Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Leap of Faith

I remarked to family and friends the other day that I was miffed the month of February is being extended by a day.

It's that Leap Year thing again.

I've never been a big fan of February. In my mind, it's a bleak period of time between the joy of the holidays and the promise of Spring.

Oh, sure, we celebrate the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington. Without them, we might be whistling "Dixie" or singing "God Save the Queen."

But it's also the month that gave us Alice Cooper, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Gary Coleman.

We celebrate Mardi Gras and Groundhog Day. It's also Canned Food Month and Creative Romance Month (and includes International Flirting Week).

It was the month Pluto was discovered and Marx and Engels published the "Communist Manifesto." Both turned out to be abysmal failures.

It was about this time in my ruminations that my wife, in a tone that could be generously described as icy, reminded me that it was also when we celebrate Valentine's Day and the birth of our youngest daughter.

Of course, I stammered, it goes without saying.

An African-American friend pointed out it was Black History Month. Naturally, they gave us the shortest month of the year, he added.

All of which encouraged me to retreat to Leap Year as a safe topic for discussion.

Here's simple rule of thumb to determine when we have Leap Year.

Every year that is divisible by four is a leap year; of those years, if it can be divided by 100, it is not a leap year, unless the year is divisible by 400. Then it is a leap year.

OK, so it's not so simple. Rector's Rule: Open the calendar to February and see if there's an extra day listed.

We need to do this so we can keep our calendar in alignment with the earth's revolutions around the sun.

There's a lot more astronomical data available but if you're really that interested, call Caltech.

In the English speaking world, it is a tradition that women may propose marriage only on leap years, according to Internet research. While it has been argued that the tradition was initiated by Saint Patrick or Brigid of Kildare in 5th century Ireland, there is little to substantiate this version of history.

Supposedly, a 1288 law by Queen Margaret of Scotland required that fines be levied if a marriage proposal was refused by the man; compensation ranged from a kiss to a silk gown to a 100 pound fine.

That same Internet research indicated that Queen Margaret was age 5 and living in Norway at the time but, what the heck, it makes a good story.

It was also said that if the woman who did the asking failed to wear a scarlet flanel petticoat or if a corner of said petticoat was not partly visible under her dress, the man who declined would be spared the bad luck that came with his cold shoulder.

American culture, as is its custom, took these traditions and ran roughshod with them.

It was turned into Sadie Hawkins day, named after a character in Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip. On this day, spinsters in Dogpatch chased the single men in town and if the woman caught a man and dragged him back to the starting line by sundown, he had to marry her.

These days, women chase men 365 days a year thanks to Internet dating services.

There's nothing unique about this. For example, Hillary Clinton is chasing Barack Obama all over the United States. And sundown is coming fast.

In a totally unrelated development, Republicans in Sacramento has historically derided "nanny government," one that excessively attempts to regulate peoples' lives.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that a Republican lawmaker from the Central Valley has introduced legislation that would allow big government to reach into your car and make it illegal for motorists to keep pets on their laps.

"If you have an animal that gets in your face or gets tangled up in your steering wheel while you're driving, you can't properly control (the car),' said Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, who introduced the bill.

Assembly Bill 2233 does not say how drivers would keep pets -- defined in the bill as "live animals" -- in their place. Maze suggested using a cage or having another passenger hold them.

The irony is that Maze voted against the bill that bans the use of hand-held cell phones in cars that goes into effect this summer, according to the Fresno Bee. He said the difference between that bill and his bill is that you can turn off a cell phone, but not a dog or cat.

Unless you had a Great Dane sitting on your lap, I'm not sure how this particular law would enforced.

But I'm sure Maze will be ironing out the details at the same time he's dealing with the state budget's $16 billion budget shortfall.

The Pot Calls the Kettle Black

THIS journalism business can be humbling at times.

Last week, I wrote about Trader Joe's banning single ingredient food items imported from China due to consumer concerns.

And rightfully so, I concluded. Since last year, when contaminated Chinese pet food killed or sickened thousands of animals in the U.S., some food imports were being stopped at the port and lead-tainted toys made in China were being yanked from store shelves, Chinese imports have come under increasing scrutiny, not without some justification.

As it turns out, this was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

That's because several days later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. of Chino, the subject of an animal-abuse investigation.

It's the biggest recall in history from a company that supplies meat for - can this get any worse? - school lunches and other public nutrition programs.

Hallmark/Westland also produces the makings for some of those goodies you wolf down at Jack-in-the-Box and In-N-Out.

The USDA, looking to put a positive spin on this fiasco, said the vast majority of the meat involved in the recall probably has been eaten already. And the danger to consumers was minimal.

It all goes to remind us that we should put our own house in order before pointing a finger at someone else.

The recall came after the Humane Society released a video showing workers at the Chino plant using prods, water hoses and even fork lifts to raise "downer cattle," those too weak to walk, so that they could be slaughtered.

Downer cattle are not supposed to be used as meat until a veterinarian determines whether an animal is injured or sick. Cows that cannot walk pose an added risk of mad cow disease.

The video was disturbing, to say the least. So disturbing that the San Bernardino County officials filed felony and misdemeanor charges alleging animal cruelty against two Hallmark employees.

