Sunday, February 28, 2010

President Obama Still Smokes (But FDR Style)

According to the results of his first routine medical exam since taking office, President Obama is in very good health. But he still smokes cigarettes apparently, despite famously trying to quit during his 2008 presidential campaign. Have you noticed that there's never been even a single photo yet published of the President smoking since he took office? 

It's reminiscent of how there were only two known photos ever taken of FDR in a wheelchair. (He never took another unassisted step after he was stricken with polio in 1921 at the age of 39, and apparently didn't think the country was ready for a wheelchair-bound president, especially in wartime.) 

But Do You Have The Votes? But My Question Is...

If you're interested in the fate of the proposed health care reform legislation now pending before Congress (whether you're in favor of it, or against it), you may be interested in the 2 minute video embedded below. It is from Meet The Press this morning on NBC.  Host David Gregory repeateadly asks the White House "Health Care Czar" Nancy-Ann DeParle whether they have the votes to pass the proposed reforms, even without republican support.  Watch as she dodges the question multiple times before finally saying, when pressed yet again, "I believe that we will have the votes." 

"Will have." Wasn't that just a begrudging "no" phrased as a reluctant, forward-looking "yes"?  

British Gvt. To Shred Records of New UFO Sightings

After a huge rise in the number of reported UFO sightings in 2009, Britain's Ministry of Defense has now announced that it will shred records of all new UFO sightings after 30 days, rather than keep them on file indefinitely as they have in the past.  According to an article in The New York Times today (that you can read HERE), this step is being taken to save money, because of the high costs of complying with continued freedom of information act requests from UFO believers.  Ah, the law of unintended consequences.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Star Wars" Summarized By a 3 Year-Old Girl

I loved the movie Star Wars as a kid from the day I first saw it in a movie theater back in 1977.  I don't hold out much hope, however, that my young daughter might ever have much (if any) interest in it at all.

But I may have underestimated its continued allure today. In the 1 minute video embedded below, a 3 year old girl summarizes the plot of Star Wars with surprising accuracy, and with the characteristically off-beat but insightful observations of a young child.  (This video has already had more than 13 million hits on You Tube.)

If you don't have 90 seconds to watch it, here's some of what she says:
  • On C3PO, "The shiny guy always worries..."
  • On Obi-Wan Kenobi, "He keeps saying, 'Luke: learn how to do this little light up sword.'"
  • On Darth Vader, "Don't talk back to Darth Vader... He'll getcha!"

Jimmy Kimmel On Mr. Rogers

Do you remember the iconic PBS children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood? Fred Rogers hosted it from 1968 to 2001, in his characteristically non-threatening, soft-spoken way.  His on-air demeanor was easy for little children to love, and for them to then parody later as grown-ups as vaguely creepy, or even salacious. But if you watched Mr. Rogers as a child like I did, you couldn't help but be genuinely saddened by the news of his death from stomach cancer on this date in 2003, at the age of 74, his wife of over 50 years by his side.  By all accounts he was a truly wonderful guy in real life. 

I surprise myself by getting a little misty eyed even now as I write this.  But I've never been comfortable dwelling on that kind of emotion.  So probably as a defense mechanism, I've embedded below a 1 minute parody from Jimmy Kimmel Live, where they took real clips from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and made him appear to say very dirty things merely by "bleeping out" some of what he really said, and by pixilating his mouth.  (Did you know that his real middle name was "McFeely"?)

White House Social Secretary To Step Down

News broke yesterday afternoon that White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers will be stepping down from her position sometime next month.  More glamorous and attention-seeking than prior holders of that office had been traditionally, she received a tidal wave of negative attention last November (and a threatened Congressional subpoena) after the Salahis notoriously crashed the Obama's first White House State Dinner. No reason for her impending departure was given yesterday, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted that, "she's not been asked to leave."  

But if so, why was this announcement made by the White House on a Friday afternoon during the Olympics, thereby burying the story?  According to The Washington Post this morning, "There are conflicting accounts of how long Rogers's departure has been in the works and whose idea it was for her to leave. According to one administration official, who was granted anonymity to talk about private deliberations, the decision to remove Rogers had been made by Christmastime, as a direct result of the disastrous state dinner, which Tareq and Michaele Salahi and another fame-seeking uninvited guest attended."

