Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Swift-Walker? Boneshaker?

Today is apparently the anniversary of something bicycle-related, I read just now. I was surprised to learn HERE that, for the first 50 years after it was invented in 1817, it came to be known by many other names before the term "bicycle" was coined in 1869, including "velocipede" and "boneshaker" and "hobby horse" and "swift-walker."

I was also intrigued by the notation that in 1898, the popularity of the bicycle in America went into historic decline.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Unlikely World of "Sweepers"

"They spend hours a day entering sweepstakes..."

(While the applicable taxes on any winnings are mentioned in this NBC Nightly News segment from last night, the fact that they would total hundreds of thousands of dollars on the nearly $1 million in total winnings claimed by the 'master sweeper' interviewed went unremarked upon.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Frugal Life Of A Chinese Spy In America

"Sitting around the house—secret audio recordings would later show—the two often talked about Chinese politics, remarking that Mao, like Stalin, was misunderstood by history. The influence of Maoist ideology was, perhaps, evident in the Maks’ extreme frugality: they ate their meals off of newspapers, which they would roll up and toss in the garbage. Every Saturday morning, after a game of tennis, they drove to a gas station and washed their car using the mops and towels there. From the gas station, the Maks drove to a hardware store and disappeared into the lumber section for ten minutes, never buying anything. For weeks, the agents following them wondered if the Maks were making a dead drop, but it turned out that the lumber section offered free coffee at that hour."

You can read more in The New Yorker HERE.

Friday, May 16, 2014

"Would You Kill The Fat Man?"

"When moral dilemmas are posed in a foreign language, people become more coolly utilitarian." So begins THIS Economist article that goes on to explain, "Specifically, when people are asked the fat-man question in a foreign language, they are more likely to kill him for the others’ sake. Dr Costa and his colleagues interviewed 317 people, all of whom spoke two languages—mostly English plus one of Spanish, Korean or French. Half of each group were randomly assigned the dilemma in their native tongue. The other half answered the problem in their second language. When asked in their native language, only 20% of subjects said they would push the fat man. When asked in the foreign language, the proportion jumped to 33%."

Chinese 'Seed Corn' Espionage

"As farmers work to plant the fields of Iowa this week, the FBI still lists five Chinese nationals as ‘wanted’ for stealing seed corn over the past three years... Mo is accused of being the ringleader for an elaborate network of men trying to steal inbred corn seed from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto farm fields in Iowa and Illinois in 2011."

"September 2012: Another man, Li Shaoming, is alleged to smuggle corn seed from Monee, Illinois to China. The DOJ claims Li concealed 374 small manila envelopes each containing small quantities of corn seed within two boxed of Pop Weaver brand microwave popcorn boxes."

You can read more HERE.

Sale of Red Lobster Will Pay Dividends. Literally.

The purchaser, Golden Gate Capital, also owns Payless Shoe Source and Zales. So when this sale closes in a few months, Red Lobster will be right where it belongs. Among friends.

"After tax and transaction costs Darden — which also includes Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille and Seasons 52 – expects to receive about $1.6 billion in cash from the deal... The move will also allow Darden to maintain its 55 cent quarterly dividend."  You can read more in Forbes HERE. "Disappointing earnings from Red Lobster have long dragged down the 46 year old Darden and the most recent quarter was no exception. In March, Darden reported that sales for the seafood chain came in at $611 million, down 8.7% from a year earlier. Nevertheless Golden Gate Capital is optimistic, Managing Director Josh Olshansky said in a statement, 'Red Lobster is an exceptionally strong brand with an unparalleled market position in seafood casual dining.'"

But if that really is true, it's only because the rest of the segment is sinking even faster than Red Lobster. It sounds like a proverbial 'race to the bottom,' according to THIS article in QSR magazine.  "The seafood quick-service category has performed poorly in recent years... Long John Silver’s total U.S. sales dropped from $700 million in 2010 to $635 million in 2011."

How Often Do You Really Need To Shower?

It's a question fraught with peril, perhaps, answered HERE as follows, "daily showering is actually not objectively healthier or better; and in fact, one of the most common reasons that people cut down on showering is actually for skin-health reasons, not laziness."

