Friday, December 30, 2011

600 LB Woman Stops Pay-Per-View Eating

For years a 44 year old mother of two from Ohio named Donna Simpson, who  is 5' 4" and weighs 600 lbs., apparently charged men $19 a month to watch her eat via the internet.

The news today HERE on MSNBC is that she has halted this endeavor and is trying to lose weight for health reasons. But the fact that this went on for years, and that men around the world paid a monthly fee to watch her eat, genuinely shocked me. Here are a few selections from this article:
  • "The underground community is involved in a rare form of masochism known as feederism, said Stephen Levine, the co-director of the Center for Marital and Sexual Health in Beachwood and a professor of clinical psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. People gain satisfaction by watching others eat and become overweight. The Internet helped it take off, he said."
  •  "Simpson said she earned at one point $1,000 a month from the pay-per-view eating."
  •  "I realized that I was their fantasy," she said. "Here I was getting bigger and bigger, and they had their thin wives, with 2 1/2 kids and a picket fence."
  • "There are plenty of men who will buy you four pizzas and enjoy watching you eat all of them," she wrote on her website. "But what it comes down to is that you become a slave to the food and to your feeder." 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Drunken Online Shopping

 THIS article today from The New York Times analyzes in some detail the degree to which online shopping is driven by alcohol consumption, and reveals that retailers are well aware of this phenomenon.

"Still, the nighttime spike requires delicacy among retailers: for reasons of propriety, they do not want to be seen as encouraging drunken shopping, and many people who inadvertently buy products in that state would most likely return them at high rates."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

FCC To Ban Loud Commercials

Are you among the 86% of Americans who believe that TV commercials are jarringly louder than the TV shows themselves? I wrote previously HERE about this phenomenon.  According to this segment from the NBC Nightly News, the FCC has now announced plans to curb that practice.  Finally.  Though the ban won't take effect for a year, apparently.

Worst Chain Restaurants For Health

Men's Health magazine has ranked the best and worst chain restaurants for your health. You can see the rankings HERE.

The 'usual suspects' are ranked right where you would expect them to be, pretty much.  But I was shocked to see that Red Lobster was ranked 2nd best (best!) restaurant for health!  Higher than Jamba Juice!  I had no idea that fried shrimp were so healthful.  Or maybe Jamba Juice is now putting lard in their smoothies?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

10 Worst Sugar Cereals For Kids

A public health watchdog group has released a list of the 10 'worst' sugar cereals for kids.  You can view a slideshow HERE.

Round up the usual suspects for this rogue's gallery.  Various versions of Cap'n Crunch appear no fewer than four times, and Froot Loops account for two more. Another two are cereals that originally had 'Sugar' in their names (Honey Smacks and Golden Crisp).  And then there's good old Apple Jacks. The list is rounded out by a newer cereal called, descriptively, Smorz.

In fairness to their respective manufacturers, could any parent reasonably claim to be surprised that cereals with these names are on a list like this?

The Economics of Convenience Stores

THIS news story details how more people are electing to buy meals at convenience stores, especially those anchored by gas stations, than ever before. The change is apparently being driven by an upgrade in the food offered there, and by the fact that it's apparently cheaper there than at fast food restaurants like McDonald's or Taco Bell.

That trend was sort of interesting to me, especially since I'd long ago written off the food at these places (except in cases of extreme emergency). But the following two sentences, about the economics of the convenience store business, really caught my eye. “'About 70 percent of their overall revenue dollars come from fuel. But only about 26 percent of profit dollars come from fuel,' said Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores. 'You can make much more money as a restaurant than you can a gas station,' he added."

Does Being President Take Years Off Your Life?

A new study of all past US Presidents has sought to determine whether being President really took years off their lives.  The fact that, in the TV age, we've been able to see Presidents age before our eyes during their terms, presumably due to the stress of the job, probably makes many of us think we already know the answer.  The results may be surprising, however, even if the explanation is simple and predictable.

The CBS Evening News discussed the results briefly last night HERE in a 2 minute segment. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The "Pumpkin Papers" Were Neither, It Turns Out

Richard Nixon, then an ambitious young Congressman from California, revealed to the public on this date back in 1948 the existence of the so-called 'Pumpkin Papers,' secret State Department documents that had been stolen by employees there who were also communist sympathizers spying for Russia.  These documents (mostly photos of documents on microfilm, actually) came to be called the 'Pumpkin Papers' because the reformed former communist who led authorities to them, Whitaker Chambers, had once hidden them in a pumpkin on his family farm.Contrary to popular belief at the time, however, the papers were not still hidden in that pumpkin when they were handed over in 1948.

The Pumpkin Papers played a central role in the later conviction of Alger Hiss on perjury charges in 1950, charges related to his alleged spying.  An urbane, well educated man, Hiss personified the East Coast Establishment that Nixon was reputed to have so loathed. Hiss denied having been a spy, and in later years became somewhat of a martyr figure to left leaning intellectuals during the Cold War, who thought Hiss had been railroaded by grasping neanderthals on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

In 1985, a very high level KGB defector named Oleg Gordievsky confirmed that Hiss had indeed been a spy.  And after the end of the Cold War, when KGB files were opened, further documentary evidence was found confirming that Hiss had been a well-established Soviet spy.

That being said, Wikipedia has a great epilogue to this story.  It reads, "The five rolls of 35 mm film known as the 'pumpkin papers' were thought until late 1974 to be locked in HUAC files... On July 31, 1975, as a result of ... follow-on suits filed by Peter Irons and by Alger Hiss and William Reuben, the Justice Department released copies of the 'pumpkin papers' that had been used to implicate Hiss. One roll of film turned out to be totally blank due to overexposure, two others are faintly legible copies of nonclassified Navy Department documents relating to such subjects as life rafts and fire extinguishers, and the remaining two are photographs of the State Department documents introduced by the prosecution at the two Hiss trials, relating to U.S./German relations in the late 1930s."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Death of Evel Knievel

Legendary motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel died on this date back in 2007.  You can read an excellent obituary published at the time in The Economist HERE.

Given his reputation for debauched and rude behavior, on hindsight it's perhaps most surprising how financially important the line of Evel Knievel toys was to him (and to the Ideal toy company) in the 1970s, and how central they remain to his legacy today.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jon Stewart On Herman Cain (Again)

In the wake of new allegations that presidential candidate Herman Cain had a 13 year affair with an Atlanta businesswoman, Jon Stewart did THIS six minute segment on The Daily Show last night. ("Wow: 13 years and no sex.  Either one of these two people is lying, or Herman Cain is the worst deal closer in the history of extra-marital affairs... Really? He was just trying to help her financially?  I guess that explains the 4:30 AM texts.'Hey, I uh just wanted to let you know that the markets will be opening in 5 hours...'")

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cape Canaveral or Cape Kennedy?

When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, NASA regularly received a lot of media attention because the Space Shuttle program was just beginning.  And in those years I often wondered why I heard the NASA launch facility in Florida referred to as "Cape Canaveral" sometimes, and at other times as "Cape Kennedy."

Well, today I learned why for the first time. On this date in 1963, in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson announced that Cape Canaveral would be renamed 'Cape Kennedy' in his honor. But then in 1973, the name was changed back by a vote of the residents.

First Skywriting Ever

The first public exhibition of skywriting in America was made on this date in 1922.  It had been developed in Britain during WWI by a handful of RAF pilots.  On this occasion in November 1922, they had traveled to New York City to write "HELLO USA CALL VANDERBILT 7200" above Times Square.

Why that?  What did that mean? 

Well, one of the RAF pilots, John Savage, remained on the ground with the president of the American Tobacco Company, George Hill, while another RAF pilot, Cyrill Turner, wrote the message to demonstrate to Hill the power of advertising in this way.  And "VANDERBILT 7200" was the phone number of the hotel at which Hill was staying.  The hotel fielded 47,000 calls.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Rage At The "Taco Bell" Drive Thru

A 26-year old, wheelchair-bound woman named Amber Harvey became enraged yesterday night when her local Taco Bell in Elkhart, Indiana refused to serve her in the drive thru lane on the grounds that she was not in a car, but merely in her wheelchair.  Amber got so angry, apparently, that she then wheeled herself around to the front entrance and rammed her wheelchair through the tempered glass door, shattering it.

Would it surprise you to learn that when police arrived they found Amber across the street at a local bar?

