Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Barney Frank Turns 70; It Was All Different In 1989

Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts turns 70 years old today.  I don't agree with many of his policy positions, but I do find him witty and entertaining on television, and more moderate and pragmatic some key issues than I might have expected.

That being said, every time I see Rep.  Barney Frank on TV today, I think back to the scandal that almost tanked his nascent political career back in 1989, when he was just a junior congressman in his late-40s. In August of that year, the Washington Times and the Washington Post broke the story that a male prostitute named Stephen Gobie had been running a prostitution service out of Frank's Capitol Hill apartment. Frank had met Gobie initially in 1985, when Frank was 45 and Gobie was 28, through a classified ad placed by Gobie.  Frank paid Gobie for his services that night, but later they came to live together and Frank hired him as his personal "aide, housekeeper and driver." Frank insisted at the time the scandal broke that he had kicked Gobie out of his apartment as soon as he learned from his landlord of Gobie's ongoing prostitution. Gobie, who was seeking a book deal at the time, asserted vehemently that Frank knew what he was doing all along.   

Frank survived the scandal, if narrowly. The House Ethics Committee later cleared Frank of any wrongdoing and today he's one of the most senior politicians on Capitol Hill and is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.   How things might have been very different. 

I can't let his 70th birthday pass today without quoting a couple of passages from the original Washington Post article written at the time the scandal broke, which you can read HERE:

  • "Frank, a leading House liberal, likened himself to Henry Higgins, who in 'Pygmalion' tries to transform a cockney waif into a member of English society."
  • "Gobie says he attended a bill-signing at the White House, and helped coach and played left field for Frank's team in the Congressional Softball League. 'I was the star player,' Gobie said."

And Tiger Woods Is Apparently Cheap, Too

In its next issue, Vanity Fair magazine will be publishing an expose probing deeper into the details of Tiger Woods' relationships with his various mistresses, and the enablers surrounding Tiger who made it all happen.  Vanity Fair has just put selected quotes from the upcoming article on their website, which you can read HERE.  There's some really amazing stuff in there.  The Today show did an 8 minute segment on this article this morning (revealing even more than is on the website), which I've embedded below.  Here's just a small bit of what's revealed:

  • Several mistresses apparently said that Tiger Woods was, according to the article, "exceedingly cheap." One noted that the only meal he ever bought her was a sandwich from Subway.  A chicken wrap, in fact.  Tiger called her from the Subway and asked her what she wanted, she said. 
  • Tiger had apparently become a big money gambler in La Vegas, and was sometimes seen in exclusive VIP lounges there which at times would be occupied by only he and Michael Jordan, each betting up to $30,000 a hand.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

60 Minutes Profiles Flamboyant Russian Oligarch

The NBA's hapless New Jersey Nets won their 4th game in a row last night, their 10th win of the 82 game season, ensuring that they won't go down as the worst team in NBA history after all. Last Sunday night, their soon-to-be new owner, a flamboyant and controversial Russian billionaire named Mikhail Prokhorov, was profiled on the CBS television show 60 Minutes.  

Some wonder whether the NBA would have welcomed the Russian billionaire as a new owner if the league wasn't experiencing severe financial strain, and if the Nets weren't perennial losers. There have been, after all, rumors of his shady business dealings in what 60 Minutes terms "the opaque world of Russian business."  And then there was the infamous incident with the high-end Russian call girls at a French ski resort in 2007.  This is all addressed in this 60 Minutes segment embedded below. "He says he hasn't found a woman who can cook well enough to marry," correspondent Steve Croft explains at one point, "but he seems to be looking in all the wrong places."

I was prepared to scoff at him.  But I actually think he came off very well in this interview.  Much more thoughtful, educated, and intelligent than I expected.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Presidential Assassinations Almost All On Republicans

On this date in 1981, would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. shot and seriously wounded US President Ronald Reagan on the street outside a Washington, D.C. hotel.  This anniversary got me wondering about past presidential assassinations in history, especially in light of some of the highly publicized political violence following the passage of health-care reform legislation last week.

And you know what?  It turns out that three of the four US presidents ever assassinated were republicans (Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901).  This probably surprised me because the most famous presidential assassination in the modern era was that of John F. Kennedy, a democrat, in 1963.

