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Oakland Sears still hasn’t repaired windows

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For a short time in July, downtown Oakland looked like a ghost town marked by boarded-up windows and graffiti after rioters, angry at the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, swept through the area with masked faces.

But while other small businesses and shops replaced their glass and cleaned up their storefronts within a few weeks, Sears, one of the city’s biggest retailers, still looks practically abandoned almost five months later.

The big building at 1955 Broadway, which spans more than half a block, still has giant sheets of plywood over most of its windows. Almost every opening along the Telegraph Avenue side is blocked out, and the store’s cheery holiday displays on 20th Street are also half hidden by the boards.

Neighbors have spent the past few months asking the store’s managers and the city to fix the storefront, but have gotten no results.

“I walk past it every day – it’s depressing,” said Gilbert Lara, 46, who lives a block away. “It really affects the quality of life in that area because the building’s such a huge presence there.”

Sears, though, has no plans to fix the problem. Howard Riefs, a company spokesman, said that because the windows are difficult to replace, the store has no time frame for when repairs will begin and end.

“The custom windows date back to the 1930s, and replacing them is more complicated than those in a typical building,” he said.

Lara said neighbors, after hearing a similar response from Sears, went to the city for help. Under Oakland’s municipal code, inspectors can cite businesses or individuals for building code violations or blight.

Rachel Flynn, director of Oakland’s Department of Planning and Building, said the agency tries to work with property owners on a resolution before issuing citations or fees. A few months ago, she said, inspectors informed Sears that it could not have exposed and unfinished wood on its windows, prompting the store to paint the plywood.

When the city continued to get complaints about the windows, inspectors cited the business last month for general blight, Flynn said. Sears was given a month to respond to the citation with a plan to fix the issue.

“Our goal is to always to work with property owners and see what can be done and what is reasonable,” she said. “That’s what we’ll have to do.”

Lara said while no downtown business deserved to be vandalized in July, the majority of them – many small, local businesses with considerably less wealth than corporations like Sears – had taken care of their damage within a week. But almost five months later, Sears still can’t seem to get it together.

“I stopped following up because we were just getting the same answer and nothing was happening,” he said. “It feels like no one cares about this neighborhood.”

What’s not working

Issue: The windows of the Sears department store in downtown Oakland remain broken and boarded up from a protest almost five months ago.

What’s been done: Sears representatives said the windows are difficult and expensive to replace, and that they have no timeline for when repairs will begin. City officials said they’re working with Sears to reach a resolution, and have already cited them under the city’s municipal code for a blight violation. Sears officials have a month to come up with a plan to fix the windows

Who’s responsible: Howard Riefs, director of communications, Sears Holdings Corp. – Howard.Riefs@ searshc.com, (847) 286-8371. Rachel Flynn, director of Oakland’s Department of Planning and Building – RFlynn@oaklandnet.com, (510) 238-2229.

Is there a ‘dark side’ to Amazon drones, Google robots?

I’ve got Amazon.com drones in my future.

I use Amazon’s Prime delivery service for everything from rechargable batteries to art books to beef jerky, and so I was quite taken aback when CEO Jeff Bezos showcased a drone delivery system called Prime Air on 60 Minutes this past weekend. The idea is that packages below five pounds could be delivered straight from Amazon distribution centers to customers within 30 minutes using drones.

For now, it seems like half pipe dream, half pseudo-marketing: As many have observed, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the 60 Minutes segment aired on Sunday ahead of Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year — a good time for Amazon to be in the news.

Since Sunday’s show, media coverage of Bezo’s plan has overwhelmingly focused on the technical and logistical aspects of Prime Air.

For example, will the FAA be okay with all these drones flying around? Are they safe enough to fly around crowded cities and neighborhoods? And can Amazon economically operate what would be a presumably large fleet of drones?

And Amazon’s not the only one in this game. The Verge reported that United Parcel Service is researching delivery drones, too.

Additionally, we learned this week that Google acquired seven robotics companies, which, according to a New York Times report, “are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot.”

Remember, Google has been experimenting with driverless cars, and is actually running a same-day delivery service in California, so it is definitely interested in humanless logistics, for lack of a better term.

The Dark Side

I find it a bit disturbing how little conversation there is about the possible negatives of replacing humans with machines for things like delivering packages.

Here’s a passage from the Times’ article that actually startled me a bit:

A realistic case, according to several specialists, would be automating portions of an existing supply chain that stretches from a factory floor to the companies that ship and deliver goods to a consumer’s doorstep.

