Monday, May 31, 2010

The "Real" Dennis Hopper

I first heard of Dennis Hopper when I saw the 1986 basketball film Hoosiers in a movie theater back when I was in high school. He played a jittery and vaguely creepy old alcoholic, ultimately to much acclaim. I was amazed that he was able to parlay that same on-screen persona into so many subsequent movie and TV roles over the next decade.  I noticed that the press coverage of his death inevitably mentioned his roles as the creepy villain in each of  Blue Velvet (1986), and Speed (1994) and Waterworld (1995).   But I didn't see any mention of his starring role (as the same character, essentially) in a series of TV commercials for Nike that were absolutely ubiquitous in the mid-1990s.  You can watch one HERE

I was also surprised that very little mention was made in his obituaries of the fact that he was a very highly regarded collector of modern art, and had been since the 1950s. He had been an early buyer of Andy Warhol's work, apparently. You can watch a 4 minute piece HERE wherein he gives a muted and highly knowledgeable tour of the incredible pieces that line the walls of his home, including works by Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, and Frank Gehry.  If you watch that Nike commercial first, the contrast in his demeanor is so striking. That's the "real" Dennis Hopper among his art collection, I assume.

A Very Brief History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day, originally called "Decoration Day," began as a celebration of the Union soldiers who had fought during the Civil War. But it was not widely celebrated in big American cities until after World War I. The populations of those cities had originally swelled with European immigrants, and the American Civil War held little resonance for them.  

Did you know that the name of the holiday was officially changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day"only in 1967? And it was only in 1971 that Congress officially designated the last Monday in May each year as the date of "Memorial Day," so as to create an annual three day weekend holiday?

Retired Area 51 Workers Tell Their Stories

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times magazine has interviewed a few men who worked at Area 51 during the Cold War. Veterans of the CIA or the military now in their 70s and 80s,  they relate stories of their time there over lunch, which they're only now being allowed to tell publicly. You can read the entire article HERE.  Here's an excerpt:

"On May 24, 1963, Collins flew out of Area 51's restricted airspace in a top-secret spy plane code-named OXCART, built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. He was flying over Utah when the aircraft pitched, flipped and headed toward a crash. He ejected into a field of weeds.  Almost 46 years later, in late fall of 2008, sitting in a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, Collins remembers that day with the kind of clarity the threat of a national security breach evokes: 'Three guys came driving toward me in a pickup. I saw they had the aircraft canopy in the back. They offered to take me to my plane.' Until that moment, no civilian without a top-secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the airplane Collins was flying. 'I told them not to go near the aircraft. I said it had a nuclear weapon on-board.' The story fit right into the Cold War backdrop of the day, as many atomic tests took place in Nevada. Spooked, the men drove Collins to the local highway patrol. The CIA disguised the accident as involving a generic Air Force plane, the F-105, which is how the event is still listed in official records.

"As for the guys who picked him up, they were tracked down and told to sign national security nondisclosures. As part of Collins' own debriefing, the CIA asked the decorated pilot to take truth serum. 'They wanted to see if there was anything I'd for-gotten about the events leading up to the crash.' The Sodium Pento-thal experience went without a hitch--except for the reaction of his wife, Jane. 'Late Sunday, three CIA agents brought me home. One drove my car; the other two carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. I was loopy from the drugs. They handed Jane the car keys and left without saying a word.' The only conclusion she could draw was that her husband had gone out and gotten drunk. 'Boy, was she mad,' says Collins with a chuckle."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gary Coleman Dead; Lived Like Marlon Brando

Child actor Gary Coleman has died at the age of 42, following head injuries sustained from a fall at his home in Utah earlier this week.  If you're within five years of 40 years old or so, you almost certainly remember him fondly and well as the cute, sassy little kid named Arnold on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, which ran from 1978-1986. ("What you talkin' about Willis?" six second clip HERE.) You can read his New York Times obituary HERE.

