Friday, April 30, 2010

1939 World's Fair Opened On This Date

The New York World's Fair, held in Flushing Meadows, opened on this date in 1939. Staged just as the United States was emerging from the Great Depression, the Fair was an abject financial failure at the time.  But it's art deco design sensibility, exemplified by the Trylon and Perisphere at left, as well as its futuristic themes have made it an object of enduring historical and artistic fascination. While the United States did not enter into WWII until over two years later, the Fair nonetheless reflected the fact that Europe was already on the verge of war.  Nazi Germany was the only major country not to participate in the Fair.  And when the Fair re-opened for it's second (and last) season in 1940, the Polish and Czech pavilions did not re-open with it. 

Embedded below is 4 minutes of color home movies taken at the Fair. In addition to containing fascinating footage of some of the Fair's most famous attractions like "Elektro" the smoking robot and the Futurama exhibit (a massive diorama of the United States with miniature houses and skyscrapers, roads and highways on which tiny model cars and trucks moved in perpetuity), this is most noteworthy in some ways because of how 'normal' it all looks, in many respects very much like an amusement park today.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In Search of... Eva Braun

On this date in 1945, Nazi leader Adolph Hitler married his long-time mistress Eva Braun in the 'Fuhrerbunker' in Berlin, with the Red Army just a few hundred yards away and shells exploding around them.  The two committed suicide together the next day.  She was 33 years old. He was 56. The German public was totally unaware of Braun until after her death, despite the fact that she and Hitler were together for almost 15 years.

I really liked the TV show 
In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's. I have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. In Search Of... once did an episode examining the possibility that Eva Braun may have survived this 1945 dual suicide. It first aired in February 1982. You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE. "Did she escape, as persistent rumors claim?" asks narrator Leonard Nimoy near the start of this episode. "Is it possible that Eva Braun is alive today?"

As it turns out there is more of a genuine "mystery" about this than many may have realized, one riddled with more uncertainty and contradictory scientific evidence than is commonly assumed.  It has been generally accepted for decades that Eva Braun committed suicide just before Hitler by biting on a cyanide capsule, and that Hitler then followed suit shortly thereafter by shooting himself in the head with a pistol, perhaps while also biting down simultaneously on another cyanide capsule.  But the forensic evidence for this scenario is limited.  

The Germans hastily burned and then buried Hitler's and Braun's bodies in a shallow grave just outside the 'Fuherbunker' immediately afterward, as instructed.  The invading Red Army found the remains shortly thereafter, however, and returned them to Moscow.  Nonetheless, Hitler's and Braun's deaths remained shrouded in mystery for decades afterward, even after Stalin's death in 1953. The Soviets never made public any photographs or other proof (other than copies of their own autopsy reports) that they had found these charred remains, instead interring them in a secret East German facility until 1970, at which time they were secretly dug up by the KGB, cremated, and the ashes scattered in a local river. Even this was only confirmed conclusively last year. (Why was this done only in 1970?  You can read the CNN article HERE.) Only a jawbone, a skull fragment and a bloodstained sofa survived, and they languished in Soviet archives until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This was further complicated by the fact that at the end of the War, after first claiming Hitler was dead, Stalin suggested cryptically to the Allies that Hitler may have survived and fled to Argentina.

The jawbone fragment has been confirmed to be Hitler's based on his dental records.  But it has never been put on public display or DNA tested.  It is kept today in the archives of the FSB (a successor to the KGB).  The skull fragment was also assumed to be Hitler's, in particular because it had a bullet hole in it, which was consistent with the story of his death.  But last September this skull fragment was DNA tested as part of a History Channel show called Mystery Quest.  To everyone's surprise, the DNA testing revealed that it was actually from a woman aged between 20 and 40.  Could this actually be the remains of Eva Braun?  You can watch a 2 minute promo clip from this episode of Mystery Quest by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rielle Hunter Interview With Oprah Tomorrow

John Edwards' former mistress, Rielle Hunter, has given her first TV interview to Oprah Winfrey, which will air on her show tomorrow (Thursday, April 29). Embedded below is a 3 minute segment about this interview from ABC's Good Morning America this morning, including a few short clips from it.