And of failed assassination attempts made on US presidents since the Civil War, five of the eight were also against republicans (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan) while three were made against democrats (FDR, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy).

Superman Tops Batman Again (We're Saved)

Did you see the news a month ago about how a copy of Detective Comics #27, a comic book published in 1939 that contained the first ever appearance of the super-hero Batman, had just sold at auction for $1.075 million, just more than the record $1 million previously paid for a copy of Action Comics #1, with the first appearance of Superman? I was amazed at the time by the amount of mainstream press coverage that sale received, along with all the hand wringing about how those respective selling prices demonstrated that popular culture had evolved in recent decades away from wholesome idealism of the 1950s toward the dark, the gritty and the violent.

Well, yesterday a copy of Action Comics #1 sold for $1.5 million. You can read about it HERE.  American culture, it seems, has been redeemed. And just 35 days later.  I wonder whether this sale will garner the same amount of press coverage?

Iggy Pop's Last Ever Stage Dive

I've never been a huge Iggy Pop fan.  I never liked punk music much in general, or his original band The Stooges.  But he's been legendary for decades for his high energy live shows. Even I knew that. Though I hadn't heard much about him in recent years. Once or twice I'd wondered, when I'd hear one of his songs, whether, as he pushed toward Social Security eligibility (he'll be 63 years old  in a few weeks), he was still angrily stalking stages doing his "iguana dance," and theatrically ripping off his shirt mid-set to (predictably) reveal his signature ripped physique.  

Well , Rolling Stone magazine has answered my question today.  Iggy is indeed up to his old tricks onstage, amazingly.  But what's made news now is that when he did his stage dive at a Carnegie Hall concert recently, the audience of aging punk rockers suddenly parted and let him fall to the concrete floor. "Although some people in the front put up their hands to catch Iggy, those in his direct path let him drop, including the gentleman who had been goading Iggy to dive. Once Iggy was airborne, the man, in a total George Costanza move, pulled his arms back and stepped to the side. Others in the first and second row parted like the Red Sea. I screamed, 'Completely uncool!' at the people in front of us as Iggy crashed face-first into a seat."  

You can read the entire article, and see the 30 second video of his dive, HERE.

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Taco Bell" Franchise Terms (Hide The Napkins?)

Did you know that the franchisee agreements for many famous fast food chains are actually quite onerous? Working as a teenager at both 7-Eleven and Carl's Jr. over 20 years ago, I got my first inside exposure to this and was very surprised by it. I've remained intrigued by this ever since, especially because so many TV commercials for fast food over the years have gone to extreme lengths to portray an insouciant, and even "saucy," public image.  And yet the the underlying business terms are pretty hard core.

This morning I stumbled upon a 2 minute You Tube video (embedded below) of a guy summarizing the current franchisee terms for new Taco Bell restaurants. Taco Bell's parent company, Yum Brands, has a standard franchise agreement that apparently requires each new franchisee to open at least three restaurants to start, all at once.  The required capital investment to open each one is estimated to be between $1.3 to $2.4 million. (So that's $4 million-$7. 5 million right out of the gate.)  There's also a one-time franchise fee of $45, 000, apparently, payable to Yum Brands.  Then each franchisee must pay Yum Brands an annual royalty equal to 5.5% of gross revenues at each store every year, as well as an annual "advertising fee" of a further 4.5% of gross revenue per store for the duration of the 20 year franchise agreement.  To top it all off, these agreements are not commonly renewed by Yum Brands, apparently, at the end of their terms.  After 20 years has passed, if these Taco Bells are still successful, Yum Brands may make franchisees offers ("they can't refuse"?) to buy the successful restaurants from the franchisees, under threat of unilaterally terminating the franchise agreement entirely.  (I wonder how generous those proposed terms are?)

All of this reminded me of a 1977 court case that I studied in law school many years ago. The case was complicated (you can read the entire, lengthy judgement by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals HERE), but basically Kentucky Fried Chicken (or, "KFC") sued a company that was making boxes and napkins and other supplies for KFC restaurants without authorization and selling them to franchisees across the country.  What the case revealed was that KFC's franchise agreements required its franchisees to buy all these supplies exclusively from a company owned by KFC.  This requirement irked many KFC franchisees, apparently, because they thought the prices they were being charged for these supplies were way too high. This provision in their franchise agreement, therefore, essentially allowed KFC to unmercifully gouge its franchisees in an ongoing way, they argued. 

