Saturday, November 15, 2014

Can You Top This?

I had an Italian girlfriend back in my college days who was a wonderful cook.  This was important to our relationship because my life back then was often characterized by (1) hunger and (2) poverty.

There was just one flaw. She wouldn’t eat pizza. She insisted that pizza was merely leftovers tossed on some bread and covered with cheese and tomato sauce and swore that no self-respecting Italian would ever serve it to guests or eat it at a restaurant.

While I admired her ethnic sensibilities, turning up her nose on my favorite food was troubling. I worried she probably didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll, football and cigars either. Alas, we drifted apart. I wonder if she ever changed her mind and learned to love an extra large with sausage and pepperoni.

I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of what Bon Appetite magazine once called the “most perfect food.” Indeed, there are few places on Earth where pizza isn’t enjoyed in one form or another.

Pizza in Tibet? Sure thing. Iran? Yup. North Pole, Alaska? You bet.

Just how popular is it?  After spending two years in a North Korean jail, the first thing freed American Kenneth Bae wanted was pizza. Ditto Yale student Parker Liautaud who last year set a world record for the fastest unsupported walk from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. After completing the grueling trek, he said   the first thing he wanted to do when he returned from the South Pole was eat New Haven pizza.

 A 2012 report from the food and beverage research firm Technomic reported that 40% of Americans ate pizza at least once a week, up from a 26% weekly pizza habit two years prior. 

Yet there is trouble on Planet Pizza. The world’s largest purveyor, after several years of sales declines, is reinventing the pie.

Pizza Hut will focus on dozens of new flavor options as it mounts the 56-year-old brand's biggest-ever redo, according to USA Today. It will add 11 new pizza recipes, 10 new crust flavors, six new sauces, five new toppings, four new flavor-pack drizzles, a new logo, new uniforms and, yes, even a new pizza box.

That means the chain is more than doubling its available ingredients at all 6,300 U.S. locations beginning Nov. 19. Just in time for Thanksgiving.

This is troubling news for a guy who thinks putting ham and pineapple on a pizza is an abomination.

According to a press release, the choices are nearly limitless, with "more than two billion" ways to customize a pizza. Customers can choose from new toppings like Peruvian cherry peppers, crust flavors like Salted Pretzel and sauces like Honey Sriracha.

Even worse, they’ve attached silly names to their product. There’s Cock-a-Doodle Bacon (chicken and bacon with a creamy Parmesan sauce); Giddy Up BBQ Chicken (another chicken and bacon combo); Buffalo State of Mind (Buffalo sauce topped with grilled chicken, sliced banana peppers and fresh red onions); Pretzel Piggy (creamy garlic Parmesan sauce topped with hardwood smoked bacon, fresh mushrooms and fresh spinach – flavored up with a salted pretzel crust edge and balsamic sauce drizzle).

Could I really order out loud “an extra large Pretzel Piggy”?  I think not.

Then there’s Sweet Sriracha Dynamite, with a honey Sriracha sauce, grilled chicken, sliced jalapeno, pineapple and cherry peppers, with a Sriracha-flavored crust edge and drizzle. 

With that much Sriracha, it will probably be banned in Irwindale.

There is a positive here. The menu is also getting a line of “Skinny Slice” pizzas with about 250 calories a slice. Not exactly diet food but it’s the thought that counts.

This from a chain that once offered a Cheeseburger Crust Pizza that tipped the scales at 2,880 calories, somewhat north of an adult male's recommended daily calorie intake. It was only available in Great Britain, another blow to American prestige abroad.

Pizza Hut executives claim they are “redefining the category” and that they researched "hundreds" of ingredients. These are the ones customers told us they want.”

Not everyone is buying this spin.

“Pizza Hut may be doing too much too quickly," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic told USA Today. “It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight."

“It’s a fear of irrelevance,” he said. “But the potential to negatively influence their current customer base is certainly there.”

In a related development, Australian chef Johnny Di Francesco took the top prize at the Pizza World Championship in Parma, Italy.

And was his creation topped with foi gras, caviar and lobster soaked in Napoleon brandy?

Nope. Competition rules in this category are very strict, as only peeled tomatoes, certain types of mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, salt and fresh basil leaves can be used to top the pizza.