Spy Aldrich Ames Pled Guilty On This Date In 1994

On this date in 1994, CIA counter-intelligence official Rick (Aldrich) Ames, who had spied for nine years for the Soviet Union and then its successor state Russia, pled guilty to charges of spying and tax evasion and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Rick Ames betrayed to his KGB handlers some of the CIA's most important spies inside the Soviet Union.  In exchange he was paid a mere $2.7 million in total, almost all of which he blew through with his Columbian wife Rosario (who knew of his spying) by living well above their means.

I've embedded below the best summary of the Ames case that I've ever seen. It is a 10 minute section from CNN's Cold War documentary series, which first aired in 1998.  This clip includes a prison interview with Rick Ames himself.  When Ames admits with an ironic smile and a casual wave of the hand that he was well aware of the deadly consequences for those he betrayed, the filmmakers cleverly intersperse chilling footage of the arrest by the KGB of one of our most important-ever Russian spies, GRU General Dmitri Polyakov. The juxtaposition of Ames' flip smugness in his prison jumpsuit with Polyakov's dignified stoicism while being manhandled on the way to certain death is remarkable.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"This Place Is Off The Hook"

I was sitting in an airport fast food restaurant in Chicago about a week ago at lunchtime, sharing a pizza and salad with my wife and young daughter before our next flight. It was a Wolfgang Puck's Cafe, as it happens, that shared seating space and tables with a small airport bar.  We were sitting on the bar side having our lunch when a man in a suit came bounding in enthusiastically with a friend (also in a suit) and promptly announced loudly to no one in particular, "This place is off the hook!" 

This surprised me a little, because it was still before Noon on a Sunday and the bar itself was empty, save for one middle-aged guy sipping a beer by himself while watching golf on the TV above.  And frankly the bar had considerably less energy at that moment than the Hudsons news stand and gift shop next door. As the guy and his buddy ordered beers jauntily from the nonplussed bartender ("Let's go big. Shall we go big? Yeah, go big for us.  Yeah, THOSE glasses..."), I noticed that both men had their ties pulled down rakishly off their necks, like they'd just finished a hard day's grind.  But as I said, it was 11:45 AM on a Sunday morning, so that seemed unlikely.  "Man, this place is great!" one enthused to the other as they each began sipping their big beers, smiling broadly and self consciously like they were in a Coors Light commercial.  

I was just about to scoff at this scene when I noticed that they each fell abruptly silent after that.  Not another word was spoken between them, like the air was suddenly let out of their tires.  And slowly they each turned around and began watching the golf on TV, too, in silence.   They had fought valiantly, if briefly, to make the place something it wasn't.  But in the end the empty bar had won. Inevitably.

In Search Of... Noah's Ark

A group of Chinese and Turkish 'evangelical explorers' announced today that they had found the remains of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. The group claims that the wooden remains have been carbon dated to 4,800 years ago, around the time the Biblical ark would have been afloat. You can read a news article about this find by clicking HERE. "Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories," reads the article from Fox News.  Though the article fails to note for whatever reason that this suspicion derives from the fact that this site is named specifically in the Bible. (As an aside, weren't the Spanish conquistadores also 'evangelical explorers'?)

I really liked the TV show In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's. So I have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. In Search Of... did an episode about the search for Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat that first aired in February 1979. You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.  This segment of the show begins with an on-camera interview of a man named Dr. Henry Morris, who is described as "an expert in geology and the flow of water." Morris goes on to explain at length his theories about how a worldwide deluge might have occurred. "Henry Morris founded the Institute for Creation Research at San Diego, California," explains Leonard Nimoy afterward, "where those scientists who call themselves Creationists are gathering data in support of a worldwide flood." What goes unmentioned, however, is the extensive and harsh criticisms that his books on the subject received by mainstream scientists. A professor from Iowa State University wrote when reviewing Morris' 1967 book Evolution and the Modern Christian that "the scientific value of his book is nil."  Also unmentioned is that in 1972 Morris wrote a book titled The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth which suggested that the craters on the Moon were caused by a comic battle between the forces of Satan and the armies of the archangel Michael. Henry Morris died in February 2006, after a stroke.

