the wildly popular online Honest Trailers series.

(Spoilers for Galaxy Quest below.)

The premise of the movie is deceptively simple: what if aliens watched transmissions of a popular science fiction TV show from Earth and thought it was real? An alien race called the Thermians model their entire society on the principles of a fictional Galaxy Quest TV show, building real, functional versions of the spaceship and much of the technology from the series. When their very existence is threatened by a reptilian humanoid general from another species named Roth'h'ar Sarris, they travel to Earth to ask their heroes for help—arriving in the middle of a Galaxy Quest fan convention.

Of course, the heroic crew of the NSEA Protector are in fact washed-up actors, eking out a living making personal appearances and selling autographed photos. Suddenly they find themselves aboard an actual spaceship, facing real peril, and must rise to the occasion to save the day—in essence becoming more like the characters they once played.

Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) once played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart on the fictional show and relishes soaking up the adoration of fans, to the annoyance of his former co-stars. Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) is a leggy blonde who played Communications Officer Tawny Madison. Her only job was to repeat the commands of the ship's computer and show a little cleavage. Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) played Science Officer Dr. Lazarus, an alien from the Mak'Tar race. He was once an esteemed British thespian who bitterly resents being typecast as an alien, forced to repeat variations on his most famous line at every appearance.

Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) played Tech Sergeant Chen, while Tommy Webber (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) played child pilot Lt. Laredo, now all grown up. Gate-crashing the signing (and the ensuing adventure) is Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), who once played "Crewman #6" on Episode 81 and was killed in the first 15 minutes. Representing the rabid fandom that has grown around the original Galaxy Quest are a group of teen nerds: Brandon (Justin Long, in his first major film role), Kyle (Jeremy Howard), Hollister (Jonathan Feyer), and Katelyn (Kaitlin Cullum). Snubbed repeatedly by Jason early on, the nerds' encyclopedic knowledge of the show proves to be invaluable to helping defeat Sarris and bringing the crew safely home.

This fine ship, this fine crew

The film is a clear homage to Star Trek, as well as its intensely committed fan base. Fun fact: NTE-3120 is the registration for the Protector, with the letters standing for "Not The Enterprise." Taggart is modeled after Captain Kirk, and Jason is a William Shatner-esque figure, teased relentlessly for constantly removing his shirt and performing showy rollouts. ("Does the rolling help?" Gwen caustically asks when Jason does this while exploring an alien plant. When he says it does, she adds, "Where's your gun?")

Dr. Lazarus is the Spock-like figure, Laredo evokes ST:TNG's Wesley Crusher, Chen is a stand-in for Scotty, Tawny Madison is based on Uhuru, and Guy is a Red Shirt—so he is understandably pretty paranoid whenever there is potential danger. ("I'm expendable! I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove the situation is serious! I gotta get out of here!") And Star Trek fans were so notoriously geeky about analyzing the most trivial details from the series, they inspired a famous Saturday Night Live sketch, in which a frustrated Shatner berates convention-goers: "Get a life, will you, people?"

Galaxy Quest didn't exactly bomb at the box office, grossing about $90 million globally and earning mostly positive reviews. But it wasn't the blockbuster success that it should have been. Galaxy Quest is a rare perfect film: a masterful satire with clever twists, wickedly funny, and so very meta. And it's stood the test of time, holding up even after multiple re-watchings. What makes it truly great, and so beloved by fans 20 years later, is its obvious deep affection for its targets. Sure, the film pokes fun at the Star Trek franchise: the cheesy tropes, the characters, the actors who play them, and the fandom it has inspired over the years. But it is never mean-spirited, cynical, or condescending.

Jack Bennett, the director of Never Surrender, has brought that same sensibility to the documentary. Screen Junkies—an online movie magazine and YouTube channel, owned and operated by Fandom—earned Internet fame for their snarky Honest Trailer series, mercilessly skewering overwrought film trailers. But they resisted giving Galaxy Quest the Honest Trailer treatment despite repeated requests from viewers over the years, correctly intuiting that it would be gilding the lily, so to speak. (They did finally make one, but  it's not available online as of this writing; it was shown before the screening we attended.) Bennett wisely trades in snark for sincerity for Never Surrender—although there are plenty of laughs and slyly subversive edits to keep the tone from ever becoming saccharine.

A stroll down memory lane

All film documentaries traffic in colorful behind-the-scenes details, and Never Surrender is chock-full of them—some new, some well-known to longtime fans. For instance, Enrico Colantoni reveals that his audition for Mathesar nearly bombed—until he whipped out a bizarre voice he'd been working on that became the model for the Thermians' unusual vocal inflections. Sigourney Weaver famously drops an F-bomb when Gwen and Jason encounter "the chompers" in the bowels of the Protector II. It was dubbed—badly, on purpose, so you can still read her lips—to be "Screw that!" in the theatrical release, in order to earn a more family-friendly PG rating.

Never Surrender truly shines at revealing the complicated, often contentious process of filmmaking; honestly, it's a miracle any films get made at all, never mind truly great ones that go on to become widespread beloved cultural touchstones like Galaxy Quest. Harold Ramis was originally hired to direct the film for Dreamworks but left the project due to creative differences (his vision was considerably more cheesy); Dean Parisot replaced him. The studio considered Robin Williams and Kevin Kline for the role of Jason/Taggart, since at the time Tim Allen was mostly known as a comedian and star of the just-cancelled Home Improvement sitcom. Dreamworks co-founder Steven Spielberg hated the octopus-like designs for the Thermians' true native form, preferring a more classic "grey alien"—but it was too late to change it.

Any one of these would have resulted in a very different—and I would say, lesser—film. Apparently Dreamworks was shooting Gladiator at the same time and was too distracted to interfere much with Galaxy Quest.