In light of that revelation in The Washington Post, I smiled at part of the statement released yesterday by the Obamas about her departure. "When she took this position, we asked Desiree to help make sure that the White House truly is the People's House. And she did that by welcoming scores of everyday Americans through its doors."  Indeed.

Hummer: What Might Have Been?

You may have seen the news earlier this week that General Motors' proposed sale of its "Hummer" brand to a Chinese company has fallen through after months of tortuous negotiations.  As a result, Hummer will instead be unceremoniously shut down by GM and will cease to exist entirely.  CNN has now posted two photos of what might have been had this acquisition been completed and the Hummer brand kept alive:  their much smaller, Jeep Wrangler-sized HX, which was to have been their next model (you can view it HERE), and their emission-free O2 concept car, with its algae filled body panels (a photo-realistic drawing of which you can view HERE).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Sausage Stuffed With A Taco Bell Burrito

Would you, too, be interested in seeing what a sausage log that has a Taco Bell "Burrito Supreme" at its center looks like? How about if that sausage was then wrapped in bacon?  If so, click HERE.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Admiral Ackbar Voted New "Ole Miss" Mascot

I was in high school back in 1986, when a mild furore erupted in California after the college students at UC Santa Cruz succeeded in having a cartoon "banana slug" made the school's official mascot.  Well, it's taken almost 25 years, but students at the University of Mississippi (or "Ole Miss") may finally have topped that.  The school is looking to update its image by replacing it's current mascot, the Confederacy evoking "Colonel Reb."  According to a TMZ article that you can read HERE, the students have now voted in favor of another 'rebel' (of a sort) as the new mascot: Star Wars' Admiral Ackbar.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Andy Warhol In TV Commercials

Andy Warhol, who is perhaps as famous today among the general public for his bizarre persona and prescient "15 minutes of fame" quip as he is for his 'Pop Art' Campbell's soup cans, died on this date in 1987 at the age of 58.  I've never found him to be a particularly compelling figure myself.  But a couple of years ago I did watch a lengthy TV documentary about his life that I did find interesting in several respects.  Among them was that, despite his detached, hipper-than-thou exterior, on the inside he apparently remained acutely sensitive to money, like the child of Depression-era Pittsburgh he really was.

With that in mind, I suppose it doesn't surprise me that he cashed in on his fame by appearing in TV commercials, one of which I've embedded below.  It's for Braniff Airlines, and features Warhol trying to strike up a conversation with famously sullen boxer Sunny Liston, who is seated next to him on a flight.  

Let's Play "Dog Or Daughter"?

My wife, daughter and I went out for lunch today at this sushi place.  We went there early, so we were the only ones in the whole restaurant at first.  But about 15 minutes later, a middle aged couple arrived and were  promptly seated in the booth directly behind us.  As a result, I could hear their entire conversation.  I'll transcribe a snippet of what the lady said to her male companion below.  As you read it, see if you can tell whether she was talking about her dog, or about her daughter.  (I still don't know myself.)

Lady: "So she vomited all over.  All over the rug.  But I didn't smack her.  Maybe I should have.  But I know the meds she's taking can cause that.  So..."

Man: "Could you clean it up?"

Lady: "Yeah, I did.  I took the rug outside and shook it. I should have made her come outside with me. But when I screamed at her, she just acted like she didn't hear me."

Man: "Is she still sick?"

Lady: "I don't know.  Maybe.  Or maybe she was just faking it.  She's done that before, you know. Remember when she ran away all those times?......" (sigh)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Video Montage of Famous Public Apologies

Following Tiger Woods' 13 minute televised statement yesterday morning,  BBC World News America last night aired a 3 minute video montage of other famous public apologies over the last 20 years or so.  Strung together like this, it really is an amazing litany of tearful apologies by famous American men in the wake of various public scandals (mostly adultery), made all the more remarkable for their sameness when juxtaposed like this, one right after another.  Politicians. Athletes. Actors. They're all there. You can watch it by clicking HERE.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions Of Tiger Woods' Statement

I just watched Tiger Woods' statement live.  It'll be interesting to see how it is received by the media and the public as it is digested and parsed over the course of the day.  