Just after this interview, Leonard Nimoy goes on to say, "other independent geologists have found evidence for the flood."  Then an older man named "Dr. Clifford Burdick" is introduced who enumerates on camera the geologic evidence he claims to have found for the Biblical deluge.  But the fact that this 'doctor' kept using the term "evidences" a-grammatically as a noun when he spoke made me wonder about his credentials. Clifford Burdick had claimed to have been awarded a PhD from the "University of Physical Science" in  Phoenix, Arizona. But it turns out that the University of Physical Science was just a name.  There was no campus, no professors, and no tuition. Also not explained in this episode is that "Dr." Burdick apparently spent decades trying to prove his other pet theory: that giant humans once roamed the Earth, mingling with dinosaurs.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What An Incomplete Crossword Puzzle Says

Yesterday while on a flight from Miami to Chicago I flipped through the in-flight magazine and the crossword puzzle caught my eye.  Only two words had been filled in.  "Kant" in the top left, and "Jon Bon Jovi" in the bottom right. The rest of the puzzle was entirely blank. What had happened there, I wondered. Had a prior passenger been stumped by all the other clues?  Could there really be someone out there who knows a lot about 1980s hair metal bands and 18th Century German philosophy, but nothing else?

"I Gotta Use The Can"

"I gotta use the can."  Until yesterday I hadn't heard that expression in maybe 10 or 20 years.  On reflection, I suppose I thought it might have been merely a 1970s sitcom idiom, spoken by the likes of Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple or by Archie Bunker, but not used in the real world.

As I was boarding a flight from Chicago to California last night, however, the guy in the row in front of me said that loudly to his wife within seconds after they found their seats. And with that, off he went to the bathroom, struggling past the crowd of other boarding passengers standing in the aisle. Then I noticed later during the flight that he was intently reading a book which looked like a paperback textbook.  On the open page was a bolded heading that said, "Identify and Bring Attention To Islamic Action." He had a yellow highlighter in his hand and this phrase had been highlighted repeatedly.  He also appeared to have crossed out the capital "I" in "Islamic" by hand with a pen.

Having now briefly described this scene to you, would you be able to guess: his ethnicity (Afro-Caribbean? No.  Hmong? No....); his age (Was he a so-called "millenial"?  No.  Generation X? Nah.....).  And if you further guessed that within seconds of the plane taking off he would throw on a neck pillow and ease his seat back for the entire flight, you'd be right....

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Capitol Hill Kept Massa's Secret (Bartenders)

"It took just three weeks for upstate New York Democratic Rep. Eric Massa to resign his seat in Congress after accusations surfaced that he had sexually harassed members of his staff. The long trail of unwanted and often abusive advances that preceded his resignation—and why his alleged behavior went unreported for so long—highlights how much Capitol Hill is a feudal society, with each member the lord of his or her own territory," writes Eleanor Clift in Newsweek yesterday (which you can read HERE).

"It's reasonable to assume that some people outside Massa's inner circle knew that he'd gone off the rails, but each member's office is a fiefdom, revolving around and reflecting the wishes of the elected official. There are thousands of résumés for every slot, and the young people fortunate enough to land a job or an internship are worked mercilessly hard and are willing to do almost anything to get ahead. It's an environment ripe for exploitation."

If that's not interesting enough for you to click on her column, I should note that it also contains some details about how, in the weeks before his exposure, Massa allegedly propositioned a bartender at a funeral service for a young marine killed in Afghanistan. And it was apparently that incident, first reported on a Capitol Hill blog, that led to all of this coming out about him.

Friday, April 16, 2010

In Search Of... The Titanic

The RMS Titanic, the largest passenger steamship in the world at the time, sunk on this date in 1912, just four days into her maiden voyage, after having hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It's easy to forget today what a compelling mystery the location of the wreck was before September 1, 1985, when Bob Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel finally located it in deep water off the coast of Newfoundland using side scan sonar.  A year later Ballard conducted the first manned dives to the wreck. What little mystery remained after that was certainly wiped away forever amid the hysteria over the worldwide blockbuster film "Titanic" in 1997. But before the mid-1980s, the exact location of the wreck and the logistics of how to raise it (if ever found) were topics of enduring popular fascination.

I really liked the TV show I
n Search of... as a kid in the 1970's. I have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. In Search Of... did an episode on the Titanic which first aired on November 30, 1981. You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.

"She is a prize and a challenge that many men have dreamed of recovering," explains narrator Leonard Nimoy in the introduction. "Yet her whereabouts remain unknown."  That may not have been entirely true, however, even when Nimoy first spoke those words in 1981. What was not publicly known until a few years ago was that Bob Ballard had requested funding from the US Navy back in 1982 to search for the Titanic in the same spot where he ultimately found it in 1985.  But the Navy would only fund that search after Ballard had conducted secret searches for the sunken US nuclear submarines USS Scorpion and USS Thresher using the same cutting-edge technologies  Only once those wrecks had been located and photographed was Ballard allowed to pursue the search for the Titanic.  