I have no idea if this is still happens 30 years later.  But KFC is now owned by Yum Brands, too. Ever since I studied this case in  law school over 15 years ago, I thought I understood better why some fast food places rationed out their paper napkins and straws in this bizarrely parsimonious way.

The Rosenbergs Were Spies, But Maybe Small Fry

On this date in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy commit espionage and were sentenced to death.  They were executed in June 1953, but only after extended protests from left-leaning public figures worldwide that the Rosenbergs were unjust victims of a Communist witch hunt in America, a martyrdom that continued to be celebrated in some quarters well into the 1980s, I remember.

But time has not been kind to these protestations of their innocence; that they were guilty of nothing more than holding unpopular political beliefs.  The Rosenbergs were indeed Soviet spies, history has shown.  They were part of a spy ring that provided information to the Soviet Union about the American atomic bomb project. The ring included Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who later confessed that his sister was a sometime courier who also typed their notes, as well as Morton Sobell, who after almost 50 years of vehement denials finally admitted in 2008 that he and Julius did indeed spy for the Soviets, and that Ethel was aware of their work.  Decrypts of WWII-era Soviet cables (code-named "VENONA") further showed that Julius was an active Soviet spy, and that Ethel was, at a minimum, supportive of his activities.

Among espionage historians, however, there remains to this day some uncertainty about whether the Soviets "sacrificed" Julius and Ethel at the time of their arrest, in order to allow other, more important spies in America to escape to Moscow. It's still unclear why, at the same time the Rosenbergs were rounded up, the Soviets (who were tipped in advance) warned other 'atomic spies' in America in advance of their impending arrest, including Morris and Lona Cohen (who were couriers for young Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall), while apparently allowing Julius and Ethel to be captured by the FBI without warning. The Rosenbergs may well have been less important to the Soviets than their notoriety at the time of their trial implied.  And yet they were the only civilians executed in America for espionage during the entire Cold War period.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Best of Biden

This morning on MSNBC, Willie Geist presented a 2 minute compilation of the "Best of Biden," stringing together Joe Biden's most famous public gaffes and faux pas since being nominated as Vice President.  I had forgotten some of these, and so laughed several times as these clips were played one after another.  They begin with his most recent one earlier this week, whispering to the President in his ear after introducing him at the podium that the health-care reform legislation he was about to sign into law was a, "big f**king deal." 

"It's a quote schoolchildren will be reading in history books for generations to come," begins Willie Geist. "Just as FDR had his 'New Deal,' Barack Obama now has his 'Big F**king Deal.'" All with Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" playing in the background throughout. 

40 Deadliest Fast Food Items

I don't normally like online news articles that are formatted as slideshows (as are so many that rank the best movies or best cars or whatever).  They're usually slow and clunky and I lose patience trying to fight through them to the end.  But this article from The Daily Beast today ranking the 40 deadliest fast food menu items (that you can view HERE) is a surprisingly quick and smooth slideshow. 

They had me with the introduction. "Only in America would Chicken McNuggets and large fries look like health food."  Not surprisingly, the items that top this list have these crazy names like "Baconator Triple" and "BK Quad Stacker" that already imply quite clearly, "Caveat Emptor." But in any event there ought to be a law, I think, that every customer be required to pause for at least "two Mississippis" between the words "Baconator" and "Triple" when ordering. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Propriety Is Apparently In The Eye Of The Beholder

As I was jogging along the beach this morning, I saw in the near distance a young couple in their early 20s sitting together on a beach towel.  Well, actually he was laying on his back and she was straddling him.  No one else was around, other than surfers out in the water. No big deal though, I assured myself, there's nothing crazy going on. She's wearing a white shirt and black jeans, I noted, and he has on a full-length wetsuit, albeit pulled down to his waist. 

In any event they were laying near a set of wooden stairs that I needed to take back up to the street.  So I was going to have to run right up to them anyway, no matter what.  As I got within about 10 feet of them, the young woman turned her head back over her shoulder and saw me. An involuntary look of shock and horror suddenly came over both our faces. She was clearly surprised to see me there, and I was equally horrified to see that, in fact, her boyfriend's wetsuit was actually pulled down around his knees.  And her black pants had some sort of unusual flap (like long johns, sort of), which she was pulling open with one hand. 