You can read more about it HERE. (Though the 'more' is basically an extensive interview with the glass repair guy.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Yacht Salesman, Gambler, Spy

On this date back in 1986, a former employee of the National Security Agency (or "NSA") named Ron Pelton was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union. Ron Pelton was perhaps the most damaging spy of the Cold War whose name you've never heard.

Prior to joining the NSA, Pelton served in the Air Force, where he was a noted card player and gambler. This was to portend ongoing financial problems in his adult life. In 1979, he was forced to declare personal bankruptcy. Thinking he could make more money as a yacht salesman, in 1980 the then 38-year old Pelton resigned from his $24,500/year job at the NSA after 14 years there. But Pelton quickly realized that he would actually make less  as a yacht salesman (not more). So, with his financial problems mounting yet again, he offered to sell the Soviets secrets he'd learned while at the NSA.

The crown jewel he revealed was Operation Ivy Bells, an ultra-secret operation to tap an undersea Soviet military cable that ran along the floor of the Sea of Okhutsk between the Russian mainland and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Soviets complacently assumed that the cable could not be compromised.  So this was an intelligence gold mine.  The state-of-the-art taps were nuclear powered and could store up to a year's worth of data.  Information from these taps was collected monthly for years by extremely dangerous submarine missions conducted right under the Soviets' noses.  This highly successful covert operation cost the United States over $1 billion.

Ron Pelton gave it all up for $37,000.

In 1985, a notorious KGB defector named Vitaly Yurchenko gave the CIA information that led to Ron Pelton's arrest on this date 25 years ago.  Because much of what Pelton revealed to the Soviets was so highly classified, much of it has never been revealed to the public. As a result, his case was not as sensationalized by the press as were those of other celebrated spies, like Aldrich Ames.  But Pelton was sentenced to three life terms in prison.  Ames was sentenced to only one life term in 1994, as was Robert Hanssen in 2001.

You can watch an excellent 5 minute segment about this under-publicized case on You Tube HERE.

Ron Pelton is still languishing in federal prison and will be 70 years old next year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Real Story of Thanksgiving

Yesterday night the History Channel aired a one hour special titled The Real Story of Thanksgiving, which I thought was great.  It lovingly debunked a series of myths, assumptions, and urban legends that have grown up around the holiday, while managing never to be mocking or dismissive.  You can also watch it on You Tube HERE.

In case you don't want to spend an hour on that, here are a few highlights.
  • The day before Thanksgiving is not, it turns out, the busiest travel day of the year.  ("It's not even close.  Actually, it's the 25th busiest travel day.")  In reality, the busiest travel day of the year every year turns out to be some friday in June or July.
  • The supposed 'first Thanksgiving' among Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 was actually forgotten for over 200 years and was not re-discovered until the 19th Century, after Thanksgiving had already become an unofficial regional holiday in New England.  
  • Abraham Lincoln was the first US President to officially recognize Thanksgiving, which he did during the Civil War.  For obvious reasons, the day was largely ignored in the South.
  • In 1939, FDR changed the date on which Thanksgiving was celebrated, by moving it back a week (to make more time for Christmas shopping).  But 'The People' revolted, calling it 'Franksgiving Day,' apparently. This problem wasn't rectified until 1941, when the US Congress finally made Thanksgiving an official US federal holiday, to be held on the last Thursday of every November. (Then less than two weeks after that first official Thanksgiving holiday, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Saturday Night Live" Last Night

I haven't thought that Saturday Night Live has been very funny so far this season.  Last night, however, I did think that THIS fake commercial for a motionless mattress was really funny.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Fading Tradition of Snake Handling

This weekend The Washington Post magazine has a fascinating photo expose detailing what it calls, 'the fading tradition of snake handling,' focusing on a church in Jolo, West Virginia.  You can view the 13 photo slide show HERE.  One caption reads in part:

"The Pentecostal church was founded in 1956 by Bob and Barbara Elkins. One woman remembers the church being so full people would stand outside. But then one of Barbara Elkins’s children died of a snakebite in 1961 at age 23. These days, Pastor Harvey Payne says, the congregation has 10 members."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Grand Canyon Litter Ban Stopped By Coke?

According to THIS piece in the Los Angeles Times today, the Coca-Cola Co. may have intervened with the National Parks Foundation (to which it is a major donor) to stop a proposed ban on single-use plastic water bottles (like those of its own Dasani water) at the Grand Canyon.

We've probably all seen empty plastic bottles littering trails in various national parks and state parks.  I know I have.  It's ridiculous that some people can't be bothered to pack out an empty bottle weighing just a few grams, and instead elect to toss it into the very wilderness they came to see. I know that, as the saying goes, "guns don't kill people, people kill people."  But if we can't legislate away the sheer laziness and selfishness of these litterers, I suppose the next best thing is to legislate away the instrumentality.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Veterans Day" Is Its Second Name, Actually

Today is Veterans Day in the United States.  Did you know that, from its inception in 1926 until the mid-1950s, it was known as 'Armistice Day' and celebrated only veterans who died in World War I (as well as the cause of "world peace"), explicitly excluding all other veterans.

In 1954, the holiday was re-named 'Veterans Day' by President Eisenhower, and its stated purpose was revised to celebrate all veterans of the US military.

Jon Stewart On Cain's Press Conference

Jon Stewart began The Daily Show last night with a funny 6 minute analysis of Herman Cain's press conference on Tuesday, at which Cain attempted to refute allegations of sexual harassment. You can watch it HERE.

I watched Herman Cain's Tuesday press conference live, and in this segment John Stewart expresses several of the same incredulous thoughts that occurred to me at the time.

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

That famous greeting was uttered by journalist and explorer Henry Stanley on this date in 1871. Maybe.

That ubiquitous quote was likely fabricated, as it turns out.  Stanley tore the pages out of his diary relating to this famous encounter with Livingstone in Africa. And Livingstone's account of their meeting never mentions these words either.

Stanley was only 30 years old when he found Livingstone in Africa. He was a more 'colorful' character than I'd realized, too, even by the standards of Victorian-age African explorers. Did you know that, as a 21 year old man in 1862, he'd fought in the American Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh.  For the Confederacy. After the Civil War, Stanley mounted and expedition to the Ottoman Empire and was imprisoned there for a time.  Only after that did he mount an expedition to Africa to find Livinstone.

In 1876, five years after making his name by finding Livingstone, Stanley was retained by King Leopold II to explore the Congo and to claim it for Belgium. The violence and brutality that characterized these expeditions is widely regarded to be the basis for Joseph Conrad's classic 1903 novel Heart of Darkness (later the inspiration for the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now).   He died in London in 1904 at the age of 63, after being knighted and becoming a Member of Parliament.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Carlos the Jackal Befriends Manuel Noriega

I wrote here yesterday about how notorious 1970s terrorist Carlos 'The Jackal,' already imprisoned for life in France, is being put on trial again in Paris in connection with other bombings from the 1980s.  I was surprised that Carlos was still alive.  After 17 years in prison, he had dropped off my radar.

With that in mind, when I read the revelation in the Telegraph this morning HERE that while in prison Carlos had apparently befriended former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, a fellow inmate in his Paris jail, my initial thought was, "he's still alive, too!?!"

The last I remembered of Manuel Noriega he had been imprisoned in Florida 20 years ago on drug charges. But with that sentence coming to an end, he was apparently extradited to France in 2010, where he was jailed on murder and money laundering charges.  But Noriega served just over a year in prison in France before being extradited again last month to Panama to begin yet another 20 year prison sentence back in his home country.

Punctuation The Kiss of Death For Cain

After one accuser gave a compellingly detailed press conference yesterday, republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has apparently promised to address the sexual harassment allegations against him once again today.  But the way Cain's promised response is being reported by the media this morning is a good indicator, I think, of which way the winds are blowing for him.

You know you're in trouble when your vow to set the record straight is put in skeptical quotation marks by the media; as on, where the headline reads, Cain vows to "set the record straight".  Underscoring this disbelieving coverage, the exact same headline has been published by the tabloid The New York Post

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Most Famous Bridge Collapse Ever?

You've probably seen that old black & white footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing after wobbling spectacularly in the wind, even if you don't recognize the bridge by name (or by its nickname, 'Galloping Gertie'). It was replayed incessantly again in the last couple of years amid renewed public concern about our decaying infrastructure. That event occurred on this date in 1940, it turns out.  You can view 1 minute of amazing color footage on You Tube HERE.

Gadhafi's Final Moments

One of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's closest aides, who was with him in his final days, describes the time in THIS 2 minute interview on CNN today. I thought it was interesting that Gadhafi apparently lived in near squalor at the end.  But perhaps even more intriguing was the tug-of-war among his inner circle, some of whom apparently tried to convince Gadhafi to flee the country "since March," while others were adamantly opposed.

Carlos The Jackal On Trial Again

Did you realize that the notorious international terrorist from the 1970s, Carlos 'the Jackal,' is still alive? I didn't.  But he is, apparently, and is now on trial again in France.  I wrote about him HERE a couple of years ago.

French operatives nabbed the fugitive Carlos in the Sudan in 1994 (literally throwing him into a sack), and took him back to Paris, where he has remained imprisoned to this day.  The 62 year old is on now trial again for a string of bombings in 1982 and 1983 that killed 10 people.

Described as "greying" and "defiant" in THIS article from CNN today,  Carlos reminds me a little bit of Marlon Brando in his later years.  You get the feeling that the story was really meant to have ended 20 or 30 years ago.  And the fact that it didn't is sort of awkward for all of us now.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Next "James Bond" Movie Is Called...

The next James Bond film began shooting today, apparently.  It will be called "Skyfall" (a title I like) and will not continue from the end of the last, disappointing movie, "Quantum of Solace" (a decision I applaud).

You can read more about it HERE on AICN, which also has a 30 minute video of the star-studded press conference in London today.  I love James Bond. But I gave up on this press conference after just 12 minutes, finding it content-free and insipid.

Is The "McRib" Really Made From Gym Mats?

Is McDonald's McRib sandwich really made from gym mats?

According to THIS story in Time magazine, there is a disturbing grain of truth to this slanderous rumor.  "But it's still a little disconcerting to know that, for example, azodicarbonamide, a flour-bleaching agent that is most commonly used in the manufacture of foamed plastics like in gym mats and the soles of shoes, is found in the McRib bun. The compound is banned in Europe and Australia as a food additive."

The Creator of "Batman" Died On This Date

The creator of Batman, Bob Kane, died on this date in 1998 at the age of 83. 

I met Bob Kane once and wrote about it HERE.

Jon Stewart On The Herman Cain Scandal

Jon Stewart was really funny when discussing the Anthony Weiner scandal earlier this year. I thought THIS seven minute clip from The Daily Show last night, about Herman Cain's 'evolving recollection' this week about the sexual harassment charges leveled against him in the 1990s, was pretty funny in several spots, too.  The very end of the clip, about his views on China, is also very funny, I thought.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Questioning The Obesity And Fast Food Link

In Egypt, 40% of the population is estimated to live on $2 a day or less. And yet, according to World Health Organization statistics, over 75% of Egyptian women are overweight and 48% are obese. THIS article in the Los Angeles Times analyzes these seemingly inconsistent numbers. 

A big part of the problem is widespread availability of cheap processed foods, full of trans fats, salt, and sugar.  But another part of the problem is a general lack of exercise.  And a third problem is that sugar is one of the staple foods which the Egyptian government heavily subsidizes.

I thought this article was even more interesting in light of the new UC Davis study whose results have called into question the commonly assumed link between lower-income obesity and fast food.   You can read more about it HERE. It turns out that middle class Americans make the most visits to fast food restaurants.

The Surprising Origin of "Billboard" Magazine

The first issue of Billboard magazine was published on this date back in 1894. That date surprised me, because I associate Billboard with music charts, mostly rock and pop.

It turns out that Billboard started out as "Billboard Advertising" magazine, a trade magazine for the advertising industry published from Cincinnati, Ohio. A few years later it began to carry news about circuses, amusement parks, and fairs, because they were major purchasers of billboard advertising space. Billboard didn't begin publishing music charts until the 1930s, and didn't devote itself entirely to music until 1961. It ceased publication in 2006.

FBI Video of That Russian Spy Ring

Remember the long-time Russian Spy Ring that was busted last year, fronted by an attractive young redhead calling herself 'Anna Chapman'?  Yesterday the FBI released some of the hidden surveillance video they used to identify and implicate the spies.You can see some of the best clips during THIS 3 minute segment from CNN.

The video shows clearly how these spies used classic espionage techniques like brush passes and dead drops.  In the past, similar videos of spies caught-in-the-act have typically been very dated, featuring grainy black & white footage of middle-aged men in fedoras and trench coats at night.  I thought it was striking to see this modern video, clear and in full color, of attractive young spies in Starbucks on a sunny afternoon, wearing designer clothes; all while doing the same dirty business as those chain-smoking bald men from the 1960s.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The History of Halloween

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, even though trick-or-treating always struck me as an odd tradition given our nation's pervasive religiosity. How did it all come about, then?

A 3 minute history of Halloween from the National Geographic Channel  HERE does an excellent job, I think, of answering this question with both speed and depth.  While the holiday's origins date back over 3,000 years, the tradition of "trick or treating" apparently began with Irish immigrants to America during the Potato Famine, who brought with them a tradition of committing 'pranks' on Halloween night. By the time of the Great Depression, however, this 'harmless Irish tradition' had evolved into mean-spirited hooliganism and related extortion rackets.

This became such a widespread social problem in America that the tradition of having neighbors give candy to random children on Halloween for the asking was initiated in the mid-1930s to try to reform this growing public problem. And it worked.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tiny Chalupa Rage

Something magical frequently happens when the worlds of 'true crime' and 'fast food' collide.  According to THIS story, a Georgia man became enraged when he discovered that the 'XXL chalupas' he had just ordered at the Taco Bell drive thru did not have enough meat filling.  So he returned at 4 AM and firebombed the store with a molotov cocktail.

On a related note, THIS could be a headline from The Onion. "Arby's Opens To Mixed Reviews In Bellmore."

"The Princess Bride" Reunion Photo

I really liked the 1987 film The Princes Bride. Though like almost everyone else, I first discovered it long after its theatrical run. It's a much-beloved cult hit today, as evidenced by the fact that Entertainment Weekly has assembled a star-studded reunion photo HERE.  They also posted a 2 minute video clip HERE of interviews done during this photo shoot that actually provides an even better view of them all today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

McRib: Still Want One?

You may have read that McDonald's will once again be temporarily reintroducing its McRib sandwich across the country.  The McRib has come and gone over the last 30 years, which always seemed unusual to me given the fact that a pillar of McDonald's success has always been its consistency.

What is the McRib, really?  And why does it come and go? This article on CNN answers these questions as follows:

What is it? "Restructured meat products are commonly manufactured by using lower-valued meat trimmings reduced in size by comminution (flaking, chunking, grinding, chopping or slicing). The comminuted meat mixture is mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins. These extracted proteins are critical to produce a 'glue' which binds muscle pieces together. These muscle pieces may then be reformed to produce a 'meat log' of specific form or shape... 'That material,' as Mandigo calls it, is pork trimmings - but not from the rib. According to McDonald's Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut, it's primarily shoulder and loin meat, chopped and formed into a boneless patty in the shape of a four-ridged rib slab, and then quickly frozen until it meets its final fate on a restaurant grill. Then it's slathered in sauce, topped with pickles and raw onion and served in a long, soft white bun."

Why does it come and go, and why is it only available for short periods of time? "If you suddenly start to buy a large amount of that material," said Mandigo, "the price starts to rise."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Surprising First Ride Over Niagra Falls

Would you believe that the first person ever to go over Niagra Falls in a barrel was a 63-year old woman? Strange but true. Her name was Annie Edson Taylor and she went over Niagra Falls on this date in 1901.

She was a failed (and itinerant) dance and music instructor who in her later years conceived of the stunt as a way to make some money.  Her barrel ride was successful. (She was relatively unscathed.) But she never made much money out of it, apparently.  Unlike Evel Knievel's famously unsuccessful jump of the fountains at Caesar's Palace, there was no film footage memorializing her stunt.  And while she was able to earn some money afterward as a paid speaker, that apparently dried up pretty quickly.  And then her barrel was stolen and she had to spend most of her remaining money hiring private detectives to find it. She ultimately lived for another 20 years, and died at the age of 82.

You can see a couple of black and white photos of her (and her barrel) HERE. Looks-wise, she may have been Evel Knievel's exact opposite.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Big Payouts From Big Pharma

"A dozen pharmaceutical companies have given doctors and other healthcare providers more than $760 million over the past two years - and those companies' sales comprise 40 percent of the U.S. market... The payments, says Pro Publica, are for consulting, speaking, research and expenses on the part of the providers."

"With bucks that big flying around, is the quality of care offered by providers accepting them compromised? 'Money works,' Santa told Early Show co-anchor Russ Mitchell. 'Doctors are human. Doctors who take money from drug companies are more likely to give you an expensive drug or more likely to give you a drug you may not need."

You can read the entire story HERE on the CBS News website (and watch the video).

Why Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms Too

On the rare occasions (like during the World Series) when I watch baseball, I've frequently wondered why the middle-aged managers wear uniforms just like their players.  That sure doesn't happen in NFL football or in the NBA.  And it looks a little silly to me. Why is that done in Major League Baseball? 

THIS article on CNN this morning answers that question.  It's a tradition with long historical roots, apparently. "[I]n the earliest years of the game in the 19th century, 'The person who was called the manager of a team was the business manager -- he was the person who made sure that the receipts were paid and that the train schedules were met. He didn't make any decisions about what went on during a game. The person who did that was called the captain. He did what a manager does today, but he also played. So at first, the person we would today call a manager wore a uniform because he was a participant in the game.'"

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Cart Before The Airplane?

I was surprised to read this morning that the first recorded parachute jump took place on this date in 1797, more than a hundred years before the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903.

If there were no airplanes in 1797, what drove Andre-Jacques Garnerin to invent the frameless parachute?

Hot air balloons.

Friday, October 21, 2011

News Media Promotes Fake Doomsday

I wrote here a couple of days ago about Harold Camping and his doomsday prophesies, the most recent suggesting that The Rapture would occur before October 21, 2011.

I asked who deserved more derision: the US media, or this 90 year-old man. If THIS article is correct, and Camping's congregation numbers no more than 25 people and his 'radio network' is composed of fewer than 60 radio stations nationwide, then the mainstream news media needs to look more introspectively.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

NBA Lockout Costing Taxpayers Millions, Too

The fact that the NBA has started cancelling games (due to ongoing negotiations between its players and owners) is apparently costing cities and taxpayers millions of dollars as well, according to THIS 3 minute segment from the CBS Evening News last night.

The root of the problem is the public financing of new arenas, and the revenue lost when NBA games are cancelled. Memphis, which apparently spent $200 million on a new arena for its NBA franchise, is considering a lawsuit against the NBA.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Last Name? Uh... Chalupa

After a long night out, a 30 year-old Florida man was arrested on suspicion of DUI, having passed out at the wheel of his truck (foot on the brake) in the drive-thru at a local Taco Bell. But what made this event national news of a sort, was that when police shook him awake and asked for his ID, he handed them a taco.

You can read more details HERE.

McDonald's TV Is Here, Like It Or Not

McDonald's is apparently launching a new TV channel that will be shown on an endless loop in its fast food restaurants. Large flat screen TVs will be mounted on the walls, with audio being piped through the ceiling.

According to the story in the Los Angeles Times HERE,  there's only going to be 8 minutes of advertising per hour. "This network is not intended to be all about McDonald's. It is all about the consumer," a spokesman asserted. Huh?  In what conceivable way?

"Each component will have several segments that include 'The McDonald's Achievers,' which will profile local high school and college athletes; 'Mighty Moms,' a focus on local moms juggling home life with careers in sports such as coaching or training; 'McDonald's Channel Music News' about musical acts, tours and new releases."

Over 70% of all fast food business is drive-thru, apparently.  And this seems to be an attempt to increase dine-in business.  But can anyone not employed by McDonald's really think this will be alluring, blaring down on customers' heads while they order and eat?  Can anyone, anywhere really want profiles of local teenagers  force fed to them at a McDonald's (in between McDonald's commercials)?

"Probably" The End Of The World

Remember back in May when 90-year old Harold Camping predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011, causing some of his followers to donate their life savings to him, money he used to buy 2,000 billboards promoting the event?

Well, he's back.  After suffering national ridicule in May and a stroke in June, he's now predicting that the world will "probably" end on October 21st, in two days.  You really must have the courage of your convictions/numerology to go back to the well again on that so soon, just five months after such an infamous miscue.

I wonder how many followers he can possibly have left? And how much of this story is merely the news media amplifying the ramblings of a lone voice in the wind.

You can read more in The Washington Post HERE.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Courtney Love Today

Have you wondered what Courtney Love is up to these days?  You can read a fascinating, if lengthy, profile of her in the new issue of Vanity Fair HERE.  It begins, "Human train wreck or victimized genius? In the case of Courtney Love, the answer may be both, as the 47-year-old rock star wages an obsessive campaign to find out what happened to more than $250 million she says was stolen from the estate of Kurt Cobain, her late husband."

86% of American Workers Are Overweight

Over 85% of Americans with full-time jobs are significantly overweight and have health problems, according to THIS 30 second piece from the NBC Nightly News last night..

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Comic Book Novelties Revealed

What did you really get when you ordered those cheap novelties advertised in comic books back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? (Think "X-Ray Specs" and the like.)  The authors of a new book on the subject have posted a 2 minute video on You Tube HERE that gives a fascinating look at many of them, juxtaposing the original ads. 

Mata Hari: "Artist" Not "Spy"?

Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad on this date in 1917, having been convicted of spying for the Germans during WWI. Despite the fact that she's one of history's most famous spies, I found I actually knew relatively little about her beyond the famous name.

It turns out that 'Mata Hari' was an exotic stage name appropriate to her career as an "exotic dancer and courtesan" in pre-war Paris.  In reality she was a divorced Dutch woman named Margaretha Zella who was almost 30 years old before she gained fame as a Parisian exotic dancer in 1905 and was 40 at the time of her arrest in 1917. And as you can see in this 2 minute clip on You Tube HERE, like Cleopatra before her, she was no great beauty by modern standards either, despite her historical reputation.

She may not even have been a spy for Germany at all. As a famous 'courtesan' she may have been guilty of little more than sharing pillow talk with a variety of powerful men from multiple European capitals simultaneously. (Though invisible ink was found in her rooms.) "Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian," states Wikipedia, "but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stray Cat Led To Whitey Bulger's Arrest

How was 82-year old fugitive Boston mobster Whitey Bulger finally found in California after 16 years on the run? The Boston Globe has publicly revealed the story for the first time HERE.

It turns out that Bulger's long-time girlfriend, 60-year old Catherine Grieg, who was on the run with him, befriended a stray cat who lived outside their Santa Monica apartment building. As time went on, the two fugitives (living there as "the Gaskos") spent more-and-more time with the cat outside the apartment, because their rent-controlled building did not allow pets.  As a result, the couple, who otherwise kept to themselves, came to the attention of another resident, Anna Bjornsdottir, who happened to have been Miss Iceland in 1974. She thought the Gaskos were "nice" to spend so much time with the cat.  On a subsequent return visit to Iceland, she was watching CNN International and saw a story about the FBI's ongoing hunt for Whitey Bulger and his girlfriend, whom she immediately recognized as 'the Gaskos.'  And just like that, Bulger was arrested and Anna Bjornsdottir was $2.1 million richer.

All because a notoriously ruthless Irish mobster, suspected in at least 19 brutal murders, befriended a stray cat and then obeyed the apartment complex's rule about not having pets in the building.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Real Life Of A Real-Life Superhero

"Phoenix Jones, the moniker used by a man who dons a skintight black-and-gold rubber suit and mask, was arrested on four counts of assault after allegedly trying to break up a fight with pepper spray, the Seattle Police Department said... For about a year, the masked Jones has patrolled the streets of Seattle, often with a film crew in tow, looking for crime and generating international headlines."

"A chaotic scene unfolds on the 13-minute video after Jones runs toward a man and woman who appear to be fighting. The man walks away and the woman then tries to hit Jones with her purse but instead falls onto the street. "What is this, Halloween?" another woman calls out to rubber-suited Jones. Eventually Jones is seen spraying several of the individuals with what appears to be a can of pepper spray."

"After he was arrested Sunday and before he was released without bond, Tangen said, Jones was roughed up by two men in the cell he was being held in. The spokesman said Jones was wearing his costume but police had taken away his mask."

You can read the entire CNN story HERE (including a photo of him in his super hero costume).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Is Columbus Day A "Real" Holiday?

Today is Columbus Day, commemorating Columbus' arrival in 'The Americas' on October 12,1492.  The broad term 'The Americas' obscures the awkward fact that what Columbus really did was sail among several Caribbean Islands. On October 12th, he made landfall in The Bahamas, followed by Cuba on October 28th, and Haiti on December 5th, before returning to Europe in January 1493.

Though it's been celebrated in America since colonial times and even though it's been a federal holiday in the United States since 1937, it's one of those holidays that's observed widely differently across the country. In some places like New York City there are big parades.  In contrast, Hawaii, Alaska and South Dakota do not observe Columbus Day at all.  Many other states, including California and Texas, no longer treat it as a paid holiday for government workers, but still treat it as a 'day of recognition.' (A 'Day of Recognition' seems like the holiday equivalent of an 'unfunded mandate' to me.)

There are probably a number of reasons for this divergent treatment of Columbus Day.  But one factor that's been an issue for my entire life certainly is modern resistance to the colloquialism that "Columbus Discovered America" and an increasingly universal recognition of the catastrophic impact of the arrival of Europeans on the indigenous populations of Native Americans.

But there's apparently been organized resistance to the holiday dating back to the 19th Century, albeit for entirely different reasons.  Back then, Columbus' Italian heritage caused the holiday to be associated with Italian immigrants from Europe, by both its proponents and opponents.  As a result, Columbus Day was seen by some (especially Nativists opposed to further immigration) as a sinister effort to expand the influence of Catholicism in the United States.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

CIA Mission To Kill Bin Laden Revealed

On the CBS News last night, THIS 4 minute segment tells for the first time the fascinating story of a secret CIA mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan just days after September 11, 2001.  The 10 man team was led by a then 59-year old CIA officer on his last mission, who is interviewed extensively in this story.  I  thought it was amazing to hear this unprepossessing, grandfatherly older man casually relate these instructions from his CIA boss. "I want you to cut bin Laden's head off and send it back to me on dry ice so I can show the President."

Friday, October 7, 2011

CNN On 'Free Internet Sperm Donor'

The headline on today, "Virgin Sperm Donor Sires 10 Kids" caught my eye, in a 'Man Bites Dog' sort of way.  So I clicked on it.  And it just got more and more amazing from there.

The 'story' was actually a 3 minute video clip (that you can watch HERE) which is summarized as follows, "Joy Behar talks with 36-year old Trent Arsenault, who runs a website where he donates his sperm for free." (My first thought upon reading that was, "oh, and does he have a 'Breast Inspector' card in his wallet, too?")

I started the clip and was amazed when it actually began with a heavy set young woman talking with Joy about her experience using one of these 'free sperm donor' services.  She and the donor (a stranger) met at, no joke, a Starbucks.  A so-called 'expert' then assures an incredulous Joy Behar that, in fact, Starbucks is a very common meeting place for this. (Thereby ensuring that I never use a Starbucks bathroom again.)

Then Trent Arsenault is interviewed via what appears to be Skype.  If I close my eyes and try to imagine what a 'free internet sperm donor' might look like, I develop two distinct mental images.  And  Trent fits one of them to a tee, right down to the greasy proto-beard.  He then reveals that local authorities have shut down his enterprise.  "They issued a 'cease manufacture' order," Trent says matter-of-factly, and with a straight face.

You cannot make this stuff up.

In Search Of... King Solomon's Mines

A couple of nights ago I watched an excellent documentary on PBS called "Quest For Solomon's Mines." You can watch the entire 1 hour episode on the official PBS website HERE.  The description of the program there reads in part, "Countless treasure-seekers have set off in search of King Solomon's mines... inspired by the Bible's account of splendid temples and palaces adorned in glittering gold and copper. Yet... many contend that they are no more real than King Arthur. In the summer of 2010, NOVA and National Geographic embarked on two cutting-edge field investigations that... expose important new clues buried in the pockmarked desert of Jordan, including ancient remnants of an industrial-scale copper mine."

As I was watching this documentary, I found myself vaguely recollecting an episode of the 1970's TV show In Search Of..., titled "King Solomon's Mines," that I'd seen as a kid. It first aired in November 1981, but you can watch it on You Tube HERE.  "The Phoenicians opened up to Solomon the trade routes of the world," Narrator Leonard Nimoy explains. "In return Solomon guaranteed them a regular supply of oil and wheat... The existence of Solomon's sea trade brought strength and wealth to his land. It also brought the most famous woman of the time to him. The Queen of Sheba came from southern Arabia, the wealthiest region in the Semitic world... Did Solomon ever have his own mines? Or did he simply trade with people who did?"

In contrast, this new PBS special never once mentions the Phoenicians or the Queen of Sheba, asserts that the prior belief about Solomon's wealth deriving from control of trade was wrong, and posits that the real source of his wealth was a vast copper mine and smelting plant recently found in what is today Jordan. (It also explains that the legend Solomon had 1,000 wives was also likely wrong, since the entire population of Jerusalem in his time was about 1,000 people.)

This PBS documentary also explains that the Bible never makes any mention of any gold mines owned by King Solomon.  Rather, the entire concept  apparently originated in a Victorian-era adventure story.  I suppose that's considerably more intriguing than 'King Solomon's Copper Smelter.'

2011 Nominees For "Worst Ad In America"

" today announced the nominees for its second annual Worst Ad in America Awards.  This year, more than 40 ads garnered nods including colorful odes to full diapers, as in Luvs' 'Poop! There it is' commercial... 'There are even a few repeat offenders like Progressive Insurance with their 'Flo the insurance adjuster' commercials and Dannon Activia with their Jamie Lee Curtis ads. Both were previous Worst Ad nominees."You can read more in The Sacramento Bee HERE.

You can also view the full list of nominees on HERE. (For "Most Grating Performance By A Human," I'd favor the State Farm 'Thanks For Buying Me A Falcon' guy. And under, "Group That Ought To Go Its Separate Ways," I'd vote for 'The Esurance Staff.')

Coming? 'Fat Tax' On Junk Food

Denmark just became the first nation to slap a special tax on saturated fats. Residents will pay (indirectly) the equivalent of 12 cents more for a bag of potato chips and 40 cents more for a hamburger.  You can read more about it in The Boston Globe HERE.

I suspect that the public policy goals and justifications behind this special 'fat tax' are very similar to the arguments in support of special taxes on cigarettes.

Having just watched the PBS documentary Prohibition, I am even more conscious of the perils of trying to legislate morality and lifestyle. But the obesity epidemic is having a dramatic effect on health care costs (and outcomes) in this country.  And the tax on cigarettes does seem to be reducing use.

The 10% obesity rate in Denmark is dwarfed by the rates here in the United States.  No US state has a rate less than 19%, and all but two states are over 20%.  Several exceed 30%.  Can we tax our way to physical fitness?  Should only the rich be allowed to smoke and eat Big Macs?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"Mythical" Doritos Taco Now Real At Taco Bell

"Two great tastes that taste great together." That's the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups slogan,  of course. But now comes another. Taco Bell is apparently test marketing taco shells made from Doritos in Fresno, California.

THIS article in the Los Angeles Times calls them "mythical" and explains that this ("dorm room-scented") combination apparently sprang from a grass roots campaign started on Facebook in 2009.  The article also embeds a 30 second TV commercial running only in that market. ("Fresno and Bakersfield, this is really happening.")

Monday, October 3, 2011

Lockerbie Bomber Goes To The Well Again

I laughed when I read THIS story about an exclusive interview given today to Reuters by Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi. He's the Libyan intelligence agent convicted in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 passengers. Megrahi was famously released from prison in Europe two years ago, allegedly on compassionate grounds because he had terminal cancer and likely had, "only weeks to live."

But for a man on his death bed, he looked pretty hale and hearty when he arrived back in Libya in 2009, a free man, greeted by Muammar Gadhaffi and his sons (see photo above). And of course, he's still alive two years later.  Predictably, since his unexpected release evidence has emerged that it may have been part of a surreptitious effort by the British government to curry favor with Gadhaffi, in order to gain access to Libyan oil.

Well, now that Gadhaffi has been deposed with NATO's help, Megrahi is once again appearing from his sick bed (there's a photo of him in this article), pleading his innocence of any crime ever, and declaring today, "I have only a few more days, weeks, or months."

Nobel Winner's Death Raises Issues

"One of the recipients of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine died just days before the winners were announced, after extending his own life using a kind of therapy he designed.  The news -- which the Nobel committee was unaware of when it announced the winners Monday -- presents a unique quandary for the prestigious organization. Nobel rules prohibit awarding a prize posthumously unless the winner dies after the award is announced."

In addition to the tragic facts themselves, I thought these three sentences, which began THIS article on today, were fascinating because the first sentence unintentionally raises one of those Rorschach-like questions of self-reflection (i.e. "Would you rather win the Nobel prize but die before the award, or not have your life's work recognized and live an extra three years?"); and the second two sentences detail how this has raised one of those bizarre legal issues which only come up when incredibly unlikely real-life events conflict with otherwise crystal clear law and practice.

The First Female US Senator & Racist

On this day in 1922, progressive reformer Rebecca Felton became the first female US Senator, when she was appointed by the Governor of Georgia to the position. I'd never heard of her, and was surprised by that.  So I looked into her a little further this morning and was glad I did.  There's always more to the story.

As it turns out, she served in the Senate for only 1 day. Especially since she was 87 years old at the time (in 1922!), it was a purely ceremonial appointment. That being said, she is still the only woman ever to have been a US Senator from Georgia. Felton was a prominent reformer in the Progressive Era, an advocate of women's suffrage, prison reform and modernizing eduction. But there was a dark side. She was, as Wikipedia put it bluntly, "a white supremacist...who spoke in favor of lynching." Some of her public statements on this topic quoted in that article are so offensive I wont copy them here.  But you can read them HERE, if you want more detail.

Why was an 87-year old woman appointed to the US Senate in 1922 (serving for only one day)?  Here's the explanation. "In 1922, Governor Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate, when Senator Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat, and a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his opposition to the 19th Amendment, Hardwick chose Felton to serve as Senator on October 3, 1922. Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so the chances were slim that Felton would be formally sworn in as Senator."  But she was. And thus, history was made.

Walter Payton's Public Image

As I wrote here last Friday, a new biography of Walter Payton will be released tomorrow that has already created a lot of controversy because it contains previously unpublicized revelations about his excessive use of painkillers (and nitrous oxide), his long-time mistress, and that he was suicidal, among other things.  These details are particularly notable because of Payton's squeaky clean public image, which this new book apparently makes clear was of paramount importance to him. 

With that in mind, you can watch a TV commercial he made for KFC (playing football with a little boy) HERE. HERE is an ad for Wheaties (and another one for the same cereal HERE featuring his wife), and another one HERE for Kangaroos sneakers (again playing football with a little boy). There's also THIS one for a Toyota dealership.

World's Largest Nacho Platter Arms Race

A Massachusetts eatery called "Ninety Nine Restaurant" set the new Guinness World Record yesterday for the largest plate of nachos, by making one weighing 3,999 lbs.  You can read the details (like how many lbs. of cheese it had) HERE.

That's vaguely interesting. But what really intrigued me was the revelation that there is clearly an active, ongoing 'arms race' to create the world's largest nacho platter, just like the continued efforts over the years to build the newest 'world's tallest building.' 

The end of this news story states that the previous record, a 3,555 lb. nacho plate, was set "in April 2010 in Frisco, Texas."  It took a little searching online to find that this prior record had been set by the 'Aurora Youth Ministry' from the Northstar Church there, as you can read HERE. And that article notes the then-current world record had been set in May 2008 by a restaurant called "Bandito's Burrito Lounge" in Richmond, Virginia, when they crafted a 3,125 lb. plate of nachos. It states HERE that the record before that was 2,762 lbs. Lastly, I found THIS collection of photos from a Mexican restaurant in Australia called Nachos Mexican Cantina which  set the record back in June 2002 with a 2,774 lb. nacho platter. Perhaps mercifully, that's where the trail went cold.....

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Vienna Sausages And A Nice Chianti

Jared Loughner, the troubled 23-year old charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January, passes his days in federal prison, "watching TV, looking at photos of his pets, and snacking on junk food," according to THIS article. The junk foods offered in the prison commissary are, "peanut butter cookies, rainbow sherbet, mac & cheese, jumbo pickles and Vienna sausages."

Putting to one side the semantic issue of whether 'jumbo pickles' are really a junk food, isn't it disturbing to imagine this bald headed, allegedly suicidal, heavily medicated guy sitting in his prison cell alone, endlessly flipping through a photo album of his pet turtles while snacking on a steady diet of jumbo pickles and Vienna sausages?

New ER Limit Opposed By Doctors

Starting tomorrow the State of Washington will begin limiting Medicaid patients to three non-emergency visits to the ER each year, as a way to cut $72 million in costs. This sounded sensible to me. After all, it is merely a limit on "non-emergency" visits to the "Emergency Room." (Three a year!) The new law includes a list of 700 non-emergency symptoms for which patients are directed to contact a regular doctor rather than go to an Emergency Room.

But according to THIS article by ABC News, the American College of Emergency Physicians (the "ACEP") is suing to over-turn the law. Their stated concern seems to be about the unreliability of self-diagnosis by patents trying to determine whether their symptoms truly constitute an 'emergency' or not. That actually seemed like a valid concern to me.  But then the article detailed specific examples, and there they lost me.  Predictably, the hypothetical about determining the severity of a burn used a child as an example, not an adult.  (Presumably, it would strain credulity for the ACEP to suggest that adults would be incapable of determining whether their own burns were Emergency Room worthy or not.)

And then came this kicker from their spokesman. "Sexually transmitted diseases are also included on the list of non-emergencies.'A lot of people don't want to go to their family doctor with these issues,' Anderson said."

Will we ever be able to get a handle on healthcare costs in this country if any reform that might make patients with STDs feel at all awkward or embarrassed is opposed in court by our physicians?

"North Dallas Forty" Author Has Died

"Former National Football League player Peter Gent, whose book about the seamier side of pro football was made into the movie, North Dallas Forty, has died in his native Michigan. He was 69."  You can read more at CBS News HERE.

I remember seeing the 1979 film adaptation (starring Nick Notle as the aging wide receiver relying on painkillers to stay competitive) on TV sometime in the early 1980s and being totally blown away as a kid by the revelation of the sordid side of the NFL.  In fact, when I first heard last Friday about the revelations concerning Walter Payton's dark side, particularly his reliance on painkillers, North Dallas Forty was the first thing that came to mind.

Being a fan of Monday Night Football even as a kid in the early 1980s, I was also amazed to learn that the aging 'Dandy' Don Meredith was allegedly the basis for the 'girl on each arm' quarterback in the film.

CIA Man In Parking Space Fight

Do you remember the furor back in January when a CIA contractor was arrested in Lahore, Pakistan after he shot and killed two Pakistani men he said were trying to rob him? The US government initially claimed he had diplomatic immunity, infuriating many Pakistanis. He was only released in March after the dead men's families agreed to accept $2.3 million in compensatory 'blood money' under Islamic law.

Well, that same CIA man, 37-year old Raymond Davis, was arrested yesterday south of Denver, Colorado and was charged with assault and disorderly conduct after getting into a fight with a 50 year-old man over a parking spot in front of an Einstein's Bagels.  You can read the CNN article HERE (which also has a photo of him).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lessons Taught At The Drive Thru

"Angered that his Taco Bell drive-thru order failed to include hot sauce, a Missouri man returned to the fast food restaurant and allegedly pulled a shotgun on an employee, who fled in fear from the takeout window."

You can read more (and see his mug shot) on The Smoking Gun HERE.  I can't help but wonder whether both the man wielding the shotgun (a convicted felon who was later arrested) and the forgetful Taco Bell employee may learn valuable lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Dirt On Walter Payton

A new biography will be published in October about the great Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. It is to be excerpted in the next issue of Sports Illustrated, and those excerpts are already generating a huge amount of publicity and controversy. 

According to the book, Payton abused painkillers both during and after his playing days, as well as nitrous oxide (of all things). He also had a long time mistress, an airline stewardess who insisted on attending his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, sitting in the 2nd row while his wife and children were in the front row.  Payton was also suicidal at times, the book details.

You can read these controversial excerpts HERE.

"Area 51 Declassified" On Nat. Geo.

Last night I watched a 1 hour documentary on the National Geographic Channel called Area 51 Declassified. (You can watch the full documentary on You Tube by clicking on that title.)  It tells the true story of how Area 51 was started by the CIA in Groom Lake, Nevada in 1955, initially to develop the U2 spy plane away from prying eyes. It tells this story via on-camera interviews with clearly visible, fully-named, retired Area 51 personnel.  (No anonymous figures here, photographed in shadow, telling sinister tales.) About 18 months ago I wrote HERE about a similar story published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine at the time. This documentary features many of the same people and their stories.

Many of these men's anecdotes tie back to the fact that they were strictly forbidden from telling anyone, not even their own wives and families, about what they were doing.  They would just get up every day in Las Vegas (or Burbank) and fly off on a chartered plane to Area 51, sometimes coming home that night, and sometimes a week later.  And when they returned, they could offer no explanation. 

The documentary also explains that in the 1950s over half the reported UFO sightings were tracked back by the Air Force's famous "Project Bluebook" to inadvertent sightings of the U2 spy plane, primarily by commercial airline pilots and their passengers.  But because the U2 was so secret at the time, they were forced to proffer to the public all these 'BS' explanations like 'swamp gas' and 'weather balloons.'

"Prohibition" on PBS Sunday, Oct. 2

The new TV show I am most looking forward to this fall is will air on PBS starting this Sunday, October 2.  It's a three part, 5 hour documentary titled Prohibition that, "tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed."  It's by Ken Burns, who made the famous Civil War documentary all those years ago. At the PBS website HERE you can watch a 2 minute trailer for it, as well as a separate interview with Ken Burns.

Al Qaeda Leader Killed! (Wait: Who?)

It made me laugh that on the CBS News website this morning the top two headlines are:

"Al Qaeda's Anwar al-Awlaki Killed In Yemen"

"Who Was Anwar al-Awlaki?"

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fast Food "Goes Low" Again

All the major fast food chains are dropping their prices again, according to THIS article in the USA Today, because of a slumping economy and because of marketing data showing that today's 20-somethings are going to fast food restaurants far less regularly than did prior generations at that age.

That's sort of interesting.  But what really caught my eye was one such deal enumerated in this article, as an example of this price cutting:

"$6.99 meals for two. For less than $7, Burger King is offering two Whoppers, two small fries and two small drinks."

Who's kidding whom, I wondered, about how many couples are coming in to Burger King together and sharing this 'meal for two.'  

New "Walking Dead" October 16th

Halloween is not too far away now.  How can I tell?  Displays of mini-candy in grocery stores? Maybe.  Or maybe it was that AMC released this 90 second trailer yesterday for the upcoming second season of its highly rated 'zombie apocalypse' drama The Walking Dead.  You can watch it on You Tube HERE.  This trailer doesn't give away anything (as least as far as I could tell).  In fact, it looked pretty much identical to season one, to me anyway.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New SAT Cheating Scandal

SAT cheating scandals seem surprisingly rare to me, at least they seem to make news infrequently.  This new one today is relatively garden variety, I thought.  A 19 year old college student named Sam Eshaghoff  allegedly flew back to his home town in New York from Emory University and took the SAT for multiple kids from his old high school (using fake IDs each time), charging them each around $2,000.

But a sentence buried deep in THIS MSNBC article seemed to raise a number of intruiging, unanswered questions. "Eshaghoff also allegedly took the test for a seventh student, a girl, but did not make her pay, the Daily News reported."

The Rise of "Awesome"

Have you ever wondered, "how did this once-awe-inspiring word become a nearly meaningless bit of verbiage referring to anything even mildly good?"  If so, you might  like THIS article from The Economist. 

WWII Shipwreck With $200M In Silver

A British cargo ship laden with over $200 million in silver, which was sunk off the Irish coast in very deep water by a German U-boat during WWII, has now been located by treasure hunters.  As THIS 2 minute segment from the CBS News last night makes clear, it's only a matter of when, not if, the silver is salvaged.

But whenever there is discussion of salvaging parts of the Titanic, which is apparently in shallower water than this wreck, a hue and cry is raised about respect for the deceased.  But no such concern is mentioned about this wreck. Are 'war dead' less worthy of respect?  Or is $200 million of pure silver simply 'a different issue' than broken china and silverware?

Final "Andy Rooney" This Sunday

A couple of years ago I shifted to watching CBS's 60 Minutes online, instead of on TV, because I found that I enjoyed only about 1 in every 3 stories they did.  On the CBS News website you can watch the show story-by-story with only one 30 second commercial.  As a result, it's been a while since I've seen an Andy Rooney segment.

I've watched 60 Minutes pretty regularly for the better part of 25 years, and I even liked Andy Rooney well after many others called him "tired" or "annoying."  But this 30 second segment from the NBC Nightly News, about the announcement yesterday that this Sunday would be the 92 year old Rooney's final appearance on the show, came as little surprise (if a bit of a shock).

It did make me wonder, though, what was the unspoken, triggering event for his abruptly-announced retirement now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Federal Subsidies For Junk Food

A new report reveals that Federal agriculture subsidies going disproportionately to producers of high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils are effectively subsidizing Americans' purchases of fast food and junk food. According to THIS article in the Los Angeles Times, "If these agricultural subsidies went directly to consumers to allow them to purchase food, each of America's 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year."

On a related note, the man who invented Doritos in 1964 has just died at the age of 97.   His family made news by revealing that their funeral plans include, "tossing Doritos chips in before they put the dirt over the urn." Feels like there's a metaphor in there somewhere.

"Biosphere 2" 20 Years Later

On this date 20 years ago, four women and four men began their 2-year stay inside the self-contained "Biospehere 2" outside Tucson, Arizona.  I remember thinking at the time that the whole endeavor, a stated focus of which was to develop technology for future space colonization, was sort of flaky. Nonetheless, that original mission ran as planned from 1991 to 1993. But then the problems began.  A second mission in 1994 lasted only six months before being terminated prematurely in what Wikipedia termed, "a dispute over the financial aspects of the project." (Hard to believe that a gigantic self-contained environment the size of two football fields, enclosed in glass in Arizona, might burn rapidly through $200 million in venture investment and then run into money problems.) While the 'Biosphere 2' remains open to tourists today, no other 'missions' have ever been mounted there.  In 2007, the property was sold for $500 million to a residential developer.  But the financial crisis has provided a de facto 'stay of execution' to date, apparently.

"The Wrong Man" Has Died

You probably remember the two most famous American spies in recent years, the CIA's Aldrich Ames (who was arrested in 1994) and the FBI's Robert Hansen (who was arrested in 2001).  Several books were written and movies made about the lengthy 'mole hunts' that ultimated led to their discovery and identification.

But what's considerably less celebrated is that these lengthy 'mole hunts' first came to focus incorrectly on a string of totally innocent suspects long before the real spies were finally found.  These poor souls found themselves in a horrible situation: unable to prove a negative ("I am not a spy") when the evidence against them may have been no more than mere suspicion and coincidence, and, because of the nature of their work, they were usually blackballed at the office for years at a time, if not outright suspended. To say nothing of the round-the-clock surveillance, and harsh interrogations.

One such "wrong man" has just died. CIA counterintelligence officer Brian Kelley was accused of being a spy in 1999 and was suspended from his job at the CIA for almost two years before Robert Hanssen was finally found in 2001, according to his obituary in The Washington Post HERE. In light of the fact that he was entirely innocent all along, I thought that the following was darkly humorous. "Attempting to lure Mr. Kelley into a trap, the FBI sent an undercover agent to his home in Vienna [Virginia] late one night. When Mr. Kelley opened the door... a man speaking in a thick Russian accent told him: 'I come from your friends, and we’re concerned. Meet us tomorrow night at the Vienna Metro. A person will approach you. We have a passport for you, and we’ll get you out of the country.'”

After Robert Hanssen was finally arrested in 2001, Kelley's suspension from work was lifted and he was reinstated by the CIA until he retired in 2007.  Imagine how awkward that first day back at work must have been for everyone involved.  ("We're terribly, terribly sorry... Won't happen again....")

Saturday, September 24, 2011

If A Satellite Hits Your House, Who Pays?

Apparently NASA's obsolete UARS satellite has now fallen to Earth over the Pacific Ocean.  But the headline of this related article caught my eye anyway. "If A Satellite Falls On Your Home, Who Pays?"

It turns out, to my astonishment, that there is an unambiguous answer to this question, and that it is a well-settled question of international law. NASA would have to pay if the falling UARS had hit your home.

"Liability for damage caused by objects falling from space is regulated by the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, according to NASA public affairs officer Beth Dickey. When the U.S. signed the pact, it agreed to be 'absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.'"

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Man Nobody Knew, Bill Colby

A new documentary film has been released about former CIA director William Colby. Titled "The Man Nobody Knew," its been made by his son, Carl (who bears a striking resemblance to his father). Carl Coby has given a 7 minute interview to CBS News which you can watch HERE.  I particularly enjoyed the anecdote at the 2 minute mark about how Carl found out as a young boy that his father was a spy, and what his father said to young Carl in response.

Bill Colby was the head of the notorious Phoenix Program in Vietnam, and later, as head of the CIA, he revealed the CIA's darkest secrets to the Congressional Church Committee, an act many believe was devastating to the CIA's covert operations.  Years after that, in retirement, Bill Colby died in a mysterious boating accident.  All of this should make for a very interesting documentary.  You can watch the 2 minute trailer on You Tube HERE.

