Monday, July 30, 2007

Goodby to Zombies From Space

Let us pause, remove the hats from our collective heads, place them over
our hearts and observe a moment of silence as the hearse rolls by, carrying
the remains of an old friend.

That friend is the Weekly World News, which was to supermaket checkout
lines what the New York Times is to international reporting. It will cease
publication on Aug. 3 of this year, according to its publisher, American

American Media is headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, and is best known
as the publisher of the National Enquirer. The company announced last month
it was exploring the sale of five of its 16 magazines as part of a strategy
to focus on celebrity weeklies and lifestyle magazines

That's what they say.

But we know WWN was in fact killed by brain-eating zombies from outer

And its demise has left the world a much more boring place.

Where else but the WWN could you find stories like, "Hillary Clinton
Adopts Alien Baby" or "Termites Eat the Eifel Tower," "Hard Up Sheik Sheds
His Wives, 200 Woman Harem to be Sold on eBay." or "Mink Coat Comes Alive and
Bites Rich Widow to Death."
Where else can we learn that French President Jacques Chirac has announced
a plan for France to surrender retroactively in all of history's previous
wars or that the Pope wants Mel Gibson as successor or that Dick Cheney is a
robot or that a cruel surgeon re-attached a pair of conjoined twins after
they failed to pay their medical bill for the initial surgical separation he

Where else do you read "Doomsday Dragons Heading for Earth!'' "Gal Uses
Dead Hubby's Ashes for Breast Implants!'' "Painting of Elvis Weeps Real
Tears!'' or "Oprah to Replace Lincoln on $5 Bill!"

Where else do you find a columnist like Ed Anger. His book, "Let's Pave
the Stupid Rainforests and Give School Teachers Stun Guns," could have served
as a primer for right wing radio talk show hosts.

The Economist once described Anger as a man who "hated foreigners, yoga,
whales, speed limits and pineapple on pizza; he liked flogging,
electrocutions and beer."

There was never a slow news day at the WWN. That's because there was no
need for news. While it never publicly questioned the accuracy of its own
stories, even billig itself as "the world's most reliable paper," it did
begin stating several years back that "the reader should suspend disbelief
for the sake of enjoyment."

As if we had to be told.

Sal Ivon, former managing editor, said, "If someone calls me up and says
their toaster is talking to them, I don't refer them to professional help, I
say, 'Put the toaster on the phone'."?

Perhaps the most famous character to appear in the pages of WWN was Bat
Boy, a half bat, half boy found in a cave.

According to published reports, Bat Boy was first featured in a 1992
issue. He since has led police on a high speed chase, fought in the war on
terror, led the troops to capture Saddam Hussein, bitten Santa Claus and
traveled into outer space. In 2000, he gave his endorsement to Al Gore. It is
fortold that he will become president in 2028.

We could do worse. And have.

A personal favorite was WWN's cover story following the Northridge
earthquake, headlined "Earthquake Releases Demons From Hell." It was
illustrated by an alleged photo showing a couple of T-Rex looking dudes
terrorizing San Fernando Valley residents while hanging out besides a
collapsed freeway.

I think the folks who conceived these stories were geniusus and the
writers were worthy of Pulitzer consideration, a view probably shared by no
other human being.

Well, there was one other person. In the film "Men in Black, Tommy Lee
Jones refers to WWN as the "best damn investigative reporting on the planet."
Now, all are left with for comic relief is the Fox television network.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Eating Peanuts

Where the hell is Paris Hilton?

It's only been three weeks since she walked out of jail like she was
sashaying down a runway, her graceful gait illuminated by the light of a
thousand cameras.

And now, story over. The public sleeps, their blood lust satisfied. Paris

All that remains are the low groans of the media who woke up the next day
with a roaring hangover, after indulging in an orgy of excessive coverage
like so many sailors on shore leave.

As one wag noted, 50 years from now, someone might write a book on the
incident called "When Humans Lost Their Minds."

