Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spider-Man Parkour

The title says it all.

Who Are Donald Sterling's Women, Really? (Name Changes All Around)

In light of speculation that Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling's lifetime ban from the NBA yesterday might lead to his wife of 50 years, Rochelle, becoming the majority owner of the team, I became interested in learning more about her, and about the mysterious "mistress" who recorded Donald Sterling's racist ramblings.

According to Wikipedia, Donald Sterling was born in 1934, in Depression-era Chicago, the son of Jewish immigrants. His birth name was "Donald Tokowitz." His family moved to Los Angeles when he was two years old, where in 1955, at the age of 21, he met and married Rochelle "Shelley" Stein. Somewhere around this time Donald Tokowitz apparently changed his last name to "Sterling."  That's apparently how Shelley became "Rochelle Sterling."

It was Rochelle Sterling herself who, just last month, sued the 31 year old woman who made these now infamous recordings, seeking to recover a $1.8 million duplex that Donald Sterling had allegedly given her, along with luxury cars (two Bentleys, a Ferrari, and a Range Rover) and $240K in cash for "living expenses."  It was in those court documents that Rochelle describes the woman, currently going by the name "V. Stiviano" (formerly Vanessa Maria Perez, before changing her name legally in 2010, according to Yahoo), as Donald Sterling's "mistress," a characterization the woman herself has denied through her lawyer. According to the Los Angeles Times today, "He also insisted that Stiviano and the 80-year-old team owner never had a sexual or romantic relationship and that descriptions of her as his mistress in the media and in a lawsuit filed by Sterling's wife are erroneous...The suit asserted that Stiviano struck up a sexual relationship with the Beverly Hills billionaire after they met at the 2010 Super Bowl. He was the latest in a string of rich men she had seduced, the suit contends..."

As it turns out, "V. Stiviano," who was born in San Antonio in 1982,  moved to LA in her teens and attended the same high school in East Los Angeles in the 1990s as had Donald Sterling and his wife  60 years ago, according to an extensive investigation into her background published in the Mail Online today HERE. This article also speculates that "V. Stiviano" had previously had a similar relationship with the octogenarian owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dr. Jerry Buss, who died last year. Buss and Sterling were both LA-based real estate moguls and had been friends and associates for years.  When Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, he sold some of his holdings to Donald Sterling to raise part of the purchase price.  And it was Buss who, a couple of years later in 1981, encouraged Sterling to buy the Clippers, all as detailed in Sports Illustrated  HERE.

If "V. Stiviano's" insistence that she was given a $1.8 million duplex (along with luxury cars and $240K in cash) as compensation for three years' work as Donald Sterling's platonic "archivist" doesn't strain credulity sufficiently, perhaps Rochelle Sterling's skepticism about the nature of her husband's relationship with the 31 year old, self described, "black and Mexican" archivist was enhanced by the fact that, in a lawsuit filed a decade ago by Donald Sterling himself against another former mistress of his named Alexandra Castro (seeking the return of cash and gifts he had given her), Donald Sterling testified under oath, according to the New York Times that,“It was purely sex for money... I probably didn’t tell my wife.”

But if Rochelle Sterling was skeptical about the relationship between her 80 year old husband and yet another, much younger woman of Hispanic heritage, she didn't show it in THIS happy group photo at a November 2011, party that's been posted on TMZ, in which Rochelle Sterling is all smiles, posing next to V. Stiviano.

Perhaps Rochelle sued V. Stiviano in March 2014 not because Rochelle suddenly discovered that octogenarian Donald Sterling's 31 year old "archivist" was actually his mistress, but rather because Rochelle, a child of the Depression herself, hit the roof when she discovered how much that job paid....

How The Donald Sterling Tapes Were Made

In the wake of the announcement yesterday by the Commissioner of the NBA that the octogenarian owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, would be banned from the NBA for life, there was precious little reflection about how the now notorious tapes of him spewing racist nonsense were originally made. I thought that THIS column by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time magazine made some thought provoking points about that little-considered aspect of the story.

"Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way?... The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime."

"And now the poor guy’s girlfriend (undoubtedly ex-girlfriend now) is on tape cajoling him into revealing his racism. Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing 'pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.' She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee."

Lorena Bobbit Today (No Going To Bed Mad)

Can it really have been more than 20 years since Lorena Bobbitt became a household name in America after she chopped off her husband's penis and tossed it in a field?

I had vaguely remembered that her loutish husband had gone on, following surgical reattachment, to become a 'porn star.'  But I never really heard much about her ever again.

I would not have predicted that she's settled down with another man for the last 16 years, and has an 8 year-old daughter, apparently. But I was a lot less surprised to read this quote from her in the New York Daily News today HERE. "Believe it or not, I actually had quite a few gentlemen who wanted to date me."

'Date' her?  Sure.  But imagine how harrowing that first real argument must've been for her new man,  once they later went to bed.  (Perhaps he insisted on a "no going to bed mad" policy.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Donald Sterling's Tell-Tale Juice

By now I'm sure you've heard and seen a lot about the racist comments allegedly made by the octogenarian owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, which were apparently recorded secretly by his 20-something former mistress.

Much of what is said is obviously horrifying.  But I also thought that an under-reported aspect of these excerpts (like the extended, 15 minute version posted on Deadspin HERE), was how they give us a unique window into what the relationship between a sultry, mixed race, 20-something woman, and an 81 year old billionaire is really like.

As Donald Sterling is growing more and more exasperated with her during their conversation, at one point she attempts to calm him down by purring in a flirty, come-hither voice, "Honey, I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"

Then there's an extended pause, during which Sterling doesn't reply. Undaunted, she then continues, "I'm sorry, honey, can I get you a little bit more juice? I don't want to fight with you. Let me get you some juice."

"E.T." Found In New Mexico Landfill

Have you ever heard the urban legend about how hundreds of thousands of copies of the notoriously risible "E.T." video game cartridge, released by Atari in 1982,  reputed for years to be the worst video game of all time, were allegedly buried secretly by Atari in the New Mexico desert when they didn't sell?

Yesterday the reputed site in Alamogordo was dug up.  Unlike Al Capone's vault (or the search for Jimmy Hoffa), they found what they were looking for.  You can read all about it on CNN here.   I also liked how this article detailed the (amazing) background business decisions made by Atari that led up to this.

Curious what the "worst video game of all time" actually looked like?  You can watch a video posted on You Tube about it HERE.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Where Is The Line Between Intelligence And Criminality?" Is It Frank Terpil?