But I'll offer my first impressions here now, for whatever they're worth.  While he seemed genuinely on the verge of tears a few times, I thought that, overall, it came across as scripted and forced, especially the part at the conclusion of his speech when he went over and hugged his mother.  

It also seemed like he spent almost half of his 13 minute statement excoriating the press for propagating a handful of specific stories he said were false, and for stalking his wife and children.  He also asserted that the details of all his dirty deeds were between he and his wife, and would never be made public. I thought that this came across as angry and defiant, not remorseful, and will doubtlessly not go down well with the press.

Then near the end he played the Buddhism card, invoking religion in that same predictable way so many high-profile scoundrels have before him, like Health South's Richard Scrushy and even former President Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinski scandal.

The Sea Monkeys' Creator Was A White Supremacist

Over the years I've learned that, with regard to many of my more obscure childhood interests (like comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, for example), there's almost always a "story behind the story" that's surprisingly compelling, or shockingly prurient or incomprehensibly bizarre.  Well, I've now stumbled on another example.

A couple of days ago I wrote here about the novelty "X-Ray Specs" that used to be sold in the 1970s via ads in the back of comic books, and how their creator also invented "Sea Monkeys."  Well, it turns out that man, Harold von Bruaunhut (who died in 2003 at the age of 77), was a white supremacist who had a long-term association with The Aryan Nations, to whom he funneled some of the profits from his toys, including Sea Monkeys. This is all the more surprising because he was apparently raised Jewish as "Harold Nathan Braunhut" in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Los Angeles Times ran an expose about all this in October 2000, which includes some shockingly racist and anti-semitic quotes from him, that you can read in its entirety HERE. Here's an excerpt:

"There are newsletters from an organization called the National Anti-Zionist Institute, headed by 'Hendrik von Braun,' whose return address, P.O. Box 809, Bryans Road, Md., is the same place one sends away for Sea Monkey paraphernalia.... Floyd Cochran, spokesman for the Aryan Nations until 1992 and a reformed racist, recalls Von Braunhut as a slight, balding man with 'a rather large nose for a person of the Aryan Nations.' He says Von Braunhut was something of a misfit. 'He'd give long speeches about numerology and he'd make references to the pyramids,' Cochran says. 'It just didn't play very well.'"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Search of.... The Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are a series of massive drawings made centuries ago in the desert floor of a high Peruvian plateau. Some are just straight lines.  Others are elaborate, swirling line drawings of spiders, or monkeys, or hummingbirds. The largest of them are up to 200 meters (660 feet) across.  They were originally made by the indigenous Nazca people between 200 BC and 700 AD, by removing the reddish pebbles that still coat the desert floor there, revealing the white ground underneath.  Despite being "discovered" again in the 1920s, the Nazca Lines remain somewhat enigmatic, even today, in part because they are so large that they cannot be properly viewed from the ground.  And yet the Nazca people would presumably not have had the technology to view them from the sky, like the aerial photo above taken from an airplane.

Today the Nazca Lines are referred to formally as "geoglyphs" and are widely believed to have been made by the Nazca for religious reasons, perhaps the worship of deities related to mountains or other sources of water.  But when I first heard of the Nazca Lines in 1977, on one of the very first episodes of Leonary Nimoy's  In Search of,  they were characterized as ancient runways for alien spacecraft, a theory first popularized by the author Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods.  Despite being roundly dismissed by scholars as entirely baseless, von Daniken, who is still alive, continues to advocate his theory that space aliens helped ancient peoples across the world build their most impressive monuments.  When I was 7 years old, I found this possibility incredibly compelling.

I mention all of this because yesterday I saw a teaser for an upcoming TV program about the Nazca Lines that will apparently premier this Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. I'm sure I'll watch it.  But it seems to take a much more serious, "down to earth" approach to the subject, a presentation style that couldn't be more different from that of the In Search of episode I saw as a boy. ("Huge drawings are etched in the ground," Leonard Nimoy began that episode of In Search of by saying. "They make sense only when viewed from a great height.  Miles of what look like modern runways score the desert. If they were, what manner of craft landed here?  Who were the pilots?  We are conditioned to think that flight is the province of modern man. Perhaps we are latecomers to the sky...") In stark contrast, the National Geographic Channel website about this program addresses this possibility with considerably less, ahem, enthusiasm.  "Needless to say," it intones dismissively, "archaeologists and other scientists have found no evidence to suggest that aliens visited the Peruvian desert or were responsible for construction of the lines."