But after the show was cancelled Coleman was dogged by legal, financial and health problems as he aged uncomfortably into adulthood, frequently in the glare of unwanted public attention.  He had two kidney transplants.  He declared bankruptcy in 1999. He was arrested multiple times in the 1990s for disorderly conduct and assault.  

I remember that even when Diff'rent Strokes was still on TV in the 1980s his chronic health problems were commonly known and the possibility that he might not live into adulthood was speculated about regularly in the media. As a result,  I've always thought of his painfully awkward adult years sort of like those of Marlon Brando.  It's been said that the matinee idol Marlon Brando of the 1950s was "meant" to have died young and beautiful like James Dean, not to have lived on for decades as a cartoonishly corpulent recluse. In the same spirit, it might be said that we weren't "meant" to have seen cute little "Arnold" from Diff'rent Strokes grow into a temperamental, troubled man, who at one point was reduced to working as a high school security guard despite being only 4' 8" tall and instantly recognizable. You can watch the 1 minute clip HERE.

Advice On Discussing A Prenup

I've noticed over the last couple of years that mainstream news websites like and have been running an increasing number of stories that are really more advice columns than news articles, like stories about re-investing in the stock market or about healthy eating.  I assume this trend is directly related to the major layoffs incurred by most major newsrooms over the last few years. Most of these articles seem like they could be written by someone simply sitting down at a computer, without having to go out and do any (expensive) reporting.

I've also noticed that many of these articles have suggestions that may seem sensible at first, but on reflection are actually wildly impractical.  The advice has the air of something that the author wrote because it sounded good, without ever having applied it in the real world.  A case in point is an article today on MSNBC that you can read HERE about the advisability of prenuptual agreements before marriage. It reads in part, "If one partner mentions a prenup, the other's reaction is inevitably 'You don't love me!', says Carol Ann Wilson, a financial adviser specializing in divorce in Longmont, Colorado.... To broach the subject in a nonconfrontational way, one partner might propose scheduling a financial discussion for, say, 7 to 9 p.m. one evening, followed by a romantic date afterward."

"A romantic date afterward." Really?  You suggest scheduling a contentious discussion about a prenup in advance? ("Hi Honey, can we pencil in a discussion about a prenup for next Thursday at 7 PM?  I know, I know.  But let's save the discussion for Thursday night.  Love you!  Bye...").  Then that's to followed immediately (spot on 9 PM) by a night of long-held gazes and passion?  Good luck with that.

"The Hobbit" Movie Not Yet Started

You may have heard the news recently that the sequel to the three blockbuster Lord of the Rings films, "The Hobbit," had now been greelit and was to begin shooting in November. That is apparently untrue, according to an interview with The Hobbit's director, Guillermo Del Toro. The hold up is apparently MGM's insolvency, which has yet to be resolved. As I wrote here yesterday, this has also delayed "indefinitely" the next James Bond movie.

"There cannot be any start dates really until the MGM situation is resolved, explains Del Toro, "because they do hold a considerable portion of the rights, and it's impossible to make a unilateral decision by New Line or Warners to give the greenlight to proceed. We really believe that things will be known after the fact of MGM's fate. Whether they stay and get supported, or they get bought, or they transfer some of the rights: nobody knows. We've been caught in a very tangled negotiation. Now I've been on the project for nearly two years. We have designed all the creatures; we have designed the sets and wardrobes; we have done animatics and planned very lengthy action sequences and scary sequences and funny sequences. We are very, very prepared for when it's finally triggered, but we don't know anything is sold."

You can read more about this

Thursday, May 27, 2010

007 Daniel Craig: Just Acting With The Bond Girls?

I've liked James Bond since childhood, and still do.  I grew up in the Roger Moore era, but like most people I still think Sean Connery was the best Bond. Though I've enjoyed almost all of the movies in the series no matter who starred. That's why this item in The National Enquirer HERE caught my eye this afternoon.  Apparently the current Bond, Daniel Craig, was spotted kissing another man recently in the parking lot of a Venice, California bar after a night of drinking and dancing with him.