You probably don't recognize the name Frank Terpil.  He was infamous only briefly in the early 1980s, an ex-C.I.A. man who, after being forced out of the agency in 1972, began working as an arms dealer, intelligence specialist, and adviser to a Who's Who of the world's most vile dictators, including the Shah or Iran, Idi Amin of Uganda,  Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and Cuba's Fidel Castro, among many others.  This otherwise unassuming, pudgy guy from New York with a big moustache covering a broad smile was, to some who knew him professionally, a dangerous psychopath and, "the man who put steel in the spine of Idi Amin." How is this guy's name not more notorious and legendary?

I was astounded to read this morning that Frank Terpil is still alive, and had recently sat for an interview from his home in Cuba about his work for Gadhafi in the 1970s, during which interview Terpil apparently confirmed that he had been more than a mere military adviser, but had run a sort of Murder Incorporated for Gadhafi, arranging the assassination of the dictator's political enemies all over the world.  (The last I'd heard, Frank Terpil was purportedly arrested in Cuba in 1995, having been an international fugitive from justice for 15 years at that point, and was ominously under investigation for crimes against the state there.)

How did this street kid born in working class Brooklyn in 1939, end up being recruited by the CIA in 1965, and then get kicked out again just six years later when his black market foreign currency dealings during his posting in India came to light? Seemingly disaffected and almost unemployable back in the United States, how did Frank Terpil manage to become mysteriously well-connected and wealthy in later years working internationally as a sort of mercenary who, Zelig-like, placed himself in the service of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty dictators of the era, many of whom were avowed enemies of America?  

You can watch a really compelling 90 minute Frontline episode about him (including extensive interviews with him from exile in Beruit, and with his mystified and protective family back in Brooklyn), which aired originally on PBS in 1982, that answers all of these questions and more, on You Tube HERE. The show is clearly a product of its time, and has  a distinct "Watergate" feel to it.  It repeatedly raises a rhetorical question about whether Frank Terpil really could've done all of this himself, without the support and encouragement of the CIA (despite his apparent break with the agency in 1972, and despite the extreme illegality of his conduct, including arms smuggling and murder-for-hire).

Ted Shackley, who was Deputy Director of the CIA at the time, had his title stripped in 1977 (and was forced to retire under a cloud in 1979) amid the public scandal over Frank Terpil and Edwin Wilson's plot to sell C4 plastic explosives to Libya.  Shackley's autobiography, Spymaster: My Life In The CIA, published posthumously in 2005 after being approved by the CIA's Publication Review Board, suspiciously makes no mention whatsoever of either Frank Terpil or Edwin Wilson.

It's interesting to me that, according to THIS Miami Herald article about Frank Terpil published yesterday (which includes a recent photo of Terpil at 74 years of age), he lives a quiet life in exile in Havana, with a much younger local girlfriend and, "little to do, spending too much time frequenting Havana watering holes and nursing a drink." That all sounds eerily reminiscent of the unhappy later years which notorious British spy Kim Philby spent in Moscow after he defected there in 1963, until he died in 1988, lonely and drinking too much, with a much younger Russian woman as his sole companion.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Powdered Alcohol Coming?

This segment from the NBC Nightly News last night highlights a new product that may be coming to store shelves soon, Palcohol: powered alcohol that turns water into vodka and rum.

When this segment started airing, my initial thought was, "Within minutes of Palcohol hitting store shelves, a teenager will be snorting it somewhere." I'm not particularly against it being marketed. But it's nonetheless hard for me to conceive of any socially valuable use for it.  (Cocktails on the international space station?) So I laughed when, in the man-on-the-street interviews in this piece, the potential uses people come up with spontaneously are all, like, "sneak it into the ballet."

Today the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rescinded its approval of the controversial new product, according to TIME magazine.

Some Words Just Don't Belong Together

THIS ABC News item spotlights what sounds like a fantastic medical breakthrough for sufferers of a rare genetic condition.  But I hope they soon assign someone to come up with alternative phrasing for "lab grown vaginas."

When Anachronistic Phrases Make News

Two phrases I've heard a lot less over the last decade than I did in, say, the 1970s, are "hunting safari" and "almost extinct." THIS news today, about a Saudi prince whose hunting party illegally shot and killed over 2,000 "almost extinct" houbara bustards (birds) during a recent "hunting safari" in Pakistan, manages to use both.

Does it surprise anyone that this story goes on to explain that the meat of these extremely rare birds is "considered an aphrodisiac."

Monday, April 21, 2014

The "Golden Corral" Story (With Lobster)

To this day, I've never seen a "Golden Corral" restaurant in person, despite it being a nationwide chain, and despite having seen hundreds of TV commercials for it on ESPN over the last few years. THIS recent 15 second TV spot caught my eye in particular, because it advertised that diners at the all-you-can-eat "Golden Corral" buffet could now, for a limited time, also purchase lobster tails a la carte for an extra $3.99 each.

This offer raised so many questions (like "Why lobster?" and "Why now?" and "How many people who go to a $10 all-you-can-eat buffet really want to buy an a la carte lobster tail?"). And in the quest for answers, I learned so much more.

To use the language of crime, the 'Motive' and 'Opportunity' were spelled out in THIS Wall Street Journal article from last month. "Supply of lobster is plentiful and pushing down prices. This comes at a time when rising commodity costs are boosting the price of foods like beef and coffee... Inexpensive chain restaurants have jumped at the chance to add lobster's premium image to their menus. Golden Corral bought 200,000 pounds of frozen lobster tails last August. It paid $3.79 per tail... Golden Corral is now thawing the tails for a limited-time special, a common practice with tails served at inexpensive restaurants. (The tails have a 12-month frozen shelf life, Mr. McDevitt says.) The special is timed to lure diners after a cold winter that kept them eating at home, he says. At $3.99 a tail, the company isn't making a profit on the special, but it is likely to boost sales of buffet dinners, he says."

Has this business strategy worked, I wondered? It turns out that the North Carolina-based Golden Corral Corporation is privately owned. So it doesn't make its financial results public. Golden Corral Corporation is owned by Investors Management Corporation, or IMC, the founder, Chairman and largest shareholder of which, James Maynard, is also the co-founder of Golden Corral Corporation. In addition to Golden Corral, the IMC family of companies also includes an oncology management company, a building materials distributor, and an investment management firm.

I've always thought the name "Golden Corral" was an oddly imperfect one for a chain of buffet restaurants. The company's history, which dates back to the early 1970s as it turns out (detailed HERE) explains it all. "Golden Corral" began in 1973 as a single steakhouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when the co-founders had their application for a "Ponderosa" franchise turned down. They later expanded it into a chain of steakhouses that by 1987 had over 500 restaurants in 38 states, intentionally sited in small town markets with little competition. But by then American tastes and eating habits were changing, and the steakhouse business stalled. So in the early 1990s they evolved "Golden Corral" into the chain of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants it is today.

Stalin's Daughter And His Legacy In America

Today is the 47th anniversary of the date in 1967 that the black sheep daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin arrived in New York and defected to the United States, a huge coup during the height of the Cold War.