I was clearly interrupting something that was just (just!) about to happen.To put it delicately I'll default to metaphor.  It was as if they were attending a black tie classical music concert that was just about to start. A hushed silence had descended on the crowd as the conductor strode out onto the stage and raised his arms theatrically.  Then I had suddenly come bounding down the center aisle waiving my arms over my head and screaming incoherently.  That's pretty much about how it was there in that moment on the beach.

But as quickly as that involuntary look of surprise hit us both, it receded back again revealing our true emotions.  I looked directly at her with this disapproving, exasperated scowl which said, "What are you doing?!?!  Get a room!!!" And she looked back at me with a defiant and equally disdainful stare that said, "Can't you avert your gaze, perv?  Where's your camera, freak!?!"

On reflection, there's probably a life lesson in there somewhere.  But at the time I just jogged on purposefully, hurriedly dashing up those wooden stairs back up to the street level.  As I did so, I heard her bark angrily at her boyfriend, "What!  No! Come on!!"  I was careful not to look back at them. But I didn't have to.  I knew exactly what was happening from the tone in her voice.  I had ruined the moment for the temperamental conductor, and he was slowly, but inexorably, lowering his baton and stomping offstage.

The Last Citizen Of The USSR

On this date in 1992, Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev returned to Earth after having spent a record breaking 311 consecutive days in space aboard the Mir space station in 1991 and 1992.  On his return he was dubbed, "the last citizen of the USSR" because the Soviet Union had crumbled beneath him while he sat aboard the Mir for all of that time. 

I remember being fascinated by that, and wondering what he must have been thinking, essentially marooned on a space station high above, entirely reliant on government technicians and scientists back down on Earth, watching helplessly as the entire Soviet system imploded, leaving confusion, lawlessness and human misery amid the rubble.

And you know what, I couldn't find any place where he commented on that.  Though as an epilogue, a few years later in 1994 he was the first Russian to fly aboard the Space Shuttle.  If you're interested, I found a photo of him online from 2006 that you can view HERE.  I was surprised by his movie star looks (especially for a 48 year old man), but was less surprised by the pony tail and goatee on the fan sitting next to him.

Whither Middle-Aged Scolds As TV Spokesmen?

Actress Nancy Walker, who played "Rosie" the waitress in a series of iconic 1970s and 1980s TV commercials for Bounty paper towels, died on this date in 1992, at the age of 70. You may not know her by name, but if you watch the 1 minute Bounty commercial below, you'll probably recognize her.

Have you noticed that television ads today no longer feature long-running fictional spokespeople?  Especially the middle-aged scolds like "Rosie" who seemed to be so popular in the 1970s.  Remember Mr. Whipple of "don't squeeze the Charmin" fame, or Mrs. Olsen for Folgers coffeee, or the lonely Maytag repairman?  Occasionally today, there'll be a particular TV commercial that will catch the popular imagination for some reason and so a few more ads will be made and run for another year or two.  But then they tend to get stale and peter out.  And the featured characters these days are much more likely to be "sassy" cartoon characters than seasoned character actors.  (Like the Budweiser iguanas, or the cokney Geico gecko.)  In contrast, these Bounty ads featuring "Rosie" the diner waitress ran for 20 years between 1970 and 1990. The Mr. Whipple Charmin ads ran from 1964 to 1985. And the Mrs. Olsen Folgers ads ran for a similar 21 years starting in 1964.

Apparently these Bounty ads were filmed in a real life, working diner that was located in New Jersey and had been there since WWII. But after the Bounty ads went off the air, the building was moved to its present location in Michigan in 1992. It's still an operating roadside restaurant there today. If you watch this 1971 Bounty commercial embedded below, can you tell that Nancy Walker who played "Rosie" was only 4'10" tall?

How Many "Last Meals" Do You Get?

Overnight the Supreme Court issued a last-minute stay of execution less than an hour before a Texas inmate was to be executed by lethal injection for the 1993 murder of his live-in girlfriend and her two sons. According to CNN, the condemned man received this news as he was eating his last meal. There are apparently significant issues concerning DNA testing still to be considered. 

