Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best of 2009

We wrote last week about some of the worst ideas of 2009.

Space limitations kept the list to a precious few. We fondly remembered the exploits of Octomom and Balloon Boy, Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford, Gavin Newsome and the Tea Party Patriots.

But we hardly scratched the surface.

We had every intent of revisiting the subject this week. But like Scrooge, our resolve to engage in another "bah, humbug" column has been melted away in the warm bask of the holidays.

So instead of mocking the mediocre, we will instead hail the heroes today, those formidable individuals who give us hope that maybe, just maybe, the human race sometimes gets it right.

So let us raise a glass in praise of:

Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III. Our newest Rose Parade grand marshal successfully carried out the emergency ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, offshore from Manhattan, on Jan. 15, 2009, after his plane struck a flock of geese, disabling both engines. His piloting skills saved the lives of all 155 people on the aircraft.

But more than that, he is the sort of "aw, shucks" hero that Americans love, a Jimmy Stewart firmly in command at the controls. And yet he is an American everyman: Sullenberger lost 40 percent of his salary over the years, which contributed to financial strain prior to the Hudson landing. He and his wife were facing the possibility of having to sell their home in order to stay afloat.

Jorge Munoz is a school bus driver who has taken it on himself to help hungry New Yorkers make it through tough times. Since 2004, he has handed out more than 70,000 meals from his mobile soup kitchen in Queens - for free, according to CNN. Munoz estimates that food and gas cost approximately $400 to $450 a week; he and his family are funding the operation through their savings and his weekly $700 paycheck. "I'll help anyone who needs to eat. Just line up," Munoz says.

Firefighters. Oh, sure, they drew some flack for their response to the Station Fire in its early hours. They reacted slowly. They should have used helicopter water drops after dark. But for those of us who watched the fire burn 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, it was a miracle it wasn't much worse. In a sort of slow-motion rampage, it threatened thousands of homes and businesses, threatened to destroy Mt. Wilson and burned for weeks, covering much of the Foothill area in smoke and ash. Two firefighters died in the blaze. Battling this inferno were brave men and women who defended a lot of homes they could probably never afford to live in. Without them, a lot of us would still be bunking down in high school gyms.

Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Just about the time the Olympic Games get boring, along come a couple of young studs who do the impossible. The best thing about them: they seemed to be having a genuinely good time while smashing world records. Honorbale mention: Brett Favre. Old guys can still play, too.

Mandi Bohrer. Mandi is gung-ho Army all the way. She graduated from West Point, served in Iraq and is married to a fellow officer. She and her husband are also parents of a 4-year-old daughter. Both mom and dad are being deployed to Afghanistan. It was either go together or stagger their deployments and spend nearly three years apart. In the meantime, the Bohrers have updated their wills and documented their last wishes. "It weighs heavily on me," Bohrer told Newsweek magazine. "But if I don't step in and go, someone else will have to. Someone else will have to leave their family."

Barack Obama. Not so much for who he is but what he represents. He is not the first president who rose from humble beginnings to achieve the highest office in the land. But he's the first African-American to do so and that very fact has endeared him to millions while earning him a place in history and ending an ugly chapter in the United States.

Worst Ideas of the Year

Just think of the really bad ideas we have had to endure and overcome over the years. The Edsel, leisure suits, Jerry Springer, mood rings and wine in a box come to mind.

But just when you think there couldn't be any more dumb ideas, when you believe that mankind has run the gamut on stupidity, a new crop appears.

As a public service, therefore, I offer the Worst Ideas of 2009, an entirely personal and nonscientific survey of people and their schemes that left us shaking our collective heads and proves there is no statute of limitations on dumb deeds done daily:

Worst reality show ideas: A tie between Octomom and Balloon Boy.

Nadya Suleman is the single mother of six who thought it would be a good idea to bring eight more children into the world through in-vitro fertilization. Just the thing you want to do when you're out of a job and on public assistance. For this act, she receives more media coverage than World War II. A British TV firm has signed a contract with her for a reality show. With any luck, it won't be shown in the U.S.

In the meantime, Richard and Mayumi Heene decided to compete with Nadya for bad parent of the year when they claimed their son, Falcon, was carried away by a balloon shaped like a flying saucer in Ft. Collins, Colorado. After a three-hour flight that covered 50 miles, caused Denver International Airport to be shut down and involved the National Guard, several police jurisdictions and the worldwide media at a cost of some $2 million, it was discovered the incident was a hoax. It's purpose? To make the family "more marketable for future media interests," according to authorities.

The couple pleaded guilty last month.

Runner up: "Jon and Kate Plus Eight Get Divorced."

Worst idea by a married man: Tie between Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford. Tiger, perhaps the most recognized sports icon in the world, could drive a golf ball 350 yards but had trouble getting his SUV out of a driveway. Apparently, the pressure of winning a golf tournament is nothing compared to being chased by your wife wielding a three iron after discovering you've been unfaithful.

Although Tiger has always been presented as a squeaky clean family values guy, the number of women he allegedly had on his speed dial could have filled the Los Angeles phone book.

Tiger's main benefactor is Nike, whose slogan is "just do it." Apparently, Tiger took it literally.