This is all the more interesting, I thought, in light of the fact that a prior episode of In Search of...  about the Loch Ness Monster had featured Bob Ballard (as I noted HERE).  And yet he does not appear in this later episode on the Titanic, despite the fact that it aired just months before he asked to US Navy for funding to search for it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Search Of... The Shroud of Turin

You may have read that the Shroud of Turin was put on public display again in Italy on April 10th for the first time in 10 years. Tens of thousands of people are expected to visit it this time.  Was it really the cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped after he was brought down off the cross, thereby becoming imprinted with his likeness?  That issue seemed to have been settled conclusively back in 1988, when separate carbon dating tests made at universities in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona each determined simultaneously that it actually dated from medieval times, specifically between 1260 and 1390.  

But as a new BBC article about this controversy explains, there are now people coming forward, 20 years later, to challenge the results of those seemingly conclusive tests. ("'Through no fault of the labs the 1988 sample was taken from the most inadvisable place - the top left hand corner,' he says.")  Doesn't everyone know that you never test the top left corner!  Fools! You can read the entire article HERE.

I really liked the TV show In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's. I have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. In Search Of... did an episode on the Shroud of Turin which first aired in November 1979, almost a decade before all this carbon dating was performed.  You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.  Interestingly, this episode focusses on then-contemporary scientific analysis of the Shroud to determine whether that image of the bearded face on the linen could really have been made naturally (or supernaturally) by a corpse, or whether it was merely a fake that could have been made using medieval technology. But the results of these tests are presented in the show as inconclusive. 

"Unfortunately," notes the narrator, Leonard Nimoy, "the one test which would eliminate the possibility of forgery has not been allowed. Radio-carbon measurement could show how old the cloth of the Shroud really is. The only hitch: you have to burn a piece... But the permanent loss of such a large sample would be too great a sacrifice.  The scientists' request was denied... The Shroud, safely locked away, is once more out of reach. It is not expected to be seen again for at least another generation. Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren  we will discover if the Shroud is the burial cloth of Christ."  

I remember being really frustrated by this as a kid.  (They're stonewalling! My grandchildren!) Little did anyone know then that a mere 9 years later (and after some improved scientific technique), those tests were indeed allowed to be performed in 1988 and this question answered conclusively.

The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy

Abraham Lincoln died on this date in 1865, after having been shot by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre the night before. An episode of the 1970s TV show In Search Of..., which first aired in October 1981, suggested that Booth may have been part of a broader, high-level conspiracy, the shadowy details of which may never be fully known. "Were the right people brought to trial?" asks narrator Leonard Nimoy darkly. "Could others have conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln?" I really liked In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's, and so have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.  Various conspiracy theories are discussed starting at the 4 minute mark.

This episode seems, on hindsight, to be based in part on a book published in 1977 titled "The Lincoln Conspiracy," written by David W. Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr., which asserted that Booth was actually a pawn in a broader plot masterminded by members of Lincoln's own cabinet. A movie based on the book was also made the same year. The book accuses Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and his northern "Radical Republican" allies of providing Confederate sympathizer Booth with both money and information on Lincoln's movements.   But the 'Stanton Group' merely wanted Lincoln kidnapped until articles of impeachment could be prepared against him, or so goes this conspiracy theory. So they panicked when Booth actually killed Lincoln. Stanton and his conspirators then allegedly helped Booth escape to England to hide their involvement with him, allowing the dead body of another man killed on April 26th in Virginia to be mistakenly identified as that of Booth, thereby ending the manhunt for Booth and 'closing' the case.

This book was greeted with hostility and derision by historians and academics upon its publication, apparently. It may not be coincidence that author David Balsiger also published a book titled "In Search of Noah's Ark" in 1976, and an apparent follow-up work, "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark" in 1993.  I also found a video online today from 2 years ago where Balsiger discusses what are touted as "exciting scientific findings" about the Shroud of Turin.  Co-author Charles E. Sellier Jr. also wrote the novel "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams" that was turned into an NBC TV show in 1977, which I really liked as a kid as it happens.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Microfinance: Philanthropy, or Usury With A Halo?