Several Star Trek actors count themselves among the longstanding fans of Galaxy Quest, including Shatner, Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard, ST: TNG)—who pronounced it "brilliant"—Jonathan Frakes (Riker, ST: TNG), Tim Russ (Tuvok, ST: Voyager), and George Takei (Sulu on TOS). Two from Star Trek: The Next Generation offer their insights in Never Surrender: Brent Spiner, who played Data, and Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher. The film has also inspired an entire generation of filmmakers, as Damon Lindelof (Lost, Watchmen, the Star Trek 2009 film) points out. And it's sweetly gratifying to watch Arrow and The Flash creator Greg Berlanti geek out over his favorite moments, pretty much proving Lindelof's point.

Best of all, the documentary celebrates the culture of fandom—specifically the positive, uplifting aspects, rather than the toxic cesspool of entitlement that online fandom can sometimes be today. The film devotes a significant amount of screen time to Galaxy Quest fans and cosplayers Harold and Roxanne Weir, who speak at length about what the film has meant to them and why they find their cosplay so fulfilling. In one of the most moving scenes, Harold—dressed as Mathesar—gets to meet his hero, Colantoni, who leans into the moment and poses with the entire group of Thermian cosplayers. Truly, as Spiner says, "The nerds have inherited the Earth."

Listing image by Dreamworks Pictures

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6 days ago
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Eye exams in the United States are a scam


In many countries you can buy inexpensive eyeglasses and contact lenses without a prescription. That's not the case in the United States. In 2016 the American Optometric Association (AOA) spent $1.8 million lobbying and another $1.4 million in campaign contributions to ensure corrective lenses are expensive for Americans, and therefore highly profitable. Yascha Mounk, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, writes in her article, "The Great American Eye-Exam Scam:"

When I last went to an eye exam at a storefront optician in the United States, for example, the staff gave me the hard sell on glasses that would have cost hundreds of dollars, as well as on contact lenses that were much more expensive than identical ones sold by online retailers. Thankfully, I knew that two laws, one passed in 1997 and the other in 2003—which had, incidentally, been loudly opposed by the AOA—gave me the right to demand a copy of my prescription. I stood firm, and later went online to order perfectly fine glasses and contact lenses at a fraction of the price. But how many customers give in to heavy-handed sales tactics?

After reading this article, I ordered one of these vision checkers for $35, so I can test my vision and order eyeglasses online for a fraction of what it costs at a brick and mortar store.

Photo by nrd on Unsplash Read the rest

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8 days ago
Is there an open source version of the web site or app associated with this?
New York, NY
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1 public comment
7 days ago
The eye test costs and restrictions are very bad, but a device with an app and a continuing subscription?
And yes, proper optician visits are vital. My friend was diagnosed with macular degeneration this year. Many diseases are identified, but that is no excuse for the ludicrous restrictions of the US.
6 days ago
I think this article is overly hyperbolic in general. At my vision clinic, they did *not* try hard at all to upsell me on anything, though they did offer. I ended up getting frames that were, apparently, very cheap and upgraded polycarbonite lenses but skipping any coatings. I think the whole thing--exam and glasses--ended up costing me something like $35 (with my VSP coverage which my work pays for 100%). That seems pretty reasonable to me.

Hacking Surgery: Suspended Animation May Be Here


Suspended animation is a staple of science fiction. Need to take a 200 year trip to another star system? Go to sleep in some sort of high-tech coccoon and wake up at your destination. We saw it in Star Trek, 2001, and many other places. Doctors at the University of Maryland have reprtedly put at least one patient in suspended animation, and it isn’t to send them to outer space. The paper (behind a paywall, of course) is available if you have the medical background to wade through it. There’s also a patent that describes the procedure.

Trauma surgeons are frustrated because they often see patients who have been in an accident or have been shot or stabbed that they could save if they only had the time. A patient arriving at an ER with over half their blood lost and their heart stopped have a less than 5% chance of leaving the ER without a toe tag. By placing the patient in suspended animation, doctors can gain up to two hours to work on injuries that previously had to be repaired in mere minutes.

Normally once your heart stops, your brain will irreversibly damage in about 5 minutes due to lack of oxygen. The heart meanwhile can survive for about 20 minutes.  Doctors are replacing all of a patient’s blood with ice cold saline. This causes brain activity to stop and slows or stops chemical reactions that normally cause damage. Technically, the patient is dead.

Surgeons then have about two hours to do their thing before warming up the patient and restarting his or her heart. The FDA approved the study which plans to put up to ten people in suspended animation. The patients won’t have to consent because they have fatal injuries with no alternative treatment. However, the team did place ads in local newspapers with a web site that allows people to opt out if they don’t want the procedure in the future.

The thawing out remains problematic. As the temperature rises, chemical reactions can cause cellular damage. It appears that the longer you are dead, the worse this damage can be. Doctors hope to find a drug cocktail to help prevent these reperfusion injuries. The goal temperature is 10C and upon rewarming, they bring the patient up to 34C, about 3 degrees low and wait for the body to recover over a 12 hour period in most cases.

Working on pigs, they have been able to keep them cold for 3 hours and revive them. The report isn’t clear on exactly how many of the patients have been frozen and successfully thawed out, nor does it share how well the thawed out patients recovered. Presumably, that will be in the paper they publish next year.

We don’t suggest trying this at home, but it does lead to some interesting questions about your brain and conciousness in general. A few hours won’t get Kahn to Ceti Alpha V, but it could be a start of developing technology that could enable long space flight.

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8 days ago
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15 days ago
Very interesting.
Atlanta, GA
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