Just last month, the production of the next James Bond movie was put on hold indefinitely because of financial trouble at MGM (see the article in Variety HERE).  What's the old saying about finding work for idle hands...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Natural Flavors" Are Neither, Really

Last weekend I bought a bottle of store-brand seltzer water at my local grocery store, an Albertsons.  I was a little hesitant at first because I'd never bought their generic brand before, called "Super Chill." But it was cheap and I was intrigued by the fact that it was raspberry flavored, which I'd never tried before.  But was it chemically flavored, I wondered?  Apparently not, I assured myself. There were only two listed ingredients (as you can see at left), "carbonated water, natural flavor." Great.  What could be wrong with that?

Once I got home, however, I looked at the label  a little more carefully. I noticed that the nutritional information said at the top, "contains 0% juice." Ok, what are the "natural flavors" then, if not raspberry juice?  Turning the label over, I also saw that the front side read, "raspberry flavored with other natural flavors."  Other?  What are the "other" natural flavors besides raspberry in the raspberry seltzer?

That's when I did a little internet research.  According to the website Natural (which you can view HERE), "natural flavor" is actually a technical, legal term and not merely a commonly-understood colloquialism. The Code of Federal Regulations defines "natural flavor" as follows."The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."

So my raspberry seltzer water may have been flavored with a "distillate of meat" or a "fermentation product thereof,"  or, alternatively, a "protein hydrolysate" (a sterile solution of amino acids and peptides)?  

Apparently, "natural flavors" are created by scientists in laboratories.  They're called "flavor chemists," and they combine gasses, oils and other extracts to simulate or enhance the flavors of processed foods. The "American flavor industry" is said to be a $1.4 billion a year business. You can even join the Society of Flavor Chemists, based in Neptune, New Jersey.  If you're interested, click HERE.

Yahoo! CEO Tells Tech Blogger To "F- Off"

Have you ever heard of the technology blog called "Tech Crunch"?  It was founded by a guy named Michael Arrington, and it's popularity has made him highly influential in Silicon Valley and in the tech world beyond.  But his sometimes haughty demeanor and occasionally caustic commentary have earned him the enmity of an increasingly vocal minority as well. A great example of this is in the 1 minute clip HERE in which Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz tells him to "F**k off" during an on-stage interview at a conference yesterday, a comment that was then widely applauded by those in attendance and has been widely circulated today.

I went to law school with Mike over 15 years ago now and knew him well back then.  He was a good friend, especially during our first year when we lived down the hall from one another in the law school dorm.  A few years later, I also worked with Mike at a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm. I'm really impressed by how successful he's become and how he created it all from nothing after abruptly quitting our law firm at the height of the "Dot Com Boom" (in frustration and disgust, I assumed at the time).

That being said,  from almost the first day I met him as a young student in the fall of 1992, I noticed that he seemed to engender this type of unusually vitriolic reaction from a small minority of all the people he met. It was uncommon and unintentional, but nonetheless reliably recurrent. And usually in women, especially successful women. Fame does not seem to have changed him.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Suicides At Chinese Factory Making iPhones, iPads

You may have heard about the spate of recent suicides by workers in the Chinese factories that manufacture Apple's spectacular electronic products, from iPhones to iPads to iPods. What is less well known is that this assembly work is not done by Apple itself, but rather by an entirely separate Taiwanese company called Foxconn.  You can watch a 5 minute video from the Financial Times HERE that provides a rare glimpse inside their main factory complex in Shenzhen, China (just across the border from Hong Kong). 

I lived and worked in China for over 5 years and in that time I toured dozens of factory complexes in southern China just like this one. While the dormitory-style living conditions look hopelessly cramped to western eyes, you may be surprised by how relatively clean and well-lighted both the living spaces and the factory floors are.  But this video does an excellent job of capturing the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the assembly line work, and the unrelenting pressure from unsympathetic bosses who believe (rightly) that any unhappy or underperforming migrant Chinese worker could be replaced at any time by one of hundreds of other willing applicants. Far away from home for the first time and working 12 hours a day on an assembly line, it is any wonder that some of these young teenage workers become hopelessly depressed?