More frivolously, however, I wonder whether, if his execution were to be re-set again for a later date, he would be entitled to another "last meal"? Or is there is a strict "one last meal per person" policy?  If he does get another one, does he have to have the same meal he ordered last night?

"Iron Man 2" Cologne

I've loved comic books since I was a kid.  But let me tell you, if you're getting ready for a night out (or a date) by splashing on a little $67 "Iron Man 2" cologne from Diesel, you might as well just stay home. You've already lost. (Oh, and that "Spider-Man" Mastercard is not an aphrodisiac either. Trust me.)

Still want to see a photo of the fist-shaped, red metallic bottle of "Iron Man 2" cologne? Ok.... HERE

Social Security Is Now Over, Not At, The Brink

The Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration revealed yesterday that Social Security will pay out more in benefits this year than it will take in from payroll taxes.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office had previously estimated that this threshold would not be crossed until 2016, and that the program would not exhaust its funds until 2037.  You can read the entire New York Times article about this today HERE.

It's such a cynical, political maneuver to hold this revelation until after President Obama signed his landmark health-care reform legislation into law; another example, I think, of the disappointing failure of the President to fulfill his campaign pledge to end "politics as usual in Washington."

The Origins of "Yo Gabba Gabba"

If you're a parent of a child under, say, 7 years old, then you almost certainly know of a popular children's TV show on Nicklelodeon called Yo Gabba Gabba. It's jarringly different from other, similar shows aimed at pre-schoolers, which tend to be very banal and non-threatening.  This show takes a very different, "alternative" approach.  It has these trippy special effects that look like they were originally created for a rave party.  It features musical guests who are real life indy rock bands.  And the songs they sing and lessons they teach are phrased in a this uniquely blunt, borderline sardonic way. ("Don't, don't, don't bite your friends," goes one jingle.) As a result, the show has now also become wildly popular with kids' parents, as well as college kids.

Entertainment Weekly has published an article on the origins of the show that you can read HERE. The show's two founders are 38 year old former skateboarders and failed indy rockers.  (The Yo Gabba Gabba characters Muno and Brobee were originally featured in one on their band's stage shows.)  And here's a section from the article that describes how the show's creators found the show's host, DJ Lance:

"There was only one thing missing: a host. Majestic had toured with a group called the Ray Makers, and Schultz thought one of the members just might work. One day, they visited him at his day job at trendy L.A. record store Amoeba. 'We went down and met him,' says Jacobs. 'He comes out and he's wearing this '70s getup, like he would have been on Electric Company or in Sly Stone's band — a huge beard and a giant Afro and these rainbow-colored striped pants. He had a big smile on his face and said, 'Hey, how ya doing? I'm Lance.' It was like lightning struck.' When the Yo Gabba crew offered him the job, Lance Robertson didn't take it that seriously. 'I was kind of like, whatever,' says the self-described ''big music nerd,'' 44, whose one-bedroom Hollywood apartment is stuffed with some 6,000 records. 'I did not ever dream it was going to be what it is now. But I could tell that these guys were doing something positive. I just went with it.'''

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kimmel: Best Actor In An Infomercial

Jimmy Kimmel did a 2 minute piece awarding an honorary Oscar to one of five nominees for Best Actor In An Informercial. You can watch it HERE.

Robbers Hold Up A Taco Bell.... For Food

On Monday night at 11:15 PM, three men in a white car pulled up to the drive thru window at a Taco Bell in Charlotte, North Carolina, pointed a handgun at the stunned clerk and demanded... food.  According to a news report about the incident that you can read HERE, the armed robbers were given "fried apple pies" and drove away.

Do you think that's what they really wanted? Apple pie?  From a Taco Bell?  I didn't even know that Taco Bell sold an apple pie.  So I checked out their menu online, and they do indeed offer something called a "caramel apple empanada." What are the chances that these armed robbers shoved that gun in the fast food clerk's face and yelled, "give me all your Caramel Apple Empanadas!! Now!!!"   But if the robbers didn't want empanadas, why'd they settle for that? After all, they had a gun. ("I swear mister, it's store policy.  After 11 PM, we don't keep any pre-made burritos or tacos on hand.  I swear. But we do have these Empanadas...")