“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

In terms of the massive opportunity, it certainly isn’t for the middle class. Mr. McAfee himself discussed this issue in a June piece from the M.I.T. Technology Review, fittingly titled “How Technology Destroys Jobs”:

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

And what about the people who make a living in the back rooms of grocery stores? Should we simply write them off as left behind because machines are more productive?

Here’s more from the Times’ on Google’s Andy Rubin, the engineer behind the Android operating system who is now heading up the company’s robotics effort:

“I have a history of making my hobbies into a career,” Mr. Rubin said in a telephone interview. “This is the world’s greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself.”

He used the example of a windshield wiper that has enough “intelligence” to operate when it rains, without human intervention, as a model for the kind of systems he is trying to create. That is consistent with a vision put forward by the Google co-founder Larry Page, who has argued that technology should be deployed wherever possible to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

Well, there are a lot of people who earn honest livings from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

My father dropped out of school at a pretty early age. But he went to trucking school and learned a skill that allowed him to earn a good living doing something he enjoyed. In fact, he’d still be doing it at 71 if he could get his big belly up into the cab.

Nonetheless, as much as he liked his job, he certainly experienced a lot of drudgery and repetition — there was a lot of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to do round trips from Brooklyn to Indiana, and an awful lot of late nights on the road.

But would it have been better for that job to not exist?

The Great Debate

There’s no standing in the way of technological advancement. But we shouldn’t gloss over the inevitable friction that comes with evolution, especially since in this case, the end result looks like a class war.

The victims of this relentless innovation in automation will be, at least initially, people who work in factories, for delivery services, and in service industries like retail — not the programmers and entrepreneurs who reap the economic benefits of increased productivity.

The good news is that a truly automated world still seems pretty far off.

But that’s exactly why we should be talking about it now.

‘Sound of Music’: Laura Benanti talks live performance, Carrie Underwood, and why musicals are ready for a comeback

The Sound of Music Live! - Season 2013

 

 

TV fans may already know Laura Benanti from roles on Go On, The Playboy Club, Law and Order:SVU, and many others. And of course theater lovers have long been fans of the Tony-winning Broadway performer. On Thursday night, the two worlds merged when Benanti stole the show as Elsa in NBC’s ratings smash Sound of Music Live!, leading more than a few viewers to hope that Captain von Trapp might end up with her as opposed to Maria.

While nothing so sacrilegious happened, Benanti is enjoying increased attention since the broadcast. EW talked with the actress Friday afternoon about her day-of prep, tweeting offstage, and what she’s planning next.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, congratulations. If Twitter is any indication, people are loving you particularly.
LAURA BENANTI:
 Team Elsa! That makes me so happy. #GaysForElsa. I was so happy to see that, I literally gained 3,000 Twitter followers in three hours.

That’s nuts! The Baroness is making a comeback.
I know, man. I worked very hard to make her a person and not just a villain, so I was happy people felt that. It’s a tricky role, and it took work to make her more layered than that. I’m glad that that seems to have been effective.

I know you played Maria on Broadway in 1998. What made you want to come back to this piece in particular?
I love [chairman of NBC Entertainment] Bob Greenblatt; he’s really looked out for me. It just felt like a time in my life to come full circle. The Sound of Music was at the beginning of my career, it’s what started me. It just felt like a nice thing to do around the holidays. I love Bob and I love NBC, and I was excited to work with this cast.

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Take me through your day before showtime.
I got up, I worked out with Christian Borle and Stephen Moyer in the little tiny gym in our hotel. We went to rehearsal, we rehearsed in our street clothes, and then we ate and I took a nap and then we performed for America! [Laughs] Yup, no big deal. I was literally pooping my pants. I was so scared. I have never been that scared in my life.

You’re obviously a pro at the live aspect. What was different about performing for the camera as opposed to an audience? The fact that there wasn’t any clapping threw me.
18.5 million people watched! So when my train got stepped on, 18.5 million people saw me try to react to that, instead of 1,000 people. So that to me was the craziest thing. But I’m glad that we didn’t have an audience. Because when you have an audience, even when you’re acting to camera, you tend to play to the audience and that would have made our performances too big for the camera.

Did you give any advice to Carrie Underwood?
No, she didn’t need my advice. She was so brave and she worked so hard and I think she had such tremendous heart to open herself up in that way to something she had never done before and to do it in front of millions of people. She knows what it’s like to perform live; she doesn’t need any help from me.