Not to be outdone, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford not only cheated on his wife, but came off as a sort of a romantic Keystone Kop in the process. Sanford, mentioned as presidential material, disappeared for 18 days in June, while explaining he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Turns out he was Flying Down to Rio to spend time with his "soul mate," a 43-year-old divorced mother of two. (Sample e-mail from Mark to Maria: " have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses ... I love your tan lines ... I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night's light ..."). To this day, he has refused to resign from office even after being censured and bidding goodbye to his wife and four sons who packed up and left him. Runner up: David Letterman who announced his infidelities between jokes.

Worst food idea: Domino's pasta in a bread bowl (about 1,500 calories). Honorable mention: Chili's Smokehouse Bacon Triple-the-Cheese Big Mouth Burger with Jalapeno Ranch Dressing (2,040 calories).

Worst beverage idea: Utopia Beer. This Sam Adams product is 27 percent alcohol by volume and $150 a bottle. Runner Up: Vio, brought to you by Coca-Cola, a blend of skim milk, sparkling water, and 27 grams of sugar. Carbonated skim milk? Cheers.

Worst political idea: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome running for governor. This bright young light from Bombast by the Bay couldn't even knock poor old Jerry Brown out of the prelims.

Maybe it was his support of gay marriage by extorting, "It's going to happen, whether you like it or not" (which is probably what the deckhands on the Titanic said) or his affair with the wife of his campaign manager. His worst mistake was remaining a mystery in Southern California where all the voters live.

Runner up: The Tea Party "patriots" who showed up armed and dangerous at Town Halls across the country, loudly shouting down elected officials and all who disagreed with them. And they called President Obama a Nazi?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Lot Like Christmas

Ah, Christmas. We celebrate it on the same day with the same trappings. We deck our halls, done our gay apparel, roast our chestnuts on an open fire. Yet, we all celebrate it differently.

That's because of traditions.

Maybe your family plays a spirited game of touch football using Aunt Mary's fruit cake.

Maybe you make book on how much Christmas cheer Cousin Charlie will consume before he falls into the tree.

Maybe its a keepsake, like that ornament from the Kern County Fair.

Or that recipe for Eggnog casserole.

My mother used to cook up a batch of sweet potatues covered with marshmellows every Christmas becase "it's one of dad's favorites." Years later, dad admitted to me he hated the dish but ate if to keep peace in the family.

My kids tried to start a tradition one year by awakening at 3 a.m., about five minutes after I had collapsed into bed exhausted from an evening of Greco-Roman wrestling with a mass of "some assembly required" toys. It was the
shortest tradition ever.

We do watch a scratchy old video tape of "A Christmas Carol" starring GeorgeC. Scott every year simply because he is the best Scrooge of all time.

There's a fire in the fireplace Christmas morning even if it's 80 degrees outside. There's always a birthday cake
because the Old Man of the House had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Day.

One family I read about buys the ugliest, tackiest outdoor decorations they can find. They try to sneak them onto their friend's lawns or houses during the season. The rules of the game state that if you get the tacky decor up without getting caught, the victim has to keep it in their yard until Christmas. If you get caught putting
them there, you have to put them on your lawn.

Pretty funny unless you live next door to the loser.

Leave the cozy confines of the U.S. of A. and you find Christmas traditions that are, well, different:

On Christmas morning, people in Portugal have a traditional feast called "consoda" with a twist; not only does the
family get together to eat but also dead people are invited. Extra places are set and food is offered to the deceased. Which is a great idea because since the deceased rarely show up, meaning more food for everybody.

In parts of Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, the last month of the year is a time, especially for naughty kids, to be frightened. It seems young men dress up as the Krampus, a devil-demon creature equipped with cow bells and rods, usually accompanied by the Nikolaus (a sort of Santa Claus) and roam the streets to scare hell out of the
children as well as adults. This is called a Krampuslauf.

Leave it to those Germanic types to celebrate as only they know how.

In Greenland, so I'm told, kiviak is a gastronomical Christmas treat made from the raw flesh of an auk which has been buried under a stone in sealskin for several months until it's achieved an advanced stage of decomposition. Apparently, it smells like old blue cheese and tastes very pungent.

I could not find no other country that has adopted this tradition.

In some rural areas of south Wales, the Mari Llwyd is a person hiding under a horsehair sheet while
carrying a horse's skull on a pike . The Mari Llwyd wanders the streets at Christmas with a band of mummers and anyone "given the bite" by the horse's jaws must pay a cash fine.

Which is the basis for our IRS.

Little known facts about some other Christmas traditions:

--- Santa's reindeers are all females since male reindeer reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid December.Female reindeer retain their antlers till after they give birth in the spring.

That makes sense because only female reindeer would stop and ask for directions.

--- Truth be told , the 19th-century author who bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded St. Nicholas ("His eyes how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!") was himself a dour, straitlaced academician. As a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C. Moore's most notable work prior
to "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was a two-volume tome entitled "A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language."

Fortunately for us, the man had children.

--- Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer began life as an advertising campaign for a department store. In 1939, Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story coloring book they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.