I'm not entirely sure why I knew this had happened back then, because I wasn't even alive in 1967.  But I was vaguely aware of it, and so was very surprised to read THIS account of an interview with her in a recent issue of the The New Yorker magazine. (Stalin's daughter was still alive?!?) She actually died in 2011, after many illnesses.

In  later years she lived quietly in a nursing home in Wisconsin, subsisting on social security payments, apparently. There was a certain irony in that, I thought, because according to this article, when she defected in 1967, she wrote to her children, whom she'd left behind in Moscow, that, "Communism had failed as an economic system and as a moral idea."  I also thought it notable that her American-born daughter, Stalin's granddaughter, now works in Portland, Oregon selling, "antiques, vintage clothes, and scented candles."

I thought this sentence from the introduction to the article was noteworthy, too.  "The C.I.A. official who first interviewed her noted in a memo that 'our own preconceived notions of what Stalin’s daughter must be like—just didn’t let us believe that this nice, pleasant, attractive, middle-aged hausfrau could possibly be who she claimed to be.'”

Did You Know That Today Is "Patriots' Day"?

The focus will likely be on the running of the Boston Marathon today, following last year's bombing. But did you know that the event is held on "Patriots' Day" every year?  I'd never heard of "Patriots' Day" until I lived in Boston myself for a couple of years, because it's not a national holiday. 

It commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the first battles of the American Revolution. The focus of the celebrations (beyond the marathon) is reenactments of those battles. (Below is home video from the 2010 reenactment, which for much of its 7 minutes makes the Battle of Lexington look like a junior high school dance, where the boys and girls stand separately and eye each other nervously and hesitantly from across the room.)

I can understand why it's a state holiday in Massachusetts.  But why, I wonder, is it also a public school holiday in Wisconsin?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Prince Finally Settles With Warner Bros, But Why?

Remember back in 1996 when Prince famously changed his name to a weird symbol, following a protracted dispute with his record label, Warner Bros?  He wrote the word "slave" on his cheek and vowed to release his new music himself over the internet?

I'm always intrigued by the epilogues to famous events.  Well, yesterday Prince settled his 18 year dispute with Warner Bros., it was announced.  You can read more details HERE. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Prince regained the ownership of his back catalog, and Warner Bros. will soon be releasing "previously unheard material" from Prince's tenure with the label, as well as a 30th anniversary edition of "Purple Rain." 

In the end, Prince, now 55 years old, was not able to match his prior, chart-topping successes releasing his music on his own. He said in a statement yesterday that he's "pleased," and that he looks "forward to a fruitful working relationship" with Warner Bros.

Why did this happen?  And why now? Billboard provides the answer HERE. It's rooted in changes to U.S. copyright law, as it turns out, not in reconciliation and healing. "This deal marks a new era as the ability to terminate master recording copyright after 35 years was granted in the Copyright Revision Act of 1976 and became effective in 1978, the year that Prince's debut album came out... As 2013 loomed, record label executives and artists managers said that they were unsure how copyright terminations and ownership reversions would play out as they expected a precedent-setting court case to decide whether the 'work-for-hire' clause in standard recording contracts could successfully be challenged by artists."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

I Have Seen The Future... At Chili's

I went to a Chili's recently for lunch, for the first time in a long time.  As soon as I sat down, I knew something was very different. There was some sort of tablet-like digital device at every table. I opened the menu and the first appetizer I saw was not, say, nachos, but rather fresh tableside guacamole.  And then was also an entire page of specially-priced Lunch Combos, featuring lighter options like salads and grilled chicken sandwiches.  The whole place was lighter, too, and less cave-like than I'd remembered.  It was like seeing an ex-girlfriend after a few years, and being surprised that she'd lost 30 lbs. and bought some new clothes.

Clearly, something was up.  I was conscious that I was experiencing some sort of  carefully calibrated, grander corporate wizardry, probably the result of painstaking quantitative analysis of lots of expensive consumer research. But what did this all mean?

I couldn't puzzle it out until I read THIS article in Forbes this morning, about how so-called Millennials are now critical drivers of the fast food and 'fast casual' restaurant businesses.  In an instant, I got the vision.  I had glimpsed the future at Chilis.

"For all the endless discussion over how terrible Millennials are.. this over-generalized generation represents a quarter of the U.S. population, [and] holds $1.3 trillion in spending power... Roughly defined as young adults ages 18 to 33, Millennials have... cut back annual restaurant visits by 21% over the last seven years... Ultimately, Palmer concludes, if Millennials’ current choices — higher-quality ingredients, better-value food, entertaining casual restaurants and a preference for digital engagement — are indicative of future consumption behavior, 'it will be critical for restaurant chains to assess their competitive position and adapt to these new realities.'”

"Walkman" Perplexes Today's Kids

Any adult who has ever watched in jealous amazement as a child intuitively operates an iPad with casual ease may enjoy watching THIS one minute segment from Good Morning America where a series of kids were handed a Sony "Walkman" from the 1980s  and asked to make it work.

Test For You: Lindsay Lohan's Lovers

As part of her recent stint in rehab, Lindsay Lohan apparently had to write down a list of all her former lovers.  Perhaps predictably, that list has now leaked to the public. 

Seeing THIS headline in the New York Daily News,  about how many of the names on it were Hollywood celebrities, suddenly confronted me with an unexpected test that would give me insight on my very soul. Do I click on that link to view the photograph of the actual list, handwritten by Lindsay Lohan herself? 

There are two types of people in the world, I think: those who eagerly view a purloined list like that (hoping for a scandalously long list of famous names), and those others who don't bother, who genuinely don't care.

Which type are you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Real History of Easter

Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays.  But I never knew much about how (and why) all the secular traditions, like Easter bunnies and Easter baskets and egg hunts, evolved alongside the religious festival.

This 3 minute piece from the History Channel addresses a lot of that in a quick, whimsical way. 

1906 San Francisco Earthquake: Four Days Before

A massive earthquake famously struck San Francisco on this day back in 1906, an anniversary that brought to mind this excellent 60 Minutes piece about stunning, digitally-restored movie footage of San Francisco taken just four days before that earthquake (and subsequent fire) nearly destroyed the city. The camera is mounted on the front of a streetcar rolling down Market Street, vying with horse-drawn carriages and automobiles and pedestrians. "The film is a time traveler's glimpse of a joyous city on the brink of disaster," explains Morley Safer."The odds are, some of the people you see have just days to live."

Al Jazeera America's Low Ratings

"Al Jazeera America is averaging just 15,000 total viewers, roughly half those who tuned in to its predecessor, Current TV, according to Nielsen figures... The channel draws fewer than 6,000 viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old target audience for news."  You can read more in the New York Post HERE. "The network’s financial backer, the government of Qatar, paid a hefty $500 million in January to purchase Current TV and gain US distribution."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fake Art Worth Real Money

"It's a fake, yes, but a very important fake. Just because it's a fake doesn't mean it's not valuable, socially and culturally," explains the curator of a new exhibit of prized counterfeit artworks, which this CBS Evening News segment from last night highlights raises intriguing questions about, "what is art?"

(I also thought that the distinction between 'fake" and 'forgery' in this context was interesting.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

KFC's "Double Down" Will Be Back

Why did the USA Today tout THIS as "Exclusive" news today, I wonder?  Is this either "exclusive" or "news," really?

Anyway, KFC announced that they will be bringing back their notoriously bread-less "Double Down" chicken sandwich for a limited time starting April 21. You may remember that the Double Down caused an indignant stir when it was first announced back in 2009.  (I wrote about it HERE.)

Curious what it actually tastes like? This reviewer says in part, "Wow that's salty... The nice thing about that is, if you really don't like this sandwich, you can use it as a salt lick for your horse."

"McLobster" Really Is Real (In Canada)

I just read that for the last several years select McDonald's in parts of Canada have been offering a lobster roll for a limited time each summer called the "McLobster."  When I first saw the name, I was sure it was a joke.  But it's real, apparently.

The company has no plans to offer the McLobster in the United States, however, it has announced. I wonder whether that's because they'd have trouble sourcing lobster in larger quantities, or whether that's because they assume (I suspect rightly) that not many McDonald's customers would really pay $6.75 for a McLobster roll, when they could instead get a familiar cheeseburger for $1.

What does the McLobster actually taste like?  THIS review posted on You Tube by a stereotypically genial Canadian guy ("They gave me an extra straw!") is very enthusiastic, actually.

What's In A Name, "Katie Russell"?

Now that we're in the week between the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing (yesterday), and the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon next Tuesday, I'm reminded how frustrated I was that the news media (national and local, tabloid and broadcast) all seemed to accept uncritically the version of events being peddled at the time by the surviving American widow of the ethnic Chechen bomber who'd immigrated to America, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

I found it especially galling that everyone in the media referred to her as "Katie Russell." As THIS New York Post article makes clear, "Russell changed her name. Now she was Karima Tsarnaeva... Where Russell was on April 15, 2013 — the day of the Boston Marathon bombings — is still unknown... Following her husband’s death, Russell fled to her parents’ home back in North Kingston, and the FBI descended on the tiny apartment in Cambridge. There they found bomb-making residue in the kitchen sink, in the bathtub, and on the kitchen table. On Russell’s laptop, they found the first issue of the al Qaeda online magazine Inspire, which included an article titled 'How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.'... Russell said nothing... When the FBI showed up at her parents’ home on April 21, 2013, Russell refused to speak with them... She has made it clear to her entire family that she is a Muslim and will remain a Muslim. That’s non-negotiable." As the  3 minute local news segment about her (below), which aired last night in her local Rhode Island market, makes clear, nothing has really changed over the last year.

In all of this, Karima Tsarnaeva reminds me of Melinda Marling Maclean, the American wife of the notorious British spy Donald Maclean, a committed communist (and bisexual and alcoholic and rabid anti-American) who spied for the Soviet Union while living in, among other places, Washington, D.C., and then fled across the Iron Curtain (just ahead of prosecution) in 1951, living the rest of his life there. When he first fled, Melinda denied knowing anything about his spying, denied being a communist herself, and took her children to live with her mother in Geneva, Switzerland.  Then, a year later, she  suddenly disappeared over the Iron Curtain herself to join Donald in Moscow.  She lived there unhappily for years, and ultimately returned to America for good in 1979, and lived in seclusion at her mother's apartment in New York City, keeping a low profile and refusing ever to speak publicly about Donald Maclean ever again until her death in 2010. She quietly encouraged a public perception of her as a clueless dupe, and a devoted (and abused) wife. (Sound familiar?) It was subsequently revealed that she was a communist sympathizer all along, had known about Donald Maclean's spying from the time they first met, and had, in fact, aided him from time-to-time, including abetting his escape to Moscow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

CIA Uses "Chili Peppers" Songs To Torture

I started reading THIS article from the Huffington Post because it's headline touted the revelation that the CIA apparently used Red Hot Chili Peppers songs as part of its "enhanced interrogation techniques" at Guantanamo Bay.

It made me laugh because I like their music myself.  But then two other references in this article caught my eye. One was that the band Skinny Puppy apparently got wind that their music was being used in the same way, and they apparently sent an invoice tio the CIA, billing them for the use of their songs.

The other aspect of this article that caught my eye was its phraseology. It reads in part, "a detainee identified as Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn Abu Zubaydah was tortured while listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers on loop."  It obvoisly gives a very different impression of what was going on depending on whether 'while" really means "while" (implying the music was played as a background soundtrack to, say, water boarding), or whether, to bemore  accurate, 'while" should really be replaced with "by" (implying that merely listening to the music was "torture").

THIS National Journal article may give more insight on this point. "Zubaydah was also shackled at the wrists and hung to the ceiling of his cell, all the while loud music was played on an endless loop."  But this sentence contains its own frustrating ambiguities.  Is it the shackles and chains that were hung to the ceiling, or Zubaydah himself?

Man Exposes Himself At Arby's: Trend?

THIS local news article, about a 30 year old man who apparently exposed himself to an Arby's employee while at their drive thru, got me wondering whether this sort of thing was common at fast food restaurants in general, and at their drive thru windows in particular.  Apparently, it is.

HERE's a story from April 2011 about a 43 year old Delaware man who walked into a McDonald's  in Newark with his fly open.  Oddly, I thought, when he fled he hopped on his motorcycle in the same state of undress, apparently. And HERE's another local news article from 2006,  about a 28 year old man who went through the drive thru at a McDonald's in New Britain, Connecticut with his pants unzipped. And HERE's local news about a similar occurrence at a McDonald's in Pennsylvania in 2011.

And this plague of crime is not limited to McDonald's. (Nor is it exclusively a young man's game.) HERE's a story from December 2013 about a 62 year old man who exposed himself in a KFC/Taco Bell in Georgia. And HERE's yet another local news story from Illinois just a few days ago about a  man who exposed himself illegally at a Taco Bell drive thru.  Twice.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Europe's Most Prolific Sperm Donor, "Humanitarian"

Reading THIS profile in the New York Post of a Dutch man who is Europe's most prolific sperm donor, I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that, as I read on, it became clear much of this wasn't being done through traditional clinics.  Instead, he apparently prefers to make his "donations" to individual women directly, the old fashioned way. ("In 2002, he became an independent contractor of sorts... Houben says having sex with him is not required, but he insists it’s the most advisable... Houben charges no money for his services, partly because it’s ­illegal to buy and sell human ­material in the Netherlands and partly because he sees himself as a true humanitarian.")

