Execution Before Exoneration

bafunguA grade-school riddle went like this: Where does seven come before six? Answer: In the dictionary. The same riddle could be altered to ask when execution comes before exoneration, but the real answer to that unfunny joke is the United States of America.

OK – That may be an overstatement, but the continual discovery of men on death row who did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced suggests that many innocent people have or will be snuffed out by order of the state. With more than 3,100 people on death row in the U.S., it is not hard to imagine several dozen innocents (a couple percent) rotting away at enormous financial cost. The only things working in favor of innocent inmates are the sluggish nature of executions in the U.S. (California, which leads the nation with 726 death row members has executed a whopping 13 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978), and the indefatigable exoneration efforts by various “Innocent Projects” established at universities and within non-profit organizations in states where capital punishment remains on the books.

September 3rd brought to an end some more unjustified death row imprisonments when two black guys in North Carolina – Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, both of whom spent the last 30 years awaiting a stroll down the green mile from the time they were teenagers – were released after it was confirmed by DNA evidence that they had not committed the heinous crime for which they were incarcerated. The evidence incriminated another man who lived near the scene of the crime: Roscoe Artis who is now serving a life sentence for committing a similar crime to the one ascribed to McCollum and Brown. How Artis escaped while McCollum and Brown got snagged is a sordid tale of police coercion, crappy investigation and slipshod representation. The fact that the two suspects initially “confessed” obviously didn’t help their case, but as is becoming clearer, many bogus confessions are proffered under duress. It would not surprise me if dozens of death-row (and regular-row) inmates are sitting in cells today because they mumbled “yes” after being deprived of sleep, food, water and a lawyer for hours or days on end.

In February 1994, then-Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, apparently uncomfortable with capital punishment in the U.S. wrote an opinion stating that the death penalty as currently administered is contrary to the Constitution of the United States. Not one to sit back and stare at heresy, Justice Antonin Scalia responded with a stern defense of the status quo.

Returning to McCollum and Brown: the pair were accused of murdering 11-year-old Sabrina Buie whose raped and beaten body was found in a soybean field. This was a crime so heinous that Scalia cited it in his contrarian blast at Blackmun the liberal pussy. Scalia wrote, “The death by injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable . . . It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional–for example, the case of the 11-year old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.”

I wonder what Scalia would say today had the two falsely-convicted men gotten the needle before their exoneration became official. My guess: not a fucking thing. Instead he probably has his clerks off right now combing the files for a new death row case to substitute in for the now-debunked illustration of depravity. No doubt there are hundreds – let’s hope for his sake that he doesn’t land on another embarrassing example of U.S. jurisprudence gone off the rails.

(Sidebar: for more hilarity on this light-hearted subject, check out this recent article in Business Insider titled “Justice Scalia Says Executing The Innocent Doesn’t Violate The Constitution.” Even if by Scalia’s tortured logic this is technically true, shame on someone.)

RIP Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers died the other day at age 81 of complications during a “routine” throat procedure. To her credit, she didn’t look a day over 30 – for a cat, which after several facial procedures she began to resemble.

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I think one of her more edgy, acerbic remarks captures much of the snark you’d expect to read in the obits and “in memoriams” to come: Just days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Joan supposedly called an acquaintance and suggested meeting for lunch at Windows on the Ground.

It brings a wry smile today, but at the time it bordered on bad taste. But that’s humor. After all, didn’t at least a dozen famous people claim credit for saying “Comedy is tragedy plus time?”

Joan had a lot of time and tragedy to work with. Shortly after her husband Edgar Rosenberg killed himself, Joan had dinner at Spago, an LA hot spot, with her daughter Melissa. Presumably offended by the exorbitant prices on the menu, Joan reportedly said to Melissa, “If Daddy were here and saw these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.” Tasteless and funny? Hell yeah.

Countless female comedians (far removed from the time they were called “comediennes”) owe their careers to Joan Rivers – Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Kathie Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli.

And thanks to Joan they all may now say “cunt” without fear of retribution. RIP.

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It’s Titanic in the Sky – Oh, the Humanity!

mejgFNn3RFRHeZF5wisR1yAWerner Franz, the last surviving crew member of the ill-fated German dirigible Hindenberg died a couple weeks ago. Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy working in a lower deck of the dirigible who managed to kick open a hatch Indiana-Jones style and jump a few meters to the ground just before the flaming aircraft touched down.

Dead at 92, Franz was not quite as old as the fictional Rose Bukater, star of the movie “Titanic” when she was introduced to the world on a thousand silver screens. Like Werner, Rose was a disaster survivor. Her story of the sinking of the Titanic was told in real time (by actress Gloria Stuart) and in flashback (by Kate Wislet). It was a story of forbidden love no doubt inspired like countless others by “Romeo and Juliet,” set upon the stage of the most famous nautical disaster of all time, presented by a director-technician, James Cameron, who sought to ground his movie with scientifically-based facts culled from his personal under-water investigations of RMS Titanic’s final resting spot. The movie went on to win 11 Oscars including Best Picture and amass three-quarters of a billion dollars at the box office.

In some ways the fate of the Hindenberg mirrors that of the much more deadly disaster that befell the Titanic, an elite ocean liner that sank to an icy grave on its maiden voyage in 1912. Each vessel was a form of transport built for the upper classes who demanded a civilized way to cross the Atlantic from old Europe to the modern, future-facing United States.

Decades ago, in early May of 1937, the Hindenberg – pride of Germany and of the upwardly mobile Nazi party – disintegrated in Lakehurst, NJ in a famously-photographed hydrogen-fueled conflagration. The huge, phallic-shaped floating Zeppelin, which at 800 feet long was more than three times the length of a Boeing 747, collapsed slowly like an empty gift box tossed into the fireplace on Christmas morning. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers on board died, as well as one unlucky bastard on the ground. (Although it might seem inevitable that a huge tube filled with flammable hydrogen would succumb to an errant spark or inconvenient lightning bolt, in fact the Hindenberg flew 62 uneventful trips before exploding ignominiously near its earthbound tether.)

Unlike the Titanic however which was feted in an Oscar-scarfing movie driven by the lusty narrative recalled by nonagenarian Rose, the Hindenberg was the subject a mediocre thriller film that hit the screens in 1975. It’s received a grade of 40 percent on Rottentomatoes.com.

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Given the dramatic opportunity to develop a romantic plot between a lowly occupant of the doomed Hindenberg and a famous passenger, their desire to fall in love thwarted by evil fascist antagonists, the producers of “The Hindenberg” settled instead on a run-of-the-mill story of intrigue that blames the explosion on sabotage perpetrated by a disgruntled Nazi. The cast is actually quite impressive: George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning and Gig Young. But the movie proceeds like an obvious game of Clue, introducing several characters designed to be suspects who are transparently not suspects, and ending with an unlikely twist in which the agent charged with protecting the Hindenberg decides to abet the perpetrator. Too bad.

With the passing of Werner Franz, perhaps some renewed interest in making a more fitting film with the doomed Hindenberg as the backdrop will kindle among Hollywood’s writers and producers.

The pitch? It’s Titanic in the sky – oh, the humanity. Look for it in 2017 on the 80th anniversary.

(Sidebar: A TV docudrama that came out in 2007 is called Hindenberg: Titanic of the Skies. As one reviewer noted: “An overlong rather bland production with no surprises except one fine performance.”)

Should it be Called Twit.tv?

Last week I took issue with the market valuation of Snapchat, a company that peddles a smart-phone app allowing users to send temporarily-viewable content (photos, videos, drawings, etc.) to other users. Supposedly the content is deleted permanently after a few seconds of viewing, but the variety of ways to circumvent the primary value of Snapchat would seem to render the app – and by extension the company that produces it – largely useless.

Days later Amazon announced its intention to purchase for the fat sum of a billion dollars a company called Twitch.tv that offers viewers an app to watch other people playing video games. Twitch reports 55 million subscribers watch the mesmerizing virtual action each month. Just when you thought the further devolution of the human race had tapered off, Amazon discovers a vast underserved subspecies whose slothfulness surpasses all previously recognized levels.

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Will Twitch become over time another useless app. Probably not; there would seem to be possibilities for extending the service to other applications. But the concept that a billion-dollar business could be built upon the proposition that people want to watch others play a virtual game is sad if not mind-boggling.

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Now You See it, Now You . . . Still See it?

SadchatAlmost a year ago Facebook offered $3 billion for Snapchat, a tiny company that had made almost no money since its founding in 2011 – and in typical hubristic Silicon Valley style, Snapchat’s founders told Facebook to fuck off. Now, based on an investment by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the so-called “Street” values the upstart company at a whopping $10 billion. Who couldn’t feel a bit sad to think that a company that offers an app for sending photos that self-destruct after 10 seconds is worth more than Nikon, or Kodak, or both together?

The Snapchat app was developed to enable users to send content (photos, videos, text, drawings) that would have an ephemeral lifespan – presumably addressing a pressing requirement of people seeking to shock, titillate or offend someone else without leaving an embarrassing trail. The market for such a tool is large, as Snapchat boasts that its subscribers are sending about 700 million “snaps” a day.

Apparently those fecund Snapchat users operate in blissful ignorance, because anyone with half an imagination can see how the promise of temporariness cannot fundamentally be guaranteed. Recipients of “snaps” must keep their finger on the touchscreen while viewing the content which hinders their ability to take a screenshot. But if the recipient takes a screenshot anyway, the only protection for the sender is to receive a handy note from the Snapchat app announcing that the video of his girlfriend in the shower has been captured. But forget all that. As anyone can plainly understand, the recipient of a snap can easily take a picture of the “temporarily visible” picture against the wishes and expectations of the sender.

Such a breach befell a Brooklyn high school teacher in East Flatbush in June. It seems that 44-year-old science and math teacher Sean Shaynak sent a “snap” of his Johnson to a 16 year old female student – presumably relaxed in the confidence of knowing his lascivious photo would soon and forever be expunged from the universe, courtesy of Snapchat, leaving behind not a scintilla of evidence. Unless of course the student took a picture of the snap which she most surely did. Because Shaynak trusted the word of the $10 billion company, he faces up to seven years in prison.

Which begs the question: how can a company whose sole value proposition can be sidestepped with ease be worth even a million bucks, let alone ten thousand times as much? I say it can’t be.

In addition to offering a specious product, Snapchat has also been a conduit for “snap spam” consisting of bullshit weight-loss ads and bogus contests, and for child pornography. And this past May they were the dubious recipient of a lowly, one-star rating from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that ranks internet companies on how they respond to government data requests. More stars are rewarded to those that rigorously guard user data. Basically, with one star to its name, Snapchat can be expected to bend over to every government request for users’ personal data, which could be voluminous, and in many cases embarrassing at least and possibly incriminating.

Soon enough, the founders and investors in Snapchat – like their cohorts at Groupon – will rue the day they turned down Facebook’s generous offer.

Pitfalls and Prodigies

A couple weeks ago the world was captivated by the performance of 13-year-old Mo’Ne Davis in the Little League World Series, one of a just a handful of girls who have played in the contest, and the first to pitch a shut-out. Then yesterday at the US Open Tennis tournament, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis became the youngest player since 1996 to win a match there, defeating 12th seeded Dominika Cibulkova in three sets. All of this is good for the games’ sponsors and the networks that broadcast the events (ESPN reported record-breaking viewership for Davis’s final game.) But is it good for the youngsters?