As a child, May was rather sickly, shy and introverted. So, he based the story on his childhood feelings of alienation from his peers. As to the name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph.

According to one published account, May's boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose - an image associated with drinking and drunkards - wasn't suitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a
red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May's bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved.

And to end on a happy note: Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that suicides aren't more prevalent during the holdiays. In fact, there's a rise during the spring and summer months.

A Man's Home Is His Castle

Most journalists, at least the print variety, believe it is their sworn duty to comfort the afflicted, represent the under represeted, give voice to the voiceless.

But sometimes you just have to say what the heck and extend a hand to the rich.

It is in that spirit that I stand ready today to assist Candy Spelling, who finds herself in a spot of bother.

It seems Mrs. Spelling, widow of legendary television producer Aaron Spelling, is having trouble selling her 4.7-acre estate in Holmby Hills.

She is the process of downsizing to a a 16,500-square-foot condo in Century City which will set her back $47 million. So unloading the Holmby place would probably help her bottom line.

It certainly has everything you'd want in a home: a kitchen that serve 800, five fireplaces and four wet bars. There are seven bedrooms in the servants' quarters alone.

The main house features a bowling alley, a wine storage and tasting room, gift-wrapping room, a humidity-controlled silver storage room, China room, library, gym and media room. And, of couse, a screening room with a wall-to-wall video theater setup that rises from the floor.

Nobody quite knows how many rooms are in the place. "You're really asking the wrong person," Spelling once joked. "There's a lot. (The house) has evolved and I actually haven't gone around and counted."

Outside, you'll find a tennis court, fountains, a waterfall, a pool and spa, a reflection pool and a pool house with a kitchen, and 16 car ports.

Asking price: $150 million which makes it the most expensive residential real estate listing in the United States.

It also makes it hard to sell. Let's face it, this isn't the place for the 10 per cent down, 30-year mortgage set.

Indeed, you have to be prescreened and prequalified. After that, all you need is a fortune to buy someone else's view of paradise.

So this could take awhile.

We recently visited a home owned by a family that once faced a similar problem.

The master of the house had died unexpectedly, leaving his widow and daughter alone in a home that makes the Spelling spread look like a San Bernardino County fixer upper.

It's called Biltmore House and it rises like a fairy tale castle in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Ashville, North Carolina.

Constructed by George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the family patriarch, between 1888 and 1895, it gives ostentatiousness a bad name.

Built in a French Renaissance style, its 175,000 square feet (the Spelling house is 53,000
square feet) contains 250 rooms. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt and the grounds, all 175,000 acres, were under the care of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City.

It had a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, two-story library, and other 19th-century novelties such as electric lights, elevators, forced-air heating, centrally-controlled clocks, fire alarms and an intenal intercom

Remember: It was occupied by just three people: Vanderbilt, his wife and daughter, joined from time to time by guests. He called it his "little mountain escape."

It's no wonder the Gilded Age led some common folks to grab their pitchforks and join the Communist Party.

In 1930, faced with a Depression, Vanderbilt's only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and her husband, John Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore House to the public. Family members continued to live there until 1956, when it was permanently opened to the pulic although it is still owned by the Vanderbilt heirs.

If nothing else, the Vanderbilts know how to make a buck. According to the Biltmore website, the estate draws approximately 1 million visitors a year. At about $50 a pop, the tourist income alone would buy you, say, a Century City condo.

So here's a suggestion for Candy Spelling. Open your place for tours. Oh sure, the neighbors might complain about tour buses lurching and belching their way through Holmby

But the Spellings threw a lot of parties in their day so trafficis nothing new in the neighborhood.

Throw open the doors, Candy. We'd all like to see the place. And you can make a few bucks while you're waiting for that certain someone with a checkbook to show up.

That advice comes free of charge. Now, back to the afflicted.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Fraud Flu

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned pandemic to bring out the
worst in people.

While our medical community is struggling to keep the vast swine flu
outbreak under control against formidable obstacles, a gaggle of scam
artists, conspiracy theorists and assorted other crazies have emerged
to peddle their wares to a panicked public.

That’s nothing new. But I guess we need a reminder from time to time
that those who seek profit or stature while exploiting other people’s
misery rank somewhere below child molesters, war criminals and
dishonest mechanics in the grand scheme of things.

A quick scan of the Internet on the topic of swine flu reveals an
array of alleged cures including air "sterilizers," photon machines,
supplement pills to boost the immune system, protective shampoos and
face masks. Even fake Tamiflu is being advertised, according to
published reports.

One product that drew a warning letter from the FDA is the Photon
Genie, a gadget that delivers "energy waves." Its Web site claimed it
"helps strengthen the immune system, and a strong immune system is
key to preventing swine flu symptoms and key to treating swine flu."

Of course, sticking your finger in a light socket will provide
“energy waves” as well but I don’t suggest it.

Another was a spray called “Swine Flu...Gone” made with ionic silver.
Simply apply to your hands “and on any surface where these germs may
exist and kill the virus," its web site claimed.