"In recent years, the idea of giving small loans to poor people became the darling of the development world, hailed as the long elusive formula to propel even the most destitute into better lives," begins an article in today's New York Times that you can read HERE. "But the phenomenon has grown so popular that some of its biggest proponents are now wringing their hands over the direction it has taken." 

"Drawn by the prospect of hefty profits from even the smallest of loans, a raft of banks and financial institutions now dominate the field, with some charging interest rates of 100 percent or more... The fracas over preserving the field’s saintly aura centers on the question of how much interest and profit is acceptable, and what constitutes exploitation."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jack Kirby's Unusued Character Ideas

I've written here before about a legendary comic book artist named Jack Kirby.  He worked in the field from before WWII, when comic books were still in their infancy, until just a few years before his death in 1994, at the age of 76. Along the way he created (or co-created) some of the most famous super-hero characters, including the X-Men, Captain America, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, to name just a few (of hundreds).  But in his lifetime he never received either the broader public notoriety or the financial remuneration commensurate with the scope and importance of his contributions to the field.  You may have even read in recent months how his heirs are now suing Marvel Comics (and their new corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company) to reassert their rights to his comic book work.

I've also written here before how, in the early 1980s, Jack Kirby stopped drawing comic books for a time and instead worked in animation, doing character design work for Ruby-Spears.  They produced my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoon, Thundarr The Barbarian.  The New York Times has published an article today (that you can read HERE) about how in the course of his work there Kirby prepared design proposals for dozens of shows that never made it on the air.  And these ideas have just sat in a warehouse, unused and unseen, for three decades. Now that super-heroes are hot commercial properties again, and now that the name "Jack Kirby" is getting more public recognition than ever before, the owners of the now defunct animation studio (seen in the current photo above), Sid Kroft and Marty Kroft and Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, are actively marketing these (almost lost) Kirby concepts around Hollywood.  

The New York Times article also has a link to a slideshow of 10 of these concepts.  While they're interesting artifacts of Kirby's later work, I wasn't particularly captivated by any of them. ("Roxie's Raiders," for example, looks to be merely a female Indiana Jones.)  Because Jack Kirby is such a beloved and revered figure in the world of comic fandom, there has always been an understandable reluctance to note too explicitly that by this point in his long career (he was almost 65 years old), his legendary creative and artistic powers had begun to fade a little.  Note how his age is never mentioned in this article. Nor is the fact that Jack Kirby had co-created Captain America in 1941, 40 years before, and the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and The Hulk in the early 1960s, almost 20 years before.

Trampoline Creator Has Died

George Nissen, who co-created the trampoline as a young man in Iowa in the 1930s, has died at the age of 96.  You can read his obituary in the New York Times HERE.  He originally called his invention by a less catchy name, the "bouncing rig," before later settling on one derived from the Spanish word for "diving board": el trampolin.  Mr. Nissen apparently devoted his life to promoting and selling the trampoline, living to see his invention become an Olympic sport in 2000.

Though as anyone who has ever bounced on a backyard trampoline as a kid can attest, there is a definite dark side to this alluring, almost magical device: a world of awkward falls, "hilarious" injuries, and even the occasional compound fracture. You Tube has dozens of videos of such mishaps, and they're still featured regularly today on TV shows like America's Funniest Home Videos.  They're so common, in fact, that you get sort of inured to them after a while.  So I haven't embedded any of those videos here.  But I have included a video below that I think is "inspired by" the trampoline. It's an 18 second clip of a teenage guy who jumps off the top of a vending machine at school, trying ( "trying") to do a backflip and land back on his feet on the concrete floor.

Monday, April 12, 2010

1st Man In Space 49 Years Ago Today

On this date in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, orbiting the Earth once before returning safely. He became a worldwide celebrity as a result, touring Italy, Germany, Britain, and Japan before settling in as the deputy director of the Star City cosmonaut training base.  

Afraid they might lose a national hero and a propaganda tool, the Soviets banned him from further space flights.  As a result, he began to re-qualify as a fighter pilot. He tragically died just a few years later (along with his instructor) in 1968, however, when the MiG they were flying crashed for unknown reasons still debated today. Gagarin had just turned 34 years old.  Embedded below is a 3 minute clip of his historic space mission, starting with his pre-flight procession to the Vostok 1, and continuing through his flight and safe landing, all incongruously (but not unpleasantly) set to dance music.