With that in mind, it's interesting to listen to the Foxconn spokesman in this video explain the company's analysis of their spate of worker suicides. 

"Fergie" Sells Access To Prince Andrew For £500K

Have you seen the news that the Dutchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of England's Prince Andrew, has just been caught in a sting by a British tabloid accepting cash in exchange for access to her former (and unsuspecting) husband? 

The News of the World is published once a week and is the most popular newspaper in Britain.  When I lived in London years ago I would buy it each Sunday morning along with the Sunday Times.   You can imagine which paper my wife and I would both reach for first after I got home.  The News of the World is notorious for its ability to ensnare the rich and famous in these types of embarrassing (and sometimes criminal) hidden camera stings. 

You can watch an amazing 4 minute clip of Sarah Ferguson negotiating this dirty deal in a London hotel by clicking HERE.  Cigarette in one hand and a wine glass in the other, the Dutchess is clearly a long way from her days pitching Weight Watchers on TV here in the United States.  In one such clip from the Today show in 2006 (which you can see HERE), Fergie says to Al Roker with a smile at the start,  "I wake up and it's a bad day and I think, 'reach for the cookie jar.'  And Weight Watchers say 'no.'"  

I bet that she's grabbing for some cookies this morning.

30th Anniversary of Pac Man

It's the 30th anniversary of the arcade video game Pac Man, apparently.  I was never a big fan of video games myself as a kid; neither the stand-up ones in arcades that took quarters, nor the Atari-style home consoles.  But I definitely remember the "Pac Man Fever" that swept the country 30 years ago, which is recalled in this 2 minute piece from the NBC Nightly News last night.  If you don't remember all of this craziness, you can watch the 30 second intro to the Pac Man cartoon HERE, or a 30 second commercial for Pac Man cereal HERE, or one for Pac Man canned pasta HERE.  Or this one HERE for 7-Up pitched by Pac Man.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Prices "Goldline" Charges For Gold On TV

Have you seen those TV commercials for companies like "Goldline" that encourage you to buy gold from them?  It feels like I've seen hundreds of these ads over the last year or so, especially on cable channels like History Channel and Discovery Channel. If you've managed to miss them, you can watch one HERE

In the old days, these types of commercials emphasized the collectable nature and craftsmanship of the gold coins they were selling.  But they've dropped that entirely now, instead emphasizing that gold is a commodity, a hedge against inflation and a 'safe haven' investment in turbulent economic times. ("Gold is a trusted asset that I can see and touch. Unlike the Dollar, the Government can't print more gold.")

Since gold is a commodity that can be bought and sold efficiently on regulated markets, I couldn't figure out how they could sell gold at competitive, market prices if they had to pay for all that television advertising, as well as endorsements from celebrity pitchmen like Glenn Beck. It turns out that they don't.  As this 2 minute piece from MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan Show explains, Goldline actually sells gold at a 90% -200% mark-up to the melt value.

A Parents' Guide To New College Graduates

"Congratulations! It took four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but you’re finally the parents of a bona-fide college graduate. After the commencement ceremony is over, your child will be ready to move back into your house for a period of several years. It’s a very exciting time. But it can also be stressful. We hope that this guide will answer all your questions."  So begins a column in this week's New Yorker magazine that you can read HERE.  Here's an excerpt:

"Why is my college graduate so fussy?