If you want to watch a woman who looks a little like Julia Roberts with no make-up on do a 1 minute video review of the Carmel Apple Empanada, you can click HERE.   "If you get a craving for something sweet," she says in a distinct southern accent,  "go through the drive-thru, pick you up a Caramel Apple Empanda, and I don't think you'll be disappointed."  Hmmmm, I don't know....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will School Lunches In America Ever Change?

It seems like school lunches have always been lambasted in America for being unhealthy. (Remember the infamous "catsup counts as a vegetable" controversy during the Reagan administration?)  But as childhood obesity rates have risen steadily in recent the years, concern about the health impact of serving kids pizza and french fries for lunch every day has become more and more acute. 

The same exact problem plagues Britain.  So a few years ago, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did a TV show there where he went to one particular elementary school to try to show the school administrators and the kids' parents that they could eat more healthfully for the same amount of money.  I watched that show and found it captivating: sometimes hilarious, but also quixotic and at times a little sad. I remember one 10 year old boy who didn't even know what broccoli was when it was shown to him.  When he was offered a bite, he recoiled like it was a rod of plutonium. Then they went to his house and found that his heavy-set mother served him take-out fast food literally every night for dinner his whole life (mostly fish n' chips), claiming that she couldn't afford to do anything else.

Well, Jamie Oliver has now replicated this approach in a West Virginia town for a new TV show here in the United States that premiered on Sunday on ABC.  I've embedded a 2 minute clip from the show below. In it, Jamie works with the middle-aged lunch ladies in the school cafeteria as they ambivalently prepare "mashed potatoes" by rehydrating a pre-packaged product called "potato pearls."  ("Is it really potatoes," he asks? "I hope so," one cafeteria lady responds casually, then adding "they're a cook's best friend.") The only urgency or care they demonstrate while doing this prep work is that Jamie Oliver pour the watery goo in the serving tray more quickly, before it hardens like concrete in the mixing bowl.

Monday, March 22, 2010

CIA Analysts In The Field Cause Danger

There's an interesting article in The Washington Post today (which you can read HERE) about how that suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan on December 30 last year, which killed seven CIA officers, was fundamentally caused by a new trend at the CIA to assign formerly desk-bound analysts to dangerous field offices that were historically the domain of only seasoned CIA case officers. 

"Traditionally, the CIA's station chiefs, or top agency officer in a country, and its base chiefs, deployed in outlying offices, were veteran case officers, or seasoned spy handlers. But under a series of CIA directors starting in the mid-1990s, that began to change. Career intelligence analysts... were increasingly deployed to field positions." 

"The chief of that base in Khost, in remote eastern Afghanistan, 'was 45 years old and a divorced mother of three. She'd spent the vast majority of her career at a desk in Northern Virginia, where she studied al-Qaeda for more than a decade'... A seasoned operative would have punched holes in her plan to bring Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi - a Jordanian doctor who persuaded the CIA he could penetrate the top circles of al-Qaeda - to the agency's base in Khost, counters Charles Faddis, a career operative who retired in 2008.  As it turned out, Balawi had been dispatched by al-Qaeda in Pakistan. When he was picked up by an agency security team, he stepped into the car wearing a suicide vest of explosives. They failed to pat him down -- another inexplicable lapse... 'The most inexplicable error was to have met Balawi by committee,' writes Baer, whose exploits were dramatized in the George Clooney movie Syriana. 'Informants should always be met one-on-one. Always.' "

Health-Care Stocks Today And Cost Control

Did you notice that over the last week or so advocates of the proposed health-care reform legislation, including President Obama himself, had suddenly stopped emphasizing the aspects of the legislation that purported to "bend the curve" on healthcare costs which, he proclaimed repeatedly, were rising at an unsustainable pace?  

Well, the stock market provided us today with a non-partisan referendum on the effectiveness of the much-ballyhooed "cost control" provisions of this health-care reform legislation that passed the House late Saturday night.  