Based on what I’ve seen and read, I would say yes in these particular cases. Both young women seem to have poise beyond their years, and supportive families. But too often the urge to move the kids along the fast track to fame and fortune ruins it. Parents become greedy, professional handlers interfere, trainers get aggressive.

Consider Michelle Wie, the golf phenom who debuted in 2000 when at ten years old she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. A few years later in 2003, she became the youngest player to make an LPGA cut, and then later that year she became the youngest to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. The tall, big-hitting Wie was on such a tear that in 2004 she got a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Sony Open – a men’s tournament on the PGA rotation. Although she missed the cut, she shot a 68 on day two, the lowest ever carded for a woman in a men’s event.

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From there, it seemed Michelle Wie could go anywhere, and no doubt pressed by parents and advisers, turned pro just before turning 16. Hell – she was touted as the female Tiger Woods. Then in what seemed to me to be an attempt to make some kind of statement, Wie got one sponsor exemption after another to play in men’s tournaments. Unfortunately, despite her tremendous talent and skill, the experience was humbling. She missed cuts by wide margins and I suspect her confidence suffered. Soon, Wie was in a slump, unable to perform well even when playing against other women. No doubt the low point came in 2007 when she withdrew from the LPGA Ginn Tribute tournament citing a wrist injury – oh, and she happened to be 14 over par after 16 holes at that moment. The move was controversial because had she played the final two holes she may have put up a score that would have disqualified her from playing in LPGA contests the rest of the year.

Today, Michelle Wie has recovered her game and is a solid, mature player sticking to the LPGA – but in the intervening period her performances seemed more like a sideshow spectacle, which certainly set her back. The pressure on her to beat the men must have been tremendous.

The fate of childhood stars often turns out grim after a certain age (think Danny Bonaduce); let’s hope Mo’Ne Davis and the other talented kids coming up through the ranks get a chance to enjoy the game before middle-career cynicism sets in.

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The Savage Wiener on Ebola

ebola savA couple weeks ago on a drive out of New York City, knowing that the fast-moving but densely packed traffic could well be leading soon into a stopped up jam, I flipped on the AM radio for a status on road conditions. Tuned to WABC 770, the radio at this time of day began to spew forth the annoying voice of Michael Wiener aka. “Savage,” the right-wing personality who replaced the nearly-as-vile Sean Hannity in the 3-6:00 PM slot. The topic of Savage’s contempt this day? That a couple American health workers serving in West Africa were being transported back to the U.S. to receive treatment for Ebola.

Relying on his credentials in the field of nutritional ethnomedicine, Dr. Savage railed against the madness of importing the dangerous and often fatal Ebola disease into the United States. Savage argued that the preferred approach would have been to treat the two patients, Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol, in Africa – he mentioned Nigeria as a place of advanced medical capability – where facilities to manage the disease were more than adequate to handle it. I understand the visceral fear of allowing the virus entry into the U.S., even though the precautions taken in transporting the victims involved complete isolation of their infected bodies in protective gear out of “Gravity,” but the notion that African options for treatment were satisfactory seemed ill-conceived. Health workers in West Africa have been abandoning hospitals in droves leaving behind leaking corpses on the floors. That’s a far cry from the state of facilities at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) where Brantly and Writebol were sent. And even though Nigeria is not inundated (yet) by Ebola and the accompanying angst, might not the intrusion of Ebola patients there be met with fierce obstruction as well?

Also, since when did conservatives like Savage start getting bent out of shape over an exercise that demonstrates American “exceptionalism”? Or start seeking to interfere in an individual’s taking “personal responsibility” for his or her health? And don’t you think that if the U.S. government blocked the return of citizens – even (or especially) sick ones – that ranters like Savage would have a conniption fit over an “imperial” presidency?

Anyway, I listened to Savage’s arguments (and his constant reference to an article he wrote a day earlier titled “America’s Ebola response is ‘madness’” that appeared on the website WND Commentary) until he seamlessly connected the situation to a conspiracy fostered by Obama, the man who personally invited terrorists to cross into the American Southwest and who caused safety failures at the CDC. By the time Savage conflated the Ebola outbreak to Obamacare – regardless the merits of his argument that bringing the illness to America was madness – he lost my interest. I flipped to WCBS 880 just in time to catch “Traffic and Weather on the Eights.”

I waited to blog about the Savage Wiener to see what came of the two Ebola sufferers who had been likened to a more virulent Typhoid Mary. Did the disease jump the hospital walls? Did any doctors, nurses or other hospital personnel succumb? Did Al Qaeda breach the perimeter, lick the sick, and abscond with the killer virus? Well, now that the results are in we can say without fear of contradiction that Michael Savage is an asshole.

Both patients have recovered from the insidious disease, which was far from guaranteed had they stayed on the African continent as called for by Savage. And the opportunity to study Ebola up close in one of the world’s best hospital facilities – Emory University Hospital – no doubt provided researchers valuable insight that may lead to a vaccine or cure.

Dr. Bruce S. Ribner, the Emory infectious diseases specialist who coordinated the treatment of Brantly and Writebol said it was “the right decision” to bring the patients back to the U.S. to receive the superior care offered here, and because the lessons learned might lead to guidance in assisting doctors treating Ebola patients in the field – thereby one day obviating the need to bring sick people to the U.S. (and satisfying Savage in a roundabout way.)

Ribner added, “We cannot let our fears dictate our actions. We must all care.”

At that moment, trying to conceive the inconceivable notion of caring, the savage head of Michael Wiener exploded.

Thank the Lord they didn’t go with Travel + Leisure

A couple blogs ago I poked fun at a bunch of prudish mothers who were appalled to find an unwanted copy of “GQ” magazine in their mail – the gift of retailer Lands End. The noise from the mothers excoriating Lands End for exposing their tender adolescent sons to the sight of a scantily clad girl on the cover was strident, if not kind of funny.

Under pressure, Lands End CEO Edgar Huber admitted “a mistake” and announced the delivery of a replacement magazine – “Conde Nast Traveler.” I joked at the time about the possibility that “Conde Nast Traveler” might further expose the boys to sinful images should they do a feature on Bali.

Literally the next day I picked up September’s issue of “Travel + Leisure” in which the magazine did a spread on Africa, accompanied by a couple photos of topless young native girls ala old-time “National Geographic.”

Oh how I wish Lands End would have gone with “T+L” instead of “Conde Nast Traveler.” Just too delicious.

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The Lesson of Prime Numbers

graph3Prime numbers – those divisible by none other than themselves and 1 – have fascinated mathematicians going back millennia. For thousands of years mathematicians have labored – ciphering tedious, error-prone calculations deep into the oil-lamp-illuminated night for months on end prior to the invention of the electronic computer – to discover the next largest prime, and to produce methods for automatically generating them. Early on, many believed that the number of primes might be finite – after all, as numbers get bigger it would seem less and less likely that no smaller number could be found to divide them. Simply enumerating the primes illustrates that they quickly get further and further apart as they get bigger (of the 100 integers between 1 and 100, 25 are primes, but of the 100 integers between 10,000,001 and 10,000,100, just 2 are prime), so intuitively one might conclude that at some point there are no more to be found. That some number would represent the Mt. Everest of primes.

But as is so often the case with mathematics, intuition turns out to be wrong. Euclid is credited with the first proof of the infinity of prime numbers; later on others including Euler and Paul Erdős developed alternate methods. Whenever a new largest prime is discovered, necessarily accomplished today with computers, the hunt is on for the next one. And good luck with that – the largest prime currently known is a 17 million digit monster: 257,885,161 – 1.

The concept of infinity has long challenged rational thought. The notion that there is always one more “thing” – bigger and better – to be discovered can be hard to comprehend, at least until that “thing” arrives. After all, didn’t Charles Duell, Patent Office commissioner at the turn of the last century, and a man faced with a deluge of invention proposals, famously say, “Everything that can be invented has been invented”? (No, that’s an urban legend – but the statement captures the sentiment well.)

Getting back to mathematics, it might seem that after thousands of years of development and discovery in the field that humans could have logged everything that could be known about numbers. From simple arithmetic to algebra and trigonometry to calculus to group theory to topology and multidimensional spaces – the covered ground is expansive. Yet every four years brilliant mathematicians under the age of 40 receive the coveted Fields Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. Often considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal has recognized some truly ingenious and far-out work, all of which has stretched the boundaries beyond what had been thought impossible.

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I write about this because just last week, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to capture the Fields Medal which was first bestowed in 1936. Mirzakhani, a native born Iranian who teaches at Stanford specializes in the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces which she parlayed into an asymptotic formula to express the growth of the number of simple closed geodesics on a compact hyperbolic surface. In honoring Mirzakhani, the International Mathematical Union said of her findings, “It is astounding to find that the rigidity in homogeneous spaces has an echo in the inhomogeneous world of moduli space.”

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Maryam Mirzakhani explains it all for you.

OK, Mirzakhani’s work may seem a bit more esoteric than Aristotle’s fundamental pronouncement that “A is A,” and Pythagoras’s indispensable proof that a2 + b2 = c2.

But that’s how it works. The world today is dense with derivative ideas and plagued by a dearth of new ideas – not because people are necessarily lazy and stupid, but because so much fundamental work has already been established. Why do you think so many movies suck? Yet, it’s comforting to know that like the prime numbers there are always bigger ideas waiting to be discovered with a bit of dedication and imagination.

Coincidence or Cosmic Alignment?

Last Tuesday driving into a blazing sunset following a delightful meal at the Rhinecliff Hotel I approached the mile-plus-long cantilevered Rhinecliff Bridge that crosses the Hudson River as Rufus Wainwright’s pained song “Vicious World” started to play on my iThing.

Just then I smelled a dead skunk.

And yes, it was in the middle of the road.

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Puritans Get Their Panties in a Bunch

crucible“For an erection lasting more than four hours.” Every day on TV, in day-time and prime-time, on weekdays and weekends, this once-titillating phrase is uttered quite casually by an off-screen narrator in advertisements for Cialis, a “daily use” medication to assist men with “erectile disfunction” to get it up on a moment’s notice. (They should have called it Boing!)

In 2014, it is not only common, but impossible not to hear and see a tumult of references to sex, sexy people, sexual activity and sex, and more sex. What would have appalled uptight parents, teachers and clergy in 1950s, and perhaps drawn censorious condemnation from government officials, is now commonly displayed on billboards, the sides of buses, in movies, and yes, even magazine covers. In a world in which the Discovery Channel airs a survivor-like reality show where intrepid contestants are dropped naked into a jungle and followed around by a camera crew; where cartoon kids from a place called “South Park” frequently spout “goddam it” and call each other “assholes”; where grocery stores offer “Cosmopolitan” magazine at child-eye-level with its cover advice on “75 sex moves men crave” – is it possible that modern mothers can still get outraged over a picture of a scantily-clad woman?

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This Calvin Klein ad caused innumerable cases of angina in the 1980s.