It’s normal for college graduates to be fussy. It just means that they feel frightened, vulnerable, or confused. You can usually get to the root of the problem by consulting this checklist: 
  • Did somebody suggest that he 'look for work'? Yes / No 
  • Did the subject of graduate school 'come up'? Yes / No 
  • Has he been to a scary job interview? Yes / No 
  • Did he see a scary LSAT book? Yes / No 
  • Did his rock band 'not get signed'? Yes / No 
  • Was he asked to 'help around the house'? Yes/No" 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nursery Rhymes About Child Labor And Servitude

Reading an old book of nursery rhymes with my young daughter yesterday, it struck me how many center on Dickensian child labor and/or indentured servitude.  Is this really appropriate, I worried to myself, as I gamely read on to my uncomprehending daughter. For example, here are the lyrics to "Seesaw Marjorie Daw":

"Seesaw Marjorie Daw
Jennie shall have a new master
What shall he pay her
A penny a day
because she can't work any faster"

Ah, for the simpler times when soot-faced waifs cheerfully sang songs while doing piece work in dingy factories. Or how about these lyrics to "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo":

My dame has lost her shoe;
My master's lost his fiddle stick,
And knows not what to do."

"Cock a doodle doo,
My dame will dance with you,
While master fiddles his fiddling stick,
For dame and doodle doo."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Angry Customer Uses Taser At "Wendy's"

"Angered that drive-thru workers at a Wendy's botched her order, a Florida woman stormed the Daytona Beach restaurant this morning and tried to tase an employee with a stun gun," reads an article on The Smoking Gun today that you can read HERE. "Melanese Reid, 20, reportedly became enraged after fast food workers failed to provide her with the requisite number of mustard and mayonnaise packets."

Mount St. Helens Eruption Souvenirs

Mount St. Helens in Washington state famously erupted on this date back in 1980, killing 57 people. I mostly remember the event, however, for the torrent of merchandising that followed in its wake across the country.  For reasons I found as inexplicable then as I do now, this spectacular, if tragic, natural phenomenon somehow morphed within days into a sort of national obsession, at least for a time. I remember having a little bottle of 'souvenir' volcanic ash like the ones pictured above myself. I also remember seeing the t-shirts everywhere, too.  But who would hang a pennant on their bedroom wall commemorating a volcanic eruption that killed over 50 people?  That's the power of fads, I guess.

Harvard Student Was An Imposter

When I submitted my own college applications over 20 years ago now, I remember wondering whether the admissions departments from all of these schools could possibly fact-check all the little details in the tens of thousands of applications that they were deluged with each fall.  And if not, might there be students getting into some of these prestigious schools merely because they had dared to entirely falsify their academic and personal backgrounds?  

Well, as this 2 minute piece from ABC's Good Morning America today reveals, it turns out it was possible all along.  Adam Wheeler would have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn't doubled down and subsequently applied for Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships. (It turns out that he had not received "perfect" SAT scores or attended MIT as he had claimed, but rather had previously been kicked out of Bowdoin college in Maine.)

Digital Copiers Store What's Been Copied

All digital copiers made after 2002 apparently contain a hard drive that stores all of the images that the machine ever copied, according to the 3 minute 'investigative' piece from the CBS Evening News last night (embedded below). What they found on these hard drives when they bought a few used copiers was pretty eye opening.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Vending Machine Sells Gold Bars

The era of vending machines (if there ever was one) seems to be in the midst of a long, inexorable decline.  They've been pulled out of the "ice machine" areas of most of the hotels I've stayed in over the last few years, I've noticed, leaving behind these oversized rectangles of darker paint and idle electrical sockets where they once stood.  Not only are they less ubiquitous than they once were, but they seem to sell fewer types of goods as well. I can't remember the last time I saw one selling anything other than soda or those little bags of potato chips.

But one company is now rolling out vending machines that sell gold bars. A 2 minute CNN piece about the first one is embedded below. Interestingly, the machine updates the price of gold every 10 seconds, apparently.  The founder's passing reference to passports also intrigued me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bomb Shelter Timeshares

Are you worried that we are living in the Biblical "end times"?  Or maybe you're concerned that the Mayan calendar (allegedly) predicts that the world will end in December 2012?  If so, you may be interested to learn that a California entrepreneur is planning to renovate an old bomb shelter in Barstow, California, and is now selling interests in it for $50,000 per person.  (He needs 200 to fully fund the project.)  You can read the entire article about his venture HERE.  The concept drawings look surprisingly upscale and alluring. It will be 35 feet below ground and will be stocked with "enough freeze dried lasagna and other food for a year."