According to an article on that you can read HERE, stocks of hospital operators rocketed up today in the wake of that House vote on Saturday. Tenet Healthcare was up more than 9%, and Community Health Systems shares were up 6.7%.  Companies that provide Medicaid services also advanced. Amerigroup and Molina Healthcare were each up 4%.  And pharmaceutical stocks were also up, with both Merck and Pfizer up 2%.  They all vastly outperformed the broader market today.  The Dow was up 0.4% and the S&P 500 was up 0.5%. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Repo Man For Yachts, Gulfstream Jets

Today's Wall Street Journal profiles a man who repossesses the toys of the ultra-rich, like yachts and Gulfstream jets, that you can read HERE.  Among the interesting tidbits in the article, I thought, were:

  • He once repossessed a racehorse.
  • "He estimates that 70% of his targets made and lost their money from real estate—either as developers, Realtors or contractors. Most of his jobs are in Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada..."
  • "Mr. Craft prides himself on being able to break into just about anything, whether boat, plane or RV. Not that planes or yachts are that hard to steal. Mr. Cage says most yacht owners keep their keys near the ignition and rarely lock the doors. Plane doors can often be easily picked. 'A jet is much easier to take than a car,' he says."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day And George Washington

I wrote previously here about how, despite the fact that Valentine's Day dates back to Roman times, the holiday as we celebrate it today (with cards, flowers, candy and gifts) is essentially a creation of post-World War II America.

I expected something similar to be true of Saint Patrick's Day, which is today.  But as it turns out St. Patrick's Day was celebrated in America as early as the 1760s, in ways that sound similar to the way it's celebrated today.  New York State's first St. Patrick's Day parade was staged on this date in 1762, and the first celebration of St. Patrick's Day in New York City itself was apparently held in 1766 at the "Crown and Thistle" tavern.  In 1780, no less a figure than General George Washington allowed his troops a holiday on March 17th, “as an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence."

On a barely related note, embedded below is a 30 second clip from The Simpsons about designated drivers on St. Patrick's Day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SNL: "Really, Eric Massa?" With Jerry Seinfeld

This past weekend, Jerry Seinfeld made a 3 minute cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live to discuss incredulously Congressman Eric Massa's public denials that he sexually harassed any of his male staffers. Here it is:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rielle Hunter Gives First Interview

John Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter has now spoken publicly about the scandal for the first time, in an interview with GQ magazine.  It also includes a few current photos of her that are a a little surprising (like her sitting on a bed wearing only a man's dress shirt). You can read the article HERE. A few interesting relevations in the article include:

  • She refers to Edwards as "Johnny" throughout the interview and says that they slept together the first night they met.
  • After giving his infamous TV interview during which he denied unequivocally that he could be the father of Hunter's baby and insisted that his wife, Elizabeth, was the only woman he'd ever loved, John Edwards apparently called Hunter. "And I said, 'Ouch, that hurt.' And he said, 'I'm sorry.' And 'It doesn't mean anything.' And it didn't. I know he loves me. I have never had any doubt at all about that. We love each other very much. And that hasn't changed, and I believe that will be till death do us part. "
  • She asserts that John Edwards had other extra-marital affairs in prior years and that his wife was aware of at least some of them.
  • About John Edwards' highly-publicized failings, "Most of his mistakes or errors in judgment were because of his fear of the wrath of Elizabeth. He's allowed himself to be pushed into a lot of things that he wouldn't normally do because of Elizabeth's story line. And the spin that she wants to put out there. He was emasculated. And you know, the wrath of Elizabeth is a mighty wrath."
  • At one point in the interview, she's asked whether they've ever discussed wedding plans. The way she phrases her response is interesting. "No. To date [laughs], we have not spoken about any wedding plans."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jack Ruby's Death Bed Assertion

On this day in 1964, a jury in Dallas found Jack Ruby guilty of murdering JFK's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  You wouldn't think that would have been much of a trial, since Ruby was filmed by TV cameras shooting Oswald.  But Ruby was represented pro bono by famed defense attorney Melvin Belli, who attempted (unsuccessfully) to argue that Ruby was legally insane at the time.

Was Jack Ruby just a pawn in a bigger, Mafia-led JFK assassination conspiracy?  Well, his last words on his deathbed in 1967 reportedly were, "There is nothing to hide... There was no one else."

