Saturday, October 31, 2009

Stimulus: $250,000 Per Job (Allegedly) Created

The stimulus program has created or saved just over 640,000 jobs so far, the Obama administration claimed yesterday. Based on $159 billion in spending so far of the total $787 billion, each job (allegedly) "saved or created" has cost American taxpayers $248,500. According to a report on ABC's World News Tonight last evening, when confronted by this math, the White House characterized it dismissively as "calculator abuse."

According to NBC, the majority of those jobs (325,000) were teachers and other school employees. What's their average salary, I wonder? Probably significantly under $50,000 per year, I would guess. So why the other $200K on average for each job?
To make matters worse, this stimulus money has been effectively borrowed from the Chinese and other creditors of the Federal government, meaning that we'll continue to pay interest on these amounts as well for the foreseeable future, since the government can't afford to repay these loans.
Where is this taking us? Maybe, like the image above, to 7734 upside down on that calculator we're abusing....

In Search Of.... The Amityville Horror

In honor of Halloween today, I re-watched an episode of the old television show "In Search Of..." that profiled the Amityville Horror. I loved "In Search Of..." as a kid in the 70s. As a result, I've enjoyed periodically re-watching some of the old episodes that have now been posted on You Tube, and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the assertions made and explanations proffered for the "phenomena" they examined. This episode originally aired in October 1979, just months after the famous horror film of the same name was first released in theaters to huge box office success. "What's not commonly known," Leonard Nimoy intones solemnly at the start of this episode, "is that the film is actually based on fact. It's a true story..." Well, not quite, as it turns out.

The movie was based on real life events of the Lutz family, who experienced a series of frightening paranormal events immediately after moving into their new home at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island in December 1975, where only a year before a man had shot and killed six members of his own family. The Lutz family fled the house only 28 days after moving in, however, claiming to have been terrorized by a series of strange phenomena, including doors mysteriously slamming, green slime oozing from the walls, and by frighteningly vivid nightmares about the prior murders, among many other things. Their experiences were first published as a book in 1977, and that book was, in turn, adapted into the film of the same name in 1979.

But over the years, doubts began to mount about the veracity of the Lutz's claims. Among other things, it was later revealed that the Lutz family never once called the police during their alleged 28 day "nightmare" stay in the house. And no subsequent owners of the house ever experienced anything similar. The priest who allegedly performed an exorcism at the house at the behest of the Lutz family later gave several inconsistent accounts of his actual involvement. He claimed at one point in a sworn affidavit only to have ever talked to the Lutzs by telephone. Further, in the September 17, 1979 issue of "People" magazine, a lawyer named William Weber stated, "I know this book is a hoax. We created this horror story over many bottles of wine." According to Weber, George Lutz merely wanted to get out from under a mortgage that he couldn't afford because his business was faltering. Weber later filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Lutzs, alleging that they reneged on a book deal with him and instead went with another publisher.

George and Kathy Lutz divorced in the 1980s. Kathy died in 2004. George Lutz died in 2006, still claiming that the events portrayed were "mostly true." Embedded below is part 1 of this episode of "In Search Of..." which features interviews with the George and Kathy Lutz, as well as with the priest who allegedly performed the exorism (in the only on-camera interview he ever gave). The sincerity in their voices as they describe their experiences in convincing detail is remarkable, given subsequent revelations. Were they each just putting on an "act" for the television cameras? Or had they actually managed to convince themselves over time of the veracity of their own story?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jobs "Saved Or Created" By Stimulus Overstated

Embedded below is a 2 minute segment from last night's CBS Evening News about how claims in a previous White House report that hundreds of thousands of jobs have been "saved or created" by stimulus funds have since been proven to be wildly inaccurate by reviewing specific claims from individual projects.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

FMC Is The "Channel of the Apes" This Weekend

This weekend the Fox Movie Channel is running all of the 1960's and 1970's Planet of the Apes movies, as well as the short lived 1974 television show, back-to-back (starting this morning), touting itself as the "Channel of the Apes."

The original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" starring Charlton Heston is one of my all-time favorite movies. I was hooked from the first time I saw that Statue of Liberty at the end of the film. I was watching it on television as a young kid in the mid-1970s, home sick from elementary school. My eyes almost bugged out of my head when I saw that for the first time. And right then and there I began a passionate multi year "love-hate" relationship with the franchise as a child. On the one hand, because I was fascinated by the whole concept I faithfully watched all of the films whenever they were re-run on TV, as well as the television series. And I begged my parents (successfully) to buy me the "action figures" and their various playsets. But on the other hand, it may have all been a little much for me as as a 7 year old, especially the iconic sequence in the first film where the apes on horseback are gunning down humans in a cornfield as they flee in terror. That gave me nightmares for years. As a result, throughout the rest of my elementary school days, if I found myself in an unfamiliar place (say a friend's house or a shopping mall, for instance), I would not infrequently catch myself unconsciously looking around to see where I might hide if, "the apes come."
Anyway, I've seen these films and the TV show countless dozens of times. So I won't be watching them this weekend on the Fox Movie Channel. But I noticed that they are also airing a 45 minute documentary about the making of the series called "Evolution of the Apes" that I've never seen before and will TIVO.

