Tuesday, June 27, 2006

News and Views


A few items of interest you may have missed recently from news reports, blogs, web sites and other highly suspect sources.

News: Paris Hilton reportedly ordered her helicopter pilot to make an emergency landing on a German farm - so she could use the toilet.
The actress was said to be touring the European country when she made the surprise request.
A source told Britain's More magazine: "She gave the farmer a bit of a shock. Her bouncers even blocked the farm door so the family couldn't go inside their own house while she was using the loo."
The star then allegedly spent another 10 minutes on the startled farmer's porch, so she could smoke a cigarette.
The unnamed farmer said: "She was cold as a fish, and cursed about the weather."
Views: The Germans must be sick of us. First, our World Cup team, then Paris Hilton. The end results both smelled.

News: BOCA RATON, Fla. - A hundred bucks might buy you more than six dozen burgers from McDonald's, but the swanky Old Homestead Steakhouse will sell you one brawny beef sandwich for the same price.
Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams could barely speak between bites as he devoured the 20-ounce, $100 hamburger billed as the "beluga caviar of sandwiches."
"Heaven on a bun," restaurant owner Marc Sherry said.
The burger debuted at the restaurant in the Boca Raton Resort and Club, where a membership costs $40,000 and an additional $3,600 a year.
The bill for one burger, with garnishing that includes organic greens, exotic mushrooms and tomatoes, comes out to $124.50 with tax and an 18 percent tip included. The restaurant will donate $10 from each sale to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Views: May I suggest a Dom Perignon "Oenotheque" 1966 to go with that? At $1500 a bottle, it would be perfect to wash dowm a burger. And don't even dwell on the fact that some guy in the kitchen feeds his family on less than you paid for your sandwich and a membership.

News: BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein ended a brief hunger strike after missing just one meal in his U.S.-run prison, a U.S. military spokesman said Friday.
The former Iraqi leader had refused lunch Thursday in protest at the killing of one of his lawyers by gunmen, but the spokesman said he ate his evening meal.
Views: Maybe they offered him one of those $100 Old Homestead Steakhouse burgers.

News: One sunny afternoon in January, Vicki Chandler, a 55-year-old underwriting associate at Cigna HealthCare in Chattanooga, Tenn., was walking to her car when a teenager in loose khaki pants approached her, pointed to her pocketbook and said, "I need that." As she recounts the incident, he snatched the purse and took off.
But then he ran into trouble. As he ran, his loose trousers slipped down below his hips. As he reached down to hold them up, the teen was forced to throw the purse aside.
It's a problem for perpetrators. Young men and teens wearing low-slung, baggy pants fairly regularly get tripped up in their getaways, a development that has given amused police officers and law-abiding citizens a welcome edge in the fight against crime.
Views: Finally, a fashion trend we can get behind. Next for the super hip (and criminally inclined): Tying your shoe laces together.

News: When lifelong musician Roger Busdicker died last week, his daughters made the final arrangements: They had his cremated remains buried in his clarinet.
Views: Please don't stick my ashes in my keyboard or scatter them is some musty old newsroom. I've asked for my remains to be put in the cup on the 18th hole of my local golf course. Based on my friends' skills, they will remain undisturbed for a long time.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Birthday Songs

When "Sgt. Pepper's Lonley Heart's Club Band" was released in1967, it was called the most influential rock album of all time.
While that may have been laying it on a bit thick, I do rememberdigesting it like a fine meal, savoring every nuance, every flavor. And so didmany of my friends, not star-struck teenagers but people with careers andfamilies.
Such was the popularity and importance of the Beatles at the apexof their career.
And now Paul McCartney is 64. Lots of people turn 64, of course, but only Sir Paul had the foresight to write "When I'm 64," which appeared on Sgt. Pepper and cemented his rightful place in the birthday hall of fame.
Depending on how you interpreted the song, he was either mocking old age or hoping for a soft landing when his time came. Of course, in 1967, being 64 was impossible to contemplate. And his quaint view of enduring love was almost comedic, a song that sounded like it was written and performed by Lawrence Welk smack dab in the middle of a rock masterpiece.
So here's to those of us who have made the journey with Paul and reached 64. Here's to Brian Wilson. And Muhammad Ali. And Michael Bloomberg, Dick Butkus, Clarence Clemmons, Michael Crawford, Michael Eisner, Mick Fleetwood, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, John Irving, Erica Jong, Wayne Newton, Muammar Qaddafi, Roger Staubach, Barbra Steisand, Michael York. To name a few.
But unlike the lyrics of the song, a lot of us are not "yours sincerely wasting away." Indeed, it used to be that most Americans retired at 65, then got sick and died within a few years. Today, according to a MacArthur Foundation study, nearly nine in 10 Americans ages 65-74 say they have no disability.
Of course, those who make that statement don't count the usual aches and pains that come from dealing with the unrelenting pull of gravity for more than a half-century. Maybe they just forgot. That happens a lot when you're 64.
Nearly two-thirds of baby boomers say they feel younger today than their actual age, up from just under half in 1998. And eight in 10 Americans reject the notion that "my retirement is or will be similar to my parent's retirement." Today, on average, 64-year-olds can expect to live more than 16 years, about four years longer than they would have in 1967 at age 64, according to government statisticians.
So to what do we owe this endless summer? Medical advances? Healthier life styles? Viagra?
According to many experts, various factors contribute to an individual's longevity. Significant factors in life expectancy include genetics, access to health care, hygiene, diet, exercise and lifestyle.
Moreover, the Census Bureau says that life expectancy in the U.S. will be in the mid-80s by the year 2050 (up from 77 today) and will top out eventually in the low 90s, barring major scientific advances that can change the rate of human aging itself, as opposed to merely treating the effects of aging as is done today.
We've had some good times in these 64 years. We've gone through a lot of down times as well. Wars, recessions, natural disasters, terrorism, the dark side of humanity that it seems to confront every generation.
Ironically, it has been no bed of roses for Sir Paul. The comfortable retirement with a life-time partner that he sang about eluded him. His first wife, Linda, died of breast cancer at 59, after they had been married 29 years. Last month, he announced his separation from his second wife, Heather Mills, who is 38.
Of the Beatles, only Paul and Ringo, who is 66, made it to 64. John Lennon, who would have been 64 this year, was shot and killed at age 40. George Harrison died of cancer at age 58.
For those of us still standing, look how far we've come.
"The slogan back then was never trust anyone over 30," Jeff Greenfield, a CNN commentator, who is 63, told the New York Times. "We thought people would be dead or in a home by their 60s."
And life today seems to offer a lot more than we were promised in Paul's song:

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hog Wild

WHAT is it about motorcycles that turns their riders into blithering idiots?
I'm speaking, of course, about the recent accident involving Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who turned his face into an omelet after plowing his high-powered bike into a car and getting pitched head first into a windshield. Helmetless.
Here's a guy who is a pure gold sports hero, who led his team to a Super Bowl win, who at 24 has the world eating out his hand. And he makes two stupid mistakes: (1) He rides a motorcycle thereby jeopardizing his career, and (2) he rides without a helmet thereby jeopardizing his life.
One hopes he has learned a lesson, one that came at a steep price: Seven hours of surgery to repair multiple facial fractures. It could have been worse. Had he been on the freeway, he would probably be dead.
Of course, Roethlisberger hasn't cornered the market on motorcycle stupidity, not by a long shot.
Our very own man/child governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, came close to terminating himself in 2001 when he crashed his bike, breaking several ribs, just about the same time he was pulling in $30 million per flick.
Think that was stupid? Five years later and now governor, Arnold gets into another motorcycle accident, this time with his 12-year-old son as a passenger. They both suffer cuts and bruises.
Think that was stupid? Turns out, the governor was operating his bike illegally, having not obtained the proper endorsement on his California driver's license to operate a motorcycle.
Crazy? How about this: Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have a valid motorcycle license either, according to Pittsburgh television reports.
But Ben and Arnold were lucky. Author T.E. Lawrence, rocker Duane Allman and astronaut Pete Conrad didn't survive their last motorcycle rides.
There must be something incredibly alluring about riding a motorcycle. Frankly, I don't know what it is. It's that life-on-the-edge thing, I guess. I tried it once and didn't catch the fever.
I don't understand, given the dangerous nature of motorcycles, why there is constant agitation to repeal helmet laws. Such was the case in Pennsylvania where an existing helmet law was axed several years ago.
Roethlisberger, by all accounts an otherwise bright young man, has been outspoken in defending his freedom to ride without a helmet. Even after his coach Bill Cowher brought up the issue, Roethlisberger demurred.
"It's one of those things, where he talked about being a risk-taker and I'm not really a risk-taker, I'm pretty conservative and laid-back," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "So the big thing is just be careful, and that's what we do. I think every person that rides is careful.
"That's the biggest thing, I'll just continue to be careful..."
Talk about whistling past the graveyard.
Yet those "feel-the-wind-in-your-hair" goofs continue to push for the right to go helmetless, claiming that better rider training is the key to safer motorcycling. Indeed, the trend over the last several years has been to repeal helmet laws, according to Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, a leading advocate of laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets.
"The truth is that those who are in favor of repeal are far more organized than proponents of mandatory helmet laws," Tyson said.
But guess who pays the price in higher health costs every time one of these folks scrambles his or her brain in an accident?
A University of California study showed that this state's helmet law has been highly effective in reducing injuries and fatalities due to motorcycle crashes. In the first year of the law, the number of hospitalized brain-injured motorcyclists dropped 53 percent, from 1,258 to 588. Similarly, hospital charges for brain-injured motorcyclists paid by Medi-Cal and other taxpayer sources dropped from $17 million in 1991 to $11million in 1992 In the first two years of California's law, statewide motorcycle fatalities declined 38 percent and total medical care costs were reduced by 35 percent, or $35 million. Seventy three percent of the reduced hospitalization costs were attributable to reduced costs for patients with head injuries.
Bottom line: Ride if you must, but ride as if your life depended on it. There are no fender benders for motorcycle riders.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Off the Mark

It was a throw-away line, a comment to underscore a point.
Speaking of blogging in a column earlier this week, I wrote that "before the Internet, bloggers were ... the lunatics we used to see ranting on street corners. Now, they call them citizen journalists. Which is like being a citizen thoracic surgeon.
"All you need to know about bloggers is that the insufferable billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is one ..."
If you don't know Mr. Cuban, he is an entrepreneurial genius who made several billions in the technology sector while still in his 40s.
Reaching into his petty cash drawer, he bought the NBA's Dallas Mavericks for $285 million. As owner, he has distinguished himself by racking up more than $1 million in fines for offensives ranging from berating officials on his blog to running onto the court to dispute calls.
Some call his act energy. I call it ego.
Bottom line: Mark Cuban lives in a different universe than mine.
That is why I was surprised to hear from Mr. Cuban, who apparently hangs on every word I write.
"Insufferable? Big word for someone you have never met," he huffed in an e-mail.
Well, Mr. Cuban, anyone with a passing interest in news or sports has caught you and your act. You often get as much camera time as your players. I didn't have to shake your hand to decide you were "insufferable." And if that is too big a word for you, "bombastic" or "self-absorbed" would fit just as well.
Sure, I'd like to meet you sometime, but I bet we travel in different circles.
For example, you have your own $40 million Gulfstream V jet. I fly coach and hope to accumulate enough bonus miles someday for a free trip to San Jose.
You own an NBA team and hang with the assorted billionaires who make up your exclusive fraternity. I coached AYSO soccer and helped out in a couple of fundraising bake sales.
You own a high-definition television channel. I own a digital camera.
You live in a 24,000-square-foot mansion. My house clocks in at about 2,300 square feet, give or take a porch or two.
I'm an ink-stained wretch, and you're a billionaire, yet we can have this dialogue. Is this a great country or what?
Alas, our paths will probably never cross again. But as a parting gift, you directed me to your blog titled, "Why Journalism Matters."
In it you wrote: "Want to get younger viewers? Go out and hire the very best recent college journalism graduates you can find. Give them a camera, a computer and an area of specialty; Business, local politics, national politics, whatever. Better yet, ask them what they think matters ... Tell them their only requirement is that they are equal parts journalist and adrenalin junkies. Focused on fearlessly finding the truth behind stories that matter to them, their families and friends. Guess what, even for a 21 year old, it's not just about Paris Hilton, Bradgelina and the latest Rap feud ..."
Good idea, Mark, but of course most newspapers already hire the best and the brightest. There are some conditions attached, of course: unbiased, balanced and thorough reporting and an ability to write is a requirement.
"Fearlessly finding the truth"? It's called investigative journalism, and it takes vast amounts of time, skill and more than a little bit of luck. I knew two reporters at the Los Angeles Times who spent five years on one investigative story.
In the meantime, readers want the news, and they pay for it to be delivered seven days a week. Not just "stories that matter" to the reporters but stories that matter to them: what the city council or state government or school board did, the election results and, yes, who won the basketball game.
Unless you are going to feed them the unsubstantiated drivel that we call blogs.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Advice to Grads

IT'S fun being a journalist.
You get to chase after cops chasing robbers, expose crooked politicians, deflate bumbling city councils and school boards, ply sources with alcohol in the name of truth seeking and occasionally, but only occasionally, earn the grudging respect of your readers.
Trouble is, we journalists are becoming as rare as the Puerto Rican long-tongued bat (an actual member of the endangered species list, for which we can be thankful).
You don't need a Caltech degree to figure this one out. Just remember Rector's Imperative, calculated on a napkin at a downtown bar one night: As the number of jobs decrease, so do the number of people in them.
And those who work at journalism are getting older, according to the Poynter Institute, which is probably a good thing because our readers aren't exactly spring chickens.
All of this was summed up nicely by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten recently in a commencement speech.
"I want to congratulate you all upon your graduation from the University of Maryland College of Journalism, and wish you luck as you prepare to embark on exciting careers in telemarketing or large-appliance repair," he said.
"My point is, this is a challenging time for journalists. And because you are word people, you understand that `challenging time' is a euphemism often used to describe disasters of epic proportions. For example, Richard Pryor was facing a `challenging time' when he ran down the street half-naked and on fire."
"What are your challenges, specifically? Let us begin with, quote unquote, getting a job. Good jobs in journalism have become scarce as newspapers shrink and die, broadcast media fragment to smaller niche audiences and the public appears more and more willing to receive its `news' online from nincompoops ranting in their underpants."
Let me interrupt Weingarten for a moment to enthusiastically endorse his views on online `news.'
Before the Internet, bloggers were the people we used to see ranting on street corners. Now, they call them citizen journalists. Which is like being a citizen thoracic surgeon.
All you need to know about bloggers is that the insufferable billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is one and was recently fined during the 2006 NBA playoffs for criticizing officials.
I mean, are you really going to form your world view or decide how to vote on the recommendation of someone writing a blog under the name Dude With a 'Tude?
Meanwhile, back to Weingarten:
"The most recent job-approval rankings place journalists between `loan shark' and `ho'-bag skank.' We are not without blame for this. It seems as though every week we hear stories about some journalist somewhere who has gone bad - plagiarizing someone, making something up, extorting cash from sources, robbing a convenience store and pistol-whipping the clerk.
"As a columnist, I am particularly dismayed by the smug, self-congratulatory attitudes exhibited by some of my brethren. We columnists should know better, inasmuch as we are the only people in America intelligent and principled enough to tell people what to think and how to behave."
It goes without saying, Gene.
And finally, Weingarten leaves his graduates with these thoughts:
"Objectivity is a good thing to strive for in journalism, but not at the expense of failing to confront the obvious. My own newspaper, for example, has written extensively about Vice President Cheney without once pointing out the self-evident fact that he is - and I offer this as a trained professional observer - Satan...
"Our field is changing rapidly. Technology is overtaking us at an unheard-of pace. The journalists of tomorrow may not look anything like the journalists of today. I mean, literally. For all we know, they might have gills and three buttocks. That's how fast things are changing. But rest assured that, however dizzying the rate of change, when what's at stake is the sacred art of truth-telling, there is always one constant. One thing will always stay the same: Your editor is going to be an idiot."
Words to live by.

End of an Era

THE Percy Clark era is mercifully drawing to a close.
The school board has had enough of the embattled superintendent and voted this week that he should hit the road, sooner rather than later.
And the same board that hired Clark five years ago amid great pomp and ceremony and even extended his contract is now moving "expeditiously" to find his replacement.
Clark, for his part, says he is willing to stay until the end of his contract in 2007. "I want to continue to do the very best for the children who are here," he said.
Noble words from a guy who earlier this year was quietly preparing to flee to Cleveland for a job with that city's school district.
Clark's tenure has been checkered since he was hired in 2001. He promised much, but delivered little.
He vowed to turn around a deteriorating district, bringing the middle class flocking back to the schools. He told board members he was ready to start a movement in Pasadena "like we have never seen before," likening it to the civil rights movement.
Instead, the district is a financial disaster. The school board has had to close four schools, lay off employees and disband the district police department.
Financial problems are not necessarily unique to Pasadena. Declining enrollment and budget uncertainty plague many districts.
But Clark dumped his Draconian cutback plan on an unprepared board and an unsuspecting community, providing dubious information on which to base the decisions.
How could such a thing happen? I'll bet the school board is asking the same question.
They need to look no farther than their own board room for the answers.
When Clark was hired, he came with baggage. He was superintendent of the Lawrence Township district in Indiana where he was highly regarded until suddenly resigning in 1996.
It turns out that Clark was suspended and then quit after board members discovered his extramarital relationship with an elementary school principal, according to news reports. Worse, he repeatedly denied the affair, losing his credibility in the district, a Lawrence board member said.
Days after resigning, Clark was taken to a hospital for an overdose of antidepressants, according to news reports.
The Pasadena school board took him anyway, apparently buying into Clark's tale that he was separated from his wife at the time, a classic the-dog-ate-my-homework explanation.
A board member explained that Clark was "forthright with us. And I'm sure that when you meet him, he'll look you in the eye and tell you the things he told us: `You make mistakes, you regret that you made them, and you move on."'
But part of moving on is admitting your mistakes, something Clark was reluctant or unwilling to do, exposing a potential character issue that is manifesting itself to this day.
The board had blinders on. They were so caught up in Clark's rhetoric, they didn't see his flaws.
One board member said that if it it wasn't for the affair, the district couldn't have landed someone with Clark's credentials.
So they gleefully accepted the tarnish on their trophy candidate.
The Cleveland school board gets it. When they learned of Clark's background in Indiana, they dropped him like a hot potato, saying "it's obviously something we couldn't live with."
In the meantime, we have a superintendent who admits to plagiarizing a sermon from a Unitarian minister and using it in a newspaper column under his byline.
We have a superintendent who starts a district band to march in the Rose Parade and then uses ringers to inflate its ranks.
We have superintendent who has angered and disappointed his subordinates and superiors alike.
We have superintendent who has left a legacy of unfulfilled promises.
We can only hope that, if Percy Clark didn't learn from his missteps, the school board will.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

TV a la Carte

John McCain, war hero, maverick Republican senator from Arizona and possible, if not probable, presidential candidate, has wrapped his hands around an issue that could be as sticky as Iraq or immigration.
Our TV viewing habits.
Talk about issues that hit you where you live.
McCain is busily hawking CHOICE (or Consumers Having Options in Cable Entertainment) act, a piece of legislation that would allow cable companies to compete nationally for your business, rather than only at the local level. In exchange, the pay TV folks would agree to offer channels a la carte, either individually or bundled.
This would allow you, Mr. and Ms. Viewer, to select the channels you want to pay for and opt out of those you don't. It would also, it is claimed, let you gain control over what comes into your home. Savings are promised.
The cable and satellite industry views this proposal will all the cool detachment of a guy who just discovered his 401k money was invested in Enron.
They say it undermines the economic model of the industry and would cause subscribers to pay as much, if not more, for 10 of the most popular cable channels as they know do for 60 or 70.
I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for the pay TV industry. It seems they jack up their prices every two weeks and justify it by adding channels that few if any watch.
Besides, how can you love an industry that requires you to use three different remotes to turn on the set.
To underscore McCain's positions, many industry critics cite a study that says the average subscriber watches, at most, 14 channels.
Unless you've surgically attached your remote to your arm, that number seems like an exaggeration.
I thought I'd verify my suspicions by going once around the lineup to check my own personal viewing habits.
Everyone watches the networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, Fox and the like, even locals like KTLA, KCAL and KCOP (although I must confess that in 50 years of viewing, I can't ever remember watching anything on Channel 13).
The sports channels seem to get my attention a lot: ESPN, Fox Sports et al.
Then there are the cable news networks which have unleashed on an unspsecting public the ability to take a mundane subject such as Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, and talk about it non stop for hours, days, weeks. But I do check in to update myself on the news from time to time.
There's MTV and VH-1 but I seem to be about 40 years on the far side of their demographic.
There are movie channels, comedy channels, science fiction channels, children's channels, speed channels, travel channels. I drop in but only occasionally.
There are channels for women (Lifetime, Oh! and, arguably, the shopping networks).
There are channels for men (Spike and the History channel which, while not seemingly gender specific, seems to focus a lot on war and big machinery).
There is the food channel (which I enjoy but never before dinner) and the game show network (which, if I was forced to watch, would drive me to confess to war crimes).
There are ethnic channels and public access channels of every stripe.
Few if any of them have me reaching for my Tivo. But there is something to be said for a having a diverse choice.
So is McCain on to something? Should we be ordering TV channels like we order Burger King?
McCain says yes. In Canada, he argues, subscribers can buy channels individually or enjoy significant savings on a "5 pack," "10 Pack" or "1 pack"of their own choosing.
But under the McCain plan, the big channels such as CNN, Fox and ESPN would survive and thrive. Many niche products, even something as public spirited as C-SPAN, could be wiped out. It could also hurt start-ups such as Black Entertainment Television and Nickelodian which survived and thrived.
Somewhere, there is a compromise that would not force viewers to plow through 70 channels but would allow smaller products to grow. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the solution will end up costing as much as more as we're paying now.
But it's clear change is in the wind for television viewers.
While we're waiting, we can sing along with this Bruce Springstein song:

"Man came by to hook up my cable TV "We settled in for the night my baby and me "We switched 'round and 'round 'til half-past dawn "There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on."