Saturday, July 31, 2010

Headline News' Chuck Roberts Retired Yesterday

Chuck Roberts anchored CNN's Headline News from it's very first broadcast in 1982, until he retired yesterday. You may not know his name, but you'll almost certainly recognize his face (and/or voice) if you watch this 2 minute clip HERE of his sign-off. 

From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s I watched Headline News almost everyday, sometimes twice a day.  Back then it ran repeating half hour news broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each was a complete news broadcast in 30 minutes.  They ran at a clipped pace, with news at the top and sports 18 minutes in, I remember.  There was also a slot for business news and entertainment news, as well as weather. 

It can be hard to remember today why that was so compelling back then. Before the internet it was more-or-less the only way to get 'immediate' news and sports scores. The internet made that obsolete, however. So Headline News (now "HLN") has morphed itself several times since to try to make itself more relevant in the internet age.  Most recently their prime time line-up has been populated with opinionated 'personalties' like Nancy Grace, who hosts their top-rated show. 

Through it all Chuck Roberts persevered for almost 29 years, with his his more traditional 'anchorman' style.  Until today.

Friday, July 30, 2010

In Search Of... Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters union, disappeared from a suburban Detroit restaurant on this date in 1975, where he was scheduled to meet two mob associates. His remains have still never been found. The 1970's TV show In Search of..., which I really liked as a kid, once did an episode examining Hoffa's mysterious disappearance that first aired in November 1980. You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.

As part of a pardon agreement with President Nixon in 1971, Jimmy Hoffa was barred following his release from Federal prison from participating in Teamsters activities until 1980, a ban he was actively seeking to overturn (and undermine) at the time of his disappearance in 1975.  His efforts had met with resistance from many quarters, however, even among his supporters. 

"If Hoffa's disappearance was a mafia hit, what was the motive?" asks narrator Leonard Nimoy near the end of this episode. "[Investigative reporter] Dan Moldea believes an angry Hoffa had begun to squeal about connections between the mafia and the CIA in Cuba... Did Hoffa know the secret behind the 'Crime of the Century'?  Hoffa hated the Kennedys for hounding him during the McClellan Hearings.  But did he know more than the rest of us about the President's murder?" Investigative reporter Dan Moldea himself then asserts in an on-camera interview, "During my investigation the FBI informant also added that Traficante quote 'made it clear' that it was Hoffa who was making the arrangements for the President's assassination."

Ah yes, the Kennedy assassination. Of course.  That explains it: Jimmy Hoffa masterminded the Kennedy assassination and had to be killed (12 years later) to cover it up. What's not revealed in this episode is that Tom Moldea had just written a book detailing these theories titled The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels , Politicans and the Mob, which had been published in 1978.  At the time, Moldea was only 28 years old. He's still alive today (he's only 60) and even has his own website HERE.

A significant part of the story was not known in 1980, however.  Just a few years later, wire taps on mobsters in Kansas City proved for the first time what had previously only been suspected: that the Chicago 'Outfit' had used under-the-table loans from Teamsters pension funds to build Las Vegas casinos in the 1960s and 1970s.  The 'skim' from these casinos was believed to be their most lucrative racket at the time. It's now believed that Hoffa, bitter about a lack of support for his bid to retake leadership of the Teamsters, may have been killed because the mob feared that his high profile legal wrangling and electioneering might draw unwanted attention to this link, or, in the unlikely event he succeeded in re-taking the Teamsters' Presidency, that he might ultimately put an end to this arrangement.

On June 16, 2006, the Detroit Free Press published in its entirety the so-called Hoffex Memo, a 56-page report prepared by the FBI in January 1976. While it did not claim to establish conclusively the specifics of his disappearance, the memo memorializes law enforcement's belief that Hoffa was murdered at the behest of organized crime figures who deemed his efforts to regain power within the Teamsters to be a threat to their control of the union's pension fund.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

History Repeats Itself With Charlie Rangel

In all the recent coverage of the Charlie Rangel ethics investigation I've only seen it mentioned once that the 20 term congressman from Harlem had initially won his seat in 1970 by beating incumbent Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the Democratic primary. (That's Powell at left.) By 1970 Powell was an "iconic, charismatic and flamboyant figure," who was the first black man elected to the US Congress from New York. He held the seat for 25 years, from 1945 until 1971. 

Here's two notable sentences from his wikipedia entry:
"By the mid-1960s Powell was being increasingly criticized for mismanagement of the committee budget, taking trips abroad at public expense (including travel to his retreat on the Bahamian isle of Bimini), and missing sittings of his committee. Following allegations that Powell had misappropriated Labor Committee funds for his personal use and other charges..., in January 1967 the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship."