I suppose, however, that any potential investor must ask themselves whether, even if the Apocalypse came, they would even be able to get their family to Barstow in the first place? And would you have to ride a Mad Max-style gauntlet in the family SUV to get there? Even if you ultimately make it there, would you really consider it 'living' to sit in a cramped bomb shelter for a year, eating nothing but freeze dried lasagna and watching old DVDs?  

And since the shelter will only be stocked with enough food and water for a year, what would your 'family plan' be for day 366, when you re-emerge, pale and over-fed on freeze dried food, to a surface world ravaged by nuclear war or environmental catastrophe? 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Epilogue: Rationing "Unlimited" Beer At Preakness

I wrote last Friday about how the Preakness was offering $20 beer mugs in the infield for yesterday's Preakness horse race.   The Pimlico race track authorities had done so because a blanket ban on beer in the infield last year had resulted in a precipitous 30% drop in attendance from 112,222 in 2008, to 77,850 in 2009. The $20 bought not only the 16 oz beer mug, but also unlimited refills all day, from 8:30 AM when the park opened until the race at 6:18 PM, prompting The Washington Post to call it, "the biggest bargain in sports history or the most ill-advised."

So how did it go yesterday? In the end, it was neither. According to a New York Times article that you can read HERE, it was a moderate success as judged by attendance figures, with surprisingly few resultant "disturbances." Attendance increased to 95,760, well above last year's figure but still far below that for 2008.  If all those additional 18,000 people came for the $20 beer mugs, though, many would have been sorely disappointed. Only 11,000 such mugs were ever available, apparently (according to an Associated Press article that you can read HERE), and they all sold out by 9 AM.  Many fans reportedly waited for 45 minutes to get their beer mugs, and then another half hour each time they wanted a re-fill.

Ah rationing.  The cause of, and solution to, so many of life's problems.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Final Flight Of Space Shuttle "Atlantis"

The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off yesterday on its final flight. There are only two more Space Shuttle flights scheduled after this one, apparently, both slated for later this year, after which the entire Shuttle fleet will be retired permanently. ABC News has an interesting article today that you can read HERE about the economic devastation this will cause to the "Space Coast," the area of Florida surrounding the Kennedy Space Center.  In addition to people who have worked for decades directly for NASA on the Shuttle program, like any large factory shutdown anywhere this will also have a devastating radiating impact on surrounding small businesses like bars, restaurants and hotels.  The article also quotes a few tearful NASA employees who seem to be more bitter than wistful. One notes that the shuttle Atlantis was originally designed to fly 100 missions, but flew only 32.

That quote spurred me to look into the Shuttle program a little more deeply this morning. I was surprised to learn that only six space shuttles were ever built.  The first, Enterprise, was designed for test flights only and not for orbital flight, and so is not space-worthy.  Of the remaining five, two were destroyed in tragic accidents: Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). That has left only three shuttles in the fleet: Discovery, Atlantis, and the third, Endeavor, which was built from spare parts after the Challenger disaster.  The Shuttle program, originally green-lit by President Nixon, has been estimated to have cost a total of $170 billion (inflation adjusted) through early 2008, yielding a cost per flight (up to that time) approaching $1.5 billion.  That cost put the bitter tears of these quoted NASA employees in some perspective for me.

In the end the Space Shuttle fleet will have flown only 134 missions (including two more later this year) since it began in 1981, an average of about four and a half a year.

