Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Fat of the Land

Nothing hits the spot when you're hungry like a quarter-pounderwith cheese and an order of fries.

Supersize it? Hell yes.

Truth be told, however, I haven't had either one in more than a year. Why? Because I have learned a diet that includes fast food on a regular basis can give you an up close and personal relationship with obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Hold the heart attack, please.

I mention this because a recent Associated Press story said that McDonald's Corp. is once again facing an outbreak of bad publicity expected from a new book, "Chew on This," and a movie due out later this year based on "Fast Food Nation." a book critical of that industry.

The book and the movie hold fast food companies responsible for the nation's childhood obesity epidemic and criticizes them for being low-wage employees.

Nothing new here. McDonald's, an easy target for those with a beef, so to speak, against Styrofoam containers, the consumption of animals or other alleged crimes against nature, has been sued numerous times, accused of fostering obesity. Courts have dismissed most of the claims.

And McDonald's, along with others in the industry, is beginning to introduce menu items that would warm a vegetarian's heart, due mostly to changing tastes and consumer pressure.

That is not to say I'm a stauch defender of the fast food industry. For one thing, they target kids. Or as "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser says, "This is an industry that feeds and feeds off the young."

To underscore that point, consider that McDonalds is one of the biggest toy companies in the world. One out of three toys received by a child in the United States comes from a fast food restaurant. As any marketing type will tell you, building brand loyalty among the very young usually attracts the rest of the family resulting in a relationship that lasts for generations. Just ask the breakfast cereal manufacturers.

And there's no debating the reach and power of the fast food industry. Again, Schlosser writes, Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers,videos, and recorded music - combined.

Schlosser's point is that the fast food industry has used political influence to increase profits at the expense of human health and the social conditions of its workers. There is probably some truth to that. It wouldn't be the first time in this country that business has put the pursuit of profits above the public good (see the tobacco industry).

However, McDonald's thrived in large part because it was in the right place at the right time. Just about the time the chain was growing, the Americn landscape was undergoing a sea change. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers, In 1975, about one-third of American mothers with young children worked outside the home; today almost two-thirds of such mothers are employed.

Mealtime became crunch time. Fast food became a convenience that became a necessity.

Ultimately, there is something troubling about making burger joints a metaphor for all that is wrong with America. Are we all such slaves to the power of marketing that we need a lawyer or an animal rights activist or a nutritionist to protect us fromourselves?

Do we need to go to waddle off to court when our pants get too tight, looking to blame someone, anyone but the person responsible?

Are you going to tell me that you didn't know that living on burgers, pizza and burritos could be injurious to your health?

Are you going to say you were addicted to fries? That you broke out in a cold sweat if you couldn't suck up a bucket of fried chicken? That your hands trembled if a stuft crust pizza wasn't on the menu?

Are you suggesting you couldn't stop yourself from pushing fast food on your kids? That you don't read the nutrition information on the products you buy?

You want an answer to the problem of obesity in America? Look in the mirror. If you don't like what you see, stop patronizing places that make you that way.

If, instead, you decide to sue, you better hope I'm not on the jury.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Out Castes

I had a close encounter this past week with outsourcing, that peculiar phenomenon in which a call or e-mail requesting assistance is answered by someone six to eight time zones away whose English is a second or third language.
It was a simple billing question for an online company. After waiting in an electronic queue of some 60 or so souls, I received an e-mail message that said:
"I feel so lucky and honored that I have received your inquiry. I will try my hardest to sincerely provide the information you require."
That was my first clue that I was no longer in the good old US of A where the response would have been "Whazzup?" and I would have been refered to as "Dude."
All thing considered, the e-mail conversation went well, despite the fact that both of us communicated in a sort of shorthand English.
It's not my first brush with this sort of thing. Call the Los Angeles Times about a delivery problem and you'll get someone who has never been west of the Mississippi. A question about a laptop computer will send you half a world away.
There appears to be no limit to outsourcing.
For example, in Great Britain, blood and urine samples from National Health Service patients are sent to India for pathology tests to cut costs. The non-emergency requirements of pathology tests are conducted at the clinical lab setup at Mumbai, India. The 24-hour lab conducts the test and the results are uploaded into the special network linked to the NHS. The NHS hospitals in the UK get the reports in 24 hours.
Simple enough, but now there is talk of sending patients overseas for medical procedures.
On a lighter note, McDonald's is experimenting with a program that allows workers at call centers to fill orders placed by customers at drive-throughs. In a New York Times story, a young woman in Santa Maria, Calif., is seen busily filling orders from Honolulu to Gulfport, Miss. And some Carl's Jr.'s restaurants are going to try it next.
Even Reuters, the European news service, is hiring journalists in Bangalore, India, to do basic financial reporting on 3,000 small to medium-size American companies.
What's next? Prescription refills? 911 calls? Dial-a-Prayer?
All of this has set off a highly emotional debate surrounding the sending of skilled jobs overseas in the interest of saving a buck.
The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the volume of offshore outsourcing will increase by 30 to 40 percent a year for the next five years. Forrester Research estimates that 3.3 million white-collar jobs will move overseas by 2015. According to projections, the hardest hit sectors will be financial services and information technology.
Scary numbers to be sure but some economists argue that most jobs will remain unaffected altogether: close to 90 percent of jobs in the United States require geographic proximity. Such jobs include everything from retail and restaurants to marketing and personal care -- services that have to be produced and consumed locally, so outsourcing them overseas is not an option. Amid all this, something odd is occuring.
India, the largest recipient of outsourced jobs employing approximately 400,000 people, is facing a crisis: It is running out of skilled people to take the jobs.
The country is facing a shortfall of almost half a million workers, threatening its status as the world's "back office."
How can a country of 1.2 billion people come up short of workers? According to one report, it's quality, not quantity. Bluntly put, many of the more than 3 million college graduates churned out every year are considered mediocre.
And filling the gap are Americans and Europeans who are flocking to India to take the jobs, in large part because their mastery of English is a huge asset.
Some experts in India see the need for 120,000 more workers in the next five years who speak English and European languages. And they're looking to North and South American and Europe to fill those jobs.
Which means we may have come full circle. Will India soon be outsourcing jobs to the United States?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Weather Wimp

Let me say right up front, I'm a weather wimp.
I'm Southern California born and bred and when the temperature dips below 70 or it rains more than once a week, I become restless, easily irritated, feeling caged like an animal.
Oh sure, I've lived other places: San Francisco where summer never comes and the fog seeps into your bones; and Washington, D.C., a place so hot in July and August that the British Foreign Service once declared it a hardship post, considering it a worse place to live than Calcutta.
All things considered, I'll take Los Angeles, where the voices of songbirds waft on jasmine-scented breezes.
Until this year.
This spring stinks. Too cold, too cloudy, too windy, too wet. Not the kind of top down, crank-up the Beach Boys weather we've grown to love. More like Scotland or some other dark, brooding place.
Not that everybody minds. The local television news crews have been able to roll out their "storm watch" teams with irritating frequency, firing up Doppler radar, filming the same flooded intersection in the San Fernando Valley week after week and sending their highly skilled reporters out to ask people on the street, "So, what do you think about the rain?"
For the rest of us, however, good weather makes most of the unpleasant aspects of living in this megalopolis tolerable.
So I checked in with the National Weather Service to see what gives.
In its usual understated way, they concede that the period from Feb. 6 through April "unusually cool." Which is like saying that Shaquille O'Neill is "unusually large."
The NWS will tell you that temperatures have been below normal for 46 of the last 51 days.
In fact, in April, as of this writing, temperatures have been below normal every single day. It was the coldest March since 1962. For all you weather nuts out there, the coldest March in history was in 1880 with an average temperature of just over 54 degrees. I'm surprised anyone moved here.
The average daily high in March this year was 63.3 degrees, 6.5 degrees below normal which the NWS describes as "whopping."
Rainfall for March recorded in downtown Los Angeles was 2.87 inches, actually slightly below normal. But it rained 11 days in March, nearly twice the normal number of wet days.
For the season, rainfall will be about 80 per cent of normal downtown. Some areas are reporting normal totals. And, of course, compared to last year, it's been downright bone dry. Last year, depending on where you live, we received from 36 to 50 inches of rain.
All of this should dispel the notion that we don't have weather in Southern California.
After all, this is the land where weather conditions sound like the lineup for a rock concert: the Santa Ana Wind, June Gloom, Pineapple Express, the Red Flag Warning and the Cutoff Low.
For the next 30 days, it looks like we can expect more of the same although forecasters rival stockbrokers when it comes to warning that their advice could be totally wrong.
As for me, I'll throw another log on the fire and keep complaining. As novelist Kin Hubbard once observed, "Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in awhile, nine out of ten people couldn't start a conversation."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