Reading that you can't help but think of the controversy over Congressman Rangel's vacation villa in the Dominican Republic and that infamous photo of him sprawled out asleep on a lounge chair at the beach during a trip paid for by lobbyists, as well as the fact that he was stripped of his Chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year. The parallels are so striking that they would be unbelievable if they weren't true. 

Tokyo's "Oldest Man" Had Been Dead 30 Years

Initially the headline to this Associated Press story HERE caught my eye because I assumed it was about 'typical' bureaucratic incompetence (it's the same worldwide, I thought to myself with a knowing smile).  But like the best of these sorts of stories, it just got better with each sentence.

It turns out that local welfare authorities had been suspicious about 111 year old Sogen Kato for some time but, "his family members repeatedly chased them away, saying Kato was well but didn't want to see anyone... Police, who forced their way into the house Wednesday... said the mummified body believed to be Kato was lying in his bed, wearing underwear and pajamas, covered with a blanket." 

It turns out that this was apparently a case of welfare fraud.  Authorities now believe he died 30 years ago but that his family continued to receive pension payments for him and for his deceased wife for decades afterward.  That's a tough way to get a few extra Yen on the side, though, isn't it? Having to leave the mummified corpse of your dead grandfather in his bed in the next room of your tiny Tokyo apartment for decades.  Especially for the first 6 months or so.

Lastly, I really love the fact that when this scam began 30 years ago Sogen Kato was just another faceless Tokyo octogenarian.  But the family let it go on so long that over time he became, in absentia, the oldest man in Tokyo, apparently bringing him a sort of notoriety. 

How Dirty Are Concession Stands At Your Stadium?

"ESPN's Outside the Lines reviewed health department inspection reports for food and beverage outlets at all 107 North American arenas and stadiums that were home to Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association teams in 2009. At 30 of the venues (28 percent), more than half of the concession stands or restaurants had been cited for at least one "critical" or "major" health violation. Such violations pose a risk for foodborne illnesses that can make someone sick, or, in extreme cases, become fatal."

So begins an article posted on that you can read HERE.  Its focus is an interactive map that allows you to click on any of the stadia surveyed to see the reported violations.  My hometown parks, Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park in San Diego, came out pretty well actually.  Surprisingly to me, all the really chronic violators seem to be in the state of Florida.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sumner Redstone's "Friend" With Benefits

Sumner Redstone, the hard-nosed 87 year-old billionaire owner of Viacom and CBS, is in the news today for reportedly forcing Showtime, the pay TV division of CBS, to put a "young, apparently unqualified brunette" girl described as a "friend" on the public company's payroll, with the mandate to "make her happy." You can read more details and see her photo HERE.  

Her name is Rohini Singh. She is described in the article as a "veteran of the Los Angeles party scene." Redstone also gifted her 2,522 shares of Viacom stock valued at over $75,000. The article goes on to say, "Redstone instructed Showtime executives to give Singh free reign to pick the job she wanted... But after a rotation in casting, programming, and other departments within the network, Singh landed in publicity, in part because her best asset is her ability to party and, according to this former insider, 'you don’t need a specialized skill set for PR.'"

Redstone divorced his first wife (of 55 years) in 1999, and completed his divorce from his second wife (39 years his junior) in January 2009. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jon Stewart On The Shirley Sherrod Fiasco

Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart pointedly critiqued attempts by the White House and the NAACP to foist blame on Fox News and others for the firing of Agriculture Department Shirley Sherrod, rather than admitting they acted too hastily and before watching her whole speech. ("You were 'snookered'?   What are you: an old lady in a Groucho Marx movie?")  You can watch the 9 minute piece HERE.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Al Gore: Two More Masseuse Eruptions

Authorities are now investigating allegations made by two other masseuses that Al Gore attacked them in ways very similar to his alleged attack on the middle-aged masseuse in a Portland, Oregon hotel in 2006. According to a new National Enquirer story HERE, Gore is alleged to have assaulted another masseuse at a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills when he was attending the 2007 Oscars, and then yet another masseuse in Tokyo in 2008. Just in case you're on the fence about clicking on that Enquirer story, I'll note that it quotes Al Gore commanding one masseuse to, "Take care of THIS" while pointing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

California's Payroll 'Puzzle' Is Actually Very Simple

Did you hear the news last week that the Controller for the State of California, John Chiang, announced that it was technically impossible for the state to re-program its antiquated computer system to comply with Governor Schwarzenegger's order that all state employees' pay be temporarily reduced to minimum wage until a state budget is passed? He called it an "unsolvable puzzle" and then released a three-month study concluding that it would take two years and $8.7 million to reprogram the computers to accomplish.  And in the end, he says, that would be a waste of money because an entirely new state computer system is scheduled to be installed in 2012.