In case you, too, might like to get a feel for how jarring this difference in style (and substance) really is, I have embedded below the first 10 minutes of that In Search of episode, and then just below that a 2 minute segment from this upcoming National Geographic Channel program.

I grew up as a kid in the 1970s, in an era before cable television.  I would have loved the Discovery Channel and History Channel back then, I'm sure.  But on reflection I'm happy that I grew up in a time with just a little more ambiguity and fewer conclusive, scientific answers. Where Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster were merely elusive (tantalizingly so), not proven frauds; and where the Nazca Lines were an ancient spaceport, waiting patiently for the return of our alien overlords, not shallow lines carved in the desert sands by an ancient people using only wooden pegs and cotton twine to guide them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"The Dungeon Masters" Documentary

Yesterday I watched an obscure 2008 documentary called The Dungeon Masters, which profiles the lives of a handful of long-time Dungeons & Dragons players, most of whom look to be in their 30s or 40s. I had first heard about this film over a year ago, but could never seem to find it anywhere, not even any clips on You Tube.  But it's now become available on Amazon HERE for download as an on-demand video ($3.99). 

I really liked it, both the film and the on-demand service (which I'd never used before). Predictably given the subject, the featured personalities in the documentary are extreme and a little damaged.  One woman is in the habit of dressing up as an elf queen, including a striking white wig and charcoal black face and body paint.  But underneath all that make-up she's divorced, living alone, and frustrated in love.  Another guy is an army reservist in real life who is also a passionate and theatrical 'dungeon master' with a penchant for killing off characters (and thereby alienating his players).  But he's also a nudist who's trying to give up D&D at the insistence of his middle aged fiancee, for whom he's also converting to Judaism.  And that's just two of the four or five people whose lives are profiled in the film, as they struggle to reconcile their elaborate 'fantasy lives' with their mundane, disappointing and sometimes troubled surroundings in the real world.

Critically, the film makers do not mock their subjects, which in many ways would have been so easy.  But neither is the film an approving apologia for them either.  The documentary merely turns the camera on its subjects and captures what transpires, including many, many cringe-inducing silences between the subjects and their disaffected, uncomprehending loved ones.  In that way I thought that this film was very reminiscent of the 1997 documentary Trekkies, about fanatical Star Trek enthusiasts. I found that film funnier, though, to be honest, probably because the subjects seemed to be much better adjusted in real life, so their eccentricities aroused laughter, not pathos.  In The Dungeon Masters, the subjects are clearly struggling to cope in real life.  But those same struggles made the film more compelling viewing overall, I thought, than Trekkies.

King Tut: Le Bossu D'Egypte

Using modern scientific technology, researchers have now apparently determined what really killed Egypt's boy pharaoh "King Tut," who died in 1324 BC at the age of 19. As you may know, for years it was speculated that Tut might have been murdered, perhaps by adult pretenders to the throne within his own court. Or that he may have died from complications resulting from a compound fracture of his leg that he sustained falling off a chariot on a royal hunting trip.  According to the 1 minute report from the CBS Evening News last night embedded below, it was, in the end, the broken leg (and a severe malaria infection in his brain) that killed him, not the more glamorous royal assassin.

But what I found even more noteworthy in this report was the description of his overall physical condition.  In addition to the "severe" malaria infection in his brain (which can apparently cause headaches, convulsions, delirium, and confusion, among other things), he also suffered from both a cleft palette and a club foot. So he may have been more of a Quasimodo figure in reality, rather than the bronzed, god-like teenager usually depicted in TV documentaries.