It is made by a company called Secrets of Eden which sells
supplements and oils with a Biblical flair,
said its general manager, Rick Strawcutter, a former pastor in
Adrian, Mich. The staff "got a little carried away" on marketing for
one product and "drew the ire of the FDA," he told the Associated

Carried away? The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry says
silver "may cause harmful health effects," depending on the amount
and type of exposure.

Maybe Rev. Strawcutter should call his product line Nearer My God to

Even mainstream advertisers aren’t immune, so to speak, from jumping
on the pandemic bandwagon. The makers of Dial Soap, Kleenex, Clorox
and other big brands launched a joint promotional campaign costing up
to $1 million, according to the AP. The pitch:

"Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease. According to the
CDC, up to 80 percent of infectious diseases, like the flu, are
spread by your hands. That's why frequent, proper handwashing is so
important in preventing spread of the flu, other viruses and germs.
An antibacterial soap like Dial Complete foaming hand wash kills 99.9
percent of germs."

Thanks for the science lesson. Except you forgot this part: Flu is
caused by a virus, so killing bacteria is of uncertain benefit.

If that’s not bad enough, consider the reaction from the paranoid
community, whose take on the epidemic has been described in some
circles as “The Days of Swine and Neuroses.”

One commentator opines: “U.S. President Barack Obama has now declared
a national emergency over in swine flu infections. The reasoning
behind such a declaration? According to the White House, it’s
designed to “allow hospitals to better handle the surge in patients”
by allowing them to bypass certain federal laws. That’s the public
explanation for this, but the real agenda behind this declaration may
be far more sinister. Declaring a national emergency immediately
gives federal authorities dangerous new powers that can now be
enforced at gunpoint…”

Or consider this one: The "swine flu" is a creation of the
pharmaceutical companies. They know it, they knew it would happen,
and they are criminally profiting from their creation.”

Or this: “Sagging TV News ratings and plummeting ad revenues are
already forcing massive layoffs. Without a huge increase in ratings
TV news could go the way of the newspaper. Using press passes they
got access to government labs with the virus and spread the virus
using their Mexican affiliates.

Wait, it gets worse: “World governments, spooked by the prospect of
radical climate change caused by over-population of the planet, have
assembled a super-secret task force to engineer and distribute a
super virulent strain of influenza designed to "correct" the human
population (and institute global Martial Law).

A variation on this has President Obama using the flu to weed out
political opponents, leaving a country full of Mao-quoting Muslim
vegans who drive hybrids and support gay marriage.

Or my personal favorite: A prophecy that a black man would occupy
the White House “when pigs fly” ties the Obama presidency to the
swine flu.

Man, since he emerged from primordial ooze, has tried to somehow
explain things he fears and can’t control, like pandemics, natural
disasters, BCS college football ratings and hedge funds.

Often, these explanations take on bizarre shapes as we grapple with
problems that seem beyond our grasp.

This is what we do know: U.S. officials reported this week the
addition of another million doses H1N1 swine flu vaccine, bringing
the total so far to 23.2 million doses. The first estimates called
for 40 million.

According to some medical experts, a cumulative 22.4 million doses is
a remarkable success that began in 2004 when the U.S. decided to
ensure a yearlong supply of the hens' eggs in which the vaccine is
made, and which continued this spring when the U.S. signed contracts
to ensure a huge supply of vaccine.

And officials said that every day more vaccine is becoming available,
and they hope to see an end to the shortage over the next several

In addition, the genetic makeup of the H1N1 flu virus hasn't changed
since it first appeared in April, so the vaccine is a good, effective
match, according the medical experts.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, said that the swine flu continues to be "very mild
for most people. But there is no question we are seeing very severe
cases hit in populations normally not susceptible to the flu and
without underlying health conditions in some cases. Young people and
pregnant women have been particular targets of that." That's a
significant difference from run-of-the-mill seasonal flu, which
typically poses a much bigger risk to the elderly.

Common sense advice: When it becomes available, get the swine flu
vaccine and your seasonal flu shot as well.

Drink plenty of liquids and avoid reading Internet rumors.

I wish you and yours safety and sanity.

Santa in September

Let me be the first to remind you that Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or any other end-of-the-year holiday you choose to celebrate is drawing near.

Except that I won't be the first.

The steady drumbeat of holiday advertising is even now starting to rumble in the distance. It won't be long until the tempo becomes so loud and rapid that the natives will become restless and break into a shopping frenzy.

Or at least that's what retailers hope. As humorist Robert Paul once remarked, "Even before Christmas has said Hello, it's saying `Buy Buy."'

I noticed it last weekend while watching TV. The unmistakable jingle of faux-Christmas music caught my attention just in time to see a commercial courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is to retailing what the German army was to the Maginot Line. We think we can resist but fighting is futile. Surrender now. If Wal-Mart says it's time to shop, it's time to gas up the SUV, max out the credit cards and hit the stores.

That being said, Wal-Mart has nothing on Kmart. They sent a mailing out to customers about their new site, Christmas Lane, during the summer. It promises "the best deals for Christmas, five months early."

Only a skeptic like me would wonder if they're trying to move last year's leftovers.

The alternative to this madness is to do what a bunch of Brits did recently. A group called the Movement for the Containment of Christmas demonstrated the courage of its convictions with an act of terrorism.