An "unsolvable puzzle," huh? Well, as the Los Angeles Times is reporting this morning HERE, eminent computer experts from across the state are now coming forward to dispute that assessment (saying it should take just a few months) while noting that the system has had no trouble "calculating dozens of raises for unionized employees" over the years.  Indeed, as it turns out state controllers have slow-rolled demands for over seven years that California's computerized payroll system be re-programmed to accommodate this precise change. 

Why have the state's controllers acted this way?  They are elected directly, not appointed by the governor. And, according to the LA Times, "Labor unions spent millions to elect Chiang in 2006 and so far are among the largest contributors to his reelection bid, giving more than $350,000 to his campaign."

Friday, July 16, 2010

The 1 Minute "The Catcher In The Rye"

J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher In The Rye was first published on this date in 1951.  The book really resonated with me when I initially read it as a young teenager.  But I've tried to re-read it a few times over the years as an adult and haven't ever gotten very far, maybe no further than the 10th or 20th time Holden calls someone a "phony."

A series of 1 minute video summaries of the book have been posted on You Tube. They're serious rather than satiric, but the discipline of making each one a minute long makes them a little comedic as well, intentionally or unintentionally.  You can watch the 1 minute "overview" HERE, or the 1 minute plot summary HERE.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sandwich In A Can (of Crime!)

That's a real product alright. Candwich: the sandwich in a can.  Despite the fact that it's purportedly "perfect for emergency food storage needs in the event of a natural disaster" and for "people on the go such as students," it remains a fledging product marketed by a start-up company called Mark One Foods.  

But the Candwich gained some unexpected attention a couple of weeks ago when the SEC charged a 47-year old Utah man with securities fraud, alleging that he misused $139 million of the $145 million investors had given him over the last decade.  He allegedly told investors that their money would be used to fund loans secured by commercial real estate.  But instead he used the money to fund his "lavish lifestyle" and to invest in unrelated ventures, including the Candwich as well as a film about the Boy Scouts' annual Pinewood Derby.  You can read the Fox Business article about it HERE.

Fast Food and Crime:  two great tastes that taste great together. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Con Man And... Hypochondriac

According to THIS STORY in the New York Post today there's a guy in New York who has repeatedly checked himself into area hospitals claiming (falsely) to be the scion of a wealthy local family who is afflicted with a terminal illness (again, falsely).   He then runs up tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary, intensive medical treatments during long hospital stays, before skipping out just before it's revealed that he's an impostor who is neither wealthy nor ill.  Apparently he's done this repeatedly now. Like the movie Catch Me If You Can crossed with severe hypochondriasis.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What "Meet the Press" Didn't Explain

In the wake of the repatriation of 10 Russian spies over the weekend, NBC's Meet the Press included a 2 minute piece yesterday on Elizabeth Bentley, the so-called "Red Spy Queen," a middle-aged woman who was at the center of a Soviet spy ring from 1938-1945, when she finally turned herself in to the FBI.  This piece centers on Bentley's appearance on Meet The Press back in 1953 (at the age of 45), 10 years before her death in 1963. 

But current host David Gregory omits to tell today's viewers that Bentley was also a notorious drunk who became all but impossible for the FBI to control after her confession, and who also had a predilection for sleeping with her Soviet "controllers." In fact, Bentley only turned herself in after the death of her lover/controller in 1943, a Russian whose real name was Jacob Golosenko.  (There's a great book about her called Clever Girl.)  David Gregory also refers to her "defection" to the United States in this piece, implying that, like those in the current spy ring, she was a Russian national.  She wasn't.  Actually, she was just a plain-looking, middle-aged alcoholic from New York City who was once an over-enthusiastic communist looking for love.

More From Mel Gibson (Crazed Or Crazy?)

Another clip of a telephone conversation between Mel Gibson and his estranged girlfriend was released today by Radar Online. You can listen to it HERE. Mel Gibson sounds in this 8 minute clip like he has totally lost control of himself.  He's screaming at her and ranting until he's breathless.   

The headline-making part comes at the very end, when Mel Gibson seems to acknowledge that he had hit her in the face previously while she was holding their child in her arms.  ("You deserved it.") But I found another exchange perhaps as revealing.  When she asserts that he needs medication, Mel spits back, "Medication?!?  I don't need medication! You need a f**king bat to the side of the head!"  