Talk to me about working with Christian Borle. Watching the two of you play off each other — like in “How Can Love Survive” — was such a high point.
He is maybe my favorite scene partner I’ve ever had. He’s so playful and so smart and so funny. He makes me laugh harder than anybody makes me laugh. Every time that we do it is new. He’s always listening, he’s always thinking of something, he’s really, truly remarkable. He’s so fun.

Anything surprise you last night?
When my dress got stepped on! That surprised me. [Laughs] Honestly, I’m surprised that we didn’t have any mistakes. Considering what an enormous feat it is to do anything for three hours, I can’t believe that nothing bad happened. That’s what surprised me: how smoothly it went.

Right before showtime, were you all together?
Yes. We were all together, which was really beautiful. We were all together in one big hair/makeup room. The nuns were singing, the kids were singing, we were all hugging each other. It really became like a family. It was a tremendous group of people. And I have to say, I think that’s a real testament to this Broadway community, because the majority of the people in this show in the ensemble are Broadway people, and there is just a generosity to the theatrical community that permeates everything. So I was very happy for Carrie and Stephen to get to feel that.

Big burning question: About 30 seconds after you were done, you immediately tweeted. Was someone holding your phone backstage?
I had my phone backstage in my little cubicle that I shared with Ariane [Rinehart], who played Liesl. … I literally walked offstage, grabbed my phone and tweeted it. I thought that would be funny. … [Post-show] we all had a party and hung out and ate food and drank. Some of the nuns had written a song for Carrie that they performed. Mostly we just hugged each other because we’re all sad it’s over.

The ratings for this were huge!
They were huge! Which is exciting, because to me that says they’re going to do it again. And let me tell you something: I’m so excited that people who aren’t necessarily familiar with musical theater or who don’t have a theater in their hometown or don’t live anywhere near a metropolis, the idea that musical theater is coming into people’s living rooms again makes me so happy.

I would love to see musicals make a comeback.
Right? I would too. Not to mention the fact that Broadway has become so prohibitively expensive. If you could see a Broadway show basically in your living room in your bathrobe once a year? How great.

Speaking of listening to Broadway in your bathrobe, what can you tell me about your new cabaret CD In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention?
I’ve been doing these sort of one-woman shows all over the country, and I thought that would be a really good way to dip my toe into the album water. Because I’ve not known what I’ve wanted to do in terms of a studio album, because I have such eclectic tastes in music. But I also like the fact that I am a live performer. In this day and age where everybody is Auto-Tuned within an inch of their life, it’s nice to have an album where you can say, “This person isn’t Auto-Tuned at all!” And there’s some mistakes here and there, but this is live. And I like the idea of people getting to hear the patter in between the songs. You get a sense of how silly I am, which a lot of people don’t know. [Note: As evidence, check her hilarious Tonys performance this past year.]

Actually, Matthew Perry came up with the title. I had been calling my show Let Me Entertain You, as a nod toGypsy, and he said, “Look, that’s fine, but it’s sort of boring and people need to know how weird you are.” And I said, “OK.” So he came up with the title, and I’m really proud of it. … I feel like when you listen to the album, you feel like you’re there, and again, not everybody can get to a cabaret space, so this is like hearing a show, but you get to do it from the comfort of your own home.

If NBC does something like this again, what production would you like to see?
I want them to do something with me! [Laughs] I would like to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. They will never do that. … I think it has to stay in the family-friendly zone. Peter Pan, maybe?

My pick is Cinderella.
Cinderella would be great! You know that has been done [on TV]. White Christmas? It could be Christian Borle and Stephen Moyer and then me and Audra [McDonald]!

We’re so there.

Too fast and furious: Some say Hollywood needs to take more responsibility for its action films

In a sad twist of fate this past weekend, Paul Walker – the star of the “Fast & Furious” film franchise – was killed alongside friend Roger Rodas in an explosive car crash in Santa Clarita, Calif. But as life seemingly imitates art, many are questioning how much responsibility Hollywood movies like “Fast” carry when it comes to glorifying reckless driving.

“Movies are about fantasy, but they have real-life impact. The lesson Hollywood should be teaching is to live responsibly, but too few in Hollywood live that way,” Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture at the Media Research Institute, told FOX411. “Everything Hollywood does influences our culture.”