Apparently so. Recently Land’s End, the purveyor of white, middle-class preppy clothing, luggage, and home furnishings, offered its customers a complimentary copy of the July issue of GQ magazine – and from the immediate outrage it stirred up, you’d have thought Lands End sent out DVDs of “Deep Throat.” In fact, the cover of GQ features nothing more than actress Emily Ratajkowski wearing a Hawaiian lei over otherwise (shame!) bare breasts.

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Here are some of the complaints registered with Lands End, whose CEO Edgar Huber quickly kowtowed by admitting “a mistake” and announcing the delivery of a replacement magazine – “Conde Nast Traveler” (let’s hope they’re not doing a cover feature on Bali this month.)

“My 14-year-old son brought in the mail today & was quite disturbed & fascinated by a ‘gift’ Lands’ End sent us — a copy of GQ magazine with an absolutely OBSCENE cover!!!”

“I am appalled that Lands’ End — which I have always thought of as a ‘wholesome,’ family- oriented company — would be the one to expose my son to pornography!”

“We received your ‘Lands’ End Bonus’ of GQ magazine this weekend, and we are absolutely horrified. How can buying something as family friendly as school uniforms lead to soft porn in the mailbox? I’m thankful my son did not bring in the mail.”

“I ordered Christian private school children’s uniforms from your company and you sold my home address to a magazine company that peddles in soft porn for men???”

(Although I didn’t read all the complaints, I noticed that none of the outraged mothers were concerned for their daughters. Only adolescent sons appeared to be in mortal danger of spying the cover.)

Do these mothers not realize their sons have already been masturbating to internet porn for three or four years? And that they’ve been sexting with friends since they received their first smart phone? And that they’re probably close to surpassing their Puritan parents in the number of times they have sex each week?

Memo to Lands End: given the nature of your customer base, consider adding chastity belts to this year’s school uniform collection.

Speaking of Cialis

The guys in the Cialis ad aren’t having trouble getting laid because of E.D. – they can’t get laid because they’re downright creepy. The way they awkwardly close in on their wives and girlfriends at odd moments indicates latent perversity at best. The worst is the fellow with the thin grin who just finished tennis doubles and makes a clumsy move to plant a sweaty kiss on his partner. Damn yuk.

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In real life, for these two to consummate, the pill in question wouldn’t be Cialis . . . and it wouldn’t be taken by the man.

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La Commedia è Finita!

Robin-Williams.-006Immediately following the report that Robin Williams killed himself, the news and entertainment media launched into the predictable frenzy of non-stop coverage that by law must include speculation from psychologists, staid reports bereft of content from law enforcement officials, interviews with shocked colleagues, loops and clips of the actor’s antics, and reminiscences from “friends,” most of whom bear tenuous relationships with the deceased. The most common theme was the incongruity of a frenetic, eternally child-like comic who seemed to find joy in making people laugh, and suicide. News people placed heavy emphasis on Williams’s role as TV alien “Mork” and his histrionics alongside fellow comedians Billy Crystal and Whoopie Goldberg.

Whenever Williams’s screen acting career was discussed it was largely to recall such comedies as “The Birdcage” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as his vocal work on “Aladdin” and “Happy Feet.” Although reports mentioned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the serious drama “Good Will Hunting,” most of the coverage served to highlight Williams’s career as a comic. Perhaps in doing so the networks were amplifying their preferred story of the sad clown Pagliaccio.

As the reports progressed, I wondered if anyone would mention Williams’s treacly performance in the stomach-wrenching “Patch Adams,” or his take on Peter Pan in Spielberg’s “Hook,” which one critic called “weirdly creepy when it’s not being bombastically boring.” The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that Robin Williams was much more effective (on screen at least) not in comedies but in serious dramas and thrillers. To test my theory, I mapped movies starring Robin Williams on a grid that compared genre to the associated Tomatometer rating published by Rotten Tomatoes , an amalgam of reviews by several critics.

As shown, there is a cluster of good movies in the upper right corner which represent a good deal of his career in serious films. Paradoxically, most of the bottom feeders are comedies in the lower left.

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Undoubtedly a comic genius, more sober news coverage has clarified the extent to which Robin Williams was also a tortured soul. By hanging himself in his closet, perhaps Robin Williams was exclaiming like Pagliaccio in Leoncavallo’s famous opera – “La commedia è finita!”

RIP Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall died the other day at age 89. Her obituary in the New York Times started on the front page with a classic photo of her with husband Humphrey Bogart, and continued inside with a full page treatment. A well-deserved tribute to a stunning actress who harkened back to a Hollywood era that long ago ceased to exist. My only complaint was that the obituary didn’t mention one of her last roles – as herself – in an episode of “The Sopranos.”

Mobster Chris Moltisanti wants to get into the movie business and heads to Hollywood in search of a name actor to attach to his splatter movie. He and another Mafioso snag a brief meeting with Ben Kingsley who is clearly confused and a bit annoyed to be in the company of cheese. Lauren Bacall walks by and Ben jumps up to pay homage – as well as to escape the meeting. Later, frustrated by the Kingsley blow-off and disillusioned with the clubby, insider nature of Hollywood that treats him like the amateur he is, Chris seeks revenge. He stakes out Lauren Bacall as she leaves a party with a huge bag of swag. He makes a grab for the swag, but Lauren resists as you would expect her to – until Chris socks her in the jaw and makes off with the loot.

Distressed and sitting on the pavement, attended to by her assistant and a limo driver, Lauren exclaims, “Jesus, my fucking arm!”

Perfect.

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Holy Toledo!

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Every day is like St. Paddy’s Day in Toledo.

Call it the stoplight syndrome. Only after a pedestrian is crushed to death at a notoriously dangerous intersection do the authorities decide to install a stoplight. Prior to death, hand-wringing in the form of traffic studies and cost-benefit analysis serves as a substitute for resolute action.

Last week the city of Toledo, Ohio – a place of 400,000 inhabitants – shut down the water supply. Yeah, you can wash your car or flush your toilet, but don’t drink it, give it to pets, or let your thirsty children bathe in it. And for god’s sake, don’t boil it – the toxicity will only redouble with the release of every molecule of gaseous H2O. How did such a plight befall the hapless denizens of Ohio’s number 4 city? Time for a new stoplight.

Toledo, like many cities and towns along the shores of Lake Erie draws drinking water from the shallowest of the five Great Lakes which together are the source of 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water and 54 percent of the world’s liquid fresh water by volume. Soon these precious lakes could also become the reason why so many people who blithely abandoned the “Rust Belt” for the low-tax, business-friendly, provider of cheap housing (but ultimately parched) “Sun Belt” will return tail-between-legs to the once-forsaken land that now offers something Texas, Arizona and increasingly, California can’t – reliable access to potable water.

But not so fast. While 11 million U.S. citizens who live near the shores of Lake Erie depend on it for drinking water, recreation and commerce, a tiny fraction of rural folk far from the water’s edge who are supported legislatively by a sympathetic yet clueless Congress which in turn is backed financially by special interest groups with deep pockets like the Fertilizer Institute are pouring tons of chemicals into the watershed that eventually drains into the vulnerable lake. For the benefit of some farmers tilling in the Ohio interior – most likely growing soybeans or corn, much of which will be refined into unnecessary ethanol – a vast society along the water’s edge must suffer the poisons and stench of the downstream effects. What happened in and around Toledo was the formation of an algae bloom covering dozens of square miles of Lake Erie surface that produced sufficient levels of toxins to force the city to shut down its water system. Hundreds of thousands of residents, no longer able to rely on the convenience of indoor plumbing, were forced to seek bottled water wherever they could find any. Naturally, the government had to pick up the slack at taxpayer expense which presumably did not offend Tea Party activists in Ohio this particular time.

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Illiteracy on the Fertilizer Institute website.

Nearly a half-century ago I recall the slow but inexorable demise of Lake Erie at the hands of industrialists like paper producer Hammermill and coal-sucking energy producer PennElec. These and other rapists of the land used Lake Erie as a dumping ground for toxic waste, oxygen-snuffing chemicals, and hot effluence that seduced fish to their deaths. Through the mid-1960s my family’s cottage on the shore of Lake Erie in Millcreek Township was a bucolic, summertime-only oasis where we enjoyed water-skiing, built Teutonic bonfires, shot off fireworks, and swam, and swam, and swam. That is until the death-blooms of bloated, silvery fish corpses polluted the surf, and thick, smelly ropes of seaweed overtook the shoreline.

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Wanna buy some beach front property?

My grandmother dumped the property in the late 60s for a song, and died 20 years later just as Lake Erie started to come back and the value of the cottage soared to a figure 10x what she sold for. Hammermill went out of business, PennElec moved on to cleaner fuels, laws went into effect limiting the use of phosphate-based products. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie quickly washed away the detritus and revived.

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Hammermill dumps paper-making waste into the lake.

Now the Lake faces another challenge – this time from farmers who use cost-efficient fertilizers that easily wash away, but because they cost so little to implement the surface loss does not concern the farmers. Will the forces of agriculture prevail? I would bet against it – water is thicker than beef – but the special interests will fight hard to retain their hegemony over the downstream victims.

Perhaps it’s time to pull out the old photos of the fire that raged years ago on the Cuyahoga River. Truly a demonstration of how bad things can get, and a warning not to venture further down the road to irreversible devastation.

River-on-Fire

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I Ain’t Got Time to Be a Human Being

ventura1Jesse Ventura possesses an unusual and varied resume. Born James Janos, Ventura was a member of a U.S. Navy underwater demolition team who went on to the World Wrestling Federation portraying a flamboyant, sexually-ambiguous professional wrestler nicknamed “The Body.” Despite his participation in the garish WWF circus – a role that might have disqualified him for elected office until you think about Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson and Sonny Bono – Ventura succeeded in becoming the governor of Minnesota. Ventura had a radio show, was the host of the television shows “Conspiracy Theory” and “Off the Grid,” and did some movies, most memorably playing a beefy commando-type named Blain in 1987’s “Predator” who declares after taking some shrapnel, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” Ventura used that instant cult line as the title of his book. Damn, the dude is an author too.

Now you can add douche-bag litigant to Jesse Ventura’s resume.

Just the other day, a jury in St. Paul, MN awarded Jesse a $1.8 million judgment against the estate of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL member, for defaming “The Body” in his book “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” Kyle claimed in his book that he encountered an unnamed former SEAL he called “scruff face” in a bar, and punched him out when “scruffy” made a disparaging remark to the effect that as the SEALs were conducting themselves poorly overseas, they “deserved to lose a few.” Although Kyle never mentioned the real name of the asshole in the bar, he later confirmed the person he wrote of was none other than super action hero, Jesse Ventura.

Ventura denies any of this took place and sued Kyle for defamation, but even as Kyle was murdered a while back and is therefore unavailable to defend himself, Ventura found it necessary to continue the litigation against his estate anyway. It therefore became the burden of Kyle’s widow and executrix of the estate, Taya, to defend against the charges.

Considering all the factors, it seems astounding that Ventura prevailed in court. First of all, the burden of proof in cases of libel and defamation against famous people is nigh unsurmountable. Once a person becomes a public figure, First Amendment protections for a tormentor kick in hard. Hell, Larry Flynt ran a cartoon in his “Hustler” magazine years ago portraying religious wing-nut Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued . . . and lost!