Only Obama Could Go To China; The China Syndrome, That Is

President Obama yesterday pledged $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to help two private companies construct nuclear reactors in Georgia.  They would be the first new nuclear reactors built in the United States since the 1970s.    It's an amazing turn around, given how much public fear there was in the '70s about nuclear plants "melting down." Maybe because there's never been a major Chernobyl-style disaster here in the United States, those fears seem to have ebbed to the point where nuclear power can now be discussed seriously as a "green energy" alternative without triggering real unease among the general public and absolute hysteria among "actress/activists."

Our most notorious "nuclear disaster" occurred at Three Mile Island in March 1979, of course. Though the public fears that incident triggered were, in the end, out of all proportion to the scope of the actual accident.  Contrary to popular perception, it wasn't a meltdown but 'just' a leak of radioactive gas caused initially by a problem valve that was exacerbated by human error.  According to the American Nuclear Society, using the official radiation emission figures, "The average radiation dose to people living within ten miles of the plant was eight millirem, and no more than 100 millirem to any single individual. Eight millirem is about equal to a chest X-ray, and 100 millirem is about a third of the average background level of radiation received by US residents in a year."  ("Oh Conclusions Drawn, so the American Nuclear Society has finally gotten to you, too, huh....")

But much to the dismay of the nuclear power industry back then, I expect, public perception of the event was driven in part by a movie called The China Syndrome, which had been released just 12 days before.  The film was about two reporters, played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, who uncover evidence that a newly constructed nuclear plant has fundamental safety flaws which could cause a meltdown, flaws that the shadowy corporate owners are malevolently covering up.   I've embedded the 2 minute trailer for the film below.  If you watch it, notice how pervasive the Watergate-era, Woodward-and-Bernstein themes are.  The ebbing of that intense skepticism over the last 30 years or so may also explain in part the softening public perception of nuclear power.  As you watch this trailer, it's easy to imagine Richard Nixon behind the cover up.  But a dark conspiracy is a lot less compelling if you try to imagine Barack Obama behind it all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What Were Those Novelty X-Ray Glasses Really?

If you grew up as a kid in the 1970s and ever any read comic books, you doubtlessly came across ads like the one above for a product called "X-Ray Specs." For a mere $1 you could get your very own pair of x-ray glasses, enabling you to see through walls like Superman. If you were a boy of a certain age back then, you were probably somewhat intrigued by the gross-out possibility of viewing the bones in your own outstretched hand, but were positively captivated by the prospect of being able to see through women's clothes.  

Today these types of products are dismissively categorized as "novelties."  The fact that they did not work as advertised is therefore taken a given.  But not back then.  At least not in my elementary school. No one ever ordered a pair, I don't think. But as we hit 4th, 5th and 6th grade, these x-ray glasses came up in conversation more and more frequently, especially when girls were nearby. 

But what were they, really?  As it turns out, they had nothing whatsoever to do with real x-rays, of course. They were really just an oversized pair of glasses with plastic frames and cardboard lenses. Each "lens" consisted of two layers of cardboard with a feather sandwiched between them. A small hole was then punched through the middle. And the wearer viewed objects through these holes. The veins of the feathers were so close together that they diffracted incoming light, causing the user to receive two slightly offset images. And that produced the (blurry) illusion of x-ray vision apparently.  (Would it surprise you to learn that the guy who invented these was the same man who marketed brine shrimp to children as anthropomorphic "Sea Monkeys"?)

In fairness, looking at that ad above in more detail now, there is more truth in the copy than I remember.  It does term the whole thing a "hilarious optical illusion," and says that you "seem" to see the bones in your hand.  I didn't remember these ads being anywhere near that equivocal.  But if I had ordered  a pair, I am sure that I would not have found the whole underwhelming reality anywhere near as "hilarious" as the makers suggest.  

As an aside, did you notice how the ad treats the more prurient "look through women's clothes" aspect?  There's a very clear drawing of a bug-eyed boy staring at a woman's silhouette under her dress. But then the text below reads, "Look at your friend.  Is that really his body you 'see' under his clothes?"  'His' body? Was that some sort of attempt to soften this aspect? (Better to encourage young boys to try to look at each other unclothed, I suppose they thought, than their matronly school teacher?)

Do They Still Make Candy Cigarettes?