Give me simple every time.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Christmas Creep

In 1863, Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, history tells us. He proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states.

 On Dec. 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. He reasoned that an earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost.

In November, 2014, Macy’s announced it would open for “Black Friday” sales starting at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, two hours earlier than last year’s 8 p.m. opening time. Kohl’s and Sears, among others, are opening the doors to shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, while J.C. Penny is trying to trump the competition with a 5 p.m. opening.

Kmart, which will throw open its doors at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day will stay open for 42 hours in a row, according to Money magazine.

If you get the idea that Thanksgiving is being transformed from a day of feasting,  family and blessings counted to a launching pad for the Christmas shopping season, you would be correct.

Actually, you would be partially correct. Kmart aired its first Christmas ad in early September, according to Money. Walmart, Target Toys R Us and others then rolled out various versions of the season’s “Hot Toy” list, long before kids had visions of sugar plumbs dancing in their heads.

The Kmart ad is "unprecedented" in its prematurity, said the advertising news site Ad Age, adding that retailers typically wait until late October to hit consumers with holiday-themed commercials and offers.

What we have here is a phenomenon called “Christmas Creep” and it threatens to gobble up every holiday from the Fourth of July forward.

Bill Martin of the store-traffic research firm Shopper Track said that stores are increasingly feeling compelled to open on Thanksgiving.

“Retailers say that consumers are clamoring for them to be open on Thanksgiving, but that’s not the case,” he said. “They’re just attempting to get to the wallet before the money is gone. That’s what this holiday creep is all about.”

Needless to say, this isn’t sitting well with a lot of folks.

At least two dozen or so stores have confirmed they will remain closed on Thanksgiving. The list includes warehouse membership stores Coscto, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club, home improvement giants Home Depot and Lowe’s, department stores Dillard’s and Nordstrom, specialty retailers like GameStop, DSW, and PetCo, and discount chains such as Burlington Coat Factory, Marshall’s, and T.J. Maxx. 

A spokesperson for TJX, which runs retail brands such as Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx, recently was quoted as saying:   “We consider ourselves an associate-friendly company, and, we are pleased to give our associates the time to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.”

Translation:  Any retailer forcing employees to work on Thanksgiving is flying in the face of American traditions and values.

A spokesman for a Iowa-based department store chain offered this assessment: “Some things are sacred, including spending time with family and loved ones on Thanksgiving and other holidays. We profitably run our business during the remaining 358 days of the year, so we don’t have to sacrifice tradition for the sake of sales.”

Translation:  Anyone open on holidays is greedy and uncaring.

All of which means nothing if customers swarm to stores on Thanksgiving like soldiers establishing a beachhead.

But even the bargain-hunting fanatics among us are having misgivings.

A social media website called Boycott Black Thursday has 60,000 followers.  A petition initiated by a Target employee asking the company to “take the high road and save Thanksgiving” has been signed by 300,000 people, both employees and customers. A Best Buy employee posted a similar petition that currently has 14,000 signatures.

Their voices may go unheard, however.

Retailers rarely misjudge their customers urge to shop, especially if bargains are involved.  It’s not a stretch to believe that within a year, or two at the max, all retailers will throw open their doors on Thanksgiving and the crowds will come, tradition and turkey dinner be damned.

As one shopper told the Wall Street Journal, “The shopper in me is like, 'Yay.' But the human in me is like, this is wrong.”

And if the employees don’t like it?  Well, there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs.


So much for goodwill toward men.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bob in Chains

News and views:

News: I will soon be arrested for attempting to defraud the IRS. Even as I write this, jack-booted authorities are on their way to break down my door take me away in chains. They will sell my family into slavery and level my home.

Views:  At least that was the gist of a phone message that awaited me when I got home the other day.

And for good measure, one more the next day.

Fortunately, I understood that despite a deservedly sinister reputation, the IRS doesn’t declare you guilty of felonious financial shenanigans without a lot of written correspondence not to mention hearings at which you can explain/defend yourself.

So will I soon be sharing a cell with Bernie Madoff?  Thankfully, no.

It’s apparently a scam that has been making the rounds for a couple of years.  