Secondly, Kyle says it happened, Ventura says no. Without any witnesses you might think the jury would lean toward finding for Kyle, given that he’s supposedly innocent until proven guilty, and this was a case of one man’s word against another. But there was a witness – and he backed up Kyle. At the trial, another SEAL veteran, Jeremiah Dinnell, testified he saw Kyle punch Ventura after the former governor said that “what we are doing overseas, we deserve to lose guys.” Dinnell stated he watched Ventura fall and get up again. Ok – two against one. Even better for Kyle’s estate.

Thirdly, Ventura has a long history of being outspoken on issues of government over-reach, so it should not come out of left field that he might take a dim view of America’s mis-adventures overseas. Examples of his positions include the beliefs that crime statistics are distorted to encourage racism, thet 2008 financial bailouts were conspiracy to keep fat cats in business, that banks and privately run prisons gets rich on the drug war, that the Bush administration knew 9/11 was coming, and that the TSA’s full-body scanners are unconstitutional. Regarding the scanners, Ventura sued the U.S. government, and after a judge threw him out, Jesse went on a rant, saying he would henceforth refer to the country as the Fascist States of America. “I will never stand for a national anthem again. I will turn my back and raise a fist the same way Tommy Smith and John Carlos did in the ’68 Olympics.” Does it stretch the imagination to believe he might later make the alleged caustic remarks about Navy SEALs?

In the end, Ventura prevailed in court and won a huge judgment that will essentially be paid for by the widow of Jesse’s harsh critic. To me, that seems unseemly. The amount of the judgment was determined in part to compensate Ventura for lost business; he claimed that offers from producers and promoters dried up after Kyle conflated him with “scruff face.” More likely, the Ventura cultural phenomenon petered out on its own, as is so often the case with over-the-top loudmouths whose shtick devolves from being funny to just plain irritating (think Morton Downey, Jr.)

Jesse should accept his win like a man, and renounce the judgment. Give the widow a break.

You really want us to leave you in peace?

Israel is again engaged in armed conflict with one of its neighbors, this time the Palestinians and their Hamas-led government in the narrow Gaza Strip. And once again, America is trying to lead a futile effort to secure a truce. Secretary of State John Kerry, like all his predecessors going back to the 1970s, is shuttling about the Middle East and Europe in search of a solution. Truly a thankless job. And for his efforts, Kerry got the back of the hand from Israel Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon who said, “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” Now that’s what I call gratitude.

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I wonder if Ya’alon also wants the U.S. to leave Israel in peace by withholding the $3 billion a year in foreign aid they receive. Does he want the U.S. to stop being the only country in the world that consistently votes against U.N. resolutions that condemn Israel. Will Ya’alon call for the return of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defense system that costs $50 million a pop, plus $40K-$100K per Hamas-fired rocket shot down? I suspect not.

Given that sentiment among regular Americans and the politicians who have long unblinkingly supported Israel seems to be turning a tad sour, I would suggest that the Israeli leadership do an attitude check before they alienate the only friend they have in the world.

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Senator Walsh’s Secret Speech Revealed

walsh1Much has been written and reported lately on the charges of plagiarism by Montana Senator John Walsh. Will the Army War College strip him of his Masters degree? Is his political career, once considered formidable, poised to come crashing down? Walsh isn’t saying much. But thanks to stealthy investigation by Major Terata Publications, we’ve gotten a secret draft copy of a speech Walsh is preparing to deliver in the coming days on nationwide television, presumably “Tosh.0″.

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Good evening ladies and gentlemen (ref: Hitchcock, Alfred. Universal Television, 1955.)

Two score and seven times two years ago my father brought forth upon this continent a new son (me), conceived in haste and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . some more equal than others. Kinda like a rising tide that lifts all boats – yachts more so than dinghies, to be sure.

Call me Ishmael if you want but my given name is John Walsh (no, not the guy from “America’s Most Wanted”). I’m the junior Senator from the great state of Montana, and I’m here to tell you about a date which will live in infamy: April 5, 2007.

I was pursuing a Masters Degree from the U.S. Army War College. Why? Because I have a dream. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Baghdad sons of former Baathists and sons of former Baathist-haters will be able to sit down together at the table and share a falafel, or some hummus, or whatever the hell they eat there. Yes, I had other motivations as well, but believe me, nabbing the War College degree was one small step for Walsh, a giant leap for Walsh-kind.

Before I proudly accepted my coveted War College diploma and the political perks it would bestow upon me, I texted my good friend and colleague Joe Biden, “Why am I the first Walsh in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Why is my wife the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?” Biden chuckled and told me to be sure to credit him if I ever wrote it down. Wise counsel that I wish I had followed before turning in my Master’s thesis on that infamous date of April 5, 2007.

I began the Masters program having nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, and after plagiarizing about 20 percent of my thesis, I can say now that never was so much owed by John Walsh to so few scholars. As I once said, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

I’m so sorry. Plagiarism is an unacceptable breach of trust. But I blame my momentary, fleeting mistake on post traumatic stress disorder – and a dependency on madeleines that I acquired during my tour of duty in Iraq. Late one night while typing frantically to meet the thesis deadline I popped a Madeleine into my mouth. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, the thesis unimportant.

Now with my career hanging in the balance, I call upon my supporters and opponents to stick with me. Can’t we all just get along? Forgive me for I can see clearly now. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

But if you can’t find it in your hearts to forgive me, I will understand. Don’t cry for me Montana. The truth is I never left you. I kept my promise. Don’t keep your distance.

In the coming days I will assess the situation and make my decision whether to continue as your Senator. The world will little note, nor long remember what I say here, yet I offer this in closing: God bless you and God bless the United States of America. And I am the Walrus.

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Just Another Political Hack After All

cuomo1Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York and son of the insufferable Mario Cuomo who also held the high office from 1983 to 1994, just stepped in a pile of do-do that might have enough odor to derail his obvious presidential aspirations. Much like his father, Andrew knows he’s smarter than everyone else in the state, and he takes every opportunity to drill it into the minds of the lesser mortals under his tutelage. But Andrew is much shrewder than Mario the Magnificent; he is a cold-hearted calculator of the zeitgeist and molds his policies and persona to match. Although a Democrat in a heavily “blue” state, Andrew Cuomo has fashioned himself closer to the center, if not center-right, by capping property tax increases, setting up special tax enclaves for companies, pushing for casinos, busting teachers’ union balls, and talking tough on crime. Clearly the man is angling toward a shot in 2020 or 2024.

Noting that New York State is among the more egregious in the nation when it comes to political corruption (at least 26 state politicians have been indicted or run out of office for bad behavior since 1999), Andrew Cuomo set up an august commission to investigate and ferret out corruption. Named the Moreland Commission after Sherman Moreland, a legislator who in 1907 backed a law giving special investigative powers to the governor, Cuomo set up a body about a year ago that would be “totally independent“ and could “look at me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.” About 6 months later, Andrew closed down the commission, making the dubious and lame observation that they no longer needed to investigate because they had successfully put the fear of god in New York’s politicians, rendering them all incapable of ever being corrupt from this time forward. Mission accomplished.

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Now we know the real reason for the abrupt de-commissioning of the Morelanders – they we’re getting too close to Andrew and his charlatans. The Moreland Commission had issued a subpoena for some company records as part of an investigation into legislative shenanigans, unaware that the company, Buying Time, was also in the employ of Prince Andrew. When Cuomo’s top aide, Larry Schwartz heard about the subpoena he ordered the commission to back off. Sadly, they cowered like compliant doggies, instead of standing firm like an empowered group such as they should have done.

Faced with this untidy mess, Cuomo is now tap-dancing, declaring that the Moreland Commission was never chartered to look beyond the despised legislature to begin with. “It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me,” claimed Cuomo, sounding a bit like the guy who oft repeated, “I am not a crook.”

Although Andrew Cuomo is a better governor than George Pataki was, which is not saying much, he is a dangerous fellow who lets his ambition get ahead of his appointed mission. Not unusual for a politician you might say, but it’s way past time that changed. For starters, strike Andrew Cuomo from the short list of “will-they-won’t-they” characters fawned over for their presidential timber.

I’m on hold. Don’t die yet

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Another day, another botched execution. This time in Arizona where a cretinous murderer, Joseph Wood III, was injected with a proprietary concoction of lethal drugs that was supposed to kill him in under 15 minutes, but took nearly two hours to do the job. In fact, the execution dragged on so long, Wood’s lawyers actually had time to file an appeal to the Federal District Court to stop the spectacle, call Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court for a favor, and take in a movie. Truly amazing.

I’m against capital punishment (error-prone, too expensive, not evenly applied, too often vengeful), but goddamn, if you’re gonna do it, do it right. Thousands of times a day, veterinarians around the country and the world put down animals in an effective, repeatable and humane way. What’s the fucking problem when it comes to humans? I believe that the states, in an attempt to appear thorough and responsible, over-complicate the process. Wood’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court to delay the execution until the state of Arizona revealed their secret sauce. The Court sided with Arizona on their wish to keep it under wraps. Why? Are they afraid another state will copy the formula and undercut them at Whole Foods?

Memo to states that still have capital punishment – consult the American Veterinary Medical Association before trying any more harebrained home-made elixirs. Otherwise you may come under pressure from the families of murder victims demanding implementation of new protocols. Richard Brown, brother-in-law of one of Wood’s murder victims asked, “why didn’t we give him Drano?” I suspect wardens in most states with capital punishment on the books would scratch their heads and mutter, “never thought of that, sounds good though.” Absent a better alternative they might just decide to give Drano a try.

What a PR coup that would be for S.C. Johnson Company.

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People. Passion. Possibilities. Plutocracy.

abbvie1Is it unpatriotic not to pay taxes? A number of corporate leaders and their apologists in Congress would seem to hold a strong negative sentiment, taking umbrage at the notion that shimmying gracelessly through a tax loophole they bought and paid for from the politicians is in any way un-American. Saving on taxes in their view just makes good, ole-fashioned business sense, doncha know?

Take the case of AbbVie, a spin-off of Abbott Labs in the pharmaceutical industry which just agreed to buy its European rival Shire for a tidy $54 billion. The big story in most business news articles was not about the extended R&D the combined company might produce, or the cost savings that might be passed onto consumers, but of the generous tax benefits bestowed upon the combined entities: an effective rate that will fall from 22 percent to 13 (a number enjoyed by precious few middle-class jerks who commute 90 minutes every day for a living.) In fact, CEO Richard A. Gonzalez made it clear to analysts: “It will be domiciled in the U.K. for tax purposes.” Less emphatically stated was that AbbVie would still be run out of Chicago and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, as if nothing had happened other than the millions in tax savings.

And what about those savings? It’s a zero-sum game, and someone has to lose if AbbVie and the multitude of other US corporations gain by taking advantage of generous “inversion” laws, including Walgreens, Pfizer, Omnicom, Eaton Corp, Aon and Medtronic. Those losers are the rank and file taxpayers who have to make it up in higher taxes, or by suffering future deleterious effects of deficit spending. Every U.S. company that does an inversion and “domiciles” in a candy-cane tax haven like Ireland or the Netherlands gets to freeload off the significant benefits of the American business environment: access to a rich consumer base, an orderly legal system, ironclad patent and copyright protection, a decent infrastructure, the strongest military defense in the world, financial stability, and a vaunted university system producing quality talent.