Last Night's Interview with John Gotti III

Did you catch the 60 Minutes interview last night with John Gotti III, the 46 year-old son of "The Teflon Don" John Gotti (who died in federal prison in 2002)?  At almost a half hour, it was long but fascinating I thought.  I was interested in this because "Junior" was reputed to have been designated as the acting boss of the Gambino crime family after his father was sent to prison for life in 1992.  

I've watched many TV documentaries about the mob over the years, and "Junior" is inevitably portrayed as a meathead, a lunkhead, and thug, lacking the sophistication or intelligence to run a crime family whose business was, by the 1990s, increasingly moving toward "white collar" crime like union infiltration and construction, and away from the less profitable street-level rackets that "Junior" reportedly preferred, like loan sharking, bookmaking and extortion. 

But in this new interview 15 years later he comes across as a much more sophisticated, thoughtful guy.  In part 1 of this interview (embedded below), he discusses his father's career and distant relationship to his family.  In part 2 (also embedded below) "Junior" focusses more on his own mob career and multiple trials for racketeering.  But it also has very interesting footage of "Junior's" last meeting with his father, in a federal prison hospital in 1999, when The Dapper Don's face had been disfigured by multiple surgeries for throat cancer.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Friday, April 9, 2010

Who Pays California Income Taxes? (Trouble)

Yesterday I wrote HERE about how 47% of American households pay no US federal income taxes at all, and how those households with incomes in the the top 10% (above $365K) pay 73% of all US federal income taxes.  Today, the Merced Sun-Star newspaper has published a fascinating pie chart that you can view HERE illustrating how in my home state of California those with annual incomes over $200,000 pay 66.4% of all California income taxes, and those making between $100,0000 to $200,000 pay a further 19.0%.  That's over 85% of all California income taxes. This follows a 2008 article in The Economist magazine noting that just 144,000 high income households in California paid over half of all income taxes in the state; a state whose entire population is over 33 million.

These statistics certainly raise important, if subjective, issues about the fairness of income distribution in the United States, and similarly subjective issues about the relative fairness of income tax burdens at the federal and state level in this country. 

But they also raise the specter of a less subjective potential problem for our representative democracy: that a majority of the American population, which pays no income taxes at all, may vote (through its elected representatives) to steadily increase the benefits they are entitled to receive from the government, while paying for those repeated increases by imposing incrementally higher taxes on a small minority of Americans, but not on themselves.  This dynamic creates a series of unintended and unfortunate incentives and disincentives for both the majority and the minority that in the long run may do great harm to the nation, financially and otherwise.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Airplane "Don'ts" For Junior Qatari Diplomats

If you're a junior Qatari diplomat named Mohammed flying on a commercial airline flight in the United States, here are three things to be sure to avoid:  (i) sneaking into the airplane's bathroom to smoke a cigarette illicitly durng the flight, (ii) when confronted by air marshals coming out of the smoke-filled lavatory,  making sarcastic jokes about trying to light your shoe bomb, and (iii) when the authorities then react to poorly to this 'whimsy,' angrily proclaiming your right to diplomatic immunity. 

And it goes without saying, of course, when you're a junior Qatari diplomat named Mohammed, that you will be expected to avoid spending undue time in the airport bar before departure.

Tiki Barber Has An "Intern Problem" Too

Tiki Barber: not you, too !?!  Six months ago who would have believed that both Tiger Woods and ex-New York Giant turned NBC broadcaster Tiki Barber would both be revealed to be cheating on their wives in some fairly extreme ways? After all, they had distinguished themselves by carefully cultivating these incredibly squeaky clean public personae as devoted family men.  

But 35 year-old Tiki Barber confirmed today that he has been having a long-term affair with a 23 year old NBC intern. (She had been telling her own family that she was merely babysitting his children, ages 6 and 7.) Barber also confirmed that he and his wife of 11 years are now splitting, despite the fact that she is 8 months pregnant with twins.  You can read the entire story in the New York Daily News HERE.

Only Half of Households Owe US Income Taxes

"Tax Day is a dreaded deadline for millions, but for nearly half of U.S. households it's simply somebody else's problem. About 47 percent will pay no federal income taxes at all for 2009," according to an Associated Press article today that you can read HERE.

"The result is a tax system that exempts almost half the country from paying for programs that benefit everyone, including national defense, public safety, infrastructure and education. It is a system in which the top 10 percent of earners -- households making an average of $366,400 in 2006 -- paid about 73 percent of the income taxes collected by the federal government. The bottom 40 percent, on average, make a profit from the federal income tax, meaning they get more money in tax credits than they would otherwise owe in taxes. For those people, the government sends them a payment."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tiger Woods Slept With Neighbor's Daughter

Oh no, Tiger. Say it aint so?  According to a report in today's New York Post that you can read HERE, in addition to the VIP cocktail waitresses and porn stars, Tiger Woods also slept with the college-age daughter of one of his neighbors down the street from his Florida home. The girl was 14 years old when they first met, reportedly, and is now 22.  Some of the details are too prurient for me to write here.  But you can easily read them by clicking on that link to the article.  

Here's a small sample of less dirty detail. "He began making out with Coudriet inside his SUV Escalade -- the same car he would crash in his driveway on Thanksgiving weekend when his life became unraveled -- just yards from his home in Isleworth, Fla. He then took the girl to his office so they could have some privacy."  Oh, and of course there are more dirty texts from him.....

Rules of "Scrabble" Not Changing In The US

You've probably played the board game Scrabble many times over the years.  You remember it: the game where each player picks tiles with letters printed on them and then tries to spell-out words on the game board like a crossword puzzle. Despite being invented in 1938, Scrabble apparently still has a rabid fan base around the world, even today, as well as a circuit of sanctioned competitions and professional players.  But controversy erupted among its fans last week when news leaked on the internet that a new version of the game to be released in Britain will change to the rules to allow proper names (like cities and celebrities) for the first time.  

The New York Times is reporting this morning (really, it's made that much news) that this rule change will not, in fact, be made to the version of the game sold in the United States, however.  You can read the article HERE. Beyond the hysteria about this (seemingly minor) rule change, I thought that this news was also interesting because it revealed to me that Scrabble is not made by the same company all over the world.  It turns out that those rights are actually split between two giant toy companies. Hasbro owns the rights to the game in the United States while Mattel holds the rights outside the United States.  So this new rule change may be less a reflection of any cultural differences between the United States and Britain (at least among Scrabble enthusiasts), but, more prosaically, merely the different marketing strategies of two multi-national corporations. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dead Man Smuggled Onto Airplane In Wheelchair

In a scene right out of Weekend at Bernie's, two women aged 44 and 61 were caught yesterday in Britain as they tried to smuggle a 91 year old relative onboard a passenger plane at Liverpool airport, despite the fact that he had died suddenly the day before. To try to fool the airport staff, they had put the corpse in a wheelchair and dressed him in sunglasses, claiming he was merely sleeping.

You can read the entire article in London's Daily Mail newspaper HERE. But they women were apparently trying to smuggle the dead man, a German national, onboard a flight to Berlin to avoid paying a $4,500 "repatriation fee."

California: A Government To Serve Its Employees

"The state of California's real unfunded pension debt clocks in at more than $500 billion, nearly eight times greater than officially reported," reads a piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning. "That's the finding from a study released Monday by Stanford University's public policy program, confirming a recent report with similar, stunning findings from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago... How did we get here? The answer is simple: For decades -- and without voter consent -- state leaders have been issuing billions of dollars of debt in the form of unfunded pension and healthcare promises, then gaming accounting rules in order to understate the size of those promises. "

"What can we do about this? For the promises already made, nothing. They are contractual, and because that $500 billion of debt must be paid, retirement costs will rise dramatically no matter what we do. But we can reduce the sizes of promises made to new employees and require full and truthful disclosure so that pension debt can never again be hidden. "

"Last summer Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed exactly that. Since then? Silence. State legislators are afraid even to utter the words 'pension reform' for fear of alienating what has become -- since passage of the Dills Act in 1978, which endowed state public employees with collective bargaining rights on top of their civil service protections -- the single most politically influential constituency in our state: government employees."

You can read the entire opinion piece HERE.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Voyeur" Never On FEC Forms From The DNC

Last Friday MSNBC's Willie Geist did a 3 minute "week in review" (embedded below), feauturing three "man-bites-dog" stories from the  prior week.  In the first minute he discusses an elementary school play based on the ultra-violent Al Pacino movie Scarface. The second minute concerns a minor league hockey coach going berzerk during a game.  These two stories were ok.  But if you watch this video, I think you can even skip over them and fast-forward to the 2:10 mark.

It's the last story, the last minute of this 3 minute clip, that's the real gold. It's about the scandal last week concerning Republican National Committee staffers who expensed an evening at an upscale, bondage-themed nightclub in Hollywood called "Voyeur." The fact that this is discussed while Devo's "Whip it" plays in the background is funny enough.  But watch for the video of the DNC staffer, who had been brought on live television to gloat over this RNC mis-step, as he curiously begins to stammer and hedge when asked the seeming softball question, "could this ever happen at the DNC?" Priceless.  And so telling about both political parties.

An Amazing Day For Deaths ("It's People"!!)

It turns out that on this date in history a truly amazing littany of famous and/or historically important people have died over the years, including: General Douglas MacArthur (1964, at age 84), Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1975, at age 87), Howard Hughes (1976, age 72), Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton (1992, age 74), beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1997, age 70), and actor Charlton Heston (2008, age 84).

Charlton Heston starred in some of my favorite films, most notably Planet of the Apes (1968). If you liked that movie, too, and are also familiar with his 1973 film Soylent Green, then you might enjoy this 1 minute  "Heston Soylent Green Mega Mix":

Saturday, April 3, 2010

California's Bonds Are Riskier Than Kazakhstan's

The Financial Times has an article today about how the Treasurer of the State of California, Bill Lockyer, wrote letters to Goldman Sachs and other investment banks earlier this week angrily decrying their marketing of credit default swaps on California's debt in a way that branded it riskier than that of the nation of Kazakhstan.

"On paper," the article reads in part, "California's debt of $85bn supported by 37m citizens and the world's eighth largest economy looks more manageable than Kazakhstan's near-$100bn heaped on its poorer population of 16m. Go beyond headline figures though and Kazakhstan, with the world's 11th largest oil reserves, an economy that grew more than 8 per cent annually from 2002 through 2007 and unemployment of just 6.7 per cent looks positively vibrant next to the Golden State's joblessness of 12.4 per cent."

"But such head-to-head comparisons do not even begin to spell out the relative woes of American states compared to many developing nations. In addition to their headline borrowings, equal to nearly a quarter of national output, states and cities have made billions more dollars in promises to current and future retirees. Pensions are nominally underfunded by an already scary $1,000bn according to the Pew Center for the States, but that uses their own rosy actuarial assumptions. Former Social Security administrator Andrew Biggs reckons the shortfall would be up to $3,500bn if calculated using a more conservative private sector methodology. Tack on another thousand billion or so for unfunded health benefits and America's states appear to have dug a hole so deep no amount of austerity could fill it."

In Search Of... The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

On this date in 1936, German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann was electrocuted for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son in March 1932.  An episode of the 1970s TV show In Search Of..., which first aired in November 1980, suggested that Hauptmann was actually innocent and that he had been framed by a police force desperate to find a scapegoat for the sensational crime.  

I really liked In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's, and so have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. Embedded below is a 10 minute segment from this episode, wherein a journalist named Anthony Scaduto presents evidence he claims to have uncovered casting overwhelming doubt on Hauptmann's guilt.  I remember watching this episode as a kid and being totally convinced by him.  But I should have known better. 

When Scaduto is first shown in this episode he is strolling down the streets of New York City casually smoking a pipe. In 1980? On the street?  Who did that, even then? He is introduced by the narrator, Leonard Nimoy, as "a writer and former reporter."  But what's never explained is that he is actually a rock journalist most famous for his 1972 biography of Bob Dylan titled Dylan,  and that he had also written books on The Beatles, Mick Jagger and Frank Sinatra, among others. The show also never makes clear that in between these rock biographies Scaduto had written a book titled Scapegoat, published in 1974, which set out his conspiracy theories about the Lindbergh kidnapping and Hauptmann's innocence.

I'll give you one example of Scaduto's "investigative journalism." He asserts in this episode that the body of the baby, which was tragically found in the woods about a mile from the Lindbergh home about two months after the kidnapping, was not, in fact, the Lindbergh baby.  Therefore, since his body was never really found, Scaduto asserts with the confidence of a committed iconoclast, a murder may never have even been committed at all. I learned today, however, that the infant's body was in fact able to be conclusively identified using the forensic techniques of the day, despite being badly decomposed. And that at Hauptmann's murder trial, neither side disputed the identity of the body (not even Hauptmann's defense team) when offered the explicit opportunity to do so.  I also learned this morning that it's now generally accepted Hauptmann was, in fact, guilty after all.