According to the IRS, victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer.

If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license.  

“If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS and threatens police arrest, deportation or license revocation if you don’t pay immediately, that is a sign that it really isn’t the IRS calling,”  said an IRS spokesman who noted that the first IRS contact with taxpayers on a tax issue is likely to occur via mail.

We’re too smart to fall for this ruse, right?

Alas, no. IRS officials say the phone calls have convinced thousands of taxpayers to give up millions of dollars across the country.

According to one report, California has been a cash cow for the scammers. 

 Investigators say they have tracked more than 60,000 of these calls across the US since last October and scammers have collected around $4 million, with a quarter of that coming from California.

Of course, this scam wouldn’t work if folks weren’t terrified of the IRS and its meat cleaver approach to the public.

This time, however, the calls appear to be coming from India. Apparently, we’re now outsourcing fraud.

News:  More and more theater chains are selling booze.

Views: Why produce quality entertainment?  Just get the audience loaded enough and they won’t care what they see.

Irritated at the guy behind you who talks out loud during the movie?  Wait until he gets a couple beers under his belt. He’ll drown out “War of the Worlds” in Dolby digital sound. But you won’t care. You’ll be on your third margarita and slipping into sensory deprivation.

The fact is theater chains are resorting to liquor sales to boosting sagging revenues.  Apparently, $20 popcorn isn’t enough.

A report from the Motion Picture Association of America said that domestic movie box-office sales rose to $10.9 billion last year, from $10.8 billion in 2012.
But the increase was the result of higher ticket prices, not attendance. Indeed, the number of tickets sold slipped yet again, this time 1.5% to 1.34 billion from 1.36 billion.

That extends a longstanding trend: The number of tickets sold fell nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013, according to the report, while box office revenue increased 17%.

With home-entertainment options such as streamed movies and television, video games, or mobile apps people are less likely to head to their local multiplex.

Maybe so.  But the bottom line is a lousy product. The top grossing films of 2014?  “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier,” “The LEGO Movie,” “Transformers:  Age of Extinction.”

I may not be in the show biz demographic bulls-eye. But I wouldn’t watch any of the above mentioned boffo box office winners if they were showing on my garage door and the drinks were on the house.

News:  Political ads are filing he airwaves.

Views:  The worthiness of the ballot propositions or those running for elective office notwithstanding, it’s interesting/amusing to see what buzz words define the issues.

Want to discredit someone who is running for office or supports an initiative?  Easy.  Just mention they are in the pocket of “special interest groups.”

 No need to mention who these shadowy groups are.  The implication is that they are evil even though they include lobbying groups such as the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association and the California Cling Peach Growers.

“Politicians” is also a good term to throw at an opponent. One ad I heard used the term, uttered by a woman whose voice dripped with sarcasm, at least four times.

 Another upped the ante by mentioning in a vile voice “Sacramento politicians,” which rolled off his tongue in a tone usually reserved for axe murders or auto mechanics.

Then there was the triple dip:  power hungry Sacramento politicians beholden to special interests.

There’s a lot to be said for reading the ballot issues.  With the radio and television turned off.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.




Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Never-ending Story

Here we go again.

The National Football League is poised to return to Los Angeles making our lives bright and meaningful after decades of darkness and despair. Praise be the football gods.

This is not mere speculation. It’s also equal parts rumor, conjecture and gossip.

The St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers are all clamoring to return to L.A. If you believe the buzz.

But wait, there’s more.

Two teams could be moving here. That’s the trouble with the NFL. It thinks small. Why not move six teams here and call it the Los Angeles Division? Fans could root for a team in their own Zip code. 

So what gives legs to this latest installment of unsubstantiated tattle? A Los Angeles Times story says the league will begin a formal market assessment of the L.A. area. They will email questionnaires to about 2,000 potential customers to better gauge the demand for a team and what people want in terms of a stadium, seating and amenities.

There’s nothing like a survey to seal the deal.

Look, we’ve all seen this soap opera before. Los Angeles must hold some sort of record for being a bargaining chip, used as leverage by other cities to feather their financial nests.

And the latest development doesn’t make my pulse beat faster. The fact that the league is reaching out to “potential customers” makes me question the validity of the information they might gather.