Friday, May 14, 2010


The United States' first manned space station, Skylab-1, was launched on this date back in 1973. I mostly remember Skylab because of its uncontrolled, premature fall back to Earth in July 1979, however. This was a big media event at the time, sort of an international joke that was tinged with just a little "russian roulette" style concern.  Where would it land? Manhattan?  An elementary school?  My house? In the end, the debris fell in Western Australia, and no one was hurt or killed by it. What many have forgotten is how problem-plagued it all was from the beginning.  Skylab was badly damaged during its initial launch in 1973, losing one of its main solar panels and a micrometeriod shield. 

If left un-repaired, this damage would have melted the plastic interior insulation, causing Skylab to fill with poison gas and become uninhabitable. So the first manned mission to Skylab, which departed two weeks later, went specifically to repair this damage.  (Reminiscent of the Hubble space telescope's problems in the early 1990s, huh?) Only two other teams ever went to Skylab, each departing later in 1973, despite the fact that Skylab was intended to remain in orbit for 8 years.  NASA's original plan was to have the Space Shuttle rendezvous with it again in 1979 and push it to a higher orbit.  But when the Space Shuttle's initial launch was itself delayed from 1979 to 1981, this plan was scrapped.  And then Skylab crashed to Earth two years early in 1979, anyway.

If you're still interested, you can watch a 1 minute video of the interior of Skylab that has been posted on You Tube by clicking HERE.

Unlimited Beer For $20 At The Preakness

"The Maryland Jockey Club did some soul-searching after last year's prohibition on fans bringing alcohol into Pimlico Race Course resulted in a 30 percent drop in attendance at the Preakness Stakes," according to the Washington Post this morning. "Trying to rein in infield debauchery while at the same time bolster attendance at its signature event, the Jockey Club's attempt at compromise has kicked up more controversy in the days before Saturday's race, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. On one hand, patrons bound for the infield still won't be allowed to cart in beverages of any sort. On the other, for $20, they will be allowed to purchase a 16-ounce beer mug that entitles them to unlimited refills, with servers instructed to cut off anyone who has had too much. Given that Pimlico's gates open at 8:30 a.m. and the race won't start until 6:18 p.m., the bottomless beer mugs may represent the biggest bargain in sports history or the most ill-advised." You can read the entire article HERE.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where Would You Want Your Aston Martin?

Let's say you're a 28 year old bachelor. Three weeks ago you bought yourself a brand new $200,000 Aston Martin.  And then let's say that last Saturday night you're hosting a friend's birthday party at your house. At 7 AM Sunday morning the party is still going strong: the girls are in your bedroom, including your 22 year old girlfriend Jade, while the guys are downstairs in the kitchen. Suddenly you all hear the terrible crash of your bedroom window breaking and a loud, desperate scream as your girlfriend falls backwards through it and onto your driveway two stories below. 

Would you, in that moment, hope that your brand new $200,000 Aston Martin was parked in the driveway to break her fall?  Or would you instead catch yourself secretly hoping the car was in the garage?

One young man in Scotland got the answer last weekend, when the hood of his Aston Martin got the worst of the incident (to the tune of thousands of dollars in damage).  According to the newspaper article that you can read HERE, his girlfriend Jade is now recovering at home, while he was said to be "distressed" by the whole incident.

The Third Secret of Fatima

Are you familiar with the story of how, on this date in 1917, three shepherd children claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary on multiple occasions in Fatima, Portugal?  This vision became popularly known as "Our Lady of Fatima." The site became a destination for mass pilgrimage when the kids said that Our Lady of Fatima had promised a miracle upon her final appearance in October 1917. Seventy thousand people allegedly flocked to the site on that day.  But more enduringly, the children also claimed that Our Lady of Fatima had shared with them three "secrets." 