In the 1970s, the snack bar at my local community pool used to sell candy cigarettes.  Remember those?   I bought a few packs back then myself.  That seems like such a ludicrous product on hindsight though, right?  (What were they "they" thinking?) But then I wondered whether anyone still made them today. No way, I figured.  Maybe some old packs might be listed on eBay, but that'd be it.  

Well as it turns out, not only are they still made, you can buy a case of the things (24 packs) on right now for a mere $4.69 by clicking HERE  (that's 80% off the retail price!). That totally shocked me.  Not scandalized necessarily; but really surprised me.

It's amazing what you learn when you dig into these sorts of things.  Candy cigarettes are indeed banned in several countries around the world these days, including Norway, the Republic of Ireland, and Saudi Arabia. But they've never been made illegal in the United States. Bans were considered here in 1970 and 1991, apparently, but they did not pass Congress. (Who was lobbying our lawmakers against those proposed bans, I wonder, especially in 1991?)

Monday, February 15, 2010

China's Richest Man Indicted For Bribery

Huang Guangyu, once China's richest man, has been formally indicted today on charges of insider trading, illegal business dealings and bribery, according to a Wall Street Journal article this morning that you can read HERE.  Huang Guangyu was the founder of Gome, a home appliance and electronics retailer that was sort of like a Chinese version of Best Buy.  Though Gome's emphasis on low prices and the extreme personal wealth that accrued to its founder as a result of its success would probably make Walmart a closer American equivalent, really.  

I was living in Hong Kong in November 2008 when the news broke that he had abruptly disappeared off the streets of Shanghai, leaving his huge business empire suddenly leaderless.  Rumors swirled in the press that he had been arrested on corruption charges, charges that might also touch the top of the Chinese government.  The nearest US equivalent would be if the founder of Walmart, Sam Walton, had been arrested by the FBI on charges of widespread bribery and collusion with corrupt White House officials.  That seems borderline inconceivable to us.

On a personal level, this is a stunning, Icarus-like fall for a rags-to-riches entrepreneur who was until recently one of China's most famous and revered men.  But it's also a stark illustration of how endemic high-level corruption remains in China, despite seemingly endless initiatives by the Communist party there to try to stamp it out.

Kevin Smith: Too Fat To Fly And Not Happy About It

Kevin Smith, the writer and director of the movie Clerks (among many others), was apparently kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight on Saturday on the grounds that he was too fat (and therefore a "safety risk"), even though he'd already been seated on the plane. In response, Smith began sending out a stream of profane but funny tweets directed at the airline. (""Hey @SouthwestAir I've landed in Burbank. Don't worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.") Of course, this has now become national news because Kevin Smith is a celebrity, and a witty one at that. Last night, ABC World News did a 2 minute segment on this whole thing that I've embedded below.

Southwest Airlines claims they've had a "customers of size" policy for over 25 years. Even if so, boy-oh-boy did that plane's captain pick the wrong schlub to make the object of some very rare, selective enforcement. And then Southwest's customer service department compounded the error when they promptly tweeted out to him their derisory offer of a $100 travel voucher as compensation, mistakenly treating him in that same cheery but abjectly inadequate way they would any ordinary passenger. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Origins of Valentine's Day (And Husband Pillow)

If you look into the origins of Valentine's Day, you'll be informed right at the start that it was established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I, and that the first association of Valentine's Day with romantic love was made in the Middle Ages by Geoffrey Chaucer (yup, the Canterbury Tales author). This really surprised me.  I had no idea the holiday went back that far.  I had always assumed that it was just a "Hallmark holiday" which was invented in the 1960s, probably by some cynical New York City ad man.

Reading further, however, it turns out that the practice of exchanging 'valentines cards' was first popularized in 18th century Britain (and then in 19th century America).  But Valentine's Day has only became an occasion for gift giving (chocolates, roses, diamonds) since World War II, and really only in America.

Despite having now read and watched multiple histories of Valentine's Day, I could not find a single explanation of how or why the tradition of elaborate gift giving began in the United States 60 years ago or so. If the subject is addressed at all, it is almost always said to be a practice that has "evolved." Can that really be it? It just "evolved," like an arms race?