OK, terrorism might be too harsh a word. But the group attacked a storefront run by a charity. When the store put Christmas cards on display in August, the "terrorists" glued the door of the shop closed.

Wait until they see Disney's "Christmas Carol" with Jim Carrey. They may try to burn down Washington again.

The recession, which lingers like a bad hangover, will probably result in even more advertising than we're used to enduring. In tough times, retailers will often spend more ad money to lure shoppers through the doors.

But there may be an upside to a down economy. The Associated Press reports that stores are turning back the clock, conjuring images of hearth and home as they stock their holiday merchandise.

Retailers hope embracing holiday traditions from cozier times will tempt recession-weary consumers to open their wallets in a season expected to show flat sales at best.

Better yet, ostentatious outdoor displays are also getting the boot. Home Shopping Network is moving away from holiday lawn decor to interior decorations, including adding nativity scenes. That means fewer of the big inflatable lawn decorations that have dominated suburban yards in recent years.

This is particularly good news to me. I have a neighbor who adorns his front yard with 20-foot-tall grinning Santa every Christmas which puts out more light than a night game at Dodger Stadium. When it is deflated during the day, it looks like the Hindenburg crashed on his property.

Of course, no matter what the calendar says or which way the stock market indicators point, there are always those tough-to-buy-for folks that make shopping even more of a chore.

So as a public service, I offer these actual gift items, culled from the Internet, for the man, or woman, who has everything:

The Barack Obama Action Figure: "If you think fighting Nazis or inter-galactic robots is tough, you should try fighting Republicans. Those G.O.P.s will use every dirty trick in the book to knock you out of action. It takes sharp wits, quick reflexes, and substantial campaign contributions just to stay alive. But Barack Obama is up to the task..."

The John McCain Action Figure: "He flew bombing raids in North Vietnam. He chaired the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington. And now he can kick Ken and G.I. Joe's butts in your toy box. Sarah Palin action figure not included."

Wall Street Financial Victims Play Set: "Run for your lives. They're coming!!! No, not monsters or vampires or aliens. The Stock Brokers and Investment Bankers are coming!!! Hide your money. Disguise your IRAs and 401(k)s. Spend your kids' college fund before it's swallowed up. Like a swarm of locusts, the denizens of Wall Street are determined to devour every cent you own in order to quench their insatiable greed!"

The 2010 Already Sucks button. "This straight to the point button is the perfect gift for anyone frustrated with politics or current events!"

How to Traumatize Your Children Book: "Most parents don't know what they're doing -- they try their best to screw up their kids, but most still grow up to be normal adults. Well, this indispensable book takes the guesswork out of raising a dysfunctional child. Within these 191 pages, you'll learn how to shatter self-esteem, buy your child's love, and teach your child how to be a bad friend."

If none of these fit the bill, eBay has a selection of Michael Jackson ornaments for sale.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What's the Good Word?

In a recent poll conducted by Marist College, nearly half of Americans - 47 percent - said they find "whatever" the most annoying word or phrase in use today.

Twenty-five percent said they found "you know" most grating; 11percent can't stand "it is what it is," 7 percent would like to ban "anyway" from all verbal exchanges; and 2 percent reported that they could do without hearing "at the end of the day."

I disagree. "Whatever" has evolved into what is clearly one of the most useful words in the English language today, a word of such economy and impact that it's appropriate for almost any occasion.

Consider these definitions, some of which are found in the Urban Dictionary:

Used in an argument, you can admit that you are wrong without actually admitting it. ("So the Pope isn't Italian. Whatever."

It is passive-aggressive behavior at its most eloquent. (She: "If you leave me, I'll kill myself!" He: "Whatever.")

It is often used to dismiss someone when it is clear that rational discussion would be a waste of time. ("Don't tell me you believe in that evolution stuff! The Bible clearly states that the Earth is 6,000 years old!" "Whatever, go bother someone else.")

It is the most annoying thing that your girlfriend can say. ("Hey would you like to get dinner, see a movie, then perhaps go back to my place?" "Whatever.")

It's a phrase that can be used to indicate complete apathy. (Teacher: "Who was Plato?" Student: "Mickey Mouse's dog." Teacher: "No, he was a Greek philosopher." Student: "Whatever."

The term has more uses than a Swiss army knife.

By my yardstick, there are a lot more irritating phrases contributing to word pollution out there.

Take, for instance, the phrase, "What's the good word?" What are you supposed to reply? "Joblessness?" "Afghanistan?" "Schwarzenegger?" On rare occasions, you could actually reply with a good word like, "Hawaii" or "raise." Better yet, answer it with "It is what it is." That will stop the conversation dead in its tracks.

How about "no problem." This has somehow replaced "you're welcome" although it's a lot better than "no sweat" which was in vogue some time ago. George Carlin used to mock the phrase this way: "Thanks for helping me bring the dead babies up from the cellar."

"No problem."

"Awesome" makes my list. I have yet to hear it uttered by anyone who fits the definition of the word, "inspiring awe."

I don't know how "sucks" made it into everyday polite conversation, but it has. In fact, it is now the most sincere expression of sympathy going. ("My dog died and I'm in foreclosure." "Man, that sucks.")