“Fast & Furious,” which was midway through filming its seventh installment when Walker died, is certainly not the only movie that glorifies pushing a vehicle at crazy speeds. There’s “Getaway” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds” – to name just a couple more.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, speeding as a contributing factor in fatal auto wrecks has increased by a whopping 30 percent between 2000 and 2011. Last week, President Obama spoke to entertainment industry executives at DreamWorks Animation’s campus in Glendale, Calif., urging them to take “responsibility” when it comes to guns and on-screen violence. But some in show business say that is not the only issue that needs to be addressed.

“Hollywood does not present the challenges of driving in a realistic manner,” said entertainment attorney Julian Chan. “It often shows people easily getting out of crashes and rarely shows bystanders being injured.

“But street racing or reckless driving does not seem to be one of the hot topics. Treating reckless driving as something glamorous without consequences encourages people to emulate such behavior off the set. Perhaps now is the time to present the risks of high-speed driving in the same light – but maybe that is just not as ‘sexy’ a difference as guns are for the political climate.”

Others staunchly defended the film franchise need for speed, and Hollywood’s creative license in general.

“The industry’s role is to be true to the craft of filmmaking and to provide talented creator with a platform,” said producer Madison Jones, co-founder of De Passe Jones. “I don’t believe a creator should follow any other muse than his or her creative inspiration.”

The issue has also prompted debate amid the Twitterverse.

“Sometimes even Hollywood can’t separate movies from reality #Paul Walker. His movies took a lot of lives including his own,” wrote one fan, as others argued that you “can’t blame” the movie machine for the tragedy.

Hollywood producer Gary Michael Walters noted that films reflect American society, and he said totally curbing visceral action and violence would have very little impact on society at-large.

“We should always be aware of our responsibility here and not pursue every drop of profit at any cost,” he said. “It is easy to point the finger at Hollywood, but even a complete whitewashing of Hollywood films would have minimal impact on these circumstances.”

Filming for “Fast 7” was shut down after the Walker tragedy, but it is expected that it will resume and that the film will be released next summer. Given the nature of the circumstances, though, the studio may tread more carefully with its marketing this time around. The trailer for the sixth installment included everything from hand-to-hand combat, gun fights, at least six car crashes, explosions and even a tank crushing cars on a highway.

“Unless someone wants to claim that is responsible behavior, they are going to have to play it low-key,” Gainor said.

‘Family Guy’s’ Brian coming back in upcoming episode?

Family Guy 660 AP

Anyone up for a Christmas miracle? Just weeks after the controversial death of “Family Guy‘s” Brian Griffin, it sounds like we might be seeing America’s favorite atheist pooch again really soon.

Fueling speculation that Brian’s passing was merely a publicity stunt, the official description for the Dec. 15 episode — cryptic as it may be — strongly suggests that Brian (Seth MacFarlane) will be returning to the land of the living.

On the Christmas episode, “Stewie devises a master plan to get the one and only thing he wants for Christmas,” according to the official description from Fox. And, as pointed out by Entertainment Weekly, the network lists Brian as a character on the episode.

Another indicator that Brian will be back for good is that several episodes this season feature his name in their titles.

MORE: Brian Dies On ‘Family Guy’

Even if Brian does return, one question remains: What’s going to happen to Vinny, the dog who quickly replaced Brian after his untimely demise? Tony Sirico, who voices the character, recently signed on to do six episodes, suggesting Vinny will be sticking around even after Brian comes back.

A popular theory floating around the internet is that Vinny, or his owner, was driving the car that hit and killed Brian. There was, after all, a time lapse between Brian’s death and Vinny’s adoption.

Regardless of whether or not that theory turns out to be true, let’s hope his stay with the Griffin family ends better than “New” Brian’s did.

California dad, daughter sentenced in vigilante attack

A Riverside County father and teen daughter have each been placed on four years’ probation after pleading guilty to charges in a vigilante attack on a man the girl had accused of rape.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise reports 36-year-old David Ray Mills pleaded guilty Tuesday to being an accessory to the attack. His 16-year-old daughter pleaded guilty to assault and both also were sentenced to time served.

Prosecutors say the pair watched her friend 21-year-old Andre Dickerson beat Miguel Esteban Cruz with a bat at a Temecula park in January. Cruz suffered skull fractures, broken bones and missing teeth.

Dickerson pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to six years in prison.

The girl claimed Cruz raped her in November 2012 after she passed out after drinking alcohol at his home.