Speaking of arms races, that's a photo above of the most bizarre Valentine's Day gift suggestion I've seen this year.  Just as it looks, it's called a Boyfriend Body Pillow.  ("The husband pillow for single women.") Would you believe it's sold out on Amazon?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lindsey Vonn: Another "Dan & Dave"?

The injury to heavily publicized Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn reminds me of Reebok's disastrous 1992 "Dan & Dave" ad campaign. Do you remember that? Reebok launched a massive advertising blitz during the Super Bowl that year asking viewers to vote on which American decathlete would be more likely to win a gold medal at the upcoming Barcelona olympic games that summer: Dan O'Brien or Dave Johnson.  A series of TV commercials featuring Dan and Dave then continued unabated for another 5 months, transforming both men from total unknowns to household names.  

But it all ended very disappointingly, with injuries and spectacular underperformance. Dan O'Brien failed to qualify for the Olympics at all when he missed a pole vault attempt at the olympic trials in New Orleans, and Dave Johnson (who persevered through a foot injury) won 'only' the bronze.  As an epilogue, Dave Johnson retired shortly after the Barcelona olympics, but Dan O'Brien came back to win the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta summer games.

If you care to revisit the whole fiasco, I've embedded below a 1 minute clip that strings together several of these vintage TV spots. (Until I watched this, I had forgotten entirely about the whole "athletic shoes with built in air pumps" fad.)

Singapore: Nanny State Is No Mary Poppins

The new issue of the Economist magazine out today has an article about how minimal welfare programs are in the city state, which is surprising (or not) because it's one of the richest nations on earth.  There were a number of interesting aspects to this article, I thought, not the least of which were the various laws and programs that the government has put in place in lieu of European/American-style welfare payments. You can view it HERE.  

It reads in part, "The state’s attitude can be simply put: being poor here is your own fault. Citizens are obliged to save for the future, rely on their families and not expect any handouts from the government unless they hit rock bottom. The emphasis on family extends into old age: retired parents can sue children who fail to support them. In government circles 'welfare' remains a dirty word, cousin to sloth and waste. Singapore may be a nanny state, but it is by no means an indulgent nanny."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Most Expensive Art Ever Sold At Auction

Following the sale last week at Sotheby's of a Giacometti sculpture for a record-setting $104.3 million,  the Economist magazine has published a chart of the most expensive artworks ever sold at auction (ranked by actual selling price and on an inflation adjusted basis) that you can view HERE.  

I was surprised, at first glance, by two aspects of this list. While I knew all but one of the artists listed, I recognized only a couple of the 15 works by name.  But I suppose that reflects the fact that many of the most famous works by these artists are in museums now and so don't come up for private sale frequently (if at all).  I was also surprised that 13 of these 15 listed sales occurred in roughly the last 10 years.  Only two sales were older than that (both from 1990). But that's due to rapid price inflation in the art market generally over the last 25 years or so, I suppose.

Jimmy Kimmel: A Charlie Brown Valentine

You may have seen that ABC aired the animated special A Charlie Brown Valentine earlier this week.  Jimmy Kimmel did a 1 minute parody of it on his show last night (embedded below)  in which Snoopy begins writing valentines based on Tiger Woods' lurid text messages.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Have You Heard About Our New Business Model?

I usually stop by this comic book store near my house about once a month or so.  I drove over there today at lunchtime, and as I pulled up I noticed that the clerk was standing outside the storefront smoking.  I'd never seen him smoke before, but whatever.  I headed inside.  As I walked in, he stopped me and said, "I, uh, should tell you about our new business model.  Have you heard about it yet?"

"No..."  I said, a bit wearily. "Well," he began, "as of yesterday, the owner decided not to sell ongoing monthly comic books anymore, and instead to focus on online sales.  So we didn't get in any new comic books yesterday and won't be getting any in the future. " And with that he drifted back outside to smoke.

I should explain for those of you who don't buy comic books that a comic book store which doesn't sell comic books (but only action figures and posters, and the like) would be like a Starbucks that sold coffee mugs and Paul McCartney CDs, but no coffee; or like an Apple store that sold only iPod skins, but no iPods.  