If they accurately gauge the interest of the public at large, they may find a lukewarm reception.

Just to underscore that point:

In 2006, I reported that “the first NFL game that USC's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinert saw in person was the first one he played in with the Arizona Cardinals.

“When you don't have a pro franchise in town for more than a decade, that's what happens: a generation that wouldn't know a Saint from a Seahawk.”

In 2008, I said, “Let's face it. We have two college football teams with bigtime fan bases in town. UCLA drew an average of 76,000 fans to the Rose Bowl last year…and you couldn't get a ticket to a USC game at the Coliseum if your name was Tommy Trojan.

“The NFL, after an absence of 14 years, just doesn't generate much buzz around here anymore.”

In 2012, I wrote, “don’t expect us to swoon at the rumored sighting of a NFL team.
And don’t expect us to fall head-over-heels in love if one lands in our midst.”

It’s 2014 and I haven’t seen anything that changes my mind.

Well, there is one thing.

Having declared my undying skepticism about this entire NFL-to-L.A. deal, I must admit that one scenario is tugging at my heart strings.

That would be the possibility the Rams would return to Los Angeles, the town they turned their back on in 1994.

When this old ink-stained wretch was a mere youth, the Rams was The Team in Los Angeles, the only professional franchise in town. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and the Lakers in Minneapolis.  The Kings, Ducks, Clippers, Angels and Galaxy were mere figments of someone’s imagination.

When we descended upon the parks and playgrounds for a day of flag football, we not only chose up sides, we adopted the names of the Rams players as well.

My friends would morph into Crazy Legs Hirsch, or Night Train Lane, or Deacon Dan Towler.  I would become Vitamin T. Smith.

Who?

Smith was a swift Texan who spent his career with the Rams as a running back/kick returner. I’m not sure how much of that I knew back then but I thought his was the coolest name ever.

If you get attached to a team at a young age, it becomes a part of your soul even as you grow older. I was no exception. I lived and died with the Rams until the day they packed up and moved to St, Louis.

And then I never cheered for them again. 

If they returned, it would be a reconciliation of sorts. There would be fond memories of games won. But there would be moments to forget as well:  a Super Bowl loss, shoddy treatment by a despicable owner.

I’m a forgiving type. I’m pretty sure I would quickly return to the Ram fold.  Besides, it would be a chance to recapture just a bit of my youth.  


I could be Vitamin T. Smith once again.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Live Free and Freeze

California has been subjected to a lot of public flogging recently.

To hear tell, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, overcrowding, pollution, cash-strapped cities and underperforming athletic franchises are our lot in life.

The news isn’t all bad.  We lead the nation in area codes.

Nonetheless, it’s enough to tempt you to look for somewhere else to live.

Just in time to help you make an informed decision about swapping your old paradise for new one comes a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has ranked all 50 states according to nine different measures of well-being: health, safety, housing, access to broadband, civic engagement, education, jobs, environment, and income.

Using that yardstick, the OECD has anointed New Hampshire as the most desirable place to live in the United States.

We all know New Hampshire as the place that emerges like Brigadoon out of the mists every four years and conducts the first presidential primary election.

The primary's significance is debatable.  However, there’s some entertainment value in  watching wandering hordes of media types bundled in their best L.L. Bean winter gear trying to be profound in a place that defines quaint.

We also know this about New Hampshire:  Summer lasts about two weeks.  The rest of the year consists of blizzards, ice storms, white outs and avalanches.  Looking for a winter wonderland? Average annual snowfall ranges from 60 inches to more than 100 inches across the state.

And speaking of “white,” almost 94 per cent of the population features that skin tone.

We know New Hampshire as a place of rugged beauty and rugged individualism.  After all, this is a state that doesn’t require seat belts or motorcycle helmets.  “Live Free or Die”? More like “Live Free and Die.”

The state has no general sales tax and no personal state income tax but the state does tax, at a 5 percent rate, income from dividends and interest).  That’s good news.  The bad news is that the state's local communities have some of the nation's highest property taxes. 

Democrats have dominated elections in recent years, prompting something called the Free Stare Project to attempt to entice 20,000 individuals with libertarian-leaning views to move to New Hampshire with the intent of reducing the size and scope of government at the local, state and federal levels through active participation in the political process.

I’ve always believed that if a state is as great as its boosters claim, people would be flocking to live there.   The population of New Hampshire?  About 1.3 million or the size of San Diego

As one wag observed, the state is a “pack of syrup-swilling squirrel worshipers.”

Sound like the kind of place you’d want to live?  Me neither.

Next up on the desirability scale are Minnesota, Vermont, Iowa and North Dakota.  Apparently, living in snow up to your eyebrows while the scent of farm animals wafts on the breeze is a prerequisite to living the good life.

So who occupies the bottom of the list?

The entire Grits Belt, as it turns out.

Mississippi scored lower than any other state on the Best Place to Live scale.  Joining it is Arkansas, Alabama ,West Virginia and Tennessee.

Other sons of the south such as Louisiana, Maryland and South Carolina finished at the bottom of the heap when it comes to public safety. So much for Southern hospitality.

Maybe you should avoid the Confederacy as your forwarding address.

Which brings us back to California. We finished in the mid-range of best places to live, We're low on the safety scale and near the bottom (along with Hawaii) in the best states to find a home, the curse of living some place with a view.  

We're 11th in the best place to earn a living, fourth in the healthiest states and second to last in best job opportunities category thanks to a 7.4 per cent unemployment rate.

But there is so much to love here, stuff that a study can’t possibly understand.

Like Yosemite and Death Valley, like tacos and sushi and In-N-Out Burger, like Carmel and Santa Barbara and the Napa Valley and Palm Springs,  the Dodgers and the Giants.   The Golden Gate Bridge and the San Diego Zoo. 

And the weather.  By god, the weather.


I think I’ll stick around.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Cop Bait

We’ve all suffered a bout of road rage from time to time. 

Not enough to engage in fisticuffs. Not enough to contemplate our Second Amendment rights.

Just enough to make our blood boil.

Just think about the guy in the Porsche 911 Turbo who thinks he’s on the flag lap at Nürburgring. Or the guy in the Mustang who’s exceeding the speed limit by 45 mph. And the guy in the Corvette who’s tailgating him. Or the kid whose daddy bought him a shiny new BMW and who drives like he didn’t pay for it.

But at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that they all have a glove compartment full of tickets.

However, according to one survey, we would be wrong. The 10 most ticketed cars as ranked by Insurance,Com are the Subaru WRX, the Pontiac GTO, the Scion FR-S, the Toyota Supra , the Subaru Tribeca, the Volkswagen Rabbit, the Mercury Topaz, the Scion tC , the Toyota FJ Cruiser and the Mazda2.

This survey raised a lot of questions.  First and foremost is how the Pontiac GTO and Mercury Topaz made the list.

The GTO was a classic American muscle car that was produced from 1964 to 1974.  It was revived briefly and unsuccessfully by the General Motors subsidiary Holden in Australia from 2004 to 2006.

Most of the classic GTOs still on the road today fall into the collector car category.  A restored one could cost you up to six figures. Weaving in and out of traffic in one of these babies would be like drinking from Baccarat crystal at a biker bar.

The Mercury Topaz was produced by Ford from 1984 to 1994. To call it nondescript would be embellishment. To call it reliable would be an outight lie. If it’s one of the most ticketed cars, in must be for traffic obstruction.

Another explanation is that the majority of these cars are lower-price imports, the kind young people drive. And young people tend to have a heavy foot.  I know, I was young once.

That leaves the Corvettes, the Vipers, the Ferraris, the Jaguars, the Aston Martins, all factory-built rocket sleds on wheels, in the hands of older folks who learned a long time ago not to hurry.

As a friend remarked recently, “Have you notice now that as you get older, you get tailgated a lot?”   As a matter of fact, I do.

A website called Autoblog has other issues.  “Insurance.com explains that it based the study on 557,238 drivers who requested online insurance quotes from its service from January 1, 2013 to July 2014. To make it onto the list, a vehicle needed over 50 quotes, and in the end that left 526 models.

“However, these facts are almost useless because the list isn't based on percentages from the whole pool. The study's ranking comes from owners of specific vehicles, and these numbers aren't mentioned anywhere in the company's press release.

“All we know about the sample size for each model is that it's higher than 50. Assuming that amount for the WRX means it would only take about 17 people with tickets using the site to put the sporty car in first place.”

OK, so maybe it’s all bunk. But there are some legitimate street rods in the survey.   The Suburu WRX features a 268 horsepower, six speed manual transmission which will get you there in a hurry. The Scion FR-S can hit 136 miles per hour.

On the other hand, the Subura Tribeca is a SUV, which will never be featured in  “Fast and Furious.” And somehow the Prius snuck on to the top 20 most ticketed list. The authorities must have nabbed a bunch of vegan hippies at the bottom of steep grade.

For the record, the least ticketed vehicles include a bunch of pickup trucks and a collection of Buicks from a bygone era when nobody under the age of 70 was allowed to own one.

While we’re talking about automotive legends, I have it on good authority from people all over the country who swear that if you drive a red car, you are traffic cop bait.

True? We turned to Snopes.Com which makes a living debunking urban myths and other assorted misinformation to give us the lowdown.

Their verdict: “Whenever they've been asked about the rumor, police across the U.S. have consistently denied any connection between vehicle color and tickets issued or the allegation that they write up the drivers of red cars more often than they do other motorists.

“Said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a trooper with the Maryland State Police for more than 20 years: ‘You don't care about the car's color, you care about the violation. If a red car and a green car drive past you and the green car is going 30 mph over the speed limit, the driver of the green car is the one who is going to get stopped.’

“Similarly, Sgt. Thomas Miller of Clearwater, Florida's traffic enforcement unit said, ‘It's not the color of the car that matters, it's how fast it's going.’ Likewise, a California Highway Patrol officer we asked about this rumor asserted it is drivers doing something different or unusual that catch the eyes of highway patrolmen, regardless of the color of their vehicles.”


A cop wouldn’t lie, would he?

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Silly Science

We Americans are an odd lot. We loudly complain about our government leaders, second guess our coaches and managers, curse contractors and mechanics, loath banks and lenders. Even though we all came from somewhere else, we tell the rest of the world to “get off our lawn.”

You would think we were an unfriendly bunch.

Yet we bestow honors and awards on thousands of people at the drop of a hat. Who among us hasn’t received a plaque, a trophy, a cup, a ribbon?

Every town and city in the land is awash in beauty contests, spelling bees and athletic honors.

That’s ground level stuff. On the big stage, television this year overwhelmed us with the Eclipse Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Grammies and the Tonys. 

Then there are the NAACP Image Awards, the Hispanic Heritage Awards, the Movieguide Faith & Values Awards, the Kids’ Choice Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the Do Something! Awards and the Guys’ Choice Awards.

Lesser known but just as noteworthy are the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, the Foot in Mouth Awards and the Rotten Sneakers Award.

A person could become wealthy leasing out red carpets.

Still, there is one awards presentation that draws our rapt attention. That would be the Ig Noble Prizes, staged annually at Harvard University by the editors of a not-to-be-taken-too-seriously group known as the Annals of Improbable Research.

They are awarded for "research that makes people laugh, and then think" and are often presented by actual Nobel laureates.

Past winners include a team from UC Davis for exploring why woodpeckers don't get headaches; researchers who calculated the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed; a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards know no bounds. The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year's honorees carried on the lofty traditions established by past winners.

Physics Prize: To Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that's on the floor.

Neuroscience Prize: To Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

Psychology Prize: To Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning. 

Public Health Prize: To Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

Art Prize: To Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro, and Paolo Livrea, for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.

Economics Prize. To the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

Medicine Prize: To Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating "uncontrollable" nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.

Nutrition Prize: To Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated From Infant Feces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

This is truly news we can use. For example, I concluded that I would go insane if I owned a cat, that there is no end to the wonders of bacon, and that the next time I’m in Spain, I’ll pass on the fermented sausages.

Since we failed to report on last year’s festivities, the highlights included a study that confirmed by experiment that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive; a team that concluded some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond if those people and that pond were on the moon; and a discovery that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized.

A special Peace Prize was awarded to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.


Ain’t science grand?

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.