There are no nice videos of slaughterhouses. It's a place where big animals become bite-sized. It's a violent and dehumanizing process.

But we are a nation of meat eaters so we look the other way.

Yet the never-pretty picture is getting uglier:

In 1999, 35 million pounds of hot dogs and pork and poultry projects were recalled from the Thorn Apple Valley's Forest City, Ark., processing plant because of possible contamination with the bacteria that causes listeriosis.

In September 2007, Topps Meat Co. recalled 21 million pounds of ground beef that may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

In June 2007, a California meat supplier expanded a beef recall to include a total of 5.7 million pounds of both fresh and frozen products because they might have been contaminated with E. coli. United Food Group, LLC, already had announced two recalls. But a positive test for E. coli in a patient in Arizona pushed the company to expand the recall.

In November 2007, Cargill Meat Solutions recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef products because they may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

There were 21 recalls of beef related to E. coli last year, compared with eight in 2006 and five in 2005, according to the New York Times. No one is quite sure what caused the increase, although theories include the cyclical nature of pathogens and changes in cattle-feeding practices caused by the ethanol boom.

None of that makes sense to Michael R. Taylor, who headed the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service during the Clinton administration.

The current inspection scheme is obsolete and wasteful, Taylor told the AP. Much as they did 100 years ago, USDA inspectors check hundreds of millions of beef and pork carcasses and some 8 billion chickens annually devoting about 2 seconds to each bird, he said.

Instead, the focus should be on checking for E. coli bacteria in beef, and other microscopic dangers in poultry, he said.

In the meantime, there is little likelihood that the buying public will change its eating habits.
Consumers kept eating beef after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in December 2003. While U.S. beef exports dropped sharply then, domestic demand was largely unchanged.

The good news is that they're taking notice in Washington.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said in a statement that USDA must toughen its inspection measures before animals are slaughtered to prevent future occurrences.

"How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?" said the Iowa Democrat. "Federal regulations exist for a reason - to protect public health."

The China Syndrome

TRADER Joe's, the quirky grocery store chain that crams its narrow aisles with bargain gourmet and ethnic foods and $2 wine, is drawing a line in the gastronomical sand.

No more, they announced this week, would they carry single ingredient items that are imported from China. These would include imports such as garlic, frozen organic spinach, ginger and edamame, a green soybean, according to a spokesperson for the chain.

The ban is the result of unspecified "consumer concerns" about "products from this region."
But the Monrovia-based chain said they would continue to stock products that include Chinese ingredients.

This might seem an odd stance for a company that routinely entices its customers with Peanut Satay Noodles, fresh grilled tofu spring rolls, asparagus risotto or Mango Ginger Chutney.

But in view of recent events, it should come as no great surprise that there are "consumer concerns" about all things Chinese.

Since last year, when contaminated Chinese pet food killed or sickened thousands of animals in the U.S. and lead-tainted toys made in China were being yanked from toy store shelves, Chinese imports have become about as welcome as mad cow disease in this country.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 46 percent of those polled are "very concerned" about the safety of food imported from China; another 28 percent said they were "somewhat concerned" about Chinese food products.

In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration has detained at U.S. ports such Chinese delicacies as:

Dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical.

Frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics.

Scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria.

Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.

Not to mention thousands of shipments of tainted Chinese dietary supplements, toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines.

It is only fair to point out that the danger from contaminated Chinese food imports remains small. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, less than one percent of America's food supply comes from China.

"Generally speaking, American consumers should not worry too much," reassured Luo Yunbo, head of the Food Science and Nutrition Engineering Institute at China's Agricultural University in Beijing. "We select the best products for the international markets."

Reassuring? Perhaps. But who among us wants to take a chance and wolf down a plate of sardines with a side of bacteria? Apparently, not the people who shop at Trader Joe's, and the market chain has, wisely, responded.

What is surprising is that, according to several media reports, other market chains aren't following Trader Joe's lead.

Whole Foods Market told the Los Angeles Times that it was "in a different situation" when it came to products from China.

"We don't carry them in our fresh meat, seafood or produce departments and we offer a very, very small amount in our grocery department," the Austin, Texas-based seller of natural and organic groceries said. Whole Foods added that it didn't make sense "to stop the progress we have made with sourcing select high-quality products for our private-label brands that come from China and other global partners."

El Segundo-based Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, the Trader Joe's competitor owned by British grocer Tesco, said it would continue to sell food imported from China.

In the meantime, the New York Times reported recently that the U.S. Olympic team is planning to take its own food to China for the Summer Games.

When a caterer working for the U.S. Olympic Committee went to a supermarket in China last year, he encountered a piece of chicken-half of a breast-that measured 14 inches, enough to feed a family of eight.

"We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive," said one official.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You Can Bet On It

Super Tuesday is coming, the day when the smoke clears from the political battleground and the leading presidential candidates emerge bloodied but mostly unbowed.

It is on this day that Americans will come face to face with the reality that, once again, they will be choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Every pundit who can hunt and peck will engage in endless analysis and prognostication even though, as the Wall Street Journal points out, their conclusions "are about as accurate as a chimp throwing darts."

Even though this column is as good as the next guy at reaching vague conclusions that can be applied to almost any result, we have decided to pass on politics. For now.

Besides, we are betting our rebate check that Hillary Clinton willbeat John McCain in November.

Instead, we will turn our attention to more pressing matters. Like the Super Bowl.

Yes, it's that time again for the most hyped but often least interesting game of the year. This year's contest on Sunday features the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, two teams of interest mostly to snow-bound residents in the northeastern United States.

For them, it's about civic pride. For the rest of us, it's about picking the best beer commercial.

The Patriots are undefeated, devouring their opponents like so many fire ants on the march and led by a dour coach who displays all the warmth and grace of Joseph Stalin.

The Giants actually play in New Jersey. Enough said.

I'll rip open a bag of torilla chips and watch it but without much emotion.

Indeed, the last time I got really enthused about a Super Bowl was when Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson's top during a half time show.

There is one sure-fire way of making the game interesting, however. Bet on it.

You don't need to be a football fan to put a few bucks down on the game. In fact, you don't need to know a quarterback from a quiche.

According to some betting websites, you can bet on who the most valuable player will thank first: teammates, God, family, coach, or no one.

You can bet on what song Tom Petty will sing to end his half time show.

You can get a few bucks down on how long it take Jordin Sparks to sing the National anthem. Over 1 minute 42 seconds, or under 1 minutes 42.

You can bet on whether Brittany Spears will show up, and whether she will streak the field.

You can also wager on who will win the coin toss, who will call the first time out, who will be the first player called for holding, whether the first player to score will have an odd or even number jersey, whether the first missed field goal will be wide left or right.

Of course, you can develop your own bets right at home. Who will be the first to take a bathroom break, who will be the first to dump a plate of nachos cheese-side down on your new couch, who willbe the first to say "I don't get it" after a multimillion dollar commercials creens, who will be the first to doze off in the middle of the game after consuming hot wings, chili, pizza and beer.

But whatever it takes, try to enjoy the game. It will be over in three hours. The presidential campaign will last another 10 months.

A Campaign Trail of Tears

The Democratic presidential candidate debate Monday night in South Carllina at times assumed all the trappings of a finger-pointing feud between opposing football fans.

Hillary was a coporate shill for Wal Mart. Barack worked for a slumlord. Hillary twists facts. Barrack won't take responsibility for his actions. And what about that pesky Bill?

In the middle of this spat sat John Edwards, looking for all theworld like a guy trying to mediate a rancorous divorce proceeding.

The media laps this up, of course. It's great political theater and it gives the assembled reporters something different to write about after hearing the same stump speech five times a day. But if you're interested in positions and issues, well, that gets lost in the sound and fury.

I liken it to making a choice from a ring full of boxers. The one with the biggest roundhouse right wins.

All of this took place on a day when the nation payed homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who embraced nonviolence as a political strategy. On more than one occasion, the candidates speculated that Dr. King would have been proud to see a woman and an Afican American contesting for the highest office in the land.

Perhaps. But I suspect Dr. King would also have been saddened by the level of personal attacks that have surfaced in the race. Not only is the tone of the race divisive, but race, gender,religion and age have become issues, issues you would have thought we were past inthis country.

Hillary Clinton is both a victim of and an advocate of gender politics. She has lashed out at the "old boys network" and accused fellow candidates, all male, of ganging up on her.

And when her eyes welled up and she became emotional while campaigning in New Hampshire, intended or not, it may have won her that state's primary by capturing the female vote.(Interestingly enough, when Ed Muskie got teary eyed in NewHampshire in 1972 over attacks on his candidacy, it was largely seen as costing him the election).

On the other hand, Clinton has been called a "bitch," rumored tobe a lesbian and criticized because when she displays leadership, she is somehow seen as less feminine.

Barack Obama has his own mountians to climb. He's not only African American, he's criticized for not being black enough, not even as black as Bill Clinton who is white. On top of that, he has been accused in anonymous Internet postings of being a Muslim who took his oath of office on aQur'an and refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

For the record, hehas been a member of a large Christian church in Chicago for more than 20 years and has led the U.S. Senate in the pledge.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon who has been forced to defend his faith, much as John F. Kennedy spoke about his Catholicism in 1962. One Internet report described Mormonism as some kind of devil worship. During the holidays, some South Carolina voters got a Christmas card, purportedly from Romney. Inside were references to his Mormon faith, including a defense of thechurch's former practice of polygamy.

A flier distributed in South Carolina accused John McCain offathering a "Negro child" (McCain's wife adopted an orphan in Bangladesh years earlier) and has been accused of selling out his fellow POWs when he was held prisoner in North Vietnam. McCain, 71, is also too old to run for the presidency, according to Chuck Norris, a Mike Huckabee supporter and Grade B actor whose thespian abilities apparently exceed his IQ.

Speaking of Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, two evangelical pastors in Iowa who are personally supporting the candidate received anonymous mailings warning that their churches risk sanction by the Internal Revenue Service if they become too involved in politics.

If Dr. King returned, he would probably believe we would have grown and matured since he last walked this earth.He would be wrong.