What he was really telling me was, "Our distributor finally got fed up with us not paying our bills and so has cut us off.  We'll be out of business in days."  And since there's no other comic book stores anywhere near me, and since comics are no longer sold much in 7 Elevens, that may be it for comic book collecting for me, too, after almost 30 years. 

It was weird driving away.

SHAG's "Lowbrow" Planet of the Apes Art

Yesterday I watched a 1 hour TV documentary on the 'lowbrow' art movement called The Lowdown on Lowbrow. That was a term I'd never heard before. Among the influences on so-called 'lowbrow' art (which is apparently also known by the more formal title "pop surrealism," I learned) are 1950s and 60s "Space Age" culture, television, punk music, tattoos, hod rods and underground comics, to name just a few. While watching this documentary, the only artist whose name I recognized was Robert Williams, and that was only because a painting of his titled "Appetite For Destruction" was used as album artwork on Guns N' Roses' seminal 1987 album of the same name.

But it was the work of another artist named "SHAG" (real name Josh Agle) that most caught my eye.  Some of his pieces feature Planet of the Apes characters, usually in these incongruous 1960s "cocktail culture" settings (like the example above featuring Dr. Zaius).  What's his work like? Well rather than try to describe it further, I've embedded below a 2 minute video montage of his work set to jazz music.  I enjoyed it, but I should warn you that the slide-show images change quickly, and they're just a tad blurry I thought.  I counted 5 works with Planet of the Apes characters.  How many can you find?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Vanity Fair" On John Hughes

I wasn't a huge fan of The Breakfast Club (1985), perhaps writer-director John Hughes' most iconic movie. But I did really like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). And I liked National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) starring Chevy Chase, and Pretty In Pink (1986), each of which he wrote but did not direct, even more. The success of Home Alone (1990), which he wrote and produced, gave him the financial freedom to drop out of Hollywood (some said in J.D. Salinger style). But then he died suddenly last summer of cardiac arrest while on a morning walk in New York City at the age of 59.

This month's
Vanity Fair magazine has a lengthy but fascinating portrait of him which you can read HERE. Among the many revelations in this article are details about the intense relationships he developed off-screen with two of his young teenaged stars, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, relationships he abruptly terminated without explanation in the mid-1980s in the midst of their greatest successes. The article reads in part:

"For Ringwald, the sheer bliss of working with a director who 'seemed like one of us' was sometimes offset by the discomfort of enduring Hughes’s very teen-like sulks. 'He was so easily slighted and hurt,' she says... Tucked away in the Time story, though, was an intriguing, unexplicated quotation from Ringwald. 'I don’t really see him anymore,' she said of Hughes. 'I still respect him a lot, and if he gave me a good script, I’d read it. But I don’t think we’ll work together again real soon.'

"In fact, they didn’t work together ever again. The story behind Ringwald’s words, she says, is that she and Hughes had by then fallen out—or, at any rate, he had fallen out with her. Near the end of the filming of The Breakfast Club, she and Hall began dating. Both 16, they were by far the youngest cast members; Nelson, Estevez, and Sheedy were in their 20s. It wasn’t a shocker that two teenagers working together on two consecutive films would hook up, but, in Ringwald’s perception, their little romance upset Hughes. 'He did not like it at all,' she says. She still doesn’t fully grasp why this was—perhaps because she and Hall had veered off script from the ordained narratives of their creator, creating a story line of their own?"

The Surprising Financial Power of Coupons

There's an article in the Wall Street Journal today about the surprising financial power of the lowly coupon.  You can read it HERE.  It says in part:

"At first blush you can see why coupons fell out of fashion for so long–and why so many consumers still ignore them. ... You need to sort through to find the ones you want, cut them out, stick them in your purse or wallet–and remember to use them when you are at the cash register.... Average saving per coupon: Just $1.44, according to the Inmar report... Let's assume you spend a minute per coupon. Saving $1.44 for a minute's effort is the equivalent of saving $14.40 for 10 minutes'. Hourly rate: $86.40.... Furthermore, money saved comes with an additional benefit. Unlike the money you earn at work, it is tax free. No payroll taxes. No federal or state income tax. If your marginal tax rate were, say, 20 percent, you would have to earn $108 before tax to take home $86.40. If your marginal tax rate were 30 percent, you'd have to earn $123."