But No. 1 on my hit list is "dude." Originally used to describe a dandy in Victorian England, it has somehow found its way into everyday conversation thanks to the stoners, surfers and skateboarders who often use it three times in one sentence ("I was at the mall the other day, dude, and there was this hot chick and I went up to her and dude I was like ... dude ...").

If that's not distressing enough, the youth of our country are already at work crafting a new set of clich├ęs. UCLA has compiled a dictionary called, naturally enough, "UCLA Slang" which attempts to categorize the language of the campus.

Successful submissions had to be unlikely to appear in a conventional dictionary. If the words and phrases also have the potential to puzzle parents, so much the better.

"Destroy," for instance, means the opposite of what you would think: to do well on something like a test.

Verbs morph into nouns, as in "epic fail," now slang for "what a mistake!" Nouns also become adjectives, with "Obama" now used as slang for "cool or rad," as in: "You just aced that exam - you are so Obama!"

The lingo of texting provided such visual entries as "QQ," an emoticon similar to a smiley face that, in this instance, stands for the verb "to cry."

Taking the first initials of a common phrase can result in a catchy initialism such as I.D.K., which is slang for "I don't know." Once those initials start being pronounced as a full blown word, they've evolved into an acronym like FOMO, which stands for "fear of missing out."


Thrown for a Loss

News: Rush Limbaugh fails in his attempt to become a part owner of the NFL St. Louis Rams.

Views: I had a disturbing dream the other night. I was at the opening game at Ed Roski's new stadium in the city of Industry, a locale with all the charm and beauty that its name suggests.

When I looked down on the field, who should I see but the Rams, the team that packed up and abandoned Southern California area some years ago, leaving pro football fans here with such a bitter taste in their mouths that most believe NFL stands for Not For Los Angeles.

Now they were back, lured from St.Louis, lacking both contrition and talent.

When I looked up to the owner's box, who should I see but Rush Limbaugh, now a partner in the franchise, smoking a foot-long cigar and slapping his wing nut buddies on the back.

Could it be true? Limbaugh and the Rams, the worst pairing since Sacco and Vanzetti, playing right here in a stadium I repeatedly called a pipe dream?

I woke up in a cold sweat. But when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I realized Limbaugh, who has a history of making racially insensitive remarks, had about as much chance of owning a piece of an NFL team as he does becoming president of the NAACP.

When a man talks trash, he often ends up in life's landfill.

Besides, Roski will never build his stadium unless he can lure an NFL team here, which may be harder than getting Iran to disarm.

His people predicted last year that a team would be playing in the Los Angeles area come 2oo9. Now they're saying 2011 is a more likely date with the new stadium opening in 2013.

Sweet dreams.

News: Roman Polanski's lawyer says the director is "depressed" as he sits in a Swiss jail awaiting extradition to the U.S., a country he fled after pleading guilty 31 years ago to raping a 13-year-old girl.

Views: I'm depressed too, depressed that there was an outpouring of excuse-making for Polanski, a man whose immense talent overshadows his lack of moral backbone. About one hundred mostly European artists signed an online French cinema industry petition demanding Polanksi's release, and U.S. directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch joined in.

Why? Because he's an artist, one who has suffered, surviving the Holocaust and the death of his first wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson gang. And now, living on the run.

That's all very moving. But others have suffered greatly without resorting to criminal behavior. Nelson Mandela and Elie Wessel come to mind.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, actress Whoopi Goldberg rose to new levels of absurdity by saying she didn't consider the sex incident to be rape in the strict sense of the word. "It was something, but I don't believe it was rape-rape," Goldberg said on TV chat show "The View."

So let me get this straight: she was a child, he gave her liquor, drugged her, sodomized her then fled? You're right, Whoopi. It wasn't "rape-rape." It was worse than that.

We tend to cut our artists a generous amount of slack. They are talented and temperamental, and their excesses seem to come with the job description.

But genius doesn't guarantee immunity. Just ask Phil Spector.

News: Marge Simpson appears in Playboy.

Views: OK, so Marge is a cartoon. But she's at least as real as the silicone-injected, bleached blond, nipped and tucked bimbos Playboy has offered up as the ideal American woman.

Her appearance is an attempt to attract younger readers. So now a blue-haired mother of three with a voice like fingernails on the blackboard is going to reverse the declining fortunes of the Playboy franchise?

And you thought the Nobel Peace Prize was weird.

Monday, October 12, 2009

And the Winner Is....

I'm a bit jaded when it comes to awards. Maybe it's because we live in Hollywood, where everyone is a (fill in the blank) nominee for (fill in the blank).

Walk onto a film set and you immediately become a candidate for an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Peoples' Choice Award, a MTV Movie Award, an Internet Movie Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Kids Choice Award.

There are awards for blacks and Hispanics and gays, short subjects, long subjects, horror movies, science fiction movies, political movies, adult movies and everything in between. Even box-office bombs are honored each year with the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies.

There are plenty for everybody. Pass them around.

That's why it's refreshing to take note from time to time of the unique and exclusive Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two California scientists I wrote about several years ago who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Or the distinguished researchers who studied why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.