Don’t expect Congress to remediate the situation – too many are signatories of the “Grover Norquist” pledge never to raise a tax, which in their narrow minds includes closing an egregious loophole.

Consider:

Where would Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Twitter be without the internet which came into being as a descendant of the Department of Defense’s DARPA network?

How much did Pratt & Whitney and GE benefit from government-funded R&D on jet propulsion? Same goes for Boeing and Lockheed which benefited enormously after the U.S. government pioneered wartime aviation.

Could United Van Lines and Schneider Trucking exist without the interstate highway system? Could Walmart have grown as large without it?

What would American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and all the other carriers do without an FAA and air traffic control? Or the NTSB which investigates accidents and provides a fig leaf for the carriers to use when communicating with rattled fliers?

Perversely, the tobacco industry is as healthy as it is today in part because the Surgeon General’s office decades ago mandated warning labels which the industry first despised then later used as a shield against paying out billions in lawsuit judgements.

We know GM would not exist had the U.S. government told them to shove it. Same for Morgan Stanley, Merrill-Lynch, Bank of America and possibly Goldman-Sachs. Taxpayer-backed bailouts kept them alive.

And, Life Sciences/Pharmaceutical industry players like Mylan and AbbVie that are the biggest inversion-loophole pursuers have benefited tremendously from generous U.S. goodies like patent protection, world-class R&D (e.g. human genome sequencing) that is put into the public domain, and hundreds of billions in purchases of drugs, at retail prices no less, by Medicare and Medicaid.

So, yes – dodging American taxes while enjoying all the benefits of being an American company in every respect except your “domicile” is unpatriotic. You’re like the boorish guest who comes to a party without a gift for the host, and then bolts just as it’s time to clean up the mess. You don’t deserve to be awarded a government contract. And stay off our roads and stop using our water!

If you don’t like it, call in the Irish Marines.

RIP Johnny Winter

I was surprised to read of the recent death of bluesman Johnny Winter – surprised that he hadn’t died five years ago. Three or four years ago I attended an intimate concert featuring Winter and his band at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and like many in the audience, was shocked when two stagehands escorted a visibly-weak Johnny by the elbows like a doddering hospice denizen to a folding chair in center stage.

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Promo photo from the Bearsville Theater gig.

Johnny Winter played some damned-loud, badass stuff that evening, seated the entire time as though waiting patiently for the next order of all-you-can eat wings at Crapplebee’s. His feeble eyes, no doubt impaired by albinism, darted about; most likely he was unable even to see the audience given the glaring lights. Half way through the show, a middle-aged, Woodstock groupie climbed onto the stage and gave Johnny a big hug. The bouncers pounced, but I don’t think Johnny knew what hit him. He never missed a note; probably used to being accosted on stage by crazy women over the course of his memorable 40 year career in rock n roll.

Johnny Winter’s influence on music is undeniable. To wit: the opening band that evening at the Bearsville Theater was the Jonny Monster Band – a killer blues trio no doubt inspired by the white haired man who sat hunched like a codger under the hot lights picking out pure delta blues.

RIP Johnny Winter. And check out the Jonny Monster Band.

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A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Outrages

monA couple years ago in the tiny village of Borja, Spain, an elderly woman named Cecilia Giménez tried her hand at restoring a flaking, century-old fresco of Jesus Christ. She failed. Obviously underqualified to do a paint-by-numbers donkey, Giménez turned the delicate fresco of the thorn-crowned Christ into what became known as “Monkey Jesus.”

Shocked parishioners of the Santuario de la Misericordia church where the fresco resides initially assumed they were the victims of vandalism. Only later did Giménez come forward and take credit for the simian transformation. And in a strange twist, she became a quasi-celebrity. She has sold her artwork on eBay and in a gallery show in Borja, and “Monkey Jesus” merchandise is available online.

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Furthermore, the church started charging people to leer at the defaced mural, raising close to $100,000 from more than 75,000 voyeurs.

Now, in a somewhat related story, a stolen Matisse painting titled “Odalisque in Red Pants” was recently returned to the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas where thieves had replaced the original with a fake. Astoundingly, no one noticed for at least two years that a fake has been placed on the hook where “Odalisque” had once hung. After the chicanery was discovered, art experts huffed that the fake was poorly executed – a claim that seems overplayed given the length of time the fake occupied prime wall space unchallenged.

Decide for yourself. Which of these is the real Matisse?
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WWI a Hundred Years Later

keegan_first_l For all intents and purposes, the Second World War was a continuation of the First World War, yet while the events that contributed to the start of WWII are well-known, those leading to the outbreak of WWI are less so – at least in America. No country invaded another, nor bombed a military outpost in a surprise attack. In fact, much of the inter-governmental chatter prior to military engagement was devoted to diplomatic activity designed to avoid, or at least limit confrontation. In retrospect, WWI seemed to happen in spite of the combatants rather than because of them. As John Keegan writes in his comprehensive “The First World War,” “A train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”

Keegan’s book is an essential for anyone who doesn’t know what Gavrilo Princip did, or what happened at Verdun, or were unaware that Japan was an ally of Great Britain and France before turning the other way in WWII. I suspect that because WWI started a century ago and that the U.S. fought in it for just 14 months, Americans know little about it. If you feel you might be one such person, Keegan’s book comes highly recommended.

RIP Archie

I used to read Archie comics as a pre-teen, and honestly don’t know whether I enjoyed it or not. I can’t remember any plot in detail, although I recall Reggie was a prick, Jughead was a needle-nosed idiot, Mr. Weatherbee was a blob, Mrs. Grundy was the stereotypical spinster, and Archie was the all-American boy with the curious tic-tac-toe board on the side of his head.

My vaguest recollections are that I preferred Betty to Veronica, even though both were drawn such that they could have been identical twins. It was Betty’s desire to please Archie that trumped Veronica’s wealth and sophistication. Later on, my allegiance to Betty waned, and today I would say I’m more of a Veronica-man. Her blue-black hair, sexy smile and outsized portfolio are hard to resist. In any event, I sincerely hoped Archie would persuade the two lovelies into a ménage a trois, as I’m quite sure Reggie had already accomplished.

Now we may never know, as Archie was recently killed taking a bullet meant for a politician. The politician, Kevin Keller, is a gay gun-control advocate who is targeted for assassination by a man harboring hard-felt disagreements with Keller’s positions. Archie steps in to break up the shot, and takes lead to the chest – a mortal wound. According to Archie Comics publisher Jon Goldwater, “”Archie Andrews is a very iconic all-American hero. To have him literally take a bullet for the ideas of diversity and equality in a comic book is a very powerful statement.”

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You may think that killing off the lead character would end the series, but the publishers intend to continue the saga of the Riverdale denizens, telling the story of how they manage with the loss of the red-haired hero.

RIP Archie, even though you are a drawing.

And the answer is:

The real Matisse is on the left.

Google

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Take Back Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

JP-IMMIG1-articleLargeDo you remember where you were when the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 was enacted? Neither do I, but thanks to meticulous records kept by the U.S. Congress, we know that George W. Bush signed the act into law on December 23, 2008 – just a month before he left office. The gist of the law is to prevent children who arrive unaccompanied to the borders of the U.S. from being immediately deported back to the widespread evil conditions prevailing in the countries from whence they came. (It doesn’t apply to children from Mexico or Canada.)

It would appear Bush was pro on the law as he made sure to get it done in the remaining month before he left office. Prior to the signing, White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto, said that the bill “has been a priority issue for the administration in preventing the trafficking of persons around the world. So this is a piece of legislation we’re very proud to sign.” Based on its stated purpose that seems to be a reasonable sentiment.

Six years later the Republicans in Congress are bemoaning an unintended consequence of the law: families suffering deplorable and lawless conditions in Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in particular) are sending their unaccompanied kids to border crossings in the mistaken belief they will be granted absolute asylum. As it is the children’s families who are initiating the movement, the activity does not meet the stated goal in Wilberforce of curtailing human trafficking – but should we care?

The Republicans cry “hell yes” and furthermore lay complete blame for this recent onslaught of the wretched refuse squarely at the feet of Obama. Such an accusation from the GOP would be specious had Obama not been caught red-handed in Shushufindi dressed as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, tooting his flute and leading a line of destitute Ecuadorean children north to the Rio Grande. (It’s on YouTube somewhere– check it out.)

As Texas is often the terminus of mass immigration, let’s hear from their Congressional delegation:

Representative John Carter of Texas: “The president caused this self-inflicted crisis on the border by refusing to enforce the law.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas: “It is a disaster of the president’s own making. It is a disaster that is a direct result of President Obama’s lawlessness.”

Senator John Cornyn of texas: “The president’s administrative policies have played a huge role in encouraging tens of thousands of children to risk their lives by traveling across Mexico.”

The Texan’s concerns have some validity, but what did “Barack the Impaler” have to do with it? If anything, Obama’s administration is a bigger deporter of illegals than any of his predecessors.

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In reality, the incursion of unaccompanied children is nothing more than a simple case of a special-interest group (Central American families living in fear) exploiting a loophole in a U.S. law – that by itself should qualify the interlopers for immediate citizenship. After all, exploiting loopholes in loosely-written laws is a time-honored American tradition.

The better focus of attention should be not on a rough-hewn “solution” to the problem – billions to secure the border (whatever that means), massive deportation of otherwise law-abiding workers, expensive incarceration – but on diluting the underlying motivations of the sorry souls who choose to risk life and property to come to the U.S. in the first place. (I always get a kick out of proposals to encourage illegal alien “self-deportation” – how bad must we make life in the U.S. to compel the illegals to leave en masse? Can’t vote! – Who cares? Can’t get a driver’s license! – I’ll drive anyway. Can’t get Obamacare! – Wait, you’re threatening to withhold Obamacare? Put your ass in jail! – Who’s gonna mow your lawn?)

In reality, few Americans want to understand the actual dynamics driving mass immigration to the borders of what’s been called is the most exceptional country in the world. That might take thought and introspection. In short – we somehow, inadvertently bring the plague upon ourselves. For example:

-> Families in Central America urgently need to escape the virulent violence in their countries and neighborhoods – violence multiplied by guns sourced legally from the U.S. and shipped to gangs south of the border. Translation: The U.S. economy supplies the weapons that devastate Central American society which in turn drives the populace to our insecure, porous borders.

-> Farmers in Central America have difficulty competing against heavily-subsidized Americans who benefit unfairly from ethanol mandates and super-cheap crop insurance subsidies. Mexico (the land that domesticated corn in the first place) simply can’t match up against indefensible American corn subsidies. Translation: America fucks up the agricultural economy of Mexico and Central America then wonders why the disenfranchised farmers bolt north to mow lawns and clean pools in the land of plenty.

-> Americans like drugs, especially certain narcotics produced in places like Columbia, Mexico and Panama. Americans fund the drug economy so as to ensure they get access to the stuff they want most. Should a few dozen “brown” locals get wasted in the process, so be it. As long as they don’t storm the Bastille.

The bottom line: Americans hate illegal immigration even as their behavior encourages it. They want swift solutions that cost nothing and don’t interfere with their cross-border travel. And they like to distill a complex problem down to a sound-bite: “Obama invited the illegals to here.”

Third Prize is: You’re Fired!

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I was born too early to appreciate the artistry and technique of soccer, a sport that garnered virtually no attention in America when I was a kid. Soccer fanaticism was left to the next generation who played the low-impact, highly-aerobic game after grade schools across the nation favored it. Now with the World Cup underway, and soccer-mania pimped on every mainstream media outlet, coupled with an avid base of fans who grew up playing the game and understanding its intricacies, Baby Boomers are finding it necessary to learn some basics lest they appear even more out of step with the times.

Situations that call for a penalty kick, or reasons why additional playing time is tacked on after the game appears to be over, are just a couple of the mysteries that have been revealed to older soccer neophytes.

And then just the other day I learned that the losers of the semi-final World Cup rounds play each other for third place. Third place! I somehow suspect that after taking a 7-1 drubbing at the hands (feet?) of Germany, that the last thing the Brazilian team wanted to do was play once more for the bragging rights of third place.

The two semi-final losers should just play rock-paper-scissors – the winner gets to forfeit the soccer match and go to the beach instead.

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Suspect Decisions – What Happens Next?

SawingTreeLimbHeisSittingOn-565x418News reports abound with stories of decisions made by governments, businesses, sports franchises, religions and many others that on the face seem remarkably suspect. Decisions that lead inexorably to pain, suffering, disenfranchisement, disillusionment, ennui, and any number of unproductive reactions.

It disturbs me that so often the question “what happens next?” rarely accompanies the story. I understand this line of thinking is not the purview of the neutral reporter – but where are the editorialists? Or the psychics?

Run it up the flagpole, let’s see who salutes

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The Senate passed the “All American Flag Act” the other day, and assuming Obama signs it (what choice does he have lest he hand a club to his enemies with which to beat him silly), the act will become law of the land. It calls for all government-purchased American flags to be made 100 percent from materials “grown, produced, or manufactured in the United States.” No more importation of flags from such anti-American entities like China. The law’s sponsor, Sherrod Brown said “It is the right way to honor our veterans and it is the right way to support American workers and businesses.”

What happens next?

Most American companies in the flag manufacturing business suffer when they can’t easily procure all the necessary flag-making components (cloth, ink, thread, dyes, packing materials, et.al.) from approved American vendors. Those that can have to jump through regulatory hoops to prove their “Flag Act” compliance.

Prices for flags sold to the U.S. Government soar as fewer companies can supply them, and those that do must pay 10 times the wages as their Chinese counterparts who are now no longer allowed to compete.

American companies that make flags for foreign countries are boycotted or socked with high tariffs in retaliation.

Hobby Lobby lobbyists lobby for hobbyists. Workers? Not so much

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The Supreme Court allowed Hobby Lobby, a privately-owned purveyor of cheap framing supplies and other sundries, to refuse to provide health insurance coverage of their female employees’ contraceptive needs, as to do so would violate the religious sensibilities of owners of the company. Consequently, Hobby Lobby and their ilk have been freed to cherry-pick the things they don’t support in Federal laws and disobey them.

What happens next?

Private companies like Hobby Lobby are acquired by large corporations that are motivated to take advantage of the special Supreme Court dispensation to ignore laws. The acquiring companies, which may possibly be run by atheists or those who don’t share the beliefs of the original acquired company’s owners, nevertheless get to deny employees benefits and pass those savings onto … themselves.

Companies operated by Jehovah’s Witnesses decide to halt coverage of blood transfusions for their employees as such procedures violate admonitions set down in the wacky parts of the Bible. Other religions follow suit. On the chopping block: vaccinations, vasectomies, sex-reassignment operations, psychotherapy, and anything related to stem-cells.

New fringe “religions” crop up to exploit the religious-objection loophole formed by the Supreme Court. The IRS attempts to call them out as shams, but is vilified and emasculated by the right-wing for intruding upon the First Amendment. The new “religions” attract many new “worshippers” seeking self-actualization and tax breaks.

Facebook’s future revealed: Zuckerberg registers Assbook.com

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Unbeknownst to about 700,000 Facebook users, the social media behemoth ran a psychology experiment on them – the type of activityconsidered unethical by the APA. Facebook skewed the feeds of these users toward overly positive or negative sentiments for the purpose of evaluating the tenor of their subsequent posts. Guess what! People who receive positive feeds post positive stuff! Same for the negative guys! Everyone hopes this cures cancer.

What happens next?

Facebook apologizes for the hundredth time for punking its user base, promising never again to . . . oh, nevermind.

Sitting atop so much “big data”, Facebook devises ever more sinister experiments to peer into the minds and hearts of its users, tailoring its products and acquisition strategy accordingly. That is to say, to monetizing every aspect of social media.

In five years, weary of the whole social media drudge, Facebook users bolt en masse, leaving behind a shell of a company with no assets worth shit.

North Carolina whistles past the graveyard

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Prodded by tourism-based businesses, the NC Republican legislature decided to bury a long-range climate study that predicted a 3-foot rise in ocean levels by 2100 in favor of a whitewashed report that shortened the horizon to 30 years and the estimated rise to a mere 8 inches (or the length of an erection the legislature aspires to.)

What happens next?

North Carolina takes no meaningful steps to prepare for the onslaught of ever-rising ocean levels, and increasingly devastating hurricane surges. Tourism-based businesses benefit from lax taxes and regulations – for a while.

A Category 5 storm wipes out the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras becomes Isle de Hatteras. North Carolina legislature (still dominated by climate-denying Republicans) calls for a Federal bailout, which they get on a silver platter. How do they spend it? Can you say “tax cut”?

The next chapter for A-Roid?

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Unknown until now, the doctor in charge of overseeing drug use for Major League Baseball decided to allow now-disgraced Yankee Alex Rodriguez to use the performance-enhancing drug testosterone in 2007, the year he hit 54 home runs, had 156 RBIs, and was named MVP for the third time. Later on, this same transgression would earn A-Rod a lengthy suspension and forfeit his mega-salary.

What happens next?

Reinvigorated by the news of hypocrisy, Rodriguez’s people launch a PR campaign to get Major League Baseball to back off the suspension – an effort doomed to failure.

Undaunted, the lawyers sue hard, and sometime on or before 2020, MLB settles without admitting guilt.

To demonstrate their softer side as they’re called out for perfidy, MLB forgives Pete Rose and admits him back into baseball from which he has been banned since 1989. A long shot, but maybe Bud Selig plays Pope before his retirement next year and absolves sinner Rose.

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Blissfully Ignorant

201406-hd-the-toast-of-new-yorkIraq is falling apart, the Maldives are disappearing, Fukushima continues to bleed radiation into the ocean, Haiti struggles with a cholera epidemic, Russia menaces Ukraine. Domestically, Detroit is going under, prisons here are fuller than in any totalitarian-run country, guns keep killing people (sorry, people keep killing people), and the gap between the rich and everyone else has widened to unprecedented proportions. Hell, North Korea is primed to start WW III after a barber shop in the UK made fun of Kim Jong-Un’s wacky hairdo.

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With such turmoil surrounding an increasingly anxious populace, it’s good to know Travel and Leisure magazine is there to provide soporific comfort.

A profile of two glamorous people in the latest edition of the light-weight, half-magazine/half-advertisement escorts the reader far, far away from the troubles that intrude daily. We’re talking about Alexander Gilkes and Misha Nonoo (is that a real name, or were her parents fans of Mork & Mindy ?). Travel and Leisure calls her “an emerging fashion darling,” a description more powerful than ipecac syrup.

Indulge yourself on this brief verbatim interview, note the frequent use of “$$$” and shameless namedropping (strozzapreti Bolognese, Belstaff biker jacket ), and try not to blow chunk.

“Alexander Gilkes took the art world by storm with his online auction site, Paddle8; his wife, designer Misha Nonoo, is an emerging fashion darling. Together they lead us on their tour of Manhattan.

—As told to Julia Chaplin

Eat “We’re always at the corner table at Sant Ambroeus SoHo ($$$), which is like a time warp to 1950’s Milan,” Gilkes says. “You get looked after with old-school attention.” Nonoo suggests the pasta with lamb ragù, mint, and pistachio: “It’s naughty but heavenly.” Antonioni’s ($$$), on the Lower East Side, is “as if the Godfather’s gay nephew opened an Italian restaurant,” Gilkes jokes. “There’s chintzy animal-print wallpaper—but the strozzapreti Bolognese is the best hangover cure ever.”

Shop “The real gems at SoHo’s What Goes Around Comes Around are in the basement,” says Nonoo, who obsessively collects vintage pieces from Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. “I recently found an amazing old waxed-cotton Belstaff biker jacket there,” Gilkes adds. He also recommends the Upper Rust in the East Village. “We go to find eccentricities to decorate our Greenwich Village apartment—such as old racetrack chalkboards, postal sorting stations, and Nantucket antiques.”

Do For a romantic treat, Gilkes and Nonoo love TriBeCa’s Aire Ancient Baths. “It’s in a cavernous basement with candles and sensual music,” she says. “My favorite thing is the flotarium.” “Seeing art is all about presentation. The Guggenheim Museum, with its Frank Lloyd Wright spiral rotunda, always makes us swoon.” 

In the end, the couple swoon over the bulky, gimmicky Guggenheim Museum which belies their fundamental bourgeois roots, and makes me feel better that I’m somewhat cognizant of real world problems instead of pretending they don’t exist.

The Softer Side of “In your face”

Yesterday the Supreme Court shut down a Massachusetts law that imposed a no-protest buffer zone around abortion clinics there. The goal of the law was to establish a safe distance between patients and crazy bastards bent on harassing them with in-your-face polemics and lurid photos. Not everyone outside the clinics is a psycho, but all it takes is one to mess up your day. Nonetheless, the Court unanimously struck it down. The logic was articulated by Antonin Scalia who barked, ““Protecting people from speech they do not want to hear is not a function that the First Amendment allows the government to undertake in the public streets and sidewalks.” I guess Scalia never heard of libel.

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In any event, it seems fair then to ask when a 250 foot no-protest buffer zone around the Supreme Court Building will be dismantled. Can we expect to see that barrier fall like those around abortion clinics in Massachusetts and elsewhere? Unlikely. This Roberts court has seen fit to upend dozens of well-established laws and conventions that affect multitudes of ordinary American citizens, but like the man behind the curtain to whom no one should pay attention, they eschew any attempt at transparency in their deliberations, and scurry from situations that might require engagement with regular people.

A Bridge Too Far

First there was the phony “traffic study” in Fort Lee, NJ that resulted in horrendous, manufactured gridlock leading to the George Washington Bridge, then came the revelation that money to be used exclusively for Port Authority of NY & NJ projects was improperly diverted to repair the Pulaski Skyway, a bridge in New Jersey leading to the Lincoln Tunnel. Gov. Chris Christie has denied involvement in anything nefarious, but still – what’s next?

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Pulaski Skyway

Given the portly Christie’s obsessions with bridge controversies and food, I can envision some variant of the following headlines appearing in the pun-addled New York Post following the next New Jersey fiasco.