I was astounded to read that he apparently has no legal documents drawn up regarding any of this. ("He feels protected enough by Dutch law.") But the most bizarre part, I thought, was the description of how he handles things when a woman show up at his house for her scheduled "donation" with her husband in tow. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What Does A "Flatizza" Really Taste Like?

If you, too, feel inundated recently by TV commercials for Subway's new (pizza-esque) 'Flatizza,' and nonetheless became intrigued, almost despite yourself, about what it really tasted like, you might want to watch:
  • THIS favorable 2 minute review on You Tube. ("What's up? What's up, player? You lookin' at me like people can't get their hungry on in the front seat of their car, B?")
  • Or THIS less favorable one ("It's salty, really salty..... I thought it was going to be better.  It's ok. It's salty...")
  • Or THIS review, by a guy who kept pronouncing 'Flatizza' with an oddly distinct, high-pitched "teat" in the middle ("Subway's trying to kick it up a notch, which I think is good news for everybody.... I mean it's not, like, the best pizza in the world, but it's really good for what it is... I could probably eat two or three of these things... Maybe you could get a sandwich and this, you know?  You could kick it up a notch!")

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" Story

As a young kid I was pretty ambivalent about reading, and the only books I remember really enjoying back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were from the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series. Because kids could literally decide at the bottom of each page (from a few options) where the plot should go, a young reader could make the book as entertaining (or, alternatively, short) as they desired.

I found THIS brief history about how the series was originally created in the 1970s to be fascinating in many respects.  It apparently began when a bored lawyer for RCA Records named Ed Packard began writing a story in this format for his kids in 1969.  But it languished unpublished for years, apparently, until a former high school teacher named RA Montgomery (then working at a small Vermont publisher) began championing it as a concept to bigger publishers in New York City.

The series' end is summarized as follows. "By the late 1980s, the series was showing signs of exhaustion. Lackluster concepts like You Are a Shark were pushed through in the rush to keep the installments coming, and the number of possible endings in many titles dwindled. Early Choose books had dozens of endings; later entries saw as few as eight. Then, with the rise of video and computer games, which provided that same interactivity in an even more addictive format, Choose's foothold in the market slipped. In 1999, after selling 250 million copies worldwide, the publisher retired the brand and let the trademark lapse."

Test: How Much Did You Like "Thundarr"?

Did you like the "Thundarr the Barbarian" cartoon as a kid back in 1980, too?

If so, did you like it enough to watch this 18 minute documentary about the show that was prepared for a DVD compilation a while back?

Would you stil watch it if I told you that it offered very limited insights about the cartoon or its creation? How about if I further told you that the most interesting part of it to me was when the creator asserted that the show was cancelled after just two seasons (despite high ratings) because it was "too violent, or something." Would you still watch this?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Hot Sauce NIMBYism

I really like Sriracha sauce (aka "Rooster Sauce") and put it regularly on all kinds of foods. But a little goes a long way. If you take the cap off a bottle and inhale deeply, you can probably understand why the city council of the southern California city in which the Sriracha sauce is made, Irwindale, declared the factory a public nuisance yesterday. The manufacturer, Hoy Fung Foods, apparently has until June 1 to fix the problem.

Worryingly for Sriracha lovers, this follows a ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last November that ordered the same factory partially shut down amid complaints by nearby residents about the chili odor, and for measures to be taken immediately to mitigate it.

When I Met Kevin Costner

Seeing all the TV commercials on ESPN promoting the release today of Kevin Costner's new film, Draft Day, reminded me of the time I met him in person. 

It was about 20 years ago. His career was near its peak at the time, I think. He'd already made Dances with Wolves (1990) and JFK (1991) and The Bodyguard (1992), and hadn't yet starred in Waterworld (1995). I was in a popular bar in Palo Alto, California with some friends from law school. We were chatting up this group of former sorority girls who had graduated from UCLA a few years earlier, when Kevin Costner strode in. He would've been in his late 30s at the time.

I saw first-hand the power of Hollywood celebrity that night. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, Kevin Costner had insinuated himself into the group of girls with whom we'd been talking  for an hour. And as quickly as he had done so, all their backs were turned to us, and they were having their own, uproarious laughs. Game over. He strode back out of the bar again with two or three of them in tow less than a half an hour later. For years afterward, when I saw seduction scenes in vampire movies, I thought back to this night.

At the time, my friends and I were pretty indignant, not surprisingly. We consoled ourselves by muttering judgmental speculations about whether Costner was married.  And I wouldn't have written this post today if I hadn't seen on Wikipedia just now that he divorced his wife in 1994.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The End of the Best Deal Ever

It was probably 15 or 20 years ago that I first heard references to a little known "Deal of the Century." In the mid-1970s, the Silna brothers purchased the struggling 'Spirits of St Louis' basketball team in the struggling ABA basketball league for a mere $1 million.  The ABA almost immediately folded, with only a handful of its teams then joining the (struggling) NBA in 1976. Other ABA teams accepted buyouts to fold, but not the Silnas.  And here's what resulted for the next 40 years.

"With the help of their lawyer, Donald Schupak, the brothers cut a deal: The four ABA teams decamping to the NBA would... pay the brothers one-seventh of their national broadcast revenues in perpetuity...[T]he deal became the sports equivalent of Peter Minuit paying $24 for the island of Manhattan. According to court documents obtained by SI, the brothers received a total of $521,749 in 1980, the first year the contract vested. By '86-87 the annual payout eclipsed $1 million. By 1999-2000 it eclipsed $10 million. For 2010-11, the last season for which records are available, the Silnas made $17.5 million. After last season they had made more than $300 million cumulatively -- with no end in sight."

According to Sports Illustrated HERE, earlier this week the Silna brothers, now 81 and 69 years old respectively, apparently accepted a buy out, one long-sought after by the NBA.  The buy-out price was apparently "in excess of $500 million," meaning that their initial $1 million investment would've netted them over $1 billion, in the end.

Off-Menu Fast Food Items: Secret For A Reason?

I first heard years ago that at In-N-Out Burger there were 'secret' off-menu items/preparations that could be ordered by regular customers in-the-know. I shrugged that off, however, because In-N-Out isn't a personal favorite of mine.

But the website Hack The Menu, which lists similar off-menu items apparently available at a wide variety of Americas largest fast food chains, including McDonalds, Subway, and Starbucks, intrigued me more.