Good For Her: Hillary Clinton's Candor In Pakistan

I'm not a big Hillary Clinton fan. But I'm not a hater either. I'm not sure whether she really is being marginalized in the Obama administration despite being Secretary of State, as has been rumored. But I really liked a couple of the blunt responses she gave yesterday to some questions asked of her during her state visit to Pakistan.

She said that she believed the government there was harboring top al Qaeda leaders. ("I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to.") And in response to a question predicated on the belief that new restrictions on a multi-billion dollar foreign aid package to Pakistan requiring the country not to support terrorist groups was "insulting," she said firmly, "Pakistan doesn't have to take this money. Let me be very clear, you do not have to take this money. And if Pakistan doesn't want the money, we're not going to impose it on you." Good for her.

I'm not sure how productive it will have been for our foreign policy in general (and our relations with Pakistan in particular) to have our Secretary of State say such things so openly. But you know what, it felt good anyway. Embedded below is a 2 minute segment from the CBS Evening News last night about this.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bumper Sticker Hypocrite

I dislike bumper stickers. Of any type. Be they "Obama-Biden" or "McCain-Palin." "NRA" or "Amnesty International." I dislike the Christian fish symbol as much as the parody thereof (you know: the one with feet and the name "Darwin" inside). In my experience, the people who put bumper stickers on their cars, while passionate about whatever cause they're celebrating, tend to have an inversely proportional depth of knowledge about the underlying issue. I've also found that "bumper sticker people" are frequently a little insecure themselves, and more often than not are also a little self-absorbed, at least outwardly. With that caveat in mind, the following happened to me this afternoon.

As I was driving home I noticed a car down the street on my left making an illegal right hand turn at the intersection without stopping. Then it accelerated rapidly up behind me and passed me on the right doing maybe 40 mph. That got my attention because there was only one lane and because this was in a school zone (the local elementary school) with a speed limit of 25 mph. In the rear window of that car passing me, a BMW station wagon being driven by a blonde woman in her early 40s, was a bumper sticker similar to the one above which read "Obama Mama." That struck me because just ahead of "Obama Mama" was the school crosswalk. She accelerated through that crosswalk without hesitation, too, maybe pushing 50 mph, and quickly zoomed out of sight. What are the chances, I thought as she disappeared, that if I followed her home and engaged her in conversation on the sidewalk that I would like her? What would I find less appealing: her shallow yet zealous "progressive" politics, or her wallowing in her status as a mother while thoughtlessly endangering the children of others? (What, was she late to her pilates class?) And would President Obama like her any more than me? I doubt it.

This is Why You're Fat

If you haven't heard of it yet, you might enjoy the blog at It posts photos and descriptions of some of the most insanely unhealthy foods and desserts ever devised by man. One of the most recent is of Burger King Japan's new 7-layered Whopper pictured above (apparently in celebration of the release of Microsoft's "Windows 7"?!?).

Want to see what deep fried pork rinds look like? Or a deep fried Ultimate Cheeseburger ? Or bologna fries? Or a 2 lb. ground beef and sausage sandwich made with two "Tombstone" pizzas as bread?
If so, you now know where to go....

Woman Who Offered Sex For World Series Tickets

Did you hear about the 43 year old Philadelphia woman, Susan Finkelstein, who was arrested for prostitution after she posted an ad on Craigslist titled "DESPERATE BLONDE NEEDS WS TIX." The ad went on to read, "Diehard Phillies fan - gorgeous tall buxom blonde - in desperate need of two World Series Tickets. Price negotiable - I'm the creative type! Maybe we can help each other!"

A police officer answered the ad and arranged to meet her in a bar. Police said she talked of doing sexual favors in exchange for the tickets, which led to her arrest on prostitution and related charges. Embedded below is a 3 minute interview with her that was posted on today:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Obama Advisor On Blackballing Fox But Not MSNBC

Embedded below is a revealing 2 minute clip from CNN yesterday wherein Senior White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett inelegantly (and unconvincingly) discusses the Obama administration's recent decision to "black ball" Fox News. To her credit, CNN's Campbell Brown presses Jarrett on the hypocrisy of that move, while taking no similar action against MSNBC. Here's a couple of sentences from this clip:

Brown: "So do you think Fox News is biased?"
Jarrett: "Well of course they're biased. Of course they are. Hah hah!"
Brown: "Do you also think that MSNBC is biased?"
Jarrett: "Well you know what, this is the thing: I don't, actually, I don't want to just generalize that all of Fox is biased, or that all of another station is biased...."

Wow. "The audacity of hope" indeed. With emphasis on the audacity.

Andre Agassi Admits Doing Crystal Meth

In Andre Agassi's upcoming autobiography (to be released November 9th) he reportedly admits that he used crystal meth in 1997 and lied to tennis authorities when he then failed a drug test as a result. According to the Associated Press, the test result was thrown out by the ATP after he explained to them in a letter that he "unwittingly" took the substance by drinking from a soda that he was unaware had been spiked with meth by his assistant.

Agassi admits now that that was a lie. He reportedly writes in his book that "Slim" was the person who introduced him to crystal methamphetamine by dumping a small pile of powder on a coffee table. ("I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I've just crossed.")
Embedded below is a 45 second television commercial for Mountain Dew starring Andre Agassi which is from that same era. Given his lying explanation to the ATP, it's perhaps unintentionally ironic today.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Man Arrested For Sex With His Car In A Parking Lot

Embedded below is a 2 minute clip about a man recently arrested for apparently having drunken sex with the trunk of his own car in the parking lot of a grocery store. The commentary by Willie Geist in this clip is also pretty funny, I thought:

Monday, October 26, 2009

"60 Minutes" Last Night: Huge Medicare Fraud

Last night's episode of "60 Minutes" examined the phenomenon of increasingly rampant Medicare fraud, currently estimated to cost American taxpayers $60 billion a year. It's embedded below. There were several aspects of this show that I found fascinating, including the revelation that defrauding Medicare is apparently so easy that thousands of low-level street criminals have now become involved. Attorney General Eric Holder explains that, compared to drug dealing, the risks involved are so much lower and the money to be made potentially much bigger. You're not going to be shot at, he says, the chances of being caught and imprisoned are lower (because enforcement has been minimal), and even if you are caught the jail sentences for Medicare fraud are much lower than those for drug dealing. The core of the problem is apparently that Medicare is required by law to pay all claims within 15-30 days, leaving essentially no time for its tiny team of fraud investigators to audit or question any of them. Once the claims are paid, the scammers close up shop and move on quickly, starting again somewhere else.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

What Happens In The Cockpit Stays In The Cockpit

Investigators from the FAA yesterday questioned the captain and first officer of the Northwest Airlines airplane that overshot its destination by 110 miles on a flight to Minneapolis last Wednesday. But they have not yet made any public comment on what the pilots said. While some aviation experts have speculated that the pilots were napping, airline officials said privately that they were skeptical the two men had been sleeping, according to the New York Times. One pilot, who was caught by a news crew as he returned home over the weekend, denied that they were asleep and also denied that they had been arguing, but refused to say anything further about what did happen. The speculation on cable TV news about what actually occurred in the cockpit has turned more "prurient" in the last couple of days, I've noticed.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Remake of "V" To Air On ABC In November

I'm not a big science fiction fan. While I'll go see the occasional summer blockbuster like "I am Legend," I never watched the various "Star Trek" series on television (nor any "Serenity," or "Stargate SG-1," or anything else). But as a kid I did watch with rapt attention the original "V" miniseries on NBC back in 1983, and remember even now the national sensation caused by the initial revelation that the "visitors" were actually reptilian, not human, and that they had really come to harvest the Earth's population as food.

I was reading a magazine yesterday and saw an ad for a new remake of the "V" miniseries that will air on ABC in a couple of weeks. The 3 minute preview posted on didn't do much for me, to be honest. But in case you're curious about it as well, because you too remember all the commotion caused by the original 1980s version, here it is:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Behind War Between White House And Fox News

There's an interesting article in this morning's New York Times headlined "Behind the War between White House and Fox" about the Obama administration's decision to begin treating Fox News more adversarially than it does other media outlets. The focus of their ire is reportedly evening shows hosted by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. You can read it at:

The article concludes as follows, "White House officials said they were happy to have at least started a public debate about Fox. 'This is a discussion that probably had to be had about their approach to things,' Mr. Axelrod said.”

In recent days I've watched extensive coverage of this issue on each of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, a well as network news coverage, both on TV and online, and I've seen scant scant discussion about whether Fox News is a "real news network." Rather, almost all of the press coverage seems to assume that away, instead focussing on the legitimacy of the Obama administration's decision to treat them unequally. And you can see how that debate is playing out by how often the adjective "Nixonian" is used in those discussions, and by the fact that at White House briefings other news organizations, including NBC and ABC, are now asking hostile questions about this.

When the President himself defended this "blackballing" of Fox News to NBC News on Wednesday, he did so using seemingly objective criteria. “What our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes,” he said. “And if media is operating, basically, as a talk radio format, then that’s one thing. And if it’s operating as a news outlet, then that’s another.” But this was less than 48 hours after he had held a private meeting with, as the New York Times itself put it, "a group of mostly liberal columnists and commentators," including Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC.

Why Did That Northwest Plane Fly Past The Airport?

On Wednesday night, Northwest Airlines flight 188 from San Diego overshot its destination airport in Minneapolis by 150 miles, flying on for another 16 minutes before its two pilots discovered their error, turned the plane around and landed it safely. No one was hurt and the passengers didn't even realize that anything unusual had happened at all. It's now emerged, however, that the pilots failed to make radio contact with ground controllers for more than an hour before this occurred. And when air traffic controllers finally regained contact with the pilot, his answers were so vague that they reportedly feared the plane might have been hijacked.

The plane's crew has apparently now explained to authorities that they became distracted during a "heated discussion over airline policy" and lost track of their location. Right. That's like a teenage girl getting into a car accident and then explaining to her father, "I'm so sorry Daddy. I just got so caught up bragging to my friends about what a great daddy you are that I got a little distracted for a minute..." According to CNN, the FAA is investigating whether the pilots may have fallen asleep.
I suppose that the cockpit audio recordings in the plane's "black box" will quickly reveal what really happened. But neither of those two relatively straightforward explanations sound entirely correct to me. Maybe they were talking about basketball, or gladiator films:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

David Letterman's Actions Defended.......In Bed

As a kid you probably heard the old joke that the fortunes inside fortune cookies could be made much funnier if you simply added ".... in bed" at the end as you read them. If you haven't ever tried this, I can assure you it works. Here, try a few for yourself with these sample fortunes:
  • Do not make extra work for yourself
  • A dubious friend may be an enemy in camouflage
  • A soft voice may be awfully persuasive
  • All your hard work will soon pay off
  • Believe in yourself and others will, too
  • Courtesy is contagious
I could go on like that all day. But I mentioned this only because it came to mind as I read a news item this afternoon about the executive producer of "The Late Show With David Letterman," Rob Burnett, defending his production company's treatment of women. He was responding to a letter from the National Organization of Women which alleged in part that Letterman's actions had created a "toxic environment." Here are a two excerpts from Burnett's own response letter. Why does the same "fortune cookie" trick work so well on these, too?
  • "And, as an employee of David Letterman's since 1985, I have personally found the work environment on his shows to be fair, professional and entirely merit-based at all times."
  • "Since that time, our human resources department has consulted every member of the 'Late Show' staff, and not a single complaint has been raised or filed."

Tex Avery Documentary

I mentioned legendary animator Tex Avery in my prior post. While he made animated commercials at the end of his career in the 1960s (most notably for "Raid" bug spray), his legend was made many years earlier, in the 1940s. In 1940 he created arguably the first Bugs Bunny cartoon for Warner Bros. (and came up with the immortal line "What's Up, Doc?"). And later that decade he perfected his signature style at MGM: his characters' exaggerated actions and reactions, and the overt sexuality of some of his female characters (see left). But by all accounts he burned out in the 1950s, first taking an extended leave of absence from MGM in 1950 and then leaving the film business entirely to make television commercials in the 1960s. He died at the age of 72 in 1980, not having lived to see the incredible influence of his work on a next generation of animators and film makers, so evident in the 1988 film, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," as well as "Ren & Stimpy" in the 1990s and even Jim Carey's 1994 movie "The Mask."

Embedded below is part 1 of a one hour documentary made in 1988 about Tex Avery's career:

New CNN Poll On Latinos in America Shows Progress

Sixty-six percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released yesterday say they have some or a lot of contact with Latinos. That's up 15 points from 1990. "The jump in contact is a result of the growing number of Latinos and their growing presence in all 50 states," said CNN polling director Keating Holland. "But familiarity is not the same as knowledge.....Nearly half of people we questioned said they assume that Latinos who they have never met are immigrants, and one in five believe they are illegal immigrants."

The results of this poll, both the hopeful and the disappointing, bring to mind an infamous television advertising campaign for "Fritos" from the late 1960s. They featured an animated character called the "Frito Bandito" who was, quite literally, a cartoonish stereotype. One such commercial is embedded below. This campaign was pulled entirely (and rightly so) in 1971, after outcry from Latino groups. But it is amazing to think that these commercials were aired on television in America as recently as the early 1970s. Or that they were made by legendary animator Tex Avery, and that the voice of the Frito Bandito was supplied by the even-more-legendary Mel Blanc, who was also the voice of iconic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. It does show that attitudes have evolved since then, however, that it would be totally unthinkable to produce advertising like this today.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Sold for $60 Million

The kid's cable television channel "Nickleodeon" (owned by Viacom) has struck a deal today to buy all the rights to the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" for $60 million from the co-owners The Mirage Group and 4 Kids Entertainment. According to the "Los Angeles Times" today, Nickeloden has made this deal because they want to attract more boys to its channel. A new cartoon series is apparently planned, as is a feature film.

If you remember the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" at all, you probably think of their huge popularity in the early 1990s in the wake of their successful cartoon series, which inevitably spawned a seemingly ubiquitous line of action figures and other merchandise. There was a year or two there around 1990 where if you happened to be in a shopping mall or an airport, you couldn't go 10 minutes without seeing a young boy wearing a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" t-shirt, or with one of the dolls dangling listlessly from one hand.
It all started much more humbly, however, as a black and white comic book first published by "Mirage Studios" in 1984. Mirage Studios was actually just two guys, the creators: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They wrote, drew and published the early issues entirely themselves, using money borrowed from family. (They called themselves "Mirage Studios" because there was no "studio" really, just them.) They had only 3,000 copies of the first issue printed, and sold it at a comic book convention being held at a Sheraton hotel in their home state of New Hampshire. The comic book was initially a somewhat crudely drawn parody of the two most popular comic books at that time: "X-Men" (thus the "Teenage" and "Mutant" in the title) and "Daredevil." (The image above is from those early days.)
But it was the Saturday morning cartoon, which started in 1988, that really popularized them. What followed was a textbook case of the power of cartoon marketing to kids. (A vintage commercial for the dolls, featuring clips from the cartoon, is embedded below. See how the artwork and the entire concept itself has been softened from the original black & white image above?) The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" became an unlikely household word there for a time. Eastman and Laird made millions. Imagine what the property would have sold for in those days? A lot more than $60 million, I would have thought.

"Slap Chop" Rap Remix

I'm sure you've seen the infomercial on TV for the "Slap Chop." It's been remixed into a rap/dance track (with 80's break dancers intercut into the video, too) that's oddly catchy:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tonight On ESPN: "Who Killed the USFL?"

Last night during Monday Night Football, ESPN teased a new 1 hour documentary that they are airing tonight called "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" I will definitely be watching. A three minute teaser for it that ESPN posted to You Tube is embedded below. This documentary apparently examines the short life of the upstart USFL pro football league in the mid-1980s, with a heavy focus on Donald Trump, who bought the New Jersey Generals franchise in 1984.

I remember the USFL. I remember it as having a lot more credibility than, say, Vince McMahon's start-up XFL which played only one season 2001. Maybe that's because the USFL had big stars like Hershel Walker, Doug Flutie and Steve Young. While the XFL featured a guy who had "He Hate Me" emblazoned on his jersey. (Though the NFL has adopted that mid field camera-on-a-wire which was pioneered by the XFL.)
The story of the USFL has so many intriguing aspects. But I suppose it's all just sports trivia now, 25 years later. Did you know that Walter Payton turned down a 3-year contract offer from the USFL's Chicago Blitz franchise that at the time was the richest in pro football history? (If he'd accepted, he would not have been on the legendary '85 Bears Super Bowl team.) Or that, after the league's demise, the USFL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL and won after a lengthy and much publicized trial, but was awarded only one dollar in damages?

Fads: Bankrupt By Beanie Babies

Remember the Beanie Babies craze of the late 1990s? Embedded below is an 8 minute documentary that a college student made detailing how, when he was a younger kid, his father became caught up in the mania and ultimately bought 15,000 or so Beanie Babies at the peak of the craze as an "investment."

At one point, the mother (who is clearly a little embittered) says of her husband, "it was always, 'oh, this is for their college education.' And I used to joke, 'what are they going to do, take a basket full of Beanie Babies into the admissions office?'..... Probably for about 6 months from when we started buying them, we were able to kinda realize that we could buy them and then turn around and make a profit on them. Although that was plan, it never happened because we never sold them, we just bought them. We missed that boat. "

Balloon Boy Incident Was Planned, Confirms Friend

Embedded below is an 8 minute segment from the "Today" show this morning. It starts by giving the latest updates on the whole incident and then contains a short interview with a man who says he worked with Richard Heene on a proposed reality show earlier this year (including a potential UFO publicity stunt). He confirms that the whole "balloon boy incident" was planned in advance by Richard, whom he says was driven by the need for more notoriety after his appearances on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap."

A Man, His Toy Collection, And His Wife

I stumbled upon a documentary posted on You Tube about toy collector Mark Bellomo and his tens of thousands of 1980s action figures. His collection is so extensive (as is his detailed knowledge about it), that the documentary runs, amazingly, almost three hours long. It becomes tiring just watching him pull out a seemingly endless number of cardboard boxes full of toys from his storage facility, one after another, and then enthusing and extemporizing in sometimes excruciating detail about the contents of each one. ("This is a mint, boxed Jetfire. Look at that. Isn't that interesting? That's a 'Robotech' insignia on a 'Transformers' piece. I have always found it fascinating: the merging of the lines. And there's a story behind this....")

He has everything from "Voltron" to "The Simpsons" to "Strawberry Shortcake." But by two hours in, even he says to the camera, exasperated, "I am officially sick of G.I. Joe." (You and me both.) I was becoming a bit numb to it all and was about give up on it when my ears pricked up at the very beginning of part 4 (embedded below), when he says as an aside, "when I first met my wife..." What!?! Watching this, it never occurred to me that he might actually be married. He goes on to tell a brief, 30 second story about his future wife's reaction, when they first decided to move in together, to a series of super hero posters that he had framed and hanging all over his bedroom. (Perhaps not surprisingly, despite filming in his house for over an hour, his wife never appears in the documentary herself.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Solar Power Plants Vs. California Desert Tortoises

Several companies seeking to build solar energy facilities on public land in the California desert have been stalled because of outcry by environmentalists over their potentially disruptive impact on imperiled species and rare plants there, according to an article in the "Los Angeles Times" today. Of particular concern, according to this article, are plans to move the California desert tortoises. Environmentalists say the tortoises often die as a result of attempts to relocate them.

Jarringly inappropriate pairings with Vanilla Ice have in the past caused particularly lethal confusion, apparently ....

Pot And Grammar: How Much Is "Too Much"?

Thinking back now, my 7th grade English teacher had, I'm pretty sure, a borderline dysfunctional obsession with the increasing acceptance in public life (i.e. on television, on street signs, in advertising or in retail stores, for example) of grammatical errors or improper English phraseology. A particular thorn for him was the "Nine items or less" sign in grocery stores, which should really read, "Nine items or fewer." He offered us extra credit if we could, at any time during the school year, produce evidence of these linguistic transgressions. You know what? He may have been a little crazy about this, but his offer of extra credit did open my eyes to how pervasive this really was in the real world. And that was 25 years ago.

This ad from my local newspaper caught my eye for the same reason. The bold headline suggests that they want to help people stop smoking "too much" pot. How much is "too much," the casual reader is left to wonder? And what amount would they cut you down to as part of their treatments?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

NFL And Rush Limbaugh: Some Real Quotes

I'm not a Rush Limbaugh fan. But I'm not a "hater" either. I simply think that his real influence is overstated by both his supporters and his detractors. And he's laughing all the way to the bank. While I don't listen to his radio show, I was angered by the way he was so easily an eagerly labelled a racist in the mainstream media last week once it was revealed that he was part of a bid for the NFL's St. Louis Rams. I watched on-air commentators, anchors and/or invited guests on each of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News readily and repeatedly attribute fake racist quotes to him. I have found the seeming lack of subsequent on-air apologies (or even just "mea culpas") both disappointing and eye-opening. Instead, the next day many merely retreated unapologetically (and without explanation) to a more tepid 2003 quote from Rush Limbaugh about Donovan McNabb.

That being said, I also saw a segment on Geraldo Rivera's show on Fox News last night that, I thought, laid out a different, and perhaps more compelling case for why Rush Limbaugh was unceremoniously dumped by his group bidding for the Rams. They aired a string of real segments from Rush Limbaugh's radio show. The remarks weren't racist. But they alluded to President Obama's mixed race for the most part. Taken out of context like that and strung together one after another, they seemed very calculated, baiting and maybe even intentionally provocative. If I were an NFL owner, this incendiary style (regardless of political viewpoint) might make me think twice before approving him as an owner, even if some of them might sympathize with his views. ("Man, I do not need this. I don't want to be asked every few days about something Rush Limbaugh said on his show the day before.") The segments from Rush's show start at the 3 minute mark of the clip from last night's episode of "Geraldo At Large" embedded below:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fads: Rubik's Cube

When you think about it, national fads are fascinating in the abstract as social phenomena. Remember that sudden collective epiphany in December 1996 by seemingly every "loving" parent in America that they had to buy their child a "Tickle Me Elmo" for Christmas (leading to near riots at dawn at stores across the country)? Or when millions of Americans, young and old, found themselves compelled to wear t-shirts in the summer of 1980 proudly emblazoned with the phrase, "I shot JR"? There's something very intriguing about the unlikely combination of the mass hysteria created out of nowhere, and the utter triviality of the underlying cause. Perhaps counterintuitively, it seems to me that fads like these seem to sweep the country much less frequently today (in the internet age) than they did before.

But I'm not as interested in the sociology of fads as I am in just remembering the moments themselves. In that spirit embedded below is a 6 minute segment from an early 1980s episode of "That's Incredible!" The first 3 minutes feature a nationwide "Cube-A-Thon" tournament to find the person (well let's be honest: the teenaged boy) in America who could solve a Rubik's Cube the fastest. The haircuts and fashions in this clip are great. But could you imagine today thousands of people of all ages patiently lining up for hours in public for a chance to play with a little plastic cube whose solution is fundamentally mathematical? Those were the days...

Balloon Boy Was Really Hunting UFOs, Not Weather

During the breathless news coverage of the "balloon boy" story a few days ago, and the somewhat outraged coverage that has followed in its aftermath, the balloon in question has been consistently characterized as a "home-made weather balloon." But the truth may be stranger.

As you may know, the Heene family (including "balloon boy") had been featured twice on the ABC reality TV show "Wife Swap," most recently in an episode that aired this March. In the 1 minute introduction to that March 2009 episode embedded below, the father, Richard Heene is described as a "French scientist and inventor" whose goal is to have his family, "build a flying saucer and hunt for UFOs, as they hope to find evidence supporting their belief that all humans are descended from aliens."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy's Lie Detector Goes Off On Today Show

I feel badly for 6 year old Falcon Heene (aka "Balloon Boy"). His parents are doing the poor little guy no favors by subjecting him to repeated live interviews about the "incident" yesterday.

First he created a mild uproar last night when he explained on Larry King Live, "Um, you guys said, that, um, we did this for the show." Then this morning, just hours later, he vomited into a plastic container when his father, Richard, was asked on the "Today" show what he meant by that quote. (That clip is embedded below.) And when asked the same question during ABC's "Good Morning America" within minutes, Falcon said,"Mom, I feel like I'm going to vomit" and then left the room and could be heard gagging.
If he weren't so young, I would think the "reverse peristalsis lie detector" is actually pretty funny. (If you could please just hold this Tupperware bowl under your chin while we ask you a few questions....)
But he is very young and that makes a big difference to me. What were his parents thinking when they had the little guy sit for the second live interview this morning after already throwing up once? It almost seems like they're becoming increasingly desperate as Falcon unwittingly digs them into a deeper and deeper hole with each subsequent "explanation."

Where The Wild Things Are (Animated Version)

I really want Spike Jonze's movie adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" to be good. Maurice Sendak's original children's book was one of my favorites as a young kid in the 1970s. I must confess, though, that one of the reasons I liked the book so much was that it was short. (I didn't like to read very much as a child.) It was less than 40 pages, many with no words at all. It was so short, in fact, that it was faithfully adapted in a 6 minute animated short made in 1973 (embedded below). If you're thinking of seeing the new movie, which is being released today, you might want to refresh your recollection of the source material by watching this:

Given that this faithful animated version is only 6 minutes long, I wonder how faithful to the original source material the movie could be, since it's running time is apparently a more fulsome 1 hour 40 minutes. But the "New York Times" gave the film a positive review in this morning's edition (describing it as an, "alternately perfect and imperfect if always beautiful adaptation"). The 2 minute trailer for the film is embedded below. If you watch it just after viewing the animated version above, you can get a feel, I think, for how the tone of the film may differ from that of the book.

Was "Balloon Boy" Really Just A Publicity Stunt?

By now I'm sure you've heard about the frantic couple of hours yesterday afternoon during which all three cable news networks breathlessly followed the home-made weather ballon pictured above as it floated across the Colorado plains toward Denver, apparently with a six year old boy named Falcon Heene trapped inside. Soon after the balloon finally landed and Falcon was not, in fact, found inside, the little boy was revealed to have been hiding in the attic above the garage in his family home all along.

When I first found out that the little boy had been hiding at home the whole time, I placed most of the blame for the "much ado about nothing" on the cable news networks themselves, who seem increasingly willing to leap to dire conclusions about live events and to cover them in a non-stop, sensationalized way as "breaking news." (Remember a few weeks ago on September 11th when CNN broke into its regular programming with live coverage of what it said was a potential terrorist attack by speedboats on the Potomac River, only to have to admit later on that it was actually just a Coast Guard training exercise?)
But then as the evening wore on last night, it was revealed that the Falcon's parents had previously been on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap." And the description of the father's profession in various news reports ("amateur scientist" or "retired weather chaser," for example) seemed very vague and sketchy. Could this have actually been a big publicity stunt cooked up by the parents? No way, I first thought.
But then the family was interviewed on CNN's "Larry King Live" last night. In the 2 minute clip embedded below, Wolf Blitzer, who was sitting in for Larry King, asked the boy (through his father) why he had hidden for so long in the attic, despite hearing his parents calling out and looking for him repeatedly. "Um, you guys said, that,um, we did this for the show" he says to his father, Richard. Richard Heene's fumbling response on live TV to this embarrassing admission by his son is very telling, I thought, and almost (but not quite) painful to watch.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Simpsons: An Unauthorized, Uncensored History

"The Simpsons" is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, dating back to my college days in early 1990 when a friend recommended in passing that I watch one of the first, crudely drawn episodes airing to little fanfare on the then-fledgling Fox Network. I was hooked from the start and still watch the show today. Much to my wife's dismay, my young daughter even likes the show now. So I'll definitely be buying a new book released yesterday, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

The book's author, John Ortved, wrote a story for "TheDailyBeast.Com" about how uncooperative Fox, Matt Groening and James L. Brooks were with the project. One quote from this article really caught my eye since I had always viewed Matt Groening as the undisputed, beloved creator of the main characters and of the show itself, and since I had seen a "60 Minutes" profile of Sam Simon years ago that explained he had left the show after the first few years.
"One witness to the early days was particularly annoyed that Groening took so much credit for the show’s success, when 'the fat fu** just sat up in his office all day, figuring out ways to make more money [with merchandising]' while Sam Simon and the writers churned out brilliant script after brilliant script."
That's piqued my curiosity, for sure. (And probably piqued a few other people as well.)

Paul Anka Writes The Songs

You may have seen the news earlier this week that Paul Anka will reportedly receive 50 percent of the publishing rights from the new Michael Jackson single “This Is It” after it was discovered following its debut on Monday that it was in fact a song Jackson and Anka co-wrote in 1983. Anka had reportedly threatened legal action. The song is the centerpiece of the upcoming soundtrack to Jackson rehearsal documentary This Is It.

Did you know that the legendary 68 year old singer-songwriter also wrote the theme song to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," as well as one of Tom Jones' biggest hits, "She's a Lady," and the lyrics to Frank Sinatra's "My Way"?

The "Public Option" Lives

It seems like just days ago that the press was rife with stories that the so-called "public option" was dead, a result of uncompromising opposition from both republicans and moderate democrats in the US Senate. But growing fears of potentially higher costs of private health insurance after health care reform legislation is enacted, as well as lingering mistrust of health insurance companies are apparently reviving interest in the Senate in letting the government sell health insurance as part of reform. The insurance industry may have unwittingly helped the case for a "public option" by issuing a report last weekend asserting the bill being considered by the Senate Finance Committee would raise premiums for everyone, according to the Associated Press today.

When I Met Marcus Allen (Just Don't Tell OJ)

Writing about having met Junior Seau reminded me that I also once met another NFL Hall of Famer (who also happens to be from San Diego), running back Marcus Allen.

It was in the spring of 1989, during my freshman year at UCLA. I had lost the "dorm lottery" at the start of the school year and so had to live off-campus in an apartment complex in Westwood. I was riding down in the elevator one saturday afternoon with one of my roommates to go out to lunch. But before we got to the ground floor, the elevator stopped and in walked Marcus Allen accompanied by a beautiful blonde woman. My roommate was a heavy set guy who didn't know much about sports. But he got star struck easily (and often, living where we did). So as soon as Marcus gets in the elevator, my roommate looks straight at him and exclaims (way too loudly for the confined space), "No way! You're Tony Dorsett!"

There was about a half second pause where I wasn't sure whether Marcus Allen was offended. But if he was, he caught himself quickly and smiled back and said "no" in a very gracious way, with a knowing glance at the blonde. Undaunted, my roommate pointed at him and tried again, "Franco Harris!?!" That was so insane, it caused all three of us (other than my roommate) to laugh out loud. When the laughter subsided, the woman said sweetly, "He's Marcus Allen." And just then the elevator doors opened and we all went our separate ways forever.
It wasn't until five years later, in 1994, among all the publicity about the murders of OJ Simpson's estranged wife Nicole and waiter Ronald Goldman that I realized the woman in the elevator that day with Marcus Allen was Nicole Brown Simpson herself.
My college apartment complex was renowned at the time for temporarily housing rich divorcees from the area before their divorces were finalized. Just a few months before that elevator ride, OJ Simpson had been arrested on New Years Day 1989 at his Brentwood mansion, just a few miles from that apartment, on charges of spousal battery. (Remember the recording of that infamous 911 call by Nicole?) And during OJ's 1995 murder trial, rumors swirled that, in addition to being a good friend of OJ, Marcus Allen had also had an affair with Nicole.
That was quite a 15 second elevator ride, on hindsight.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Search Of.....Troy

As I've mentioned here before, when I grew up as a kid in the 1970s I was a big fan of the television series, "In Search of....." hosted by Leonard Nimoy. Each half hour episode investigated a different paranormal or pseudoscientific phenomenon, like UFOs or Bigfoot, treating each subject in a more serious and scholarly way than had been done up to that time. A&E and The History Channel re-ran the series for a while about 10 years ago or so. But it's otherwise been unavailable for over 25 years since it went off the air. As a result, I've enjoyed periodically re-watching some of the episodes that have now been posted on You Tube, and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the assertions made and explanations proffered.

This morning I was watching an episode on Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of the lost city of Troy in northwest Turkey in the 1870s. Part 2 (of 3) of this episode is embedded below. It was the cache of thousands of exquisite golden artifacts that Schliemann also found there that seemed to validate the site as the "Troy" from Homer's "Iliad." Schliemann later illegally smuggled most of the treasure back to his native Germany, from which it disappeared during the chaos in Berlin at the end of World War II. Near the end of this 10 minute clip, Leonard Nimoy notes that it is probably just as well that, "Schliemann didn't live to see the day that the prize he struggled so hard to win would vanish again without a trace." Nimoy further suggests that, "Someone may have hidden it from the bombardment, then died without revealing the secret of its location. It's possible the Nazis stole it, for their own use in the headlong flight from the advancing Allies. No one really knows."
As it turns out, this "In Search of..." mystery was solved just 15 years after this episode first aired in March 1978. Despite repeated denials by the Soviets during the Cold War, in August 1993 the Russian Minister of Culture made the astonishing announcement that the treasure had been hidden in a secret depot in Moscow for decades since the war and was now in the Pushkin Museum.

ConAgra Food Brands

I was amazed to learn years ago that many of the biggest brands of laundry detergent (as well as some smaller ones), from "Ariel" to "Bold" to "Cheer" to "Gain" to "Ivory Snow" to "Tide," are actually all owned by a single global conglomerate, Procter & Gamble, despite seeming to compete directly every day on store shelves. A "mere marketing gimmick"? Perhaps. Or maybe its success tells us something more about ourselves.

It turns out that a similar situation applies to many of the myriad brands of processed foods stocked on those same grocery store shelves. One such conglomerate is ConAgra Foods of Omaha, Nebraska. Would it surprise you to learn that ConAgra makes everything from "Egg Beaters" to "Slim Jims"? It didn't really surprise me, I suppose, to learn that they make the "Banquet" fried chicken line as well as "La Choy" chinese food, and even "Chef Boyardee" products. But "Hebrew National"? I did not expect that. (Nor "David" sunflower seeds, for that matter.)
Like P&G's multiple laundry detergent brands, ConAgra also makes a number of directly competitive products, including both "Jiffy Pop" and "Orville Redenbacher's" popcorn, as well as both "Blue Bonnet" and "Fleischmann's" margarines. They also make three different "Cracker Jack" knock-offs that my grandmother used to give me as a child when I came to visit: "Crunch 'n Munch," "Fiddle Faddle" and "Popycock"? How many "Cracker Jack" knock-offs can one company make? (Apparently, three.)
I found the ConAgra "vision statement" posted on their corporate website perhaps unintentionally Orwellian, "One company. One goal. Making the foods you love." That being said, I do applaud their commitment to a diverse workplace (a commitment that apparently extends to "supplier diversity" as well). Though they may have some "make up" work to do to compensate for some of the 1960s and 1970s "La Choy" television commercials ("La Choy makes chinese food 'swing' American"), like the one embedded below for their "honorable" egg rolls: