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.