That being said, a new review HERE of three of the Taco Bell off-menu items was a cold splash of reality.  The Taco Bell employees were totally unaware of these 'secret' items, apparently, and, while game to prepare them on request, had to be handed a cheat sheet to do so.  And in the end, the "Incredible Hulk" and "Superman" burritos seemed to me to be gut-busting ("extra potatoes, double portion of ground beef") mild deviations from existing menu items at more than double the normal price.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Everything We Know Is Wrong, Copernicus?

An upcoming documentary film titled The Principle is generating controversy because it's apparently reaching back to the 1500s and advocating geoncentrism: the belief that the sun (and the rest of the universe) revolves around the Earth. 

In the trailer for the film below, the former star of Star Trek:Voyager  TV show is heard at the beginning stating, "Everything we think we know about our universe is wrong."

According to THIS Time magazine article, on Facebook yesterday the actress denied being a geocentrist. " I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Taco Bell's PAC

I bet you didn't know that there's a formal group representing the collected interests of Taco Bell franchisees, and that its acronym is FRANMAC (the Taco Bell Franchise Management Council). Not only does FRANMAC have its own website, it also has a political group, a PAC.  Really, it's called TACO PAC.

According to THIS US News article, TACO PAC, "has contributed $71,000 to the campaigns of 48 Republicans and just $6,000 to two Democrats."  Once a year FRANMAC apparently "woos" congressional staffers with free tacos, burritos and nachos. Last year they doled out nearly 10,000 in all.

In re Sbarro

The pizza chain Sbarro filed for bankruptcy in March, for the second time in three years.

I laughed at the phraseology in THIS analysis, which notes that Quiznos and Sbarro, both of whom are currently in bankruptcy, are each offering "prepackaged cramdown" plans to their creditors, and refers to each of them in the jargon of US bankruptcy law as "melting ice cube companies."

This video below, in which a self-styled fast food reviewer heads enthusiastically to a Sbarro 18 months ago to sample their then highly touted "new and improved" pizza recipe,  may go some way toward explaining Sbarro's latest bankruptcy filing.  At the start of his journey, this reviewer seems genuinely to want to like it, which makes his subsequent on camera review even better, as he hesitantly says of the slice of pepperoni pizza dripping grease on a paper plate in the food court, "this pizza is - not incredible" and, with a wince, "the predominant flavor of the pizza is salt."

What's More Unlikely?

 What's more unlikely?

That back in the 1980s, Al Sharpton was a confidential informant for the FBI who used a specially designed briefcase to record conversations with New York-based mobsters that ultimately led to the downfall of, among others, Genovese crime boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante?

Or that, before he became famous, Rodney Dangerfield had worked as a door-to-door aluminum siding salesman, and in 1955 was busted for fraudulently taking out loans in the names of his customers?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Apocalypse Now: The Bacon Bowl

The first time I ever saw the TV commercial for the "Perfect Bacon Bowl" (below), it immediately struck me as something that, if civilization crumbled tomorrow, would be regarded on hindsight as an obvious indicator of a decadent society in its twilight.

I also wonder what it implies about us that each box contains two of these.  If you're lounging on your sofa, comfortably wearing your Snuggie while you double fist ice cream sundaes in their own edible bacon bowls, you really are begging the Visigoths to come crashing through your front door.

I definitely would not have predicted, however, that, according to THIS profile of the inventor by CNN, he is a trim man from Utah who is gainfully employed as a research histologist.

It's already sold 2 million units, apparently.  But does it actually work?  Find out HERE.

Mickey Rooney's Death Makes Me Think of Ava Gardner

When I heard this morning that Mickey Rooney had died, my first thought was back to THIS  2013 article in Vanity Fair, excerpting a newly published book about Ava Gardner, to whom Rooney was once married (one of his eight wives). She had collaborated extensively on the book in life, back in the 1980s. It was intended to be her memoirs.  But it was never published, until now.

Here's just some of what she said about Mickey Rooney. (I'm not copying the most vulgar, prurient and profane parts. But you can read those in the article itself, if you want.)

She was a 19 year-old starlet when she met him. "I still didn’t know that he was the biggest wolf on the lot. He was catnip to the ladies. He knew it, too. The little sod was not above admiring himself in the mirror. All five foot two of him! He probably banged most of the starlets who appeared in his Andy Hardy films—Lana Turner among them. She called him Andy Hard-on. Can we say that—Andy Hard-on?

 “A week or so after we got back from our honeymoon, I woke up in the middle of the night with the most god-awful pain in my stomach. Mickey drove me to the Presbyterian Hospital. Like everybody in my family, I had a misplaced appendix. In those days you stayed in hospital for three weeks after even a minor operation. So I came home, and the first night I found evidence that Mick had been screwing somebody in our bed.”

Edwin P. Wilson: CIA Agent, Flamboyant Con Man/Arms Dealer

As I've noted before, I'm always intrigued by the under-reported epilogues to famous stories. 

A reference in THIS article from the New York Post yesterday caught my eye. Its focus is on the debauched life of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. ("Sex dungeon!") But a passing reference suggests that former CIA operative Edwin P. Wilson once ran a murder-for-hire squad for Gaddafi.

I first heard of Edwin P. Wilson when I read a 1986 book about him titled "Manhunt" by Peter Maas, which profiled him as a former CIA agent/con man who had 'gone rogue' and gotten involved in big money arms dealing with the Libyans while leaving business associates with the impression that he still worked for the CIA. He was arrested in 1982, and ultimately sentenced to over 50 years in prison.  That's where the story had ended for him, I assumed.

But it didn't end there, apparently.  Wilson died in September 2012 in Seattle at the age of 84, a free man. According to his New York Times obituary, in the end he served only 22 years of his 52 year sentence and, after a successful jailhouse appeal ("they framed a guilty man"), was released in 2004. 

His obit calls him 'the spy who lived it up.' "He showered minks on his mistress, whom he called 'Wonder Woman.' He owned three private planes and bragged that he knew flight attendants on the Concorde by name. His preferred habitat was a hall of mirrors. His business empire existed as a cover for espionage, but it also made him a lot of money."

For such a flamboyant character, the last years of his life following his 2004 release apparently passed anticlimactically. "Since then he had lived in Seattle on a monthly Social Security check of $1,080. He died of complications from heart-valve replacement surgery, his nephew Scott Wilson said."

Toilet Paper Waterfall

I'm not normally interested in Belgian soccer.  But I thought that this video of a 'toilet paper waterfall' created by fans at a recent match was pretty spectacular.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kurt Cobain: 20 Years Later

I can still remember where I was when I first heard that Kurt Cobain had shot and killed himself 20 years ago today. With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that an indie band like Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts back then doesn't seem so much like a music revolution, as part of a temporary fad for 'grunge.'

Nonetheless, THIS article from CNBC suggests that Cobain's estate is worth over $450M today, in part because Nirvana's music has apparently had more staying power than that of other acts.  They sold 350,000 albums in 2013, and 900,000 singles. An emphasis of this article is the delicate, and sometimes subjective, balance between commercializing Cobain's music and image without undercutting his anti-corporate, anti-celebrity persona.

Below is the new TV commercial for Bavaria beer referenced in this CNBC article, the premise of which is that Kurt Cobain, along with other dead celebrities including Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Tupac Shakur, are all secretly hiding out together on a desert island. (I'm not sure that any of them would've loved this.)

Rolling Stone: KISS After 40 Years

I was never a big fan of the band KISS myself.  Despite the fact that they're going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in a few weeks, I think I would recognize only 3 or 4 of their songs. But there's no denying that their persistent endurance and ubiquitous licensing have long-since transcended Gene Simmons' preternaturally long tongue dripping fake blood onstage in the 1970s.

Well, on the brink of their Hall of Fame induction, Rolling Stone magazine just published THIS very readable profile of the band today, featuring separate interviews with all four original members (two of whom have been out of the band for years).  Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley came across to me like two guys who have had a successful partnership for four decades, but perhaps not a deep friendship.  And the other two guys struck me as people who still defined themselves in opposition to a band (and band mates) that they left long ago.  Most intriguingly, Gene Simmons comes across as a man in late middle age, a little lonely living in a KISS museum he built proudly for himself.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hidden Evils of Veggie Burgers ("It's People!")

I like veggie burgers and eat them from time-to-time, even though I'm not a vegetarian. I probably feel better about myself when I do, too.  But I had an inkling that, if I Google'd the mainstream brands, like "MorningStar Farms," or "Boca" burgers, or "Gardenburger," I'd quickly uncover all sorts of 'evils' allegedly lurking in these seemingly innocuous, well-meaning foods.  And so I did.

According to a 2010 report from the Cornucopia Institute HERE, all three brands use hexane. "Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining. It is a neurotoxin and a hazardous air pollutant. Soybean processors use it as a solvent—a cheap and efficient way of extracting oil from soybeans..." There are apparently other alleged 'evils' as well, which I read about in detail HERE, including the inclusion of  Textured Vegetable Protein (or TVP), MSG, and Genetically Modified ingredients.

I'm not sure how many of these 'sins' actually bother me personally. And that's probably just as well because my personal favorite veggie burger, the MorningStar Farms Spicy Black Bean Burger, apparently distinguishes itself by incorporating all of the above, and more. In mitigation (I suppose) here's a brief You Tube video of a woman who "loves" them, and who eats two a day. (Notice the pyramid of MorningStar boxes piled on her range.)  But is that a toilet in the bottom right corner?

Infamous Cold War Blunder: US Embassy Riddled With Bugs

On this date back in 1987, the United States government memorably accused the Soviet Union publicly of riddling the newly constructed US embassy in Moscow with hidden listening devices.

According to a  New York Times article that you can read HERE,  "the security problems in the new embassy building stem from a decision in 1972 to have much of the building assembled from prefabricated modules manufactured at a Soviet site not open to American inspection."

The building was infamously scrapped at a result, and a new embassy building was ultimately constructed, finally opening in the year 2000, long after the fall of the Soviet Union.  THIS Baltimore Sun article from July 2000 about the opening contains several memorable quotes, including:
  •  "The U.S. Embassy construction began in 1979, using supports built by Soviet workers. By 1985, U.S. officials discovered the supports had eavesdropping equipment embedded throughout. 'It's nothing but an eight-story microphone plugged into the Politburo,' Dick Armey, a Republican congressman from Texas, said at the time."
  • "Another titillating event occurred at the end of 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart. Vadim Bakatin, the head of the KGB at the time, presented U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss with the blueprints for the embassy bugs. Until that moment, the Soviet Union had steadfastly denied the bugging. It was a gesture of friendship, Bakatin said, and he hoped the United States would be able to de-bug the building and move in."
  • "Finally, at a cost of $240 million, the embassy was taken apart brick by brick and rebuilt stone by stone - Minnesota stone."


Surprising Insights From Fast Food Demographics

The fast food business is an undervalued window on the soul of America, I think.  THIS article in an online industry trade magazine breaks down the demographics of fast food consumption by age, ethnicity, and income level, and draws conclusions about what this data means for the industry. Some of this surprised me. Here are a few highlights:

  •  Ethnicity. In 2050, Caucasians are projected to make up just 53% of the US population, despite making up 72.4% in 2010. Conversely, the Hispanic population is expected to rise from 16.3% in 2010 to 23% in 2050.  The Asian population is projected to rise from 4.8% in 2010 to 10% in 2050. For Caucasians, 41% of their total food expenditure annually is on food away from home.  For African-Americans that percentage is 35.9%.  For Hispanics that's 38.1% and for Asians its 48.4%. "Holman is more blunt in stating how important it is to cater to the Hispanic demographic. 'If you do not have a Hispanic initiative,' she says, 'you really need to get one. The growth that is being projected for the Hispanic population in the United States is phenomenal.'"
  •  Age.  "54 percent of 'super heavy' fast-food users (who eat fast food at least once a day) and 37 percent of 'heavy' fast-food users (two to six times per week) are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to Technomic.... [A]ccording to Census Bureau projections, Millennials will make up the majority of the U.S. population by 2030... Millennials are an in-depth group that understands healthy eating and desires more unprocessed, natural foods... Baby Boomers, meanwhile, are the largest generation in the U.S., making up 26 percent of the nation’s population at 82 million members strong... 'Because they’re aging, they really want to eat healthy, so low sodium is important to them, reduced sugar is important to them, all of that. They’re really going to be the ones to change the ways we age in America and the ways we eat as we age.'"
  • Income. "'One of the interesting things was affluent consumers definitely use foodservice more often, but it’s not just the more pricy restaurants,' Weikel says. 'Even at fast food, their rates were just about equal or just as high. So that’s one thing to keep in mind, that quick service is not just lower-income consumers.'"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A "John Lloyd Wright" Home

Would you pay extra to watch Michael Jordan's son play basketball?  Or would you be more interested in a surrealist painting if it were by the son of Salvador Dali?

If so, you may be interested in THIS home for sale that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son.

"Expendables 3" Trailer

There are two types of people in the world: the 99% who won't care about this, and the 1% who will love it.

In Search Of... Jesse James

Jesse James was shot and killed by Bob Ford on this date in 1882.

"Yet in 1948, J. Frank Dalton claimed he was Jesse James.  Is it possible that Jesse James could've perpetrated a hoax on the entire country for over 60 years?" So begins an episode of In Search Of... from 1981, that you can watch on You Tube HERE.

Jesse James was not the Robin Hood-figure of popular legend. In reality, he and his brother were veterans of the Civil War from Missouri who fought on the Confederate side as part of a succession of guerrilla groups who perpetrated a series of notorious massacres, sometimes of unarmed men and boys. Like some other bitter ex-Confederates, after the Civil War ended Jesse James and his brother became outlaws, robbing banks. The favorable Jesse James legend was created and nurtured at this time by the pro-Confederate editor of the Kansas City Times newspaper, John Newman Edwards.

"Who knows if the real Jesse James is buried in the plot in Kearney, Missouri?" asks Leonard Nimoy rhetorically at the end of this episode of In Search Of...  Well, in 1995, Jesse James' body was exhumed from that plot and was subjected to DNA testing, confirming his identity.

Spy Jonathan Pollard Predictably Back In The News

Like clockwork, Jonathan Pollard is back in the news once again. Every couple of years public speculation (and political pressure from some quarters) mounts to release the imprisoned American spy, who passed classified documents to Israel (for money) in the early 1980s before getting caught.  Since being imprisoned in the mid-1980s, revisionist historians have, contrary to known facts, turned Pollard in some circles into a sort of 'dual patriot' to both the United States and to Israel, one who should therefore not still be imprisoned, they assert.

Jonathan Pollard is back in the news now because the possibility has been floated that he might be released as part of a broader agreement among Israel and the Palestinians critical to jump-starting peace talks between them.  You can read more about it on CNN HERE.

I wrote previously about Jonathan Pollard in 2012 HERE and in 2010 HERE (a more detailed re-examination of his spying, and subsequent arrest and trial).

Epilogue: John Edwards At Bunny Mellon's Funeral

I'm typically intrigued by the under-reported epilogues to high profile news stories, and this one is no exception.  Yesterday John Edwards apparently showed up uninvited to the funeral for Bunny Mellon, who back in 2008 (when she was in her late 90s) was convinced by John Edwards and his team to donate over $700K to his failed Presidential campaign. Some of that money was notoriously later used to support his mistress, Rielle Hunter. 

According to THIS article in today's New York Post, John Edwards was turned away by Bunny Mellon's famly, despite the funeral being open to the public.  Undeterred, Edwards apparently stayed anyway and watched the service "with the rest of the overflow crowd on a big screen at an adjacent parish house," and then "was working the crowd near the graveside after the service."

I wrote HERE three years ago about the unexpected origins of Bunny Mellon's family fortune, and about her colorful earlier life.

$50M Paintings, Stolen in 1970, Recovered This Week

An Italian auto worker for Fiat bought a couple of paintings for $100 back in 1975, at an auction of items from a train station's lost and found.  He had no idea they were stolen masterpieces, apparently, and they hung in his house anonymously for almost 40 years thereafter.  Now retired, his son recently sent them to be appraised, and that led ultimately to the revelation that the two paintings were actually a Gaugin still life and a Bonnard, worth a collective $50M today, that were stolen from a British aristocrat back in 1970.

You can read more, including interesting details about the original 1970 theft, HERE.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Can High Finance Save Red Lobster From "Shrimp Inflation" And "Lobster Deflation"?

Last December, the parent company of Red Lobster (and Olive Garden, among other chains), Darden Restaurants, which is the largest full-service restaurant company in the world and a Fortune 500 company, announced plans to spin-off the consistently under-performing seafood chain.

But now there's a shareholder battle brewing at Darden over the fate of Red Lobster.  Some significant investors don't want to sell the chain now while it's down (at a discount), but instead want to try to fix it, to preserve more shareholder value. In the meantime, they want Darden to leverage its extensive real estate holdings by establishing a Real Estate Investment Trust, or REIT, which these activist shareholders assert could increase shareholder value by $1 billion.  You can read more in today's New York Post HERE.  Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are also apparently involved.

But there may be a fundamental cost issue at the root of Red Lobster's problems, according to THIS article. "The price of shrimp, arguably the most democratic of seafoods, has skyrocketed over the past several years, largely because of a bacterial disease ravaging shrimp in Vietnam, Thailand and China, according to Quartz. That’s a huge problem for Red Lobster, which offers shrimp at bargain price. So-called shrimp inflation has cost Red Lobster an estimated $30 million over the past year, executives said on the call.. On the other end of the spectrum is lobster, the most decadent of seafoods... 'For a lot of guests (Red Lobster) is a special-occasion experience,' Eugene Lee, Darden’s chief operating officer, said on the call. But lobster isn’t so special any more. Thanks to a glut in the North American lobster supply, prices have sunk to historic lows over the past few years. Now, diners looking for a cheap lobster meal can get their fix at places like Golden Corral, Whole Foods and even Quiznos, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week."

In Search Of... Michael Rockefeller

In November 1961, while on an expedition to remote, coastal New Guinea searching for art objects for his family's then-new Museum of Primative Art in New York, 23 year old Michael Rockefeller (son of Nelson Rockefeller, and heir to the family fortune) disappeared mysteriously.

He was traveling in a 40 foot catamaran with a Dutch anthropologist and two native guides when it capsized.  Michael elected to swim the three miles to shore.  He was never seen again, despite an extensive search, and was presumed to've drowned in the strong current, or to've been attacked and killed by sharks or crocodiles. The possibility that Michael may've actually made it to shore, only to've been attacked by local tribesmen, who at the time had almost no contact with the outside world and who were reputed to be cannibals and headhunters, was dismissed as lurid speculation.

An episode of "In Search of..." from 1978, which you can watch on You Tube in its entirety HERE, re-examined this mystery, with emphasis on this more grizzly potential ending. In this 35 year old TV interview, the chief of the Asmat tribe denies that they killed Michael Rockefeller, after which narrator Leonard Nimoy intones, "The full and true story of Michael Rockefeller's disappearance may never be known. If the answer lies among the Asmat, a nearly impenetrable cultural curtain prevents a final solution."

But a new book published just weeks ago reveals that local cannibals had indeed attacked and killed 23 year old Michael Rockefeller after he successfully reached the shore in 1961, in revenge for a prior attack on them by the Dutch colonial government in 1958.   The local tribemen then concealed their village from the extensive search parties sent by the Dutch to look for young Rockefeller, and denied to everyone that they had killed him, for fear of retaliation. But they did confess at the time to a Dutch priest who traveled and lived among them.

According to THIS New York Daily News article about the new book, "The priest wrote the Dutch government and included the names of the murderers and which body parts they ate, according to documents Hoffman found in government archives in the Hague. 'IT IS CERTAIN THAT MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER WAS MURDERED AND EATEN BY OTSJANEP,' van Kessel wrote in all caps. 'This was revenge for the shooting four years ago.' But correspondence from the church to van Kessel told the priest to keep quiet. The incident was 'like a cabinet of glass' and he must keep silent so 'the mission will not fall from grace with the population,' church officials wrote."