One for the Road

My first Japanese car was a Datsun, circa 1973 if I recall.
It was green with gold racing stripes that ran its length, a silly touch for a car that groaned at 50 mph.
I bought it partly in reaction to gasoline shortages that were plaguing the country at the time. It had a four cylinder engine and body that was slightly stronger than tin foil.
But my primary motivation was to dump the Buick I owned that drank gas like the tank it resembled and overheated even when it was going downhill.
We were too young for a Buick anyway. My wife said it made her hair turn blue when she drove it.
I have tried to stay true to American products since then with mixed results.
I had a Chevy that still had some GM assembly line worker's coffee cup wedged between the engine block and the fender well when I bought it.
We bought the inevitable Chrysler mini van when we were in our soccer mom phase.
But we have also gone foreign in our purchaes over the last several decades, a little Japanese here, a little German there.
I thought about that recently when I read that Ford and GM are caught up in a protracted sales decline, losing to more nimble companies like Toyota which had its best March in history.
Even South Korea's Hyundai is experiencing better results than Ford and GM.
That's not entirely surprising. The American automotive industry has become fat, arrogant and stupid over the years.
A Los Angeles Times story on the plight of the Buick marque contained this telling ancedote:
"I remember being told by a GM executive … that they'd never worried about Buick because as people got older and richer, their asses would get fatter and they would always buy Buicks to sit 'em in," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of San Diego market research firm Strategic Vision, which has done consumer studies for GM.
That mentality certainly worked on one level: the average Buick buyer is 69 years old, the oldest demographic in the industry, according to marketing rearch reports.
Buick is in such desperate shape that even Tiger Woods can't sell them.
A cornerstone of the American capitalist system is that you stay quick and competitive or die. And it appears that Ford and GM may be checking into an automotive hospice
Should we care? After all, most of our appliances, electronics and clothing are manufactured overseas. So who cares about Ford and GM?
I do, for one.
It's hard to get teary eyed over an industry that sold over priced and somtimes unsafe products to an unsuspecting public for decades. Remember planned obsolesence? The Corvair? The Ford Pinto? All brought to you by the American car dealers.
However, automotive manufacturing remains an important part of our economy. Roughly one in five jobs in the industrial Midwest is dependent upon General Motors alone, for example.
And on a strictly sentimental level, Ford and GM products are more likely than not a part of our personal history. Chances are, your first car was a Ford or Chevy. Maybe even your second or third car. Chances are it was your Dad's first car, too. Chances are you lusted after a Corvette or Mustang.
I'm not advocating a government bailout of two multi-billion companies who have managed to fritter away what was once a monopoly.
But we can hope they make a go of it. And there are some signs they are finally awakening from a long slumber.
Ford has responded to hybrid innovations from Japanese manufacturers by bringing out their own line of hybrid vehicles. GM has hopped aboard the alternative fuel train in hopes of capturing market share.
And both are beginning to pay attention to design after being stuck in the 50s for 50 years.
Even more important, reliability is improving. Indeed, Michael Quincy, automotive content specialist for Consumer Reports, says the quality of Ford and GM cars has improved greatly in recent years.
Looking at Ford in particular, that company's American-branded cars are about average in long term reliability. Again, though, today's "average" is a lot better than the "average" of years gone by.
Recalling a jingle from some year's back, "Wouldn't You Rather Have Buick?"
Maybe, just maybe, I would.

Good News, Bad News

Our taxes are due.
We are up to our nostrils in the quicksand known as Iraq and nobody is throwing us a rope.
The debate over immigration reform is dividing our communities.
The President, faced with approval numbers that resemble winter temperatures in the Dakotas, is dumping staff members.
Then there is the weekly helping of grisly murders, political hanky panky and studies that assert we eat too much, sleep too little and are ill prepared for the bird flu.
Even our sports heroes are turning out to he chemically fueled automatons. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
Are you alone in wanting some relief from the run-for-your-life headlines that dominate today's news?
Apparently many people are. Check out these developments:
A newspaper called the Newark (N.J.) Weekly News has signed a $100,000 contract with the city council to publish "positive news" about the city.
"Do we have critical reporters on the staff? No. Do we have investigative reporters? No. Our niche is the good stuff. People have come to know it and they love it," explained Weekly News owner and editor Howard Scott.
Now, there's an idea. Just think of all the smiles that could have been generated right here in the the San Gabriel Valley under this arrangement. I can see the headlines now:

Council, Residents Join Hands to Welcome Wal-Mart
Red Cross Chapter Saluted for Hiring Practices
Homeowners Beg the NFL: Take the Rose Bowl, Please
Pasadena Schools Adopt a Sleeker Look by Closing Four Schools
Arcadia Needs Another Shopping Center

Of course, that isn't exactly the way these stories unfolded. But, hey, put on a happy face.
Not everyone is buying into the Newark Plan for Positive Journalism, however. Roy Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said, "If you are publishing government propaganda in the guise of neutral, detached reporting, that's about as unethical as you can get short of putting a hit out on somebody."
Perhaps a better alternative is a website called HappyNews.Com. These guys are right up front about it:
"Our basic belief is not that people should be insulated from bad news. Far from it. We encourage people to be fully engaged, fully informed citizens. That means we need to know the good and the bad. We just believe much of the traditional media has strayed from this course, and reports a disproportionate amount of negative news. We are trying to balance the scales back out..."
Almost all political stories are rejected. Coverage of the war in Iraq has been limited to things such as Marines celebrating Thanksgiving and volunteers sending teddy bears to Iraqi children.
The 30,000 job cuts announced by General Motors Corp.? You won't read it in HappyNews. Sports stories are mostly out "because one team wins and one team loses," the website's founder, Byron Reese explained.
So what do you get on HappyNews? Here's a sampling:

Girl Wins Spelling Bee After 41 Rounds.
Jill Carroll Visits Newsroom, Thanks Staff
California Wine Sales Hit Another High
Clinton Raises Billions for World's Needy
Alabama Votes to Pardon Parks, Others

Of course, you could pick some nits with these choices. The youngster who finished second in the spelling bee probably doesn't consider it happy news. Jill Carroll is the recently freed prisoner of Jihadists who threatened to behead her which, of course, is the basis for this story. It's great California is cranking out wine by the hundreds of millions of gallons but perhaps not such great news for those battling alcohol abuse. For all his good deeds, Bill Clinton still elicits a remarkably negative repsonse in some people. And while it commendable that Alabama has gotten around to forgiving Rosa Parks, one might ask why it took them 51 years to do so.
But you can't please everyone.
As for me, I'll take my news straight up, no chasers. If I want to add a silver lining, I'll paint it myself.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Takin' It to the Streets

I am a member of the demonstration generation.
Fueled by the confluence of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests, perhaps no other recent generation took to the streets as often as those of us who came of age in the 1960s.
We didn't invent marching for a cause.
That honor in this country goes to the colonists who took to the streets to protest the tyrany of English rule.
But we marched and cheered and shouted and sang long enough and loud enough to eventually help bring an end to segregation in this country and a stop to a war whose goals were as clouded and ill conceived as today's adventure in Iraq.
Many of us were guided by the words of Martin Luther King. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King spoke of "direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the. . . community."
We did just that. Looking back, it seemed like right and truth and justice drove us. We were idealistic and motivated. We were also naive.
I thought about that this week as I watched students pouring out of their schools to march in protest of the more Draconian aspects of immigration policy being debated in Congress.
They are young, idealistic and, I'm relativly sure, convinced they have truth and justice on their side. They have been vocal but nonviolent.
Let's hope they can stay that way.
Just as surely as the civil rights movement begat the Black Panthers and the peace movement begat the Weathermen, there are those who would hijack causes such as the immigration rights movement and turn it to their own nefarious ends.
History teaches us that this is so.
Remember the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee? Some of the original members were organizers of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. SNCC played a leading role in the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington, seminal events in the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the group was taken over by the likes of H. Rap Brown who embraced violence which he said "was as American as apple pie."
The Students for a Democratic Society? Rejecting the ideal of participatory democracy, many members broke off and formed the Weathermen who called for a series of militant actions to achieve the revolutionary overthrow of the government of the United States, and of capitalism as a whole.
Seen an anti-war demonstration lately? In many cases, front and center, is a group of anarchists whose main goal seems to be to create of climate of violence and mistrust between the demonstrators and police and bring discredit to the cause . They were primarily the instigators of trouble between the police and demonstrators outside Staples Center during the Democratice convention in 2000.
Today's reality for many us is that yesterday's idealism has been replaced with disillutionment and distrust.
Having said that, I believe attempts to radicalize and polarize the immigrants rights movement may fail because so many of those participating have a financial and emotional stake in this country.
To underscore that point, I was cheered to read the words of Gustavo Arellano, writing in the Orange County Weekly about last weekend's demonstration:
"Those Latino multitudes who marched waving the Stars and Stripes sought the right to remain here and enter the American social contract. They want the responsibilities and burdens of citizenship. Sure, there were Mexican flags, and people shouted "Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!" as if they were cheering on the tricolor soccer squad. But the chatter on the streets was that of assimilation. The most telling sign was the young people at the protest - the children of immigrants, who chanted in Spanish then talked to each other in perfect English. They are the legacy of the illegal immigrants, the reason why the illegals want to belong."
Let's hope this movement follows the examples of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez and that the mistakes of the past aren't repeated in the future.

It's a Guy Thing

"Never say that marriage has more of joy than pain."
That sage observation was made by Euripides, and he made it in 438 B.C. He was, of course, a Greek dramatist known for his tragedies, as that quote might attest.
Some 2400 years later, the state of matrimony finds itself on similarly shaky footing.
But now a marraige therapist with more than 30 years in the trenches has come up with a reason why many marraiges end badly.
It's our fault, guys. We really are scum.
Robert Mark Alter contends in his new book "It's (Mostly) His Fault" that the man is primarily responsible for the marital problems.
Alter explained in an interview that "when a woman is in a relationship with a man, it's not about getting the best of them or dominating them, it's about connecting.
"One of the things I've learned as a therapist, this is about ``withness.'' Is he with me, does he want to spend time with me, does he want to talk with me? With a woman, it's more about connecting and with a man, it's more about dominating. Men are all about hierarchy, all of male sports are about ``I am above you, I have beaten you.'' My experience with women in relationships is it's not about that for them."
So woman are blameless?
"There's all kinds of women and all kinds of men," Alter said. "In some cases, women are mostly at fault, so this isn't one size fits all. But the preponderance of my experience is that when I'm sitting in therapy and I'm making interventions - and I was a hockey and basketball referee, so I became good at deciphering who made the mistake - 80-90 percent I was turning to the man and saying, ``you can't say that to her.''
OK, fair enough.
So I put the question to a number of male acquaintences. Are you responsible for all the discord in your marriage?
This admittidly unscientific control group ran the gamut from seemingly devoted husbands and fathers to a couple of guys who never got over the frat house life style to several for whom marriage is basically a conduit to coach youth soccer and Little League baseball.
None would concede that he was at fault 100 per cent of the time in a dispute. Many attributed disagreements to the differences in the way men and women perceive problems or approach solutions. But intrestingly enough, every single one of them admitted to doing something so stupid and/or insensitive at least once during their marriages that they remain guilty, sometimes years after the fact.
You know, the standard stuff: missed anniversaries, a couple of unfortunate incidents involving alcohol, a round of golf while she was home with a couple of sick kids, too much time at the office, not sharing in domestic duties, stuff like that.
And being emotional clods, most guys try to make up for their boorish behavior by being romantic. But as someone once wrote, when the relationship is in disrepair, a woman will feel it has to be repaired before sex, not repaired by sex.
Come to think of it, maybe it's amazing that marriages survive at all. But they do and we have women to thank for it, according to Alter.
"My experience is that when it comes to knowing how to be in a relationship, how to be intimate with another person, how to connect, women have much less changing they need to do than men. You can see an example: if you're ever at a restaurant, look for a table of three or four women. You'll see them leaning forward toward each other, having a great time connecting, and it's my feeling they know something about getting along with other human beings that we men don't know."
Or as Euripides also said, "Man's best possession is a sympathetic wife."

Up in Smoke

Question: Name two products widely available in the United States that, if used to manufacturer's specifications, can kill you.
Answer: (1) Guns.
(2) Cigarettes.
That's why I am annoyed by the outbreak of hand wringing that has accompanied the city of Calabasas' decision to ban smoking in public areasincluding sidewalks, parks, outdoor businesses, restaurant patios and condo commons.
Those who wish to smoke in this upscale West San Fernando Valley city must do so in designated smoking areas. And if a nonsmoker asks a smoker to stop, he or she must comply or face a fine.
Great, I'm all for it.
I am no health Nazi. I like my steaks large and medium rare, my wine red and my Scotch neat.
And I smoked cigarettes for more than 20 years. I have no excuse for that other than the fact that I grew up in an era when tobacco use was so commonplace that nonsmokers were the pariahs. I quit many years ago. Whether it was soon enough remains to be seen.
So should Joe Marlboro or Virginia Slim be able to fire up at will?
There are a number of individuals and groups who think they should.
Most of them seem to embrace the philosophy that bans on smoking are a first step in an assault on our personal liberties that won't stop until we are shackled by our own moral excesses.
"The level of control exerted upon the supposedly free citizens of Western Europe and North America is reaching a critical point," says one smokers rights group. " People today submit to a level of control that our grandparents would have found unbearable yet we, the product of their sacrifices to maintain liberty, grumble and grouse but ultimately shrug off the responsibility of taking positive action." Picking up on that theme, another group exhorts its followers to get involved, saying that if they do, "they can be successful in stopping unfair smoking bans and cigarette-tax hikes. Almost 46 million adult Americans choose to smoke, and a large number of them have become active in protecting their rights..."
That this last message is brought to you courtesy of the R.J. Reynolds company should probably come as no surprise.
A Calabasas resident blogs that "Calabasas using its own unique judgement has inacted a law that not only bans smoking but also bans your freedoms, freedoms of choice, the pursuit of happiness ..."
Nonsense. At one time in this country, we had the freedom to own slaves, legally practice segregation, slaughter endangered species and carry concealed weapons.
Does that constitute an eroding of liberties?
Do people have the right to continue to practice what the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as "the single most important preventable risk to human health in developed countries and an important cause of premature death worldwide"?
Do we turn our head when people engage in a habit linked to lung cancer, stroke peripheral vascular disease, birth defects of pregnant smokers' offspring, impotence, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis?
Do we shrug our shoulders over the health costs of tobacco use to us as a nation?
Does smoking sound like something that ought to be prohibited?
It does to me. Can you think of why a product so inherently dangerous should continue to be legal? I can't.
And if it infringes on the rights of someone whose habits endanger themselves and those around them, so be it.
To paraphrase an old expression, "Cigarettes don't kill people, smokers do."

Code Enforcers

Ladies and gentlemen, America is under seige.
The barbarians are at the gate and they will not rest until every single one of our fellow citizens are firmly in their grasp.
The enemy is not jihad-crazed terrorists, the religious right or the liberal media. It's not even Walmart or Starbucks.
No, this assault is being launched by author Dan Brown, actor Tom Hanks director Ron Howard and a cast of thousands who intend to make "The Da Vinci Code" bigger than Elvis, the Beatles, "Gone With the Wind" and "Desperate Housewives" all rolled into one.
Get ready for a promotional orgy.
Just in case you weren't one of the 43 million souls who already bought a hardcover copy of Brown's mix of catholic theology, crime thriller and conspiracy theory, Random House will be raining 5 million softcover copies down on us just before the release of the movie in May, according to published reports.
If you want to avoid being exposed to this onslaught, I suggest you avoid television, radio, the Internet, bookstores, movie theaters, supermarket checkout lines and airport gift shops.
Even that may not work.
Sony Pictures will be launching a campaign tied to the March 28 paperback publication date, according to the Los Angeles Times. As the books appear in the stores, a trailer for the film will appear; it will be supplemented with billboards.
But wait, there's more. On May 19, the day of the film's release, Doubleday and Broadway Books will release "The Da Vinci Code Illustrated Screenplay: Behind the Scenes of the Major Motion Picture."
You can bet that Oprah, Jay Leno and Dave Letterman are arm wrestling to be the first in their neighborhood to fawn over the co-stars.
It's hard to believe why a book that sold 43 million copies needs this kind of promotion. But when it comes to selling the sizzle as much as the steak, you can't beat Hollywood.
For you literary nonbelievers, Brown's book involves a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up the true story of Jesus, implying that the Vatican knows it is living a lie, but does so to keep itself in power. This involves the speculation that Jesus and Mary Magedline married and had a child which in turn led to the creation of endless conspiracies and secret societies not to mention the supression of women and...well, you get the idea. A real page turner.
Strangly, many readers took all this as gospel. Brown didn't exactly dissuade that nation by noting in the forward of the book that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate," a claim that has been endlessly debated among historians.
The novel has also attracted criticism in literary circles for its supposed lack of artistic or literary merit. Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie called it "a book so bad it makes bad books look good."
And the Catholic League is planning full-page newspaper ads demanding that director Howard tell audiences that his film and the "historical secrets" in it are fiction.
In the meantime, Brown is being sued in London on grounds he stole the central themes for "The Da Vinci Code" from another book, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." While the outcome of the trial is in doubt, we have learned a few things about the sometimes reclusive Brown during his testimony. Such as that he often writes his last chapter first and his wife, Blythe Brown, does most of his research though he doesn't always read the things she tells him to read.
In the meantime, the book has spun off an entire cottage industry of "Da Vinci Code" tours to the historical sites it mentions as well as study guides, related publications and satirical spinoffs such as "The Givenchy Code" and "The Dick Cheney Code."
All of this in total adds up to Buzz, the kind of word of mouth publicity that is priceless. Combined with the marketing machinery that is poised to fire up, it's hard to imagine that this book/movie collaboration won't break the bank. And test our patience.
Be forewarned: Brown has another book in the works, "The Solomon Key" which reportedly deals with the "secret society" known as Freemasonry, the Masonic connections of the Founding Fathers and the fact that the most recent U.S. Presidential election was a choice between two members of the quasi-Masonic secret society, Skull and Bones.
I can hear the cash registers now.

Living Large

As long as there are jocks and soccer moms, rap stars and drug dealers, there will be a place in America's heart for the SUV.
Just as sure as gasoline prices will once again flirt with $3 a gallon, our love affair with massive motor vehicles continues.
The first guy I knew who bought a SUV was a neighbor who stopped by the house one day to show it off. It was a red Chevy Suburban, large enough for mom, dad, three kids, the dog and enough camping gear to disappear into the woods for months.
It also got 8 miles to the gallon, rode like a buckboard and handled like a tank.
I suspect he bought it as a manifestation of the "mine is bigger than yours" mentality, a favorite pastime of suburban yuppies. But he claimed it was for his family's safety. Good point. At the time, it was twice as big as any passenger vehicle on the road and would crush anything that got in its way. The fact that his wife could barely see over the steering wheel didn't seem to figure in the equation. And little did we know at the time that a sudden left turn could sent it tumbling like dice on a crap table.
We've come a ways since then. A new Cadillac Escalade ESV gets 13 miles to the gallon and is priced at $70,000. For that, you get more than 45 cubic space of cargo space which means you can stick your Honda in the back.
According the editors of the Kelly Blue Book, it's a "favorite among Hollywood celebrities, rap stars and professional athletes. If you want to park something in your driveway that will make your neighbor green with envy, an Escalade ESV with a set of twenty-two inch rims and a flat-panel TV in the back will do the job."
Actually, my neighbors would probably resent anything parked in my driveway that would block out the sun.
But truth be told, Americans are slowly getting the message on SUVs while manufacturers are looking up from their profit projections and noticing that the times they are a changing,
Sales of SUVs began to decline last summer then plummeted after Hurricane Katrina jacked up gas prices even further. Sales of the Ford Expedition dropped by 60 per cent while the Chevy Tahoe declined 56 per cent.
Sales of all large SUVs declined by 18 per cent as consumers moved to passenger cars and smaller SUVs.
To give them their due, some manufacturers are responding. Hybrids are hitting the market at an ever increasing rate, offering SUVs with better fuel economy.
There is no free lunch, of course, and the catch here is that the hybrids cost more, often offsetting the savings realized in increased fuel economy.
Indeed, Consumer Reports said in a study that "in our analysis, none of the six hybrids we have tested recovered its price premium in the first five years and 75,000 miles of ownership. Nor did any when the analysis was extended to 10 years and 150,000 miles. Rather, extra ownership costs over five years ranged from $3,700 to $13,300."
General Motors, which has pretty much missed the hybrid boat, is touting its committment to vehicles that run on E85, a fuel that is a blend of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline.
E85 consumes less gas, runs cleaner and reduces dependence on foreign oil. The automaker offers 13 models that run on E85, and its goal is to sell 400,000 autos annually.
But E85 has a downside. Mileage falls off from 20 to 30 percent from that of regular gas. There are few, if any, outlets locally. And those pesky environmentalists point out that some third world countries are mowing down rain forests to plant crops that can be used in ethanol.
General Motors is being proactive on another front, however.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, dealers are receiving training to make sure that the new large SUVs being launched by the company this year succeed, despite lingering worries over gas prices. After all, SUVs are an important profile engine, bringing in about $10,000 per vehicle.
Show some reluctance in buying a Chevy Tahoe and you'll get a sales pitch that attempts to calm your fears about gas mileage, brag about their capabilities and safety features.
"We know it's not going to be easy and that's why we're going to fight for every sale," said Mark LaNeve, head of GM's marketing and sales.
Despite this seemingly hypocritical attitude on the part of General Motors, and the baggage attached to alternative fuel vehicles, there is some light at the end of this tunnel.
It would appear that most of the world's autmobile manufacturers are actually competing against one another to produce more fuel efficient vehicles, after years of benign indifference. Prodding by the government hasn't hurt and should continue.
And the American consumer appears to be becoming aware that cheap gas has gone the way of the nickle cup of coffee and that continued dependence of foreign oil has no upside. Their buying habits drive the marketplace.
Now, if we all can just decide that there's nothing cool about driving a car the size of an oil tanker...

Bank Job

I was watching the local television news the other night, the usual rehash of murder and mayem delivered with a solemnity usually reserved for the reading of scripture, when up popped a photo of a man in a surgical mask.
But this was no doctor. In fact, this guy was sticking up a bank. The anchor person, in his best basso profundo, announced that the cops are looking for this suspect and that anyone who knew the whereabouts of the "Surgical Mask Bandit" should notify them.
As if he walked up and down the street day in and out wearing a surgical mask.
But I digress. The real question is: When and where did it become fashionable for cops to attach a clever nickname to every idiot who poked a gun in a teller's face?
It certainly isn't new. Among those in the bank robber hall of fame from the 1920s and 30s are Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and, of course, Willy the Actor Sutton who when asked why he robbed banks replied, "Because that's where the money is."
Of course, most of those names were attached by fanciful headline writers. After all, Pretty Boy isn't much of a description to go on.
So did the police put nicknames on the bad guys because it's easier to remember than case numbers? Or is it because the media gobbles it up and, who knows, maybe someone will recognize the perp in a surveillence camera shot?
Whatever, the idea of the citizenry out hunting bank robbers based on their nicknames is truly frightening.
Afer all, just recently, we have had the Dreadlock Bandit, the Fanny Pack Bandit, the Baseball Cap Bandit, the Cell Phone Bandit, the Big Nose Bandit, the Old Man Bandit (not to be confused with the Senior Citizen Bandit), the Homer Simpson Bandit, the Buddy Holly Bandit and the Uncle Fester Bandit.
There was even a Soccer Mom Bandit.
Hunting down people who fit those descriptions could land 25% of the population in jail.
Some research found one person who is at least partially responsible for the nicknaming phenomenon, or at least one who will admit to it.
William Rehder spent three decades chasing bank robbers for the FBI, almost all of it in Los Angeles. "In time I became known, if you'll pardon the professional immodesty, as America's foremost authority on the bank robbery genre." he writes in his book, "Where the Money Is."
"Nicknaming bank robbers...was part of my job. As the FBI's L.A. Bank Squad coordinator, I had to track serial bank bandits, to analyze their methods of operation... to get inside their heads and try to predict when and where they would strike next. Since at any given moment there might be thirty or forty unidentified serial bank robbers pulling jobs in L.A...I always gave them nicknames to keep them straight in my head, names based on some memorable aspect of their appearance."
That answers the why. What about the how?
"The guy who always disguised himself by wrapping surgical gauze around his head? I called him the Mummy Bandit, Rehder writes.... "Two professional armed bank robbers who wore wigs and glasses and fake mustaches were the "Marx Brothers." When we caught them, we found out they actually were brothers...The guy who wore a skeleton mask was Dr. Death...And so on.
"Miss Piggy was short and weighed about 300 pounds; Large Marge was tall and weighed about 300 pounds. The Miss America Bandit was an exceptionally attractive...she also turned out to be a former bank teller.
"A guy who yelled and waved a butcher knife during his robberies was the Benihana Bandit, like the Japanese restaurant, while the three-man takeover robbery team who dressed up like a biker, a cop, and a hard-hat construction worker naturally were immortalized as the Village People.
"The Chevy Chase Bandit was a clumsy robber who tripped over a doormat and fell face-down in the bank lobby-he turned out to be an attorney who needed some quick dough..."
That explains much of the nickname mystery.
The only remaining question: Since Los Angeles is the slam-dunk bank robbery capital of the world, how come Rehder didn't run out of names?

Room With a View

Hey, folks, just got back from the newly renovated Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena and let me tell you something, it is some piece of work.
Everying about the place is first class. The rooms are exquisite, the food and wine is delictable and the ambience is unlike anthing this side of Versaille.
Talk about deluxe, the Ritz defines the word. I couldn't have been treated better if I was Mr. Ritz himself.
I suggest you try it at your next earliest convenience. Tell 'em Bob sent you.
And, oh yeah, I got to stay there free of charge, enjoying the best of everything the hotel has to offer at absolutely no cost to me.
Does that color my view of the place? You bet it does. Does this smack of quid pro quo? Damn right. Should any ethical journalist run screaming from this kind of Faustian bargain? You bet your sweet byline.
Unless, apparently, you work for KTLA.
It seems the folks at that station did a live broadcast from the Ritz recently trumpeting the hotel's $19 million renovation.
As reported by Gene Maddaus of the Pasadena Star-News, three of KTLA"s anchors- Michaela Pereira, Sam Rubin and Carlos Amezcua- spent the night in the Ritz's "renovated deluxe guestrooms," a fact that was omitted during the broadcast.
"They all received wine and chocolates," said a Ritz spokeswoman. Their visit was free, in exchange for airtime.
"That would be like a trade, I guess," said KTLA spokeswoman Carolyn Aguayo. "It's just the anchors."
When I was a young lad sitting at my editor's knee, one of the first thing I learned about the journalistic profession is that you never accept anything of value from someone you are reporting on. That would include anything from a bottle of scotch to a pen and pencil set to a stay in a five star hotel.
This isn't always easy. In journalism, the work is hard, the pay is lousy and the temptations are great.
But to underscore the point, an editor of mine once said about Watergate, "If we're going to bring down a President, we had better have our own house in order."
There are few deviations from this policy. Obviously, receiving a flak jacket while being embedded with the Marines in Iraq, is not a conflict of interest. Attending a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House is not accepting the largesse of a sitting president or the party in power.
One of the strange things about the KTLA pratfall is that the station is owned by the Tribune, which also owns the Los Angeles Times. Employees of both are governed by a Tribune Code of Ethical Standards which bars reporters from accepting gifts from the people they cover.
Such conduct at any newspaper I ever worked for would have resulted in a quick and messy exit. Indeed, had I really accepted free accomodations from the Ritz, chances are good I wouldn't be writing this column now.
But apparently, code of ethics notwithstanding, the KTLA newsroom has their own peculiar philosophy.
In fact, Channel Island, the Times blog, reported that "an anchor at KTLA received a customized dining-room makeover worth more than $10,000 for her own home, in what a local furniture merchant says was meant to be a swap of free goods and services in exchange for favorable coverage on the station's Morning News.
"Instead, the arrangement soured when the story never ran, leaving the ...station scrambling to right a tangled situation that could raise new questions about its ethical practices.
" Anchor Michaela Pereira volunteered her Pasadena home for the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"-style story, which was taped in September with the cooperation of Los Angeles-area furniture retailer IdentityCraft.
"Allen Smith, a co-owner of IdentityCraft, said that he agreed to participate after a KTLA producer approached him with the idea because he believed the promotion would be good for business. "We pulled out all the stops," Smith said. A designer visited Pereira's home for a consultation and the company provided custom-made furniture and draperies, and also provided some non-customized accessories for her dining area, according to Smith.
"Finally, KTLA producer Rich Goldner, who oversees "Morning News" for the station's news department, told Channel Island that Pereira was selecting which items will be returned to Smith's store. The anchor will pay for the remaining items out of her own pocket, Goldner added.
When it comes to staking out the moral high ground, KTLA is wallowing in Death Valley.
Anchor Sam Rubin said this: "We are not shills for hotels or for anybody," Rubin said. Yes you are, Sam, whether you think you are or not. Was the room service slow? Was the mattress too hard? Did they pour you Pinot Noir when you wanted Merlot? Did they forget to put a mint on your pillow? We'll never know from you, Sam, because the minute you accepted the freebies, you became a promoter, not a journalist.