At the risk of getting a bat to the side of the head, I must admit that I, too, think he sounds in this clip like he needs some medication.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What If Joe Biden Shot Tim Geithner

Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounded former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel near Weehawken, New Jersey, on this date in 1804. That happened over 200 years ago and is part of every high school American history textbook, so it doesn't have much shock value today. But imagine if Joe Biden shot Tim Geithner. In a duel.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Listen To Mel Gibson's "Explosive, Racist Rant"

Mel Gibson's career in Hollywood might now be over in light of recent revelations that in conversations with his estranged girlfriend (which she taped), Gibson admitted hitting her ("because you deserved it") and then spouted a stream of threats and abuse at her including racial slurs. You can listen to a 2 minute segment of this taped conversation released just last night by Radar Online HERE. It's pretty shocking.  This is all on top of the anti-semitic remarks he admitted making when he was arrested for DUI in  2006.

I really loved the Road Warrior movies a kid, as well as the Lethal Weapon films. In 2003, Mel Gibson was actually set to star in a fourth Road Warrior movie to be called Fury Road. I was really looking forward to that.  But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan preempted the filming, which was to start in Namibia, because of heightened security concerns.  And then Gibson went on to make The Passion of the Christ instead and never looked back. I had held out hope that he just might go back and do that film now, as a way to restore his public image.  

That is, until this morning.  After you listen to that audio, I think it's impossible to conceive of paying to see any future movie he appears in, or to believe him playing any such role. His talent agency, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, has also just dropped him following the release of this audio tape last night. 

Recent Metal Detector Finds

Does anyone use hand-held metal detectors recreationally anymore ("for fun and profit")?  I haven't seen anyone using one in years myself, maybe even decades. But in Britain they are still used a little more widely.  Surprisingly frequently, average guys with metal detectors will turn up finds of great historical significance from the Dark Ages or even Roman times. News of another such find broke yesterday.  According to a CNN article HERE, a hospital chef named Dave Crisp found a cache of 52,000 Roman coins worth over  $1 million in a field in southwestern England. You can watch a 1 minute news report on this find HERE.  Last September, another amateur with a metal detector found a horde of Anglo Saxon gold treasure from the 8th Century in a different English field.  You can watch a 2 minute news report about that find from CNN HERE.

Mel Blanc Died On This Date

Legendary voice actor Mel Blanc, "The Man of a Thousand Voices," including those of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig (to name just a few), died on this date in 1989. He was 81. In his later years, he was a popular recurring guest on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. You can watch a 2 minute clip HERE of one such appearance, wherein he tells Johnny, among other things, how he created the voice for Bugs Bunny.

Less notably perhaps, in later years he also provided the voice for Captain Caveman in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon of the same name, and for the robot Twiki on the late 1970s TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

His grave stone reads simply, "That's All Folks."

Coca-Cola Reverted To "Old" Coke On This Date

On this date in 1985, the Coca-Cola Co. relented and announced that it would resume selling "old" Coke in addition to "new" Coke, which many long-time customers disliked.  The switch to "new" Coke was initially made because Coke was steadily losing market share to Pepsi.  During World War II, Coke commanded 60% of the market, a share that had shrunk to under 24% by 1983. 

The introduction of "new" Coke on April 23, 1985, is generally regarded today an unmitigated marketing disaster. But after the Coca-Cola Co. bowed to customer demand and re-introduced the old formula again less than 90 days later, their total sales actually increased significantly. 

"New" Coke was more popular in its first few years than many people remember.  You can watch a 30 second TV commercial for "new" Coke from 1987 featuring Max Headroom HERE.  "New" Coke just sort of faded away over time, however.  In 1992, it was officially re-named "Coke II," while "old" Coke (initially "Coca-Cola Classic") was first shortened to "Coke Classic" and then later reverted back to just "Coke."  In 1998,  "Coke II" could only be found in scattered mid-western markets, and in 2002 it was quietly discontinued entirely. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Defector Sergei Tretyakov Has Died

Sergei Tretyakov, a top Russian spy working for the KGB at the United Nations who defected to the United States in 2000, has died of a heart attack.  He was 53 years old. He was the most important spy for the United States since the end of the Cold War, wrote author Pete Earley in an excellent 2008 book about Tretyakov called Comrade J. At the time of publication, the headline revelation in the book was that the Russian government had stolen $500 million from the UN Oil-For-Food program.

He died on June 13th and an autopsy indicated that there were no signs of foul play.  But it is widely believed that it was Tretyakov who tipped the FBI to the existence of the Russian spy ring that was finally rolled up ten days ago, just after his death.  

Code Words Used To Describe "Purple Drank"?

By now you've probably heard that failed Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell was arrested earlier this week at his home in Mobile, Alabama, and charged with illegal possession of codeine syrup, a controlled substance. This narcotic is apparently the key ingredient in a recreational mixed drink called variously "Purple Drank" or "Sizzurp" or "Lean," a mix of alcohol, codeine syrup, 7-Up and Jolly Ranchers candy. 

In all the press coverage about this that I've seen, "Purple Drank" is inevitably described as being popular in the "hip hop music scene" in the South. The ubiquity of this terminology across dozens of news reports got me wondering whether this is the literal truth, or whether the term "hip hop music scene" was actually just some sort of racial euphemism, like "urban." 

News reports like This One in USA Today, which uses the term, note that the drink was initially popularized by southern rap artists, lending credence to the former interpretation.  But JaMarus Russell was an NFL football player, not a musician. And this same USA Today article notes at its conclusion that, "In 2004, the University of Texas found that 8.3% of secondary school students in Texas had taken codeine syrup to get high."  Surely those school kids are not all part of the "hip hop music scene" in the South.  While "Purple Drank" is illegal and unhealthy, is its apparent popularity among an identifiable subset of the population really a racially sensitive issue requiring the use of convoluted code words in lieu of more direct demographic descriptors?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How "Stoning" Is Actually Done

As a kid I remember hearing Biblical and other historical stories of people being "stoned" to death.  To the extent I ever thought much about this, I suppose I assumed it was done by having a group of people (and angry mob?) surround the victim and toss big rocks at him (or her) until they were dead.  This mental image was reinforced in my mind, I suspect, when I first saw images on TV (like the one above) of muslims practicing the ritual of 'Stoning the Devil' during the Hajj in Mecca.

But it turns out that's not actually how its done anymore (if ever), at least not in Iran.  NBC News has an article today HERE that explains exactly how it's done now.

As an aside, in 2004 Saudi authorities replaced the three pillars used during the "Stoning the Devil" ritual with an 85 foot high wall, after a series of incidents where pilgrims were injured by the 'crossfire' of rocks thrown by other pilgrims.

When Spies Go Back To Russia, Unhappily

You may have heard the news that high-level discussions have apparently been held between the United States and Russia about a spy swap for the 10 Russian spies recently arrested by the FBI.  Counterintuitively, that may not be welcome news to the Russian spies, however.

The Washington Post has a fascinating article today detailing the unhappy lives of Russian spies who were repatriated to the Soviet Union during the Cold War in similar spy swaps.  You can read it in its entirety HERE. But these are a couple of the highlights, with a little background first.

Morris and Lona Cohen were idealistic American communists from Brooklyn who first became Soviet spies during WWII.  They worked with another famous Russian illegal spy known as "Colonel Abel" in New York City until his arrest in 1950, at which time they managed to escape the FBI by fleeing to the Soviet Union.  They later re-appeared in London in 1954, as part of another infamous Russian spy ring, now pretending to be antiquarian book dealers from New Zealand named 'Peter and Helen Kroger.' There they worked with another Russian illegal named Konon Molody who operated in Britain under the alias 'Gordon Lonsdale,' a Canadian juke box dealer.  This spy ring was rolled up by the British in 1961.  'Gordon Lonsdale' was released in 1964, as part of a spy swap, and the 'Krogers' were swapped in 1969. All returned to the Soviet Union.

Here's the epilogue about their subsequent lives in Russia, according to this article today:

"After their release the Krogers lived as honored guests of the KGB at a dacha outside Moscow, refusing to learn Russian and declining all outside contact with their families in the U.S. or the Western media,' Nigel West wrote. 'While Helen Kroger's ideological commitment to the cause remained undimmed,' he added, 'Peter was evidently dismayed by the harsh austerity of life under a totalitarian regime and was especially critical of Leonid Brezhnev. In 1991 they broke their silence and consented to be interviewed for a Soviet television program, in which neither Helen Kroger's strong Brooklyn accent, nor her domination of her husband, seemed changed by the years.' She died in 1992, Morris in 1995."

"Similarly, the spy known as Gordon Lonsdale, swapped during the Cold War, turned morose after his own hero’s welcome. 'For Molody, life back in the Soviet Union was not a happy one,' according to an obituary in London's Daily Telegraph. He became 'particularly critical of the way trade and industry were handled,' according to another account. 'As a result he was given a post of minor importance and took to drinking.' Lonsdale 'died during a mushroom-picking expedition in October 1970,' his obituary said. He was 48.”