“Bridge on the River Chai Latte”
“London (Broil) Bridge”
“Golden Corral (formerly Gate) Bridge” –
“Pont Neuf with Hollandaise Sauce”
“Pasta Verrazano Bridge”
“Frog’s Neck Bridge”
“Bridge of Thighs”

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Shirts and Skins?

wampumThe Washington Redskins lost trademark protection from the U.S. Government the other day on the basis that the term “redskins” is considered disparaging to Native Americans. Apparently this is not the first time the Patent and Trademark Office nixed a name for protection. Others that have fallen short include a rock band called the Slants (disparaging to Asians) and Heeb Magazine (disparaging to Heebs, I guess). But when you consider the sheer volume of trademark requests (>300,000 in 2012), the USPTO denies very few on the basis that they are disparaging.

The assumption is that the owners of the Redskins will finally capitulate and change the team’s name. To what, who knows. Some ideas floating around include Warriors, Redhawks, Renegades, Pigskins, and just plain Skins. (If they go with Skins, I sure as hell hope a new franchise is formed called the Shirts.)

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Regardless of how the Redskins handle their name, will they retain the Native American garb worn by their squaws?

But what about all the other offensive names adorning professional sports teams? Can we expect forthcoming rescission of trademark protection for them. Next on the chopping block?

Minnesota Vikings
The original Vikings of Scandinavia practiced a method of execution called the “blood eagle” that involved cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim’s back. Disparaging to anyone whose ancestors suffered this torturous procedure.

San Francisco 49ers
Named for the gold-addled maniacs who rushed to California to pan streams for the shiny metal, the 49ers bear the stain of a period in our country’s history that resulted in attacks on Native Americans, who were forcibly removed from their lands. An estimated 100,000 California Indians died between 1848 and 1868, and some 4,500 of them were murdered. Now that’s what I call disparaging.

New Orleans Saints
Sainthood is bestowed on dead people whom the Catholic Church deems worthy of significant recognition. The whole process can take centuries, and requires documentation that the candidate has performed at least two miracles (walking on water, then changing it into wine while still walking on it might qualify.) Disparaging to all those non-Catholics out there whose chances of sitting in Heaven’s skybox next to the Big Guy are nil.

New York Yankees
Disparaging to Confederates.

Cincinnati Reds
Disparaging to Communists

Chicago White Sox
Disparaging to nerds.

Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blachawks
Why stop with the Redskins when plenty more teams have shamelessly co-opted the Native American for profit. Bad shit happened to the Indians in Kansas in the 1800s. Cleveland uses a cartoonish “Chief Wahoo” image, Atlanta fans chant a phony Indian war-call while making chopping tomahawk motions, and the Blackhawks logo is at least as bad as the Redskins’.

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Trademarks revoked! Suggested new names: Kansas City Titties, Cleveland Grovers, Atlanta Gridlock, and Chicago Argyle Sox.

Fun with Dick and Liz (not them, the other boring ones)

Soon after Dick and Liz Cheney co-wrote an Op-Ed column recently for the Wall Street Journal excoriating Obama and his administration for lackluster foreign policy performance, opining that “rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” countermeasures came swiftly. Even Megyn Kelly of Fox News took Mr. Five Deferments and his dimwit daughter to task, stating the obvious: “Time and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong in Iraq as well, sir. You said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the insurgency was in the last throes, back in 2005. And you said after our intervention that extremists would have to ‘rethink their strategy of jihad.’ Now with almost $1 trillion spent there, with 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say, ‘You were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many’?” Ouch. Coming from a Foxette … double ouch.

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But in my opinion the best, drollest response to Cheney’s overwrought declaration came from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: ““Which president was he talking about?”

A tart and succinct parting shot from the soon-to-be-retired Carney.

It’s Nice to be Inhaled

WordPress, the hosting site for this and countless other blogs, supplies its contributors options for how they wish to deal with readers’ comments. The blogger can go from allowing anyone to comment at will without moderation, all the way down to mandatory moderation before the comments see the light of day. This punitive approach is provided in case the blogger wishes not to have his or her blog polluted by insolent spammers. Unfortunately, this is the option I have been forced to choose.

Although WordPress provides comment management tools, I would have thought they’d have created enough “artificial intelligence” to be able to tell spam from bona fide comments, making it easier on the blogger. After all, I’d much prefer to let meaningful comments pass through unmolested than to have to intervene manually.

For example, consider these well-thought out, incisive, verbatim comments that required my overt approval – when clearly they were written by sentient readers and needed no intrusive pre-review on my part.

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Okay, maybe I’ll keep the spam filter on for now.

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Little Jimmy Scott

scott-obit-1-master675David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a tale of unscrupulous real estate salesmen, one of which makes a Faustian bargain that brings about his unceremonious doom. The stage play is tight: rapid-fire dialog, spare set, a mere 90 minutes in length with a single intermission. Turning it into a movie required special attention: casting all-star talent (Al Pacino, Jack Lemon, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin), adding some scenes that weren’t in the stage play (most notable: Alec Baldwin’s luscious rant), and tacking on a soundtrack evocative of the action both desperate and triumphant.

After watching the movie, I quickly ran out to the Virgin Record store and copped the soundtrack album. The motivation was the closing track as the credits rolled: a snappy version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” by Al Jarreau. I discovered that many of the songs on the album never played in the movie – I guess the producers needed extra material to fill out an album. One number in particular was a haunting, sultry song called “Street of Dreams” sung in a longing, trembling contralto. A voice that Madonna claimed was the only one that could make her cry. The voice of Little Jimmy Scott who died the other day at age 88.

(Click here to listen to “Street of Dreams” by Jimmy Scott.)

When I first heard “Street of Dreams” I thought the singer was a woman. In fact, Jimmy Scott was born with Kallman’s Syndrome, a disease that essentially froze his maturation right around puberty time, leaving him with the singing voice of a choirboy. He eschewed hormone treatments that might have spurred growth (he was only 4’10”) out of fear that his signature singing voice would be altered.

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Young Jimmy Scott

Scott had what might be called a two-tailed career – success in youth and in old-age, but lengthy obscurity in what should have been his prime years. He sang with Lionel Hampton in the 1940s and 50s, and produced popularly successful recordings. In 1963 it looked like Jimmy Scott was about to break out, but after cutting the album a manager from the past emerged from the shadows claiming Scott was still under contract to him. The album was shelved, and so was Jimmy Scott’s career – for thirty years. Not until the 1990s did he finally get the respect he deserved, garnering a Grammy nomination for his album “All the Way.”

Around 2002, I attended a free concert headlined by Jimmy Scott in a park somewhere near City Hall in Manhattan, and afterwards stood online for a CD-signing. When it was my turn to get the autograph, I mentioned my admiration for his work on the Glengarry soundtrack. He seemed caught off guard, and perhaps mistook me for a life-long fan, because he graciously engaged in a longer-than-usual conversation (for a signing event) about his outlook and plans for the future. He was accompanied by a much younger woman whom I assumed was an agent or publicist, but after reading in his obituary that Scott was married five times, it was probably another future Mrs. Jimmy Scott.

You gotta love show-biz – looks, age and stature mean nothing when you’ve got talent, fame and money. More power to him – RIP.

Big Fat Fucking Sign of the Times

When Donald Trump set out to put up a skyscraper in Chicago – perhaps America’s premier city for architecture – the people of the Windy City feared the installation of a garish, glittery box clad in gold windows and topped with some outlandish 200 foot finial. Instead they breathed a sigh of relief when they got a bona-fide gem of a building standing tall along the Chicago River nearby the venerated Wrigley Building.

20090518_Trump_International_Hotel_and_Tower,_Chicago

Here is one glowing assessment:
“The Trump Tower Chicago makes great use of its available space while creating another icon in the city’s skyline. Also important, its setbacks pay homage to the Art Deco-era skyscrapers that made Chicago a living architectural museum. And it manages to reach for the stars without stepping on the feet of other buildings in the area. To its neighbors, it appears as an equal. That’s because the first setback is at the same height as the cornice on the Wrigley Building, the second is the same height as Marina City, and the third is at the top of the former IBM Building across the street.”

All seemed well until Trump ordered the installation of a wince-worthy sign – constructed of letters 20 feet tall – spelling out (what else), T-R-U-M-P. Affixing names on signature buildings in Chicago is considered gauche, which begs the question: “what took Trump so long?” Now Trump and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are clashing which is precisely the situation coveted by Trump. As they say, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

trumpsign

And speaking of big, fat fucking signs of the times, I read that uber-mid-life slacker Jimmy Buffet has attached his name to a new timeshare complex in St. Thomas, VI. You gotta love the guy. He’s turned one catchy, steel-drum-inflected song into a lucrative career all out of proportion with his contributions to society. According to the website , time-share owners will enjoy such amenities as Margaritaville Restaurant on the beach, 5 O’Clock Somewhere tiki bar, pool and hot tub just steps from Water Bay and uniquely designed MargaritaVillas. I can see it now – hundreds of overweight, middle-aged white couples (aka. Parrotheads) in flip-flops and flowered shirts stumbling along the beaches, over-priced Margaritas in each hand and illegible tattoos on each calf.

parrot

But why do we need a Jimmy Buffet time-share option at all when just about every time-share located in Florida and the Caribbean already reeks of Buffet-mania? You can’t walk from the hot-tub to the bathroom (assuming you don’t just go in the hot-tub) without being assaulted by Jimmy and his long lost shaker of salt, or brutalized by Zac Brown and his fat ass in the sand.

What we really need today is a Marilyn Manson time-share.

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A Movie About a Nice Jewish Boy

MV5BMjIyNzc3NDM2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcyMTk2MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” produced and directed by Mike Myers is one of the most fascinating and entertaining documentaries made in the past ten years, and for people over 50 years old will bring back some delightful memories of rock n roll in the 1970s and the contemporaneous life-style.

Given the breadth of what the man was involved with and the extended cadre of celebrities that he knew and managed, I feel somewhat ashamed that I had never heard of Shep Gordon before. His story starts in the 1960s with a road trip to LA after failing as a probation officer at a juvenile prison in California. Shep stops at a motel outside LA where he meets Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The movie is filled with serendipitous encounters such as this that seem too unreal to be true.

For no other reason than Shep is Jewish, Hedrix thinks he should become a manager. He further suggests Shep take on a scraggly, misfit band called Alice Cooper. The tales of how Shep Gordon manipulated public opinion about the degenerate Alice Cooper and merchandized the band to number 1, multi-millionaire, private jet status are mind-blowing. Whoever said “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” must have been thinking of Alice Cooper.

A significant thread through the movie is the life-long friendship that Shep and Alice have nurtured and enjoyed to this day, and it serves as a springboard by which Myers reinforces Shep’s status as a “supermensch” – a man of integrity and honor who would do anything for a friend. The movie recollects countless examples of Shep’s generosity, the most poignant being his enduring support of five orphans he barely knew – the connection being simply that he had had a brief fling with their grandmother.