Obviously, these awards are hard to come by. One must combine intense research with the curiosity and sophistication of an 8-year-old to make the cut here.

Behind the laughter, there's usually a semi-serious purpose.

Take, for instance, Stephan Bolliger, who along with four colleagues in Switzerland conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

It's unclear whether Bollinger and his mates, dressed in lab coats and armed with jagged test tubes, brawled their way through the local taverns to reach this conclusion.

Nonetheless, Bollinger told the Associated Press that his research has legitimate value. Lawyers and judges in court cases have asked how much damage a blow to the head with a bottle can cause, and the study could help decide future cases.

Dr. Elena Bodnar, honored for developing a bra that converts into a pair of gas masks - one for the wearer, the other for a friend - said that she came up with the idea while studying the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster. If people had had cheap, readily available gas masks in the first hours after the disaster, she said, they may have avoided breathing in iodine-131, which causes radiation sickness.

Besides, her patented devices look pretty, she added.

It's hard to argue with research like that.

Other notable winners:

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows. Rowlinson said naming cows was just one aspect of their research that showed that when humans are nice to animals, the animals return the affection (thereby validating the old Carnation advertising slogan, "milk from contented cows").

Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castano for creating diamonds out of tequila.

These awards take their place in the pantheon of past winners, which includes researchers who showed lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating and an investigation into whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio.

Then there's a special salute for the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon - the so-called "gay bomb" - that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

All of this comes at a time that the British government has unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much "impact" the research has.

The plans have come under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution.

Not to mention happy cows.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Phoneys Among Us

History tells us that the first words ever spoken over a telephone were courtesy of its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who said to his assistant listening in the next room , "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you."

I suspect history's second telephone conversation went something like this: "Mr, Bell, I'm calling on behalf of the Society to Eliminate Nose Hair. As you know, Mr. Bell, nose hair strikes thousands of adults in their prime, causing public displays of picking and plucking that are intolerable in this enlightened era. Remember, Mr. Bell, a nostril is a
terrible thing to lose. Help us stamp out nose hair by giving us a generous donation. How much can I put you down for?"

At which point Alexander Graham Bell hung up and immediately set out to invent call blocking.

Actually, Mr. Bell was long gone when telemarketing was inflicted upon an unsuspecting public. Some suggest that in the 1950s, DialAmerica Marketing, Inc.became the first company completely dedicated to inbound and outbound telephone sales and services. The company, spun-off and sold by Time, Inc. magazine in 1976, became the largest
provider of telephone sales and services to magazine publishing companies.

You remember them. They would call a month after you subscribed and ask you to renew.

I mention all this because my family is about to set a new world and Olympic record for annoying calls from a single source.

Thanks to Caller ID, which may be the greatest invention since the wheel, we have been able to duck at least 20 calls in a two week span from something called AICR. They call at 8 a.m., 8 p.m., weekdays and weekends, and every conceivable time in between.

I've been tempted to answer, just in case AICR stands for Astounding Infusion of Cash for Rector. But in my heart of hearts, I know they don't want to give me money, they want to take it.

So I decided to investigate AICR and see who they are and why they so desperately want my attention.

It turns out that AICR stands for the American Institute for Cancer Research. According to its website, it is the first organization to focus research on the link between diet and cancer and translate the results into practical information for the public.

Well, that seems like a noble goal. So how do I fit in? As an unwitting volunteer fundraiser, that's how.

AICR's telemarketers want you to distribute pledge forms to all your neighbors so they can help fund the organization's activities.

If that's not intrusive enough, it's your job then to collect the pledges and send them back to AICR, under the theory that peer pressure/guilt will open up wallets and purses up and down your street.

It's been my experience that most people enjoy their neighbors at arm's length. Start banging on doors and asking for money and you become no more than a telemarketer yourself. Then, watch your social standing in the neighborhood equal that of the old lady up the street who keeps 40 cats in her house and hasn't emptied the trash in five

Don't get me wrong. We should all join the fight to cure cancer. I lost my mother and mother-in-law to cancer so I know the pain it can inflict not only on the victim but the survivors as well. But what are you really contributing to here?

The American Institute for Cancer Research, according to the New York state attorney general's 2006 report on nonprofit fundraising, took in only 13 percent of the money that a professional fundraising organization raised for them.

And a group called Charity Navigator, which last year helped 4 million donors decide where their money would do the most good, gave AICR a rating of one star out of a possible four.

Besides, even if AICR was run by the Dali Lama himself, their aggresive telemarketing campaign would negate most of the good deeds they may do.

My advice in dealing with telemarketers: Speak to them in a foreign language, preferably one you just made up. If they ask, "how are you today?" tell them your dog just died. If you're a male and the caller is female, ask in a husky voice, "so,what are you wearing?" Imitate a recorded message saying you'll be released from prison
soon. If that fails, one wag suggested telling the caller that they have reached a murder scene, you are a detective, the person they are calling is dead and you want to know exactly how they know the victim.

Monday, September 28, 2009

America, 2009

I've mounted the soap box way too many times this year to complain about the lack of civility in this country's political discourse.