After a lot of naval gazing, the collective media didn't exactly promise
never to do it again (see David Beckham). But there have been calls for
restraint and assurances in some quarters that such stories would be reported
in context of news on Dafur, the war in Iraq and the presidential campaigns.

We'll see about that. Covering the rise and fall of celebrities, even
talentless paparazzi creations, is like eating peanuts.

A real test is coming next month. That's when a trial is scheduled to
begin for a young woman who makes Paris Hilton look like Mother Theresa.

We speak of course of Nicole Richie, socialite, actress and most notably
Paris' sidekick in the TV show "The Simple Life."

The adopted daughter of singer Lionel Richie, Nicole, among other
problems, has Michael Jackson as her godfather.

Just to put things in prospective, Paris was pulled over for driving
erratically and charged with a misdemeanor.

Her handlers said she hadn't eaten, had one margarita and claimed her
field sobriety test showed "the very absolute lowest reading you can possibly
get to warrant being taken in."

Paris problems started when she got caught twice for driving with a
suspended license. The authorities charged that those actions, along with
the failure to enroll in a court-ordered alcohol education program
constituted a violation of the terms of her probation. And, as we all well
know, off to jail she went.

Nicole's first splashy foray into the annals of celebrity justice started
in 2003 when she was stopped in Malibu and charged with possesion of heroin.
And, oh yeah, she was driving with a suspended license.

She almost has Paris trumped right there.

But then Richie was arrested by the California Highway Patrol after she
failed a field sobriety test and was charged with driving under the influence
on the 134 Freeway in the Burbank/Glendale area.

If that isn't enough, she was allegedly piloting her Mercedes the wrong
way on that well-traveled road.

According to news reports, she admitted to using marijuana and Vicodin
before the incident.

The California Vehicle Code says that if convicted of DUI twice within 10
years, a person can be sentenced to between 90 days and a year in jail and
have driving privileges suspended. But that sentence could be reduced if the
convicted agrees to probation.

It looks like tough times ahead for Nicole. Of course, she could strike a
plea bargain with prosecutors but it's going to be difficult in view of Paris'

I mean, if Paris gets 30 days for a suspended license, what does a trip
the wrong way down the freeway deserve? Life without parole?

And yet.

Rumor has Nicole is pregnant. The sources are the usual Internet gossip
sites but there's enough buzz to make you wonder.

In a court filing, her lawyers said they intend to use defense expert Terence McGee, a
medical doctor specializing in drug abuse, to challenge the prosecution's scientific evidence
against Richie.

Will her legal team rule the day? If not, will Lee Baca intervene because of Nicole's
delicate condition? What role will City Attorney Rock Delgadillo play? And what ever happend
to him anyway?

This has all the trappings of a soap opera the likes of which haven't been seen since Ana
Nicole Smith. Which was six months ago.

It will all takes place in the slowest news month of the year.

So stay tuned. And tuned. And tuned.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chat Room

He sat behind me at a recent Dodger game.

With every pitch, he regaled all within earshot on strategy, statistics, the relative talent level of each and every player, memories of games past, all punctuated by strong opinions:

"With men on first and third, and a left handed pitcher facing a Venezuelan born batter with a moustache, the pitcher needs to throw a three finger forkball with the shortstop breaking to cover second, the center fielder shaded to right and the infield deep just like the time the St. Louis Browns nipped a 7th inning rally by the Phillies in 1939."

After one inning, I was ready to stuff a Dodger dog in his mouth.

Of course, he was merely verifying Rector's Rule, which holds that anyone sitting behind you at a sporting event is either a deep pool of incorrect information, has had his volume adjusted by seven or eight beers or has a child who kicks the back of your seat for three hours.

Now it turns out my chatty Dodger friend was merely underscoring what social scientists have recently discovered.

Men actually yak more than women.

One study recorded 400 college students for days and found that members of each sex spoke the same number of words.

Another found that men actually talk slightly more than women, especially when the topic of conversation was non personal.

In other words, we guys will freely blab on about NBA rebound leaders, fast sports cars, beer and mega construction projects. Just don't ask us about our Valentine's Day plans or whether we love puppies.

And then there's this take from Campbell Leaper, a psychologist at UC Santa Cruz who believes "some men may be using talkativeness to dominate the conversation."

Clever, those men.

Nonetheless, Matthias Mehl, of the University of Arizona, said the stereotype of female chattiness was deeply ingrained in Western folklore and was often considered a scientific fact.

Researchers and therapists had given this impression by using a figure that women speak about 20,000 words a day while men can only manage to get 7000 into the conversation.

This threefold difference has been widely reported. "The 20,000 versus 7000-word estimates appear to have achieved the status of a cultural myth, cited in the media for the past 15 years," Mehl said. It was not based on evidence.

In Mehl's study, women spoke about 16,215 words a day and men about 15,669, an insignificant difference, the researchers concluded.

There was huge variation between individuals, with the chattiest man spewing out 47,000 words a day, while the most reticent one spoke only 500.
I'm betting Mr. 500 was married.

Linguist Alice Freed at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, says that the caricature of the gossipy gal can have a truly negative effect: "The power of the stereotype is that women are considered to speak too much." She says that this stereotype emerged as a way to devalue what women had to say.

But James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas, who worked with Mehl on the study, believes that the stereotype has a different origin. "I think it's because of the way that women and men naturally react to conflict," he says. "Women talk more during arguments, and we extrapolate those very salient memories to the rest of life."

Whatever, the stereotypes are deeply ingrained in many cultures. "Women's tongues are like lambs' tails, they are never still," goes one English proverb.

"The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone," say the Maori.

And then there's the old Chinese saying: "The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty."

It may take some time to work past those images.

While it may be news that we use the same number of words, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we don't always talk the same language.

"We did find men talk more about money, sports and technology and women talk more about relationships," Mehl said.

Well, shut my mouth.

Motoring Migranes

If you're feeling sharp, stabbing pains in your wallet each time you plunge that gas nozzle into the family sedan, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Get ready for more motoring migranes.

The Metropolitan Tranportation Authority, those downtown bureaucrats whose stewardship of public transportation equates the Titanic's safety record, is developing plans for toll roads within the next three years.

The concept is called "congestion pricing" and what it means is that if you don't want to feel your life ebbing away on some gridlocked freeway, you'll fork over extra bucks to use less crowded lanes. And the toll will rise based on the amount of traffic.

In Orange County, the plan is already at work. The 91 Express Lane, a 10-mile stretch, will nick you for anywhere from $1.15 to $9.50, depending on the hour.
Let' see, 10 bucks a day during rush hour, five days a week...that could add up to a hefty piece of change over a few months time.

Of course, you could take a bus. But the MTA just approved a hefty boost in bus rates over the loud objections of its most loyal customers, working class citizens who depend on public transportation. Those who can afford to drive will get priced out of life in the fast lane.

If all of this strikes you as fundamentally unfair, since the gas taxes you pay build the roads on which you travel, you may have a very good point.
The Automobile Club, for one, agrees.

"We feel it will be a form of double taxation to charge people for the roads they have already paid for by gas taxes," Hamid Bahadori, principal transportation engineer for the Automobile Club of Southern California, said in a published interview. "Rather than trying to restrict access, they had better start delivering on the projects."

And if you have trouble understaning how charging extra will reduce congestion, try to connect these dots.

"At some point, we have to reduce the number of single-passenger automobiles if we want to reduce gridlock in L.A. County," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a master of understatement.

How do we do it? Try to get people to drive less during peak hours by making it expensive. Or behavior modification through taxation, something to mull as we celebrate the Fourth of July.

But wait, there's more.

Up in Sacramento, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is floating a plan that would cost California motorists, farmers and boaters an estimated $130 million per year to fund alternative-fuel research and other clean air programs.

The bill comes less than one year after lawmakers passed legislation to aggressively cut the state's greenhouse gases in an attempt to curb global warming. That effort will fail if "we as government don't do something to help jump-start the alternative fuels market," said Nunez, D-Los Angeles.

Jump start the alternative fuels market?

The University of California was selected earlier this year for a $500-million grant meant for funding research and development of alternatives to petroleum-based fuel, sponsored by global energy conglomerate British Petroleum.

University of California at Davis researchers recently received up to $25 million in funding from Chevron Corp. to spend the next five years developing clean and affordable, renewable transportation fuels from farm and forest residues, urban wastes and crops grown specifically for energy.

A $125-million grant for California's research effort for bioenergy was awarded last month by the U.S. Department of Energy to fund a collaborative effort in California to develop alternative energy sources from plant materials.

Against this backdrop, Fabian has decided to pass the hat.

But, hey, what the heck, as long as were tapping our 401ks for gas and toll roads, let's get into the change jar and bankroll alternative fuels.

Doo Gooder

With a name like Anthony Portantino and birthplace like New Jersey, you might think this guy once sang with Dion and the Belmonts, down on the corner, under the street lights.

But this Portantino is more Democrat than Doo Wop. If you want to catch his act, you'll have to go to Sacramento where he performs as the state Assembly member from La Canada Flintridge, a city he once served as mayor.

Portantino may nonetheless find himself forever linked to golden oldies if his bill, AB702, is signed into law.

That piece of legislation, called "the truth in music advertising act, would make it harder for musicians to advertise themselves as a famous group from the past unless they had trademarked the name or at least one of its members was an original member.

So while the state grapples with health care crisis, global warming and budget woes, should we care if there's one too many versions of the Drifters up on stage?
Damn right we should.

Because it's all about two things Americans hate: cheating and stealing.
On any given night in this country, some group of yokels in riding the nostalgia wave by pretending to be one of the fabled groups of the 50s and 60s.
The Coasters, the Platters, the Drifters, the Diamonds, the Vogues, the Marvelletes are hitting the oldies circuit and raking in the bucks.

According to one source, there are dozens of groups calling themselves the Coasters, the Drifters or the Platters. Many of these guys are about as close to the originals as the Rolling Stones are to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"When these guys stand on stage and say 'When we recorded this song in the '50s,' 'When we won our Grammy,' 'When we sang on the street corner,' and they're 22 years old? Come on," Bob Crosby, president of the nonprofit Vocal Hall of Fame, said in a published interview. "They're lying.

"It's no harmless illusion, either, he said. "All these fake groups are out there stealing incomes, history and applause."

And they get away with it. That's because it's not always easy to tell who holds the rights to a particular musical group's name or to identify an authentic member of an act formed 50 years ago, according the the website

Singers then were often recruited by managers or producers who didn't afford young vocalists, often poor African-Americans, the legal protections more commonly available today. Members came and went before the visibility that, in the MTV era, cemented band members' identities with a group. Trademarks were sold, sometimes under less than legal conditions. Squabbles and lawsuits over group names continue.

The Vocal Hall of Fame's Crosby and Jon Bauman, better known as Bowzer from the nostalgia group Sha Na Na, are spearheading a nationwide effort to reign in unauthorized imposter groups.

"This is a sophisticated form of identity theft," said Bauman. "These imposter groups have been duping consumers and stealing the names, the remuneration and the legacy of the pioneers of Rock n Roll for way too long."

So far, nine states have passed similar measures and eleven others are considering legislation.

While we may have more important issues to occupy us, this effort is important because the doo wop and R and B music of the 50s and 60s was more than just dance tunes. It was in its own simple way a powerful force, a music that brought races together, one that influenced generations of Americans, one that changed the world.
It's artists and architects deserve our protection.

Besides, as Crosby says: "If you want a gut-wrenching experience, try watching a baby boomer audience leap to its feet at the end of an impostor group show. The audience so clearly thinks it's honoring the body of work, the legacy, the deep pleasure this music has given them since their youth... "They don't know they're applauding the wrong people..."

Despite what the Platters sang in the 1950s, there are no great pretenders.