Nirvana Beyond The Hype Of "Nevermind"

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the release of the first major label record by the seminal grunge band Nirvana, titled "Nevermind."  All of the praise today in the press about Nirvana's impact on popular music (and how they "changed music forever") conspicuously omits to mention, however, that they were in many ways a punk band whose live shows were far more dissonant than the heavily produced tracks on "Nevermind." 

I remember going to a Nirvana concert within the first few months of the release of "Nevermind" and complaining afterward that they had not played their #1 hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  All I really saw at their live show was three scruffy guys who stared down at their shoes the whole time, while playing music that came out of the amplifiers like an angry cacophony of white noise, one song almost indistinguishable from the next.

As Nirvana became more and more famous, I used to tell this story all the time. And then, years later, after Kurt Cobain's suicide, a greatest hits album of sorts was released, featuring all live tracks.  And the version of their most famous hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," included on that record was recorded at the show I'd attended.

Why Shoot Gerald Ford?

Writing yesterday about the 36th anniversary of Sara Jane Moore's attempt to assassinate then President Gerald Ford in 1975, just 17 days after Squeaky Fromme's more famous attempt, got me wondering what their motives were.  Why try to kill Gerald Ford?  I was a very young child during his presidency, but my memory is that, other than pardoning Richard Nixon, he was a non-controversial,  amiable guy who liked to golf.

So I did some searching this morning and was interested to find that their respective motives are never really explained precisely anywhere.  Instead, they are variously described (or dismissed?) as "confused" or "crazed." Sometimes Squeaky Fromme is described as a follower of Charles Manson, as if that is a sufficient explanation by itself. (Weren't their Tate/LaBianca murders intended to set off a race war?  Would shooting Gerald Ford have sparked a race war?)

Shoddy reporting, I thought. But the more I dug, the more I came to believe that they may not have had clear motives, as unbelievable as that sounds.  Here's the only quote from Squeaky Fromme I could find about her motivation. "She said she knew Ford was in town and near her, 'and I said, 'I gotta go and talk to him,' and then I thought, 'That's foolish. He's not going to stop and talk to you.' People have already shown you can lay blood in front of them and they're not, you know, they don't think anything of it. I said, 'Maybe I'll take the gun,' and I thought, 'I have to do this. This is the time.' "   .... Huh?

In a TV clip from 1975, Sara Jane Moore says bizarrely, "In order to simply survive, I thought it was the only option I had at that point." .... Huh?   But in 2009, a 79 year-old Sara Jane Moore sat for an interview on the Today Show, on the occasion of her release from prison. When addressing her motive, she began with a rambling discourse. "I have no idea what was going through my mind at that moment.... We thought San Francisco was the world."  .... Huh?   But then, after several minutes, she finally addresses her motivation directly and and concisely, "I thought it would trigger a Revolution."

The Fall Of The Mafia In America

I knew that the Mafia today was much smaller and less powerful than it had been even 25 years ago. But I had no idea how far it had fallen until I saw THIS item posted on GangLand News. The underboss of the Colombo crime family apparently "copped a plea deal last week" in connection with two extortion schemes. One of which was described as, "A Bonanno associate was slapped around and made to pay $4,000 to the Colombos for stealing a pizza sauce recipe from a legendary Brooklyn pizzeria-restaurant and using it in his copycat eatery in Staten Island."

What's The Lead Headline?

 The Washington Post's website has a headline this morning declaring, "Physics Rule Broken? Scientists Say Particles Traveled Faster Than Light... would run counter to Einstein's theories," which I noted with a laugh was placed just below another story titled, "Yemeni President Returns Home."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Intruiging Story Of Gerald Ford's Assassin

On this date in 1975, a 45-year old radical named Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford, shooting at him once with a revolver from a crowd before being tackled.  She was ultimately sentenced to life in prison, but the now 80 year old woman was released on parole on December 31, 2007, a year after President Ford died of natural causes.

I was a very young child when this happened, and only vaguely remembered that there had actually been two attempts made on Gerald Ford's life. I wonder if Sarah Jane Moore ever thought, while in prison, that she had thrown her life away.  Not only was her attempt unsuccessful, but she didn't even secure much of a place in history.  The most famous Presidential assassins are, surely, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. For almost everyone alive today, I would suspect that the next biggest such name would be John Hinkley, Jr.  How must it feel to sit, rotting in prison, as only the second most famous attempted assassin of Gerald Ford, after someone called Squeaky Fromme.

But reading into her story a little this morning, I found a couple of notable aspects.  For one, she was apparently an FBI informant at the time of her assassination attempt.  She had also been picked up 'evaluated' by the Secret Service just months earlier, but was determined to be of 'no danger' to the President.  And the day before she shot at President Ford, she had been arrested by police who had confiscated  another revolver she was carrying.   When, the next day, she turned out to be Ford's would-be assassin, I bet that was a very bad day at multiple law enforcement agencies. (And just imagine the conspiracy theories, had she succeeded.)

I also thought it was interesting that in 1979, she escaped from Federal prison in West Virginia.  Imagine that: a Presidential assassin (and a 49 year old woman at the time, no less) managed to escape from Federal prison.  Pretty amazing for the second-most-famous would be assassin of Gerald Ford.  (Even if she was recaptured just hours later.)

Falling Satellite And Adverbs

By now you've probably already heard that a 20-year old (obsolete) weather satellite is expected to fall back to Earth sometime tomorrow. Since it's apparently "bus-sized" and weighs 6.5 tons, the prospect that large chunks of  the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (or UARS) will survive re-entry, damaging people and property as it falls, has generated an increasing amount of press coverage in recent days.

It struck me that all the news articles invariably lead with quotes from 'experts' and/or 'officials' assuring us that the debris will fall harmlessly.  But, just as inevitably, those assurances are hedged with these equivocal adverbs.  Like THIS article in the Los Angeles Times today, which begins by stating that the UARS, "is due to land Friday, most likely harmlessly, officials say."  And then, if you read further into the body of these articles, they all explain that no one really knows where the debris will land, and that these assurances that no one will be harmed are based almost exclusively on generic statistical calculations about the percentage of the surface of the Earth that is populated and how small the debris field will be. "But there is plenty the trackers don't know about the satellite's reentry — namely, where those pieces will fall — and that's what has some people spooked. 'There is no modeling that predicts where it will hit the surface of the Earth,' Duncan said."

On a related note,  this article also explains in passing that any object weighing more than 1,000 lbs. before re-entry may be large enough to generate a debris field on Earth. I'd always sort of wondered if this had ever been quantified.  Now I know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nationality Of Baby Born Mid-Flight?

When I was in law school years ago I remember rolling my eyes at repeated essay questions based on highly unlikely hypotheticals drafted intentionally to create ambiguous legal issues (like an airplane crashing exactly on the border between two countries).

THIS news story reminded me immediately of that. It begins by stating, "Officials were trying Tuesday to ascertain the nationality of a baby born mid-flight, apparently over international waters, in a passenger jet heading from the Philippines to the United States."  That's actually an interesting legal question, I thought. Making it more complicated, the pregnant woman is a Philippine national who apparently had a visa allowing her to emigrate legally to the United States when her flight arrived.

The article ends with these two sentences, implying to me that this is a legal issue which has arisen many times before. "According to Jennifer Vaughn, from the Center for Immigration Studies, if a child is born over open ocean it is generally considered a citizen of the country where the parent has legal citizenship in. If a baby is born in American airspace it is a U.S. citizen."

What If We Were Graded By Loyalty?

I was reading yet another story in The Economist HERE about the repressive North Korean government. I actually found it relatively unremarkable except for these two sentences, which intrigued me.

"With totalitarian obsession, it groups North Koreans into 51 social categories, graded by loyalty to the regime. Of those groups, 29 are considered to make up an underclass that is hostile or at best ambivalent towards the regime."

I found myself wondering momentarily how that classification scheme might apply in the United States.

"All Natural" Food Can Mean Anything

The FDA does not, apparently, precisely define what the term "All Natural" means when used on the labels of food products, according to this 2 minute story from the NBC Nightly News last night. I found that revelation interesting in and of itself, and reminiscent of another fight a few years ago over the use of the similarly ill-defined term "Light" on food packaging.  But if you watch this segment you'll also hear that this issue has become public now not because of the actions of any consumer watchdog organization, but because of a lawsuit filed by the 'sugar industry' against makers of 'high fructose corn syrup.'