I certainly don't seem to be changing any minds.

From tea baggers to tax-and-spend liberals, everyone has cranked the volume up to max.

But I have one more column to get off my chest before I refrain from visiting the topic again. Or in today's venacular, I will shut the hell up.

What follows, then, is a snapshot of our political landscape, September 2009, as seen through the eyes of an assortment of pundits, print and electronic media, bloggers and commentators. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.

Barack Obama is president of the United States. He is a Nazi and/or a Socialist who brainwashes children, plans to kill your grandmother, holds office illegally and is in fact a Indonesian thug. He is a Muslim who plans to deliver the country to Islamic jihadists who will convert our churches to mosques, veil our women, toss our liquor into the Pacific Ocean and pack the halls of Congress with radical clerics.

He has over and over again exposed himself as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. His book, "Dreams From My Father," is nothing more than a dimestore "Mein Kampf."

Obama is transforming America into something that resembles Nazi Germany, with forced National Service, domestic civilian spies, warrantless wiretaps, the destruction of the Second Amendment, FEMA camps and Martial Law.

His vice president, Joe Biden, is career Washington insider with hair plugs and a serious case of foot in mouth disease who has participated in the attempt to destroy the lives, not just careers, of a number of eminently qualified Americans, carrying the water for the Democrat Party and the American left.

Principle among President Obama's cabinet members is Timothy Geithner, a tax cheat who is running the Treasury Department and is fast becoming the Dick Cheney of the Obama Administration. He is nothing more than a lapdog of the Obama administration whose job is to divert attention from the President's carefully unfolding socialist

Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of Stare, reminds men of the worst characteristics of women they've encountered over their life: totally controlling, not soft and cuddly. Not sympathetic. Not patient. Not understanding. Demanding, domineering, Nurse Ratched kind of thing.

She has stayed in a failed marriage as a way of keeping or even fostering her own political influence. They say a Hillary stamp fails to stick because the wrong side is being spit on.

Obama won the White House by defeating the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin in the November, 2008, election.

McCain uses his status as a war hero to cover up his shortcomings in the integrity and character department. He is a weird progressive like Theodore Roosevelt. He is too old to be President and thinks his age grants him a memory waiver. Getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is not a qualification to become president.

His running mate Sarah Palin, the recently resigned governor of Alaska, was selected to boost a sagging campaign but became a liability. Instead of a politician, the Republicans got the Homecoming Queen most of us had to
tolerate in high school. All meanness and good looks and inexplicable popularity, and, when her lips move, just plain wrong about everything.

Obama replaced George Bush, a man of questionable intellectual capacity, as president. He was seen as another Ronald Reagan, who himself was a nuclear cowboy who hated the poor. Bush was the worst two-term President in the history of the country. From Iraq to Katrina, from the environment to the economy, his deer-in-the-headlines governance almost destroyed the Republican party.

Bush's Vice President was Dick Cheney, whose defense of torture and other extreme measures as necessary to keep Americans safe was a perverse example of wishful nightmare thinking ... Cheney terrified more Americans than did any terrorist in the last seven years.

Anyway, you get the point. As Americans, we have the right to express every opinion mentioned above. But verbal visciousness often ends in violence.

Perhaps we would be wise to remember the words of John F. Kennedy: "So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let usnever fear to negotiate."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Night the News Died

Let's suppose for a moment that this paper decides to undergo a complete redesign, top to bottom.

Experts are hired, protoypes studied, opinions are offered, meeting are held.

Then on the big day, the redesigned paper appears, not without some fanfare.

But instead of news, that day's edition contains glowing articles about the editors, puff pieces about the staff and many other self-congratulatory stories.

This column on that day is devoted to interviews with senior staff members in which I ask them when they first recognized their genius, how it feels to be on the cutting edge of their profession and assuring them a place in the pantheon of journalistic excellence.

I'm betting my readers would be looking for a punch line somewhere, such as "April fools" or "Robert Rector has recently returned from an episode of nervous exhaustion."

That's because we tend to go about our business quietly, letting the product speak for itself.

Not so over in Television Land.

With Jay Leno about to appear in a new time slot on NBC, the hype was so thick it sounded like happy hour at a public relations convention. OK, I can live with that. This is show biz, after all, where
excess is the norm.

But, silly old me, I draw the line when local news operations offer up a menu of self-serving pap thinly disguised as something relevant. They even have a name for it: plugola.

Case in point: Monday night news on KNBC.

Guess what the lead story was? Yup, Jay Leno, followed by numerous other glowing reports on his new show. Any non-Leno news was squeezed to the back of the broadcast with the weather and feel-good animal stories.

While Leno's program may have some news value---after all, it was departure from the norm ---the positive coverage contrasted with the critics who generally found it dull and uninspiring. And the public which hit the channel change button on their remotes with all the gentle touch of a Gatling gun after the first night.

The clincher for me during the Monday night news segement om KNBC was an interview with the Man Himself by weatherman Fritz Coleman who tossed up enough sugar-coated questions to make your teeth hurt. Why the weatherman? I'm guessing it was because he, too, is a stand-up comic. Or maybe the field reporