Sunday, January 31, 2010

Missing Lotto Millionaire Found Under Driveway

I really like "true crime" stories that feature personalities or plot twists which are so wildly improbable that, as the saying goes, "you couldn't make this up." A case in point is a story featured on CNN today that you can read HERE.  A 43 year old Florida truck driver named (improbably) Abraham Shakespeare, who had won $31 million in the state lottery in 2006, had been missing since last November.  Acting on a tip, authorities have now found his body buried 5 feet underneath a recently paved residential driveway at a home in Plant City, Florida.

According to CNN, Sheriff Grady Judd commented, "It's painfully obvious he didn't get there by himself." (That is an absolutely awesome line, right out of Twin Peaks or The Andy Griffith Show.)

In 2007, Shakespeare apparently won a lawsuit filed by a fellow trucker who claimed that he had stolen the winning lottery ticket out of his wallet while the two were making deliveries together. (That's a phenomenal allegation.  A truly amazing act, if true.  And maybe even more amazing if the allegation was entirely baseless.)  Hmmm: I wonder who the police may be looking at as suspects in this murder?

Also according to this article, the home where Shakespeare's body has now been found belongs to the boyfriend of a "person of interest" in the case. Wow.  If you've just murdered someone, I wonder how you broach that subject with your boyfriend. ( "Honey, you know how you've been complaining forever that you need to get your driveway fixed?  Well, guess what: I decided to do something about it for you.  Get this: pavers are coming tomorrow morning, first thing.  And I am paying!  I love you so much, too! But you know what honey, I just need a little help right now.  I know it's dark, but let's go outside. I've got a couple of shovels in my trunk and....")

Saturday Night Live: Scott Brown Charms Democrats

I really laughed at a sketch from last night's Saturday Night Live in which leading Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Barney Frank meet to discuss how to handle the shock election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.  But as they complain about Brown, who famously posed semi-nude for Cosmopolitan magazine 25 years ago, he walks in and charms them with his smile.  ("You worried about a filibuster? Cause I'm about to fili-bust out of these jean shorts...") You can watch it by clicking HERE.

That Can't Be What I Think It Is On My Boxers

I wrote previously HERE about one of my all-time favorite comic books, titled "Concrete."  That's him at left.  First published in the mid-1980s, it's popularity peaked in the early 1990s, almost 20 years ago now. No new issues have been published in several years, though, and it's pretty obscure these days.  So you can imagine the surprise of its creator, Paul Chadwick, when, as he detailed on his blog HERE, he was recently shopping in an Old Navy store and ran across boxer shorts for sale (made in Indonesia) emblazoned with a print of Concrete himself. As you can see in the photo of those boxers on his blog, Concrete appears to be jauntily holding a boom box on his shoulder, which makes this unauthorized 'underpants' swipe even funnier because it's so at odds with the subdued (almost pensive) tone of the series.  

What One Candy Bar Wouldn't Do, Apparently

In the wake of Kraft's $19 billion buyout of British candy company Cadbury, the Wall Street Journal has published an article about how consolidation in the candy industry over decades has resulted in the marginalization of many once-beloved regional candy bars, including "the famous creation known as the Vegetable Sandwich which, regrettably, consisted of dehydrated cabbage, celery and peppers covered in chocolate... and whose label contained the bizarre boast 'Will Not Constipate'." You can read it HERE.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" Trailer

Oliver Stone has now made a sequel to his seminal 1987 film Wall Street, again starring Michael Douglas. It's scheduled to be released in theaters in April.  I didn't have very high hopes for this sequel, mostly because I had read a lot of bad buzz about it in recent months. Charlie Sheen isn't in it.  And I can't remember the last Oliver Stone movie I really liked.  

If it just isn't right to make sequels to some films (remember Basic Instinct 2?), this felt like one.  But you know what, the trailer for the film (embedded below) was released yesterday, and I thought it was really pretty good.  (Especially the cel phone.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger And The Unseen Captain America Movie

J.D. Salinger has died.  He was 91. While his lengthy obituary is front page news in The New York Times, I suppose it's both complimentary and belittling that it might be fairly summarized in five words. "Catcher in the Rye.  Recluse."  You can read it HERE.  I didn't realize until I did the math just now that he was only 32 years old when Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951. And then he lived another 60 years, seemingly perpetually uncomfortable in its long shadow.

On a very tangential note, few people probably know that his son Matthew, who is now 50 years old himself, actually starred in a 1990 movie adaptation of the comic book super hero Captain America. Despite being promoted in advance as an upcoming summer blockbuster, the movie was never released theatrically in the United States (nor on DVD), allegedly because it was deemed irredeemably bad in test screenings. But I happened to catch it a few years ago on television when I lived in Hong Kong.  And you know what, it wasn't all that terrible.  I have embedded below the original trailer for the film.  If you watch it, you'll also get a feel for how cheesy  most super hero films were prior to the Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men films of the last decade.

Leftist 'Historian' Howard Zinn Has Died

Howard Zinn, whose 1980s leftist history textbook A People's History of the United States became an unlikely million seller, has died. He was 87. As his New York Times obit (which you can read HERE) explains, "A People’s History told an openly left-wing story. Professor Zinn accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters."

I can vouch for the accuracy of that characterization.  My high school American history teacher made this book mandatory reading (in addition to a more generic textbook).  It's been over 20 years now since I read it, but my recollection is that, according to Zinn's version of American history, not a single European white male took any action of historical significance that wasn't simultaneously avaricious, racist and genocidal.  (Oh, and misogynistic.) "Jamestown" was just another "Jonestown" to Zinn, is more-or-less how I remember it reading.  His book was, however, my first exposure to many of the more 'complicated' aspects of American history, some of which have now rightfully become accepted parts of our historical narrative.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New Book On John Edwards

This Friday, ABC's 20/20 program will air an interview with one of John Edwards' most trusted campaign aids during this 2008 presidential bid, Andrew Young. Young is promoting a soon-to-be-released tell all book about Edwards titled The Politician. Well, The Wall Street Journal has published some phenomenal excerpts from the book today, which you can read by clicking HERE. But here's a few, to give you the flavor:

The People's Senator. "Young says Edwards is an Atkins-dieter who hated making appearances at state fairs where 'fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?' Before a SEIU candidate forum in Las Vegas, Young says Edwards made him cut out a 'made in the USA' label from Young’s own suit to sew in place of Edwards’s 'made in Italy' label."

Rielle Hunter’s pregnancy: "According to Young, Hunter called him in May 2007 to say she was pregnant. Young says that when he informed Edwards, the senator told him to 'handle it,' to which he replied: 'I can’t handle this one.”'Young writes that Edward unloaded on Hunter as a 'crazy slut,' said they had an 'open relationship,' and put his paternity chances at 'one in three.' Young says that Edwards asked him for help persuading Hunter to have an abortion. Young writes that Hunter believed the baby to be 'some kind of golden child, the reincarnated spirit of a Buddhist monk who was going to help save the world.' "

Campaign donations: “ 'S–t, they love me — they would do anything for me,' John Edwards would say after getting a big donation, Young writes. If refused, he would say, 'What the hell — why are they wasting my time? I’m going to be president. I don’t have time for this s–t. Everyone wants to give me advice. I don’t want their advice. I want their money.' ”

CNN On Stimulus Spending ("Oh, Phase 2, Uh Ok...")

CNN has analyzed how the President's $787 billion stimulus package is actually being spent.  I've embedded this segment below.  It begins with a startling comparison of the total cost of this program against the total costs of  the Marshall Plan and the New Deal (on an inflation adjusted basis).

Apparently almost 2/3 of the stimulus money has been spent to fund entitlement programs (notably Medicaid) and tax cuts.  I thought the stimulus package was all about creating jobs by immediately funding so-called  'shovel ready' infrastructure construction programs, like roads and bridges.  But from watching this, I now know that I was badly mistaken.  (Silly me.)  That portion of the program was always intended to kick in during "Phase 2" of the program, according to this report, which is about to start now (a year later).

Funny how I don't remember the term "Phase 2" ever being used when President Obama was selling this to the American people last year with a passionate, almost desperate, sense of urgency.

CBS News On Immaterial "Spending Freeze"

Last night the CBS Evening News had a 2 minute segment (embedded below) illustrating how financially immaterial the President's proposed Federal spending freeze really is, since it will not apply to "non-discretionary" spending like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which actually make up a majority of the Federal budget.  

And yet, there is apparently already vocal opposition to even this tepid, dramatically insufficient measure. You can only despair at our apparent collective unwillingness as a nation to confront the unpleasant financial reality that is looming just over the horizon.  A three year spending 'freeze' (not even actual budget cuts) applicable to a mere 13% of the Federal Budget is like the apple sauce that hides the crushed-up aspirin.  If we're already pushing that way when it's offered sweetly and lovingly, just wait until the serving spoon of castor oil is rammed down our throats unceremoniously in a few years' time. ("Stop struggling. It's for your own good. Just swallow!")

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Numbers: Obama's Tiny "Spending Freeze"

President Obama is expected to announce during his State of the Union address tomorrow night a three year freeze on Federal spending.  That sounds like a very simple and sensible idea, under the circumstances.  That is, until you quantify the numerical effect of the various exceptions to this simple rule.  The devil's in the details, as they say.

For starters, this proposed freeze would only apply to so-called "discretionary spending."  So all "non-discretionary spending" is exempted from this proposed freeze.  That includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and interest payments on the national debt.  As you can see from the pie chart above, over 62% of the 2008 Federal Budget consisted of this so-called "non-discretionary spending." So the President would, in essence, be announcing a spending freeze on less than 38% of the Federal budget.  That's a less grandiose gesture, obviously, especially when one considers that several of these "non-discretionary spending" categories are the ones whose costs are rising fastest each year.

But it gets worse.  Also to be exempt from this spending freeze is anything related to "national security."  That includes, but is not limited to, defense spending. In this way, a further 25% of the Federal budget would be exempt from this spending freeze.  So in the end, the President will apparently announce tomorrow with some fanfare a spending freeze applicable to just over 12% of the Federal budget.  (Will he make that limitation clear in his address?)

A Washington Post article about the proposal, which you can read by clicking HERE, summarizes the limited  financial impact of this proposal well. "The freeze would shave no more than $15 billion off next year's budget -- barely denting a deficit projected to exceed $1 trillion for the third year in a row... The spending freeze would affect only about one-eighth of the nation's $3.5 trillion budget, the bulk of which is devoted to entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are responsible for much of the future increase in spending."

We can all watch tomorrow night as the President and the national press struggle to avoid any discussion of these politically difficult financial facts during the State of the Union address.  This will be the White Elephant in the room that's plunked itself down in the front row, center aisle.  (The one wearing the "AARP" t-shirt, with its arms crossed.) Watch as the assembled members of Congress, the Supreme Court justices and the President all struggle to avoid meeting its contemptuous gaze.

Oops! Picasso Torn In Museum

Last Friday a woman taking an adult education class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York accidentally fell into Picasso's "The Actor," which hung there unprotected, ripping a 6 inch tear in the bottom right corner.  You can read more details about the incident (and the restoration) in The New York Times HERE.  

I have been to many of the world's most famous museums, including the Met, and it never ceases to amaze me how many priceless masterworks hang in these places, jammed together and unprotected, almost like sides of beef in an abattoir. Presumably, these institutions have each installed sophisticated alarm systems to deter theft.  But at the same time these priceless paintings are displayed in the open air without so much as a theater rope or a plastic sneeze guard to protect them against accidents like these.  Incidents such as this one must be statistically likely to recur, given how many hordes of people pass through these places every year.  

The irony in this news, I suppose, is that these works remain uncovered, I presume, to allow the cognoscenti to best appreciate their brushwork and other visible aspects of these works.  And  yet it was precisely one such adult student, not a school kid on a field trip horsing around, who caused the damage this time.

As an aside, what does one say after you trip and fall into a $130 million Picasso, ripping a big hole in it?  Do you apologize profusely, but stop short of offering to pay for repairs ("I'm terribly, terribly sorry.....  Should we move on?") Or do you pretend it wasn't you ("Oh my.....! Who just did that?  Was that rip already there?")  Or do you nonchalantly offer to pay for any damages to be polite, knowing that you couldn't possibly afford to do so ("Of course I'll pay for any damages... Should we move on?") 

Monday, January 25, 2010

I Met Brett Favre In New Orleans In 1993

During last night's NFC Championship game in the Superdome, Brett Favre looked like a tired 40 year old man out there, taking a real beating, despite still making some great plays.  It made me feel old watching him struggle to his feet after each big hit, because I had met him in person (also in New Orleans, as it happens) at Mardi Gras in 1993, when we were both much younger guys in our early 20s.  

It was at a house party along an early afternoon parade route.  At one point I wandered outside and stood along the curb to catch some of the floats passing by, joining hundreds of other people (mostly young families). As the parade was passing, two huge, athletic-looking guys came out of the same house and stood alongside me, each wearing t-shirts and shorts. One was an immense, Samoan-looking guy in his early 20s who must have weighed 300 lbs., and the other was a very young Brett Favre.  

He wasn't famous then.  He had just finished his first year as the new quarterback of the downtrodden Green Bay Packers.  I only knew who he was because I watched ESPN's SportsCenter almost every night.   No one in the crowd came up to him and said anything while were were standing there. We started talking, though, about nothing much really.  He made a couple of joking references in passing to other NFL players, which was the only time football ever came up. Unlike other high-profile athletes I had met (even college players), who were usually standoffishly polite at best, Brett Favre was unassuming and very friendly that day.  And he was drinking only bottled water, unlike me.  It gave me some insight into how punishing life in the NFL could be when, just 3 years later, he became so addicted to painkillers that he was forced to enter rehab and enroll in the league's substance abuse program. 

I hope that he plays another year, if he can will his body to endure a little longer.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Making of a Huge Movie Flop: "Ishtar"

Do you remember the 1987 'comedy' film Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and directed by Elaine May? It's one of the most notorious flops in movie history. It was intended, apparently, to be a modern take on the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s.   I didn't know that when I was one of the very few who actually paid to see the movie in the theater back in 1987. And even if I had heard that, it would have meant nothing to me then anyway.  

Why did I go see it?  In a time before Waterworld and Titanic institutionalized the concept of critics and the press rooting against big movies while they were still in production, I remember being very interested in all the incredibly negative advance press about the film, about how disastrous the production was, and how terrible the final product was destined to be.   The contrarian in me refused to accept that conventional wisdom. So I went to see it anyway, literally because of the bad press.  And you know what?  It really was terrible.  Terribly terrible. Achingly un-funny. It's still never been released on DVD apparently, it was that bad. 

Vanity Fair magazine has now published an article exploring the whole troubled production of the film, with particular focus on the increasing tension during filming between Warren Beatty and Elaine May.  I thought it was fascinating, in a 'this could never happen in today's corporate movie business' sort of way.  You can read it by clicking HERE.  Here's a short excerpt to give you a flavor of it:

"In the Sahara Desert, May was very much a fish out of water. She was allergic to the sun, swathed her face in gauzy white veils and huge sunglasses that made her look like a storm trooper from Star Wars. She wore big hats, protected herself with parasols, and took shelter under tents whenever possible. She suffered from toothaches throughout much of the shoot, but refused to use a Moroccan dentist on principle, as if only a New York dentist would do. From the first, dunes were a problem. Sylbert was the designated dune guy. He says, 'I listened to nothing but talk about dunes.' Even before the production had settled on Morocco for its location work, he had looked at dunes in Southern California and Idaho. None would meet May’s standards. 'It was hopeless,' he recalls. 'Nobody was satisfied.'

"Once the production set foot in Morocco, Sylbert embarked on a tour of the country looking for the perfect dunes. He finally found some that fit the bill—he thought—near Laayoune. 'There were these great coastal deserts,' he recalls. 'Perfect. But with all the talk of dunes, Elaine’s idea of the desert was Brighton Beach. '...On the drive back from seeing the fabulous dunes, Elaine suddenly said, ‘Dunes? Who said anything about dunes? I want flat!’ Sylbert says he took 11 bulldozers off a construction site about 25 minutes from Laayoune and leveled a square mile of sand."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Incorrect, Alarmist Claim About Glacial Melting

"The idea that the Himalaya could lose its glaciers by 2035—glaciers which feed rivers across South and East Asia—is a dramatic and apocalyptic one. After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said such an outcome was very likely in the assessment of the state of climate science that it made in 2007, onlookers (including this newspaper) repeated the claim with alarm. In fact, there is no reason to believe it to be true."

That's the start of a new article in The Economist magazine, which traces how this apparently baseless, hyperventilating claim about impending climate change made its way, unchallenged, from an obscure Indian magazine called Down To Earth to a publication issued by the United Nations' panel on climate change. And it gets better, the 'research' discussed in that Indian magazine was looking at the prospects for the year 2350, not 2035. 

This article also marks the first time I have very heard the term 'grey literature.' In contrast to peer-reviewed work, 'grey literature' apparently connotes work "by governments or other organizations that are not commercially or academically published."  The IPCC apparently bases its "expert assessments" in part on this 'grey literature.'  You can read the entire article, detailing the whole sorry saga of bureaucratic incompetence and intellectual laziness HERE.

Olbermann On John Stewart On Olbermann

On the eve of the special election in Massachusetts earlier this week, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called republican Scott Brown an, "irresponsible, homophobic, teabagging... supporter of violence against women...." And on it went, a long string of mean-spirited, largely baseless slurs.  I don't watch Olbermann's show, but I happened upon it that night as I was flipping between cable news channels trying to catch coverage of the election.  I saw that rant, rolled my eyes, and promptly changed the channel.

I really liked Keith Olbermann when he co-hosted ESPN's SportsCenter with Dan Patrick from 1992-1997.  But I find his nightly show on MSNBC (called Countdown) literally unwatchable because of its predictably shrill, over-the-top partisanship.  I feel the same way about Fox News' Sean Hannity, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, among others.

A lot of people would lump The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in that same category.  But I don't.  Sure, it has a bias, a "leaning."  But it's not doctrinaire.  A case in point, the other night Jon Stewart criticized this rant by Keith Olbermann at length. I almost posted the video of that on this blog at the time.  As it turns out, Keith Olbermann apparently responded last night on Countdown to this criticism by Jon Stewart.  I have embedded the 8 minute clip below.  This clip features both the original rant by Olbermann, as well as Jon Stewart's entire 6 minute critique.  Olbermann's response comes only at the very end of the clip, in the final seconds. But it may surprise you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Betty Broderick Denied Parole

Convicted double murderer Betty Broderick was denied parole today on the grounds that she "was unrepentant and had no insight into what she had done," according to an Associated Press article that you can read HERE.  She reportedly told the parole board, "I had one choice: to shoot them or myself.  I couldn't let them win."

I wrote here yesterday about how Betty shot and killed her ex-husband and his new (much younger) second wife in November 1989. I also embedded an episode of the A&E network's American Justice show that profiled her case.  If you watched that episode, which was filmed many years ago, it's striking how little Betty's unrepentant attitude has apparently changed, even after 16 years of incarceration.  "Hell hath no fury...."  as they say.

John Edwards In Haiti: Bad Idea Jeans

As it turns out, John Edwards was in Haiti when his written admission that he is indeed the father of Rielle Hunter's two year old child was released to NBC News yesterday.  This randomly brought to mind one of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live parody commercials (starring Phil Hartman, Mike Myers and David Spade) because it happens to include a line about Haiti.  It's for "Bad Idea Jeans," and it's embedded below:

"Cash 4 Gold" A Bad Deal 4 You

I'm sure you've seen those TV commercials exhorting people to mail their forgotten or broken gold jewelry to a company like "Cash 4 Gold" that, as the name says, will pay cash for it.  NBC's Today Show had a 3 minute segment this morning (embedded below) explaining what a bad deal this is for consumers. (The companies allegedly pay only 11-29% of the market value.)  These TV offers have now generated thousands of consumer complaints and calls for government action. The experts featured in this Today Show segment recommend that, as an alternative, consumers take their unwanted gold jewelry to a pawn shop for a better deal. Wow.  So you'll find a better deal in the loving arms of your friendly neighborhood pawn broker, huh.  That says it all.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Betty Broderick Is Coming Up For Parole

Do you remember the famous Betty Broderick murder case? Betty is now coming up for parole after over 16 years in prison.  In November 1989, at the age of 42, she snuck into the La Jolla, California home of her  44 year old ex-husband, Dan Broderick, and murdered him and his 28 year old second wife Linda, shooting them as they lay sleeping in their bedroom.  In 1991, she was convicted on two counts of second degree murder and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

Her story shot to national prominence at the time because Betty was in some ways the sympathetic personification of an unfortunately common social phenomenon: a stay-at-home mother who had been unceremoniously dumped by her husband in middle age, in favor of his much younger assistant. The lurid details of how off-the-rails she went following her divorce, stalking and threatening her ex-husband in an increasingly erratic and menacing way, may have made her less sympathetic. But at the same time they also made her subsequent murder trials compelling viewing. Her initial trial (which ended in a hung jury) was among the first ever broadcast on then-fledgling Court TV.

You can read a CNN article today about her upcoming parole hearing HERE.  The A&E network's American Justice television show once did an excellent, 1-hour episode on her case, which has been posted on You Tube. I have embedded part 1 below:

Edwards Admits Paternity While Still Hiding

As you may have already heard, John  Edwards finally admitted this morning what we already knew: that he is indeed the father of Rielle Hunter's 2-year old daughter, Quinn. I have embedded below a 5 minute segment from NBC's Today Show this morning about this admission.

Isn't it amazing that John Edwards, who thought himself worthy of being the President of the United States,  is still to this day, two years later, unwilling or unable to appear in person to make this admission, preferring instead to issue a written statement to NBC News, while simultaneously pushing forward a friend of his to answer questions on his behalf.  Among many other things, it seems to show a startling lack of backbone. 

Reporter Lisa Myers explains at the end of this clip that Edwards is not appearing in person because of an ongoing federal investigation into whether he may have broken campaign finance laws. But that's just a lame, fig leaf of an excuse. Edwards would not have put put himself in any further legal jeopardy in that regard by admitting today during an interview (as opposed to the written statement he issued instead) that he is the father of this little girl, and admitting that he had told repeated, bald faced lies in the past when he strenuously denied it was even possible.  Making those admissions in person wouldn't be illegal, just humiliating and humbling, as would having to admit that the birth of this little girl confirms conclusively that he was carrying on this affair with Rielle Hunter after his wife Elizabeth's cancer had recurred, something Edwards had also denied in the strongest possible terms until now.

Even today, he is making this admission under pressure, not voluntarily.  His former campaign aide, Andrew Young, who at first falsely claimed he was the little girl's father to protect Edwards, is reportedly scheduled to appear on ABC's 20/20 program next week to discuss the entire scandal.  Edwards admission today is merely an attempt to preempt that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mob Ties Of A Tiger Woods Mistress

Rachel Uchitel, Tiger Woods' so-called "mistress #1," who was a VIP party hostess in Manhattan before the scandal broke last November, apparently had family ties to the Mob through her grandfather, according to a new article on The Daily Beast that you can read in its entirety HERE. The article reads in part:

"Her grandfather, Maurice Uchitel, who died in 2000, owned New York’s legendary El Morocco nightclub and Miami Beach’s iconic Eden Roc hotel....[and] was both friends and partners with some of the 20th century's great mobsters..Besides the hotel and club, Maurice invested in Scopitone, a video-jukebox technology that swept Europe in the 1960s. The Securities and Exchange Commission thought it was a Mob front...Scopitone wasn’t Maurice Uchitel’s only questionable deal, but it was typical of most of them: shady partners, rumors of some Mob involvement, and often a business-ending lawsuit.... Uchitels were good friends, according to people I’ve interviewed in Miami, with Meyer Lansky, New York crime captain Frank Costello, and Sam Cohen, president of Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel during the 1960s."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Founder of "Taco Bell" Has Died

Long before the Taco Bell franchise was owned by the international conglomerate "Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc." (later changed to the less menacing "Yum Brands"), it began as one unremarkable local fast food restaurant started in Downey, California in 1962 by a serial fast food entrepreneur named Glen Bell, Jr. He died yesterday at the age of 86, at his home in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe, California.

Many of the things that Taco Bell has been famous for nationally in the last 20 years or so (like it's 69 cent menu in the mid-1990s) were put in place long after the chain was sold to PepsiCo in 1978 for $125 million. But his personal story is an interesting and very American one nonetheless. A child of the depression, he made himself a very rich man through relentless hard work and repeated risk-taking, perhaps inevitably damaging relationships with some business partners (including the man who later founded Del Taco) and family members along the way.  After retiring to Florida in 1970s, he aspired to build a theme park there to compete with Disney World, a dream that ultimately went unfulfilled. (If you've already successfully challenged McDonald's, why not Disney next, I suppose.) You can read his entire obituary in the Los Angeles Times today by clicking HERE

Price Spread Between Generic and Branded Drugs

Having lived in both London and Hong Kong over the last 10 years, my wife and I were startled by how much cheaper the same prescription drugs were overseas than here in the United States.  (Prescriptions that cost  $20 -$50 to fill there, could cost several hundred dollars here. Startling.) The reasons for this are well known.  And this indefensible price spread is why I would support so strongly a law allowing the reimportation of prescription drugs from abroad, measures opposed in the strongest possible terms by drug companies.  Notably, that's not part of the currently proposed healthcare reform legislation.  Why is that?  Because cost control is not really the object of this legislation? Or because 'Big Pharma' are huge donors to congressional campaign funds? Both?

Either way, it is easy to simply blame "those bums in Congress"  and those "evil drug companies" for spiraling healthcare costs in this country.  But there's plenty of blame to go around. And we need to look hard at ourselves.  I've written here many times before about the impact of nationwide rates of obesity on our healthcare costs.  But there's more to it than that, of course.  Another problem is that we (and our doctors) overwhelmingly choose more expensive branded drugs when getting prescriptions filled, as opposed to much cheaper generic drugs with the exact same active ingredients, in stark contrast to patients overseas. (In most cases this is because American patients with health insurance pay the same out-of-pocket cost either way, despite branded drugs being much more expensive than generics.  And drug companies market to doctors very aggressively, as well as going over their heads to us directly, though endless television advertisements.)  Unfortunately for us, the United States typically suffers the biggest price spread in the world between branded drugs and their generic equivalents. The Economist magazine has a chart today that illustrates starkly this price spread in various countries worldwide, which you can view by clicking HERE. Read it and weep.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ricky Gervais Introduces Mel Gibson

I don't normally like Hollywood awards ceremonies like the Oscars or the Golden Globes, especially the acceptance speeches that are just strings of industry names and 'thank yous.'  So I only watched about 15 minutes of the Golden Globes last night. But in that time I did catch host Ricky Gervais introducing Mel Gibson, who was one of the award presenters. I was not expecting what Gervais said to be so pointed (and funny). It made me laugh out loud and choke on my drink.  You can watch the 1 minute clip by clicking HERE.

The Smell of Fear (Mass. Senate Race)

Even if democrat Martha Coakley ultimately wins the special election in Massachusetts tomorrow to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, it has been entertaining to watch the developing shock and horror among partisan democrats on television at the almost unthinkable prospect that she might actually lose to republican Scott Brown tomorrow. 

Embedded below is a lengthy 10 minute video from MSNBC this morning. But what's interesting about it, I think, occurs at about the 45 second mark, when Chris Matthews announces the results of a final opinion poll showing Coakley trailing Brown by double digits.  Listen to the audible, spontaneous, collective gasps among the hosts and guests of Morning Joe.  (You can almost hear them each saying to themselves in disbelief, "Don't these ungrateful people know what's good for them!?!?")  I thought that the subsequent 9 minute analysis by Mike Barnacle and Chris Matthews about the local factors that may be driving the election was also interesting (like Martha Coakley apparently implying mistakenly on radio that Red Sox world series hero Curt Schilling was a Yankee).

The Human Target: 1992 Version

A new TV show called Human Target, about a professional bodyguard who impersonates his clients in order to 'smoke out' their would-be assassins, premiered last night on Fox.  If you've watched any of the NFL playoff games on the Fox network over the last couple of weekends, I'm sure you knew that already (even if you didn't watch the show), because they relentlessly promoted it during commercial breaks. 

But did you know that the show was actually based on a comic book?  That's right. The Human Target was originally created in 1972 by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino, and ran as a back-up feature in some Superman comic books. In fact, almost 20 years ago a prior TV adaptation ran on CBS starring Rick Springfield.  Yes, the Rick Springfield of "Jesse's Girl" and General Hospital fame. It was pulled off the air by CBS after only 7 episodes because of poor ratings. I've embedded below the 1 minute opening credits from this 1992 version, as well as a teaser for the current series that premiered last night.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chess Champion Bobby Fischer Died On This Date

I've never liked chess, and never played the game myself. But I sure knew the name "Bobby Fischer." He was, of course, the American chess Grandmaster who started as a child prodigy in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and then became a Cold War icon when he beat the Soviet champion Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland  in 1972. Later in life he oddly morphed into an infamously reclusive crank, a fierce critic of the United States, and an equally strident anti-semite (which struck many as odd, since his own mother was Jewish). Was he merely a troubled, misunderstood genius? Or was he schizophrenic (tragically undiagnosed)? Or did he just become a bitter old man, after being hounded for years by the IRS?  Who knows.  He died of renal failure in exile in Iceland on this day in 2008, at the age of 64.

By the time I first heard his name in the 1980s, he was already well into his 'reclusive crank' phase, which began in the mid-1970s.  You may remember that he re-emerged from obscurity very briefly, but infamously, to play a multi-million dollar rematch against Spassky in Belgrade in 1992.  The big problem with this was that the former Yugoslavia was then under a United Nations embargo, so his participation was illegal. He was warned by US authorities beforehand not to participate, a warning he ignored. As a result, he lived the remaining 16 years of his life as an itinerant exile, living with chess enthusiast friends (and lovers) in Hungry, then in the Philippines, then in Japan, and finally in Iceland.

I've embedded below two videos that, when juxtaposed like this, illustrate his tragic, Icarus-like life arc.  The first is from March 2005, when he was 62 years old, as he flew from exile in Japan to his final exile in Iceland.  Here he is the very epitome of the disheveled, controversial crank. The second is from his much earlier appearance in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show.  He's very different here, at the age of 28, about the time of his greatest triumph against Spassky at the World Chess Championships. He's charming, witty, clean cut and almost athletic in appearance. If you watch even small parts of each of these two videos, you can't help but wonder what happened to (and perhaps inside the head of) this compelling but deeply flawed man between these years.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

CIA Informant/Bomber Was A "Dangle"

The Washington Post has an article this morning about the various miscalculations (and calculated risks) that led them to trust too fully the Jordanian informant who turned out to be a suicide bomber, killing seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on December 30.  You can read the entire article HERE.  It reads in part:

"Jordanian and U.S. officials have since concluded that Balawi was a committed extremist whose beliefs had deep intellectual and religious roots and who had never intended to cooperate with them. In hindsight, they said, the excitement generated by his ability to produce verifiable intelligence should have been tempered by the recognition that his penetration of al-Qaeda's top echelon was too rapid to be true. Senior CIA and GID officials were so beguiled by the prospect of a strike against al-Qaeda's inner sanctum that they discounted concerns raised by case officers in both services that Balawi might be a fraud, according to the former U.S. official and the Jordanian government official, who has an intelligence background.

"Balawi appears to have been what in espionage terms is called a 'dangle' held out by al-Qaeda. 'This is a very well-thought-out al-Qaeda operation,' said a former senior U.S. intelligence officer. 'Every dangle operation is a judgment call. It has to be significant enough so that the Jordanians and, in this case, the CIA knows it's real. . . . That's always the key in running a dangle operation: How much do you give to establish bona fides without giving up the family jewels?' "

Tiger Woods In Sex Rehab (in Mississippi?!)

Have you heard that news that, like David Duchovny before him, Tiger Woods has apparently checked himself into a rehabilitation facility for 'sex addiction'? If not, you can read more details about it all HERE.  It says something about our modern celebrity culture, I think, and our (not unrelated) culture of victimhood, that it's more surprising his rehab facility is in Mississippi (of all places), than it is that he has sought treatment for alleged 'sex addiction' in the first place.

History of US Internet Companies Failing in China

I was disappointed by the lack of context offered by the mainstream media in the wake of Google's announcement that it may terminate its operations in China. Google itself explained it in (predictably) moral terms: as a protest against state-sponsored hacking and content censorship. The media seemed to buy, and propagate, that explanation wholesale. But the situation is certainly 'more complicated' than that self-serving justification alone suggests. The New York Times has an article today about the history of failure of US internet companies in China over the last 10 years, including some of our biggest names like ebay and Yahoo. You can read it HERE.

Friday, January 15, 2010

There Ought To Be A Law: Hoarding Pot Pies

I've written here several times before about our need as a nation to confront the staggering rates of obesity in this country as part of any significant reform of our health care system.  But changing eating habits and/or sedentary lifestyles is devilishly hard, even for the motivated (as evidenced by all of the weight loss commercials that blanket television and radio).  And this problem is further complicated by correlations to socioeconomic class. To achieve meaningful results across our population, people would probably have to be forced to change by some sort of government action, backed by stiff penalties for non-compliance and enthusiastic, almost repressive enforcement. But that 'cure' would probably prove to be worse than the 'disease' in the long run, in all sorts of predictable and unforeseeable ways. The elusiveness of a workable solution does not reduce the extent of this chronic problem, however.

A photo posted today on "People of Walmart" blog (which you can view by clicking HERE) has managed to capture, in eye popping fashion, multiple aspects of this problem simultaneously.  (If you look closely, it also calls out for a Reagan-era "catsup as vegetable" joke.)

Guns N' Roses Concert (And Puppet Show)

I remember standing for hours in a long line outside a Tower Records on a cold autumn night in September 1991, anxiously waiting for it to hit midnight when the store began selling the new Guns N' Roses albums, Use Your Illusion I and II.  By the time I got home after 1 AM, there were probably 20 other college kids in my dorm room, all excited to hear those CDs. When I walked in, the room erupted with this gutteral, enthused "Yeahhhhhhhh!!!!" By  2 AM that night, those albums were blaring out of maybe a dozen different windows throughout the building. But as the subsequent years dragged on (and on) waiting for the release of their long-delayed follow-up album,  and as every one of the original line-up other than Axl Rose eventually quit the band, the passion of that night for Guns N' Roses steadily ebbed (for me and everyone else)

I bought their new album, Chinese Democracy, anyway, on the first day it was finally released in November 2008. Though  I more or less dragged myself unenthusiastically to the store that day, as if I was  begrudgingly fulfilling a promise that I'd made years ago. By then there weren't any lines.  I walked right in and bought it, in maybe 30 seconds, and listened to it at home alone that afternoon.  Axl granted no interviews to promote the release of the album, and Guns N' Roses didn't tour in support of it, which may partly explain why it flopped so badly.  

But the "new" Guns N' Roses is now touring Canada, I learned today, reportedly as a warm-up for a United States tour this coming summer.  And I was surprised to see this morning that Rolling Stone magazine has a very favorable review HERE of their concert in Winnipeg a couple of nights ago. This review also has over a dozen photos from the concert.  Mercifully Axl has ditched the fake corn rows of the last few years.  Maybe there's hope for the band yet.  But has their star really fallen so far that they played to only 7,500 people in Winnipeg? ("Puppet Show and Guns N' Roses"?)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

John Riggins Interview For NFL Films

If, like me, you grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and early 1980s, then you loved John Riggins, too. I'm absolutely sure of that. We all did. 100%. If you were an adult back then, you might have had a more mixed view of the mercurial all pro running back of the Washington Redskins, however. You probably still cheered him loudly on game day. But off the field he could be brusk. He petulantly retired prematurely for a season in 1980, following a contract dispute. And there were a few notoriously drunken moments along the way, too. (At a black tie dinner he reportedly said to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up. You're too tight," just before passing out at the table.)

But I don't ever remember any kid ever mentioning the negatives about him back then when I was in elementary school and junior high. Every Monday morning during football season, everyone in school would be abuzz about some great run he'd had the day before, and it would be worshipfully recounted over and over. Such is the special allure to children of the lovable rogue, I suppose.

NFL Films has posted online an excellent interview that Steve Sabol conducted with John Riggins in 2007. Part 2 (8 minutes long) begins with he and Joe Gibbs separately recounting their first meeting in 1981, when Gibbs (then the newly hired coach of the Redskins) travelled to Kansas to try to convince Riggins, who was holding a beer in each hand at 10 AM, to rejoin the team. And Part 2 ends with Riggins legendary performance in the Super Bowl against Miami in January 1983. That run of his down the sideline on 4th and 1 has to be one of the most overplayed, "legendary" plays in NFL history. I must have seen that replayed several hundred times over the last 25 years. Even I've tired of it. But every so often, like when I watched this video today, it still has the power to give me goosebumps and take me back to when I watched that game live, not even yet a teenager, over 25 years ago now. You can watch the video HERE. Some of what John Riggins says (and is said about him by Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel) may surprise and impress you.