I'd like to see the data on that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If Only Russia's "Threat" To Ban American Astronauts Was a Promise

With the space shuttle fleet retired from service, the United States currently pays Russia more than $65 million apiece to fly American astronauts to the International Space Station, according to THIS Telegraph article.

How much did the first "space tourists" flown to the International Space Station (ISS) pay for the same flight by the Russians, I wondered? The first, Dennis Tito, payed a reported $20 million in 2001. Gregory Olsen also paid $20 million in 2005. The last, a Canadian circus magnate, paid $35 million for his 2009 flight to the ISS.

Is it any wonder, then, that Russia indefinitely suspended these private space tourist flights for millionaires in 2010, at the same time the space shuttle fleet was decommissioned.  At the time, Russia characterized the suspension as being bandwidth and safety-related, according to THIS Reuters article. But as it turns out, it was really all about money. Predictably.

The crew of the most recent mission to the ISS, including one American, arrived home safely just hours ago, coincidentally.  What did we get for our $65 million? The highlight of their "eventful and historic" mission, according to THIS Fox News article, was that one of the three became the first ever Japanese man to command the ISS. Oh, and they oversaw the arrival of a cargo capsule that re-supplied the ISS.  Oh, and they also participated in an "unprecedented" two hour TV event titled "Live From Space" that was broadcast live on the National Geographic Channel. Wow.

In light of all of the above, I laughed when I read this morning of Russia's new 'threat' today to stop ferrying American astronauts to the ISS in light of the crisis in Ukraine, and embargo that they said would begin in (pinky to mouth): 10 years.

So You Led A Failed Rebellion, Then What?

I was surprised to read yesterday that, after the American Civil War ended in 1865, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, lived another 25 years. He spent only two years in prison after the war, apparently, and yesterday was the anniversary of his release in 1867. What did he do for the rest of his life, I wondered?  How do you follow-up leading a failed rebellion and a ruinous, 5-year civil war?

"Sell life insurance" would not have been my first guess.  But according to Wikipedia, he initially became President of the Carolina Life Insurance Company before, amazingly, being re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1875.  He was barred from  taking that office, apparently, but I wonder whether, if he had been allowed, he would've strode down the aisle of the Senate apologizing to everyone ("sorry... sorry... terribly sorry.... won't happen again...") or triumphantly, with purpose and head held high ("Don't Call It A Comeback!"). 

The Biggest Drinkers In The World... Are in Chad?

"When abstainers are excluded the national averages look extremely different," reads THIS new article in The Economist. "By this measure, it is in Africa, Asia and even the Middle East where actual drinkers quaff the most. In Chad almost nine in ten adults abstain, yet its 780,000 drinkers put away almost 34 litres of alcohol each. On the usual ranking, it would come 115th out of 190 countries. France drinks a lot, but because it has one of the lowest rate of abstainers at just 5%, it ranks 113th compared with 20th."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Santa Maria Found, "Pinta" Means What!?!

We're all familiar with the phrase,"the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria." Now comes news that one of those three ships famously on Christopher Columbus' first voyage to The New World, the Santa Maria, has been found by underwater archaeologists off the northern coast of Haiti (where it drifted and wrecked -with Columbus aboard- in almost slapstick fashion, just weeks after making initial landfall in the Bahamas).

As an aside, "La Nina" and "La Pinta" were not actually those ships' real names. They were nicknames.  "La Pinta" means "the painted" in Spanish, and at the time was apparently sailor slang for "prostitute."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Aborted "Thundarr" Video Game

I loved the cartoon "Thundarr the Barbarian" (1980-1982) as a kid, and wrote HERE previously about the proposed "Thundarr" toy line that was abandoned when the TV show was cancelled and the toy company went bankrupt. 

Today I learned of another, similar casualty. Apparently a "Thundarr the Barbarian" video game was developed in the early 1980s for Atari and for ColecoVision. You can view the original, full color press release for the game, including box art and a screen grab HERE.  But this may've been a blessing.  The game was apparently canceled after the licensor, the animation company Ruby-Spears, determined that it was not of sufficient quality.  But you can judge that for yourself, as it turns out. The game was released in 1984 anyway, under the revised title, "Tomarc the Barbarian," and here is a 4 minute clip of it:

Godzilla: Why 1978?

The new "Godzilla" film that will be released later this week got me reflecting on how I became familiar with "Godzilla" as a kid in the 1970s. Of course, the old B&W movies from Japan were shown regularly on TV on Saturday afternoons back then.  But I mostly knew Godzilla from this 1978 toy and from this 1978 cartoon.

Why was Godzilla suddenly revived in America in 1978 (seemingly out of the blue), I wondered?  (Marvel also published a Godzilla comic book at the time, and a set of "Godzilla" View-Master reels were released that year, too.) I couldn't find a single, definitive answer to that.  But it may've been linked to a proposed 1978 re-make of the original 1954 film that was to have been titled "King of Monsters: Rebirth of Godzilla."  You can read more about it on the Toho website HERE. ("But for whatever reason the project never came to pass.")

Why Name Hurricanes? And How?

This morning I stumbled on a reference to the fact that, back on this date back in 1978 apparently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that they would no longer exclusively name hurricanes after women.  That got me wondering: why name hurricanes at all, and when did that practice start? 

Conveniently, the NOAA website has a page HERE with all the answers. "Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods. These advantages are especially important in exchanging detailed storm information between hundreds of widely scattered stations, coastal bases, and ships at sea."

Fair enough.  That's actually a much more cogent, reasonable explanation than I was expecting.

"For several hundred years many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint's day on which the hurricane occurred... Tannehill also tells of Clement Wragge, an Australian meteorologist who began giving women's names to tropical storms before the end of the 19th century... During World War II this practice became widespread in weather map discussions among forecasters, especially Army and Navy meteorologists who plotted the movements of storms over the wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean."

And just how are names selected?

"The NHC does not control the naming of tropical storms. Instead a strict procedure has been established by an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization... For Atlantic hurricanes, there is a list of names for each of six years. In other words, one list is repeated every seventh year."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Other NRA

This morning I read several references to the upcoming  "NRA Show 2014" next weekend, and automatically assumed that referred to the National Rifle Association. But it turns out that there's another NRA, too: the National Restaurant Association.

I'd never heard of that NRA before. Its website ( states that it is based in Washington, D.C., suggesting that its primary function is government lobbying. (According to Wikipedia, it has fought successfully across the country to block efforts to raise the minimum wage. It also apparently opposes legislation that would lower the Blood Alcohol Content threshold for Driving Under the Influence.)

How does it do that?  The primary vehicle appears to be Restaurant PAC ("Sound public policy begins by supporting and electing candidates to federal office who understand the restaurant industry...")

The NRA has actually been around for almost 100 years, apparently.   I laughed when I read on their History page that one of their slogans in the 1930s was, "Take Her Out to Dinner at Least Once a Week."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A "Hands Off" Approach To Open Defecators With iPhones

I'm fascinated by diplomatic euphemisms.  "Open defecators" is the newest one to me, a term referring to "pooping in public," a practice which apparently remains stubbornly common in some parts of the world, and which is a major public health hazard because of the impact on drinking water. I read about it just now in THIS New York Post article, and was intrigued by many of the collateral revelations, including:
1.   "Attempts to improve sanitation among the poorest have long focused on building latrines, but the United Nations says that money literally went down the toilet. Attitudes, not infrastructure, need to change, it said. 'In all honesty the results have been abysmal,' said Rolf Luyendijk, a statistician at the U.N.’s children’s fund UNICEF. 'There are so many latrines that have been abandoned, or were not used, or got used as storage sheds. We may think it’s a good idea but if people are not convinced that it’s a good idea to use a latrine, they have an extra room.'"

2.  "Many countries have made great progress in tackling open defecation, with Vietnam and Bangladesh – where more than one in three people relieved themselves in the open in 1990 – virtually stamping out the practice entirely by 2012."

3.  "The country with the largest number of public defecators is India, which has 600 million. India’s relatively 'hands off' approach has long been at odds with the more successful strategy of neighbouring Bangladesh."

4.   “'What is shocking in India is this picture of someone practising open defecation and in the other hand having a mobile phone,' said Maria Neira, director of Public Health at the WHO."

Mother's Day Remorse (Motherlover)

The founder of Mother's Day (it's this weekend) later came to loathe it, as I explained a few years ago HERE.  She died penniless and alone in an asylum in 1948, at the age of 84.

The irony of that brought to mind one of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches from a few years ago. "Because every Mother's Day needs a Mother's Night," here's the song 'Motherlover' featuring Justin Timberlake and Susan Sarandon.

17 of 189

A new Nielsen report reveals that the average American household gets 189 TV channels today, up 45% from the 129 they received in 2008, but that consumers each watch an average of only 17 channels each, a number unchanged since 2008. 

You can read more on NBC News HERE.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Not CSI, But HSI

Last night the US government agency that tracks stolen artwork, dinosaur bones, Egyptian mummies, and other antiquities and valuables trafficked illegally around the world was profiled in this segment from the CBS Evening News. ("HSI" is shorthand for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division.)

HomeTown Buffet To Crematorium

Does it say anything about the food at HomeTown Buffet ("9.99 for Dinner!") that a developer has applied to transform a defunct one into a funeral home and crematory that serves alcohol?  You can read more in the local newspaper HERE.

In case you haven't seen HomeTown Buffet's ubiquitous TV commercials, here's one:

Revelations About Europe's (Damned) Counterfeit Capital

"According to the ECB, since the euro was introduced in January 2002, more than half of the six-million-plus fakes withdrawn from circulation (well over 300 million euros worth) can be traced back to the clandestine print shops located in and around Giugliano, [Italy]."

"For as long as the 100,000 or so residents of Giugliano can remember, the town has been in the iron grip of the Camorra, the violent organised crime syndicate... The Mallardos also cornered a rewarding piece of the action in the hugely lucrative 'eco-mafia' racket that has seen millions of tons of highly toxic industrial waste trucked in from factories in northern Italy and illegally dumped on farmlands around Naples. One of Italy’s most fertile agricultural regions, whose beauty and serenity had entranced Goethe, was heavily contaminated by a devil’s cocktail of dioxins, asbestos, and lead and caustic solvents...  Giugliano was already at the centre of what the Italian media dubbed 'Il triangolo della morte'—the triangle of death. Rates of cancer, infant mortality and autism are now running far above the national average."

You can read more in Newsweek HERE

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

RIP Red Lobster - Olive Garden Hybrids, Like Tears In Rain

You've probably seen from time-to-time those odd-looking 'combination' restaurants. The one I've seen most frequently is a combined KFC-Taco Bell (both owned by Yum! Brands).  Darden Restaurant group announced today that it will be closing all of its combination Olive Garden-Red Lobster restaurants in light of its plan to spin off Red Lobster.

THIS article today about the closings in the Orlando Sentinel (Darden is headquartered in Orlando) answered several interesting questions raised by this news.   Why are these bizarre combination restaurants built in the first place?  Is it hoped that customers may order food from both?  No.  It's for efficiency, apparently. The Olive Garden and Red Lobster shared a single kitchen in these combination restaurants, and then had separate dining rooms and separate entrances. (The fact that the Italian food at Olive Garden and seafood at Red Lobster could be prepared seamlessly in the same kitchen says a lot, I think, about the cuisine at each.)

What happens when one of these bizarre hybrid restaurants is closed?  The more successful of the two takes over the entire thing, apparently.  These hybrids will all be converted into larger Olive Gardens.  How long does that take?  A mere two weeks.  (And the existing Olive Garden halves will remain open for business the entire time.)

These hybrid Red Lobster-Olive Garden  restaurants were first launched less than three years ago.  A 3 minute segment from CNN Money about them from September 2012, which includes a bullish interview with Darden's CEO, Clarence Otis, has been posted on You Tube HERE.

"All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Is "Star Wars Day" On May 4th?

Yesterday was "Star Wars Day" apparently, an occasion that passed me by.

When I saw a reference to it online just now, I wondered what significance May 4th has for Star Wars fans. A quick search revealed that apparently the date was chosen because it would result in a pun on "May the Force be with you" (i.e. "May the Fourth be with you").


This video made me laugh. I'm not sure whether that's despite, or because of, that pun.

The History of the Chimichanga

I wrote HERE a few years ago about how Cinco de Mayo is not "Mexican Independence Day" (that's September 16th) but rather a celebration of a short lived, strategically insignificant victory by Mexican forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 over the French, who'd invaded Mexico over unpaid debts. Perhaps that's why Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico.

In that spirit, I decided to look into the history of the chimichanga this morning, on Cinco de Mayo 2014. The origins of the deep fried burrito are murky, according to THIS OC Weekly article. Though there's apparently general agreement that it first appeared on the Arizona-Sonora border, the name itself has no linguistic roots in Spanish.  (Apparently "chimi" means nothing by itself, and "changa" is a female monkey in Mexican Spanish.)  A Tucson, Arizona restaurant claims to've invented it in 1922, and another one in Phoenix claims to've made the first one in 1946.

You may enjoy this official music video for the song "Chimichanga" by Los Quintero de Sinaloa.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Some Historical Perspective On Donald Sterling

On this date back in 1948, the Unites States Supreme Court ruled that covenants prohibiting the sale of real estate to minorities were legally unenforceable.  It may be hard to imagine for some of us that just 65 years ago this was an open legal question requiring a ruling of the Supreme Court. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers now notorious for his racist remarks and alleged housing discrimination in his real estate business, was already 16 years old at the time.

Three Words That Should Never Be Together

Maybe I'm just superstitious. But I feel like there are some words that should never, ever be put together, because, if they ever were, the mere speaking of them, like a sorcerer's incantation, might unwittingly unleash hellish demons or cosmic terrors on the Earth.

It's in that spirit that I encourage you never to speak this phrase aloud: Arby's Artisinal Melts.

And in that same vein, I beg you not to even move your lips while reading this phrase: How To Eat Vegan At Red Lobster.

Test: Are You The Type of Guy?

Here's another test for you.  There are two types of people in the world: those who will eagerly click HERE to view a new photo of Heidi Klum in a bikini eating a Bomb Pop popsicle, and those who couldn't care less.

"Your Couscous Is To Die For!"

"A husband tortured then killed his wife — because she 'did not know how to cook couscous,'" according to THIS story today in the New York Daily News.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kim Philby: New BBC Four Documentary

If you recognize the name "Kim Philby" as one of the most infamous spies of the 20th Century then you may want to watch this recent BBC Four documentary about him.

While it surveys Philby's entire career, a primary focus is on his little-discussed time in exile in Beruit (having resigned from MI6 under a cloud) from 1956 until his sensational defection to Moscow in 1963.  This absorbing  program features interviews with many contemporaries who knew Philby personally (now at the end of their own lives), as well as the aging authors of the most prominent books ever written about Philby, including Philip Knightly (who describes the circumstances of his unique interviews with Philby in Moscow).

Even if you've never heard the name "Kim Philby," you may also enjoy this as a portrait of a time when a falling-down-drunk alcoholic with a pronounced stutter (from the right school and family, of course), could drink, philander, lie, and betray his way through a charmed life in the British secret service. At least for a while.

Taco Bell Asks Rhetorically, "What's The Deal With Soy Lecithin?"

You might remember that back in January 2011 a class action lawsuit was filed against Taco Bell alleging that its taco meat was actually only 36% beef, with the rest consisting of, "extenders and other non-meat substances." I wrote HERE when the suit was quietly dropped a few months later.

Well, a new suit on behalf of a single customer in California is now making a claim of false advertising on similar grounds, and is seeking to have a court compel Taco Bell to stop using the term "beef," and instead change to "taco meat filling."  Taco Bell is responding proactively, as detailed in the ABC News piece below. It includes an on-camera interview with the President of Taco Bell, who insists that their meat is 88% beef.

Taco Bell has also now added THIS page to its website asserting that, "Our seasoned beef recipe consists of 88% Premium Beef and 12% Signature Recipe." The page goes on to explain in some detail what the other 12% consists of, with friendly titles like, "What's the deal with Soy Lecithin?" and "Why Trehalose?"

ABC US News | ABC Business News