Two of the three shepherd children died in  the Great Spanish Flu epsidemic of 1918-1920.  But the oldest child, Lucia, lived until 2005 and became a nun. Lucia revealed two of the three secrets publicly in a memoir she wrote as an adult.  The first secret was a vision of Hell. The second concerned instructions on how to save souls from Hell, as well as prophecies about the potential conversion of Russia to Catholicism.  But the third "secret" remained a tantalizing mystery. Lucia had revealed it to the Vatican, but with instructions that it be revealed to the world only after 1960.  But in 1960, the Vatican announced that it was "most probable the Secret would remain, forever, under absolute seal."  This proclamation, not surprisingly, had the opposite of its intended effect.  It greatly increased interest in the secret and prompted speculation about it's nature: was it an apocalyptic vision of nuclear annihilation?

It was in this context that I first heard about the "third secret of Fatima" in the early 1980s, after Pope John  Paul II publicly proclaimed his belief in Our Lady of Fatima. The Cold War context renewed speculation that the hidden "third secret" concerned a vision of world-wide nuclear annihilation.  The Vatican ultimately revealed the third secret in June 2000, however. In the end it was "merely" a vision about the death of the Pope and other religious figures.

I once watched a very interesting 1 hour documentary on this whole thing which aired on The History Channel.  It was an episode of the series "History's Mysteries" and has now been posted (in segments) on You Tube.  You can watch part 1 by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bob Marley Died On This Date In 1981

Reggae legend Bob Marley died on this date in 1981.  He was just 36 years old. In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with "acral lentiginous melanoma," a type of skin cancer not linked to sun exposure. It started in his toe, apparently, but later spread to his lungs and brain, ultimately killing him.  It's not the cause of death you'd expect for a young music legend, is it? Until I read his original 1981 obituary this morning, I had been under the impression that Bob Marley had died from complications after being shot in a mysterious, but presumably politically-motivated, assassination attempt in his native Jamaica.  In fact, that incident had occurred two years before, in 1979.  

You can watch a 2 minute clip of Bob Marley talking about marijuana during an interview by clicking HERE. He doesn't say anything on the topic that will surprise anyone, and he expresses himself in a way that borders on self-parody.  ("Herb is the healing of the nation... Herb is a plant.  I mean, herb's so good for everyt'ing.")  But I hadn't heard his speaking voice in many years, so it struck me today how borderline incomprehensible his Jamaican accent was to my ear.

New "Planet of The Apes" Movie In 2011

Fox has announced that it will be releasing a new "Planet of the Apes" movie next June.  Tentatively titled "Rise of the Apes," it will apparently be a prequel to the original 1968 film, showing how "man's own experiments with genetic engineering led to the development of intelligence in apes." According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter that you can read HERE, the apes will be rendered digitally using CGI in this new film, rather than being played by live actors in make-up.

The original "Planet of the Apes" starring Charlton Heston is one of my all-time favorite films. So I was really excited a decade ago when the 2001 Tim Burton remake was first announced. But I was really underwhelmed by the final film when I eventually saw it, and haven't ever bothered to watch it a second time.  Maybe that's why I'm so ambivalent about this new announcement now, especially since using CGI apes seems closer in spirit to the 2001 film than the original.  Hopefully it'll be better than the "Planet of the Apes" musical once envisioned on The Simpsons in this 2 minute clip:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Frank Frazetta Has Died

Legendary artist Frank Frazetta died following a stroke today at the age of 82.  You may not know his name, but you might well recognize some of his work. He may be most famous for his painted covers of fantasy novels in the 1960s, like the "Conan" paperbacks published by Lancer Books (see a tame example at left). His name was in the news again last December when one of his sons, Frank Jr., was arrested using a backhoe to break into the Frazetta museum, the culmination of a dispute among each of his three adult children about how to handle his estate. Luckily, a settlement among them was announced on April 23, less than three weeks ago.

I loved those "Conan" paperback covers myself, and so really looked forward to the 1983 movie "Fire & Ice" in which he and legendary animator Ralph Bakshi collaborated to make an animated fantasy movie based on Frazetta's artwork.  I thought (and still think) that movie was great.  But it wasn't released widely in theaters at the time and was ultimately a financial failure. You can watch the 1 minute trailer on You Tube by clicking HERE.

You can read his obituary in The New York Times HERE.