Although Shep managed Alice Cooper and as such got close with rock royalty like Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Steven Tyler and Iggy Pop, he was not an enthusiastic fan of the genre, preferring Motown and Folk. Confounding his peers, Shep took on management of Anne Murray, a Canadian singer with a crystal voice and an straight-laced image to match. Music industry insiders thought it a fool’s errand to try to promote the likes of Anne Murray, who sang about snowbirds and “honey, wheat and laughter” at a time when booze, drugs, androgyny and general unwholesomeness dominated rock n roll. In 1973 Shep booked Anne at the Troubador in LA, a small, intimate club, and arranged for several rock stars to attend the set. His mission was to have Anne Murray photographed surrounded by top talent, surmising correctly that anyone who saw the picture would demand to know more about the unknown chick in the middle. Soon afterwards, Anne Murray was featured in numerous trade rags and performed on “The Midnight Special” – the top rock n roll show on TV (back when being on TV meant something.)

John Lennon, Anne Murray, Alice Cooper and Mickey Dolenz at the Troubour
Anne Murray and some other people

In the second half of the film, Shep observes that fame and unhappiness seem inevitably intertwined. He notes the early deaths of Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, the alcoholism of Alice Cooper, the paralysis of Teddy Pendergrass (another of Shep’s clients) following a car crash. Then one day while having dinner during the Cannes Film Festival (by this time Shep had moved into movie production: “The Duellists,” “Choose Me,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) he meets Roger Vergé, one of the greatest chefs of all time – but virtually unknown outside the world of gourmands. Vergé is the first person Shep encounters who is both famous (within his chosen field) and happy. He resolves to become an accomplished chef himself. Later, when Shep learns that Vergé and his fellow chefs actually reap little financial reward for their efforts, he embarks on an effort to change the dynamic, and in the process creates what we now know as the “celebrity chef.” Emeril Lagasse was Shep’s first client and the rest is history.

The unlikely tales go on and on. I highly recommend the film, for as the tag-line says, “Discover the man who saw everything and went looking for more.” Watch “Supermensch” and find out how this regular schmo from the suburbs of New York City came to be best buddies with the likes of Michael Douglas, Groucho Marx, Ron Wood, the Dalai Lama, Tom Arnold, Sylvester Stallone, and dozens more.

Cantor Chants the Blues

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Too much already has been written and spoken about in the couple of days since Eric Cantor lost his primary race for the right to represent the 7th congressional district of Virginia to small-town college professor David Brat – an event that has been called “an earthquake,” “a tectonic-plate shift,” “a David and Goliath story,” and a “mind-blowing modern-day ‘Dewey Beats Truman’ moment” (nevermind that the original famous headline was “Dewey Defeats Truman”.) There’s been much speculation by the voyeuristic punditocracy on the meaning and ramification of Cantor’s double-digit drubbing – the first time in American history that a House Majority leader was beaten in a primary. A bitch-slapping worse than when House Speaker Thomas Foley lost in a general election to a newcomer.

I don’t intend to pull out a smudged crystal ball and start opining on the future. That’s the job of cretins like Cokie Roberts and Gail Collins. Rather, I offer a few observations:

• Supposedly Brat won because he maniacally beat up Cantor for his softness on illegal immigration. Forget whether Cantor was a pro-“amnesty” liberal or a latter-day Torquemada. Is the blight of illegal immigration really plaguing the 7th congressional district of Virginia to such an extent that it is their most urgent crisis? Seems a stretch. Whatever evils accompany illegal immigration, I have to believe the bulk of them affect border states like Texas and Arizona, leaving little for genteel Virginia to be upset about. Latinos make up less than 5 percent of the district, which includes some of Richmond and its Caucasian suburbs; is the 7th district really a magnet for illegals? Once again, it seems the people have voted against their interests by giving up the benefits of having their congressman wield the power of the Majority leader so that a phantom boogeyman can be vanquished from their midst.

• Every pundit has remarked with incredulity that Cantor’s massive re-election war-chest of $5.4 million was impotent against Brat’s tiny $200,000 budget. But keep in mind, Brat received what was surely millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity from right-wing radio hosts like Laura Ingraham, Glen Beck and Sean Hannity who carried his water for hours on end each day. Cantor surely squandered his money on suspect marketing tactics, but let’s not pretend Brat won on a 27-1 discount.

• Representative Peter King of New York made the following comment after Cantor’s demise: “The results tonight will move the party further to the right, which will marginalize us further as a national party.” No doubt adding Brat to the line-up will move the GOP further right, and you can expect other knock-kneed Republicans to rush to the right out of fear of catching Cantoritis. And Cantor’s loss may marginalize the party in the sense that fewer Americans will identify with the party – but so what? Through such nefarious tactics like gerrymandering, voter suppression laws and obstructive filibusters, the GOP has effectively stifled the power of those who don’t identify with them. We keep hearing that the GOP is becoming the party of older whiteys, leaving behind the growing population of blacks, Latinos, etc – yet everyone’s talking about a perpetual Republican House, the likelihood that the GOP takes the Senate this year, and the possibility of a Republican winning the presidency in 2016.

Is it possible to hold both houses of Congress, and the presidency, and the Supreme Court, and the majority of governorships – and still be marginal?

Only in America.

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Justly Scrutinized: Don Zimmer, NRA, Elise Stefanik, Mary Soames

p1_zimmerDon Zimmer died the other day. The various headlines and photo captions noted unanimously that the 83-year old former NY Met and bench coach for the Yankees had established a career of 60 uninterrupted years in baseball. How sad then that the most prominent memory of this icon of America’s Pastime is the time Pedro Martinez grabbed him by the head and threw him to the turf at the start of a bench-clearing brawl between arch-rivals Yankees and Red Sox. After a few retaliatory pitches earlier in the game, the vile Roger Clemens threw high at Manny Ramirez and that was all she wrote. I saw that episode on TV in real-time and must have watched it again at least a dozen times. Sorry Don. If you’re coaching ball in heaven, stay in the dugout if Ty Cobb spikes Joe DiMaggio.


Tempers flare in Beantown

Who Does the NRA Work For?

I believe it is possible to support the Second Amendment and still revile the NRA. After all, the NRA – actually a lobbyist for gun-makers, more so than a gun-owner’s advocate – routinely goes off the reservation of sanity and backs such dangerous notions as the inviolable rights to make and own guns that resist fingerprints, and the manufacture of bullets capable of penetrating “bullet-proof” vests. Both these positions offend law enforcement – a group that you would normally expect to be pro-gun. Yet the NRA stands firm. Any restriction of any kind remotely connected to a gun of any kind is anathema to the NRA.

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Are those hollow-point croissants?

So of course, they now find themselves in a jam following the publication of a lucid essay on their own website titled ““Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role.” The gist of the essay is that mass congregations of dudes bearing assault rifles in public places like restaurants might scare patrons, thus turning otherwise neutral people on gun rights against them. The essay says, “While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”

In other words, people who might otherwise be inclined to support gun rights decide not to after bringing their 80-year-old mother to Applebee’s and encountering 20 guys in camo brandishing AK-47s all pissed that the two-for-one beer tap ran dry. As this observation about appearances makes perfect sense, the NRA leadership is as usual counter-intuitively apoplectic. The poor writer was simply trying to help the NRA leadership avoid alienating the centerline voting public, and for that he is pilloried. Somehow, I suspect the NRA will contort the essay into a secret Obama ploy to confiscate guns. That of course will result in a spike in gun buys – which is exactly why the NRA exists in the first place.

(Side note: a vicious psychopath has just been arrested in the stabbing deaths in New York of a few people, including two young children in an elevator in their apartment complex, one of whom died. How long before the NRA and its backers foment a facetious campaign calling for all steak knives to be registered?)

New Ideas? New Leadership? How about some New Imagination?

Driving up the New York State Thruway I heard an advertisement paid for by people supporting the candidacy of Elise Stefanik for the 21st Congressional district high up in what is called “North Country.” Stefanik who is a young darling of the right (supported by Paul Ryan, Karl Rove) is campaigning on the tag line: “New Ideas, New Leadership.” Blah. That flavorless stew reminds me of the scene in “Back to the Future” where the mayors of 1955 and 1985 employ the same lame-o motto: “Progress is his middle name!”

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Anyway, Elise notes in her ad that, if elected, she will work hard to “Repeal Obamacare and replace it with common sense solutions.” Forgetting the reality that the first time Obamacare could possibly be repealed is early in 2017, when all the provisions will have been established for better or worse, would it be too much to ask “what do you want to replace it with?” I’m fairly tired of hearing about “repeal and replace” without much on the “replace” side of things. She doesn’t mention any ideas in her radio ad, but perhaps that’s because time is limited. I checked her website instead and there she lists some things she’d like to enact, although they don’t seem replacement-worthy.

Elise would enact these provisions if given the chance:

1. “Let people shop for insurance across state lines.” I used to work at an insurance company and I can testify that they dissect every shred of data when setting policy prices. If some sick bastard in New York saw a cheaper policy for sale in Idaho, I can guarantee that before he could sign his name on the line that is dotted, the Idaho company would have adjusted the rates to take into account his rapidly-diminishing vital signs. In the end, crossing state boundaries to buy insurance would quickly result in homogenized premium prices, accruing a net zero in savings.

2. “Pursue real tort reform.” An easy target, puffed up by crazy stories of people “winning the lottery” over minor surgical gaffes. Of course, we also hear on occasion about a patient who suffers from the amputation of a healthy limb, or one who dies because the doctor accidentally prescribed 10x the amount of a strong drug. Does Elise think these people should have no standing to pursue recompense? In any event, the whole “tort reform” angle is not supported by the evidence. According to Forbes, “A new study reveals that the cost of medical malpractice in the United States is running at about $55.6 billion a year – $45.6 billion of which is spent on defensive medicine practiced by physicians seeking to stay clear of lawsuits. The amount comprises 2.4% of the nation’s total health care expenditure.” Two point fucking four percent. Can we move on please? Besides, if Elise got her way, the sellers of malpractice insurance would have a cow and see to it she became a one-termer.

3. “Fight the waste, fraud and abuse that costs our health care system billions each year.” Give me a break. This is worse than “New Ideas, New Leadership.” The generic “waste, fraud and abuse” are perennial boogie-men, but no seems to able to a) effectively define them, and b) show how to eliminate the onerous costs without spending more to investigate and prosecute the subject offenses. I’m sure someone’s grandmother somewhere is scamming the system to get a fully-pivotal, earthquake-proof, Corinthian leather-seated wheelchair for free, but do we want the US Government to spend $100K to prosecute the “theft” of a $5K wheelchair? Better to go after the wheel-chair company for their loose practices with respect to Medicare – but that would entail taking on a revered “job creator.” Never gonna happen.

4. “Protect those with pre-existing conditions by funding state-level high-risk pools” Given that those with pre-existing conditions are already protected under O-care, this sounds like a tweak.

5. “Allow individuals and families to purchase insurance on the same tax-advantaged basis as businesses.” I’m good with that. But please don’t whine when the budget deficit increases as a result. Just please admit you don’t care about deficits when you give away tax bennies.

Mary Soames dies at 91. Did she have the teeth of a 291 year old?

Getting back to recently dead people, I see that Mary Soames, the last surviving child of the lion of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill died at age 91 on May 31. Mrs. Soames lived an unusual and varied life, one that allowed her to accompany Sir Winston to such memorable events as the Potsdam Conference where Roosevelt and Stalin tagged along. Despite her historic pedigree, I was more fascinated with the photo of her as a young woman during WWII, surrounded by smiling British soldiers. Damn – what they say about British teeth!

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