The People Vs. George Lucas

A new documentary film debuted yesterday at SXSW called The People vs. George Lucas.  It apparently explores the unique love-hate relationship that Star Wars fans have with Mr. Lucas.  Below is a 3 minute trailer for the film. "How can you not feel bad," one fan says rhetorically in this trailer, "that people who love you and worship you like a god turn against you as if you're some sort of fallen angel?"

Did Driver Fake the Runaway Prius in San Diego?

Did you see the story last week about the driver in San Diego who called 911 while on the freeway, panicked that his Toyota Prius was accelerating out of control? According to The Daily Beast today, investigators are beginning to suspect that the driver may have faked that dramatic incident, perhaps because he had been told by Toyota that his particular Prius was not on the recall list. You can read the article HERE.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Late Night Comedians On Eric Massa

I thought this 3 minute clip from MSNBC was pretty funny. It's a collection of clips of David Letterman, John Stewart and other comedians joking about the Eric Massa scandal on their shows this week.

Searching For The Aging Creator of "Spider-Man"

Did you know that the co-creator of Spider-Man is an artist named Steve Ditko? You've probably never heard of him, however, in part because he's lived his life as a sort of J.D. Salinger-esque recluse. He's still alive, though, age 82, hiding in plain sight in New York City.  But he never gives interviews (ever), and the few photos of him known to exist date back over 40 years.

Ditko created Spider-Man for Marvel Comics along with Stan Lee in 1962.  But just as the character was becoming widely popular in the mid-1960s, he abruptly walked away after drawing fewer than 40 issues.  Ditko continued to draw comic books for decades thereafter, but he never did Spider-Man again. And today he's known as much for his famous reclusiveness and his devotion to Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism as anything else.  

Three years ago a BBC talk show host named Jonathan Ross, who's a big fan of American comic books, made a 1 hour documentary about his search for the elusive Steve Ditko, while tracing the course of his career over the decades.  I won't spoil it for you by revealing whether he ever succeeds in finding Mr. Ditko and getting him on camera.  But if you want to find out, you can start with part 1 below. (It's 10 minutes long.)  Or, if you really don't care enough to watch the full 1 hour program, I've also embedded below the last part of the documentary, which is only 7 minutes long, wherein the results of Jonathan Ross' search are finally revealed.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Week In Massa (The "Snorkeling" Remix)

"The word 'snorkeling' was suddenly and tragically stripped of its innocence this week, "  Willie Geist says at one point in this 2 minute clip from MSNBC this morning, during which he summarizes the head spinning series of revelations that just kept coming about disgraced Congressman Eric Massa over the last 7 days.  If you're totally sick of this story, don't bother watching the clip below.  But if you have any tolerance for it left at all, I bet you'll think this is pretty funny.

Remember The Finger In "Wendy's" Chili Scandal?

Do you remember back in 2005 when a woman named Anna Aayala (that's her at left) made national headlines by claiming she was shocked and dismayed to find a human finger in her bowl of chili at a Wendy's in San Jose, California?  That turned into a big scandal which cost Wendy's millions in lost business until she admitted later she had actually put the human finger in there herself after all.  She was later convicted and sentenced to 9 years in prison.

This story intrigued me at the time in part because I sort of liked Wendy's chili myself.  But beyond the headlines, I also wondered about the untold tale of how Aayala had come by a (spare) severed human finger, smuggled it into a Wendy's, casually placed an order for chili, and then surreptitiously dumped the finger in the bowl before jumping up to feign shock and horror and demand a monetary settlement.  There must be an interesting story there among those unreported details, I thought.

Well as it turns out Anna Aayala was released from prison last year after serving only 4 years of her 9 year sentence.  She has now spoken to a reporter about the incident for the first time. Here are the highlights of what she said:

  • Her husband, Jaime Plascencia, got the severed finger from a co-worker, who lost it in an industrial accident. 
  • She cooked the severed digit and then drove it from her Las Vegas home to the Wendy's in San Jose, California.
  • As a condition of her release, she's barred from going to any Wendy's restaurants.
I'm still left to wonder what she was thinking on that drive from Vegas to San Jose, California.  (Did the finger beat like 'The Telltale Heart' during that drive, laying there on the back seat? And for that matter, how does one cook a human finger for this purpose: boil? bake? pan fry?) And why make that drive at all? Why not pull the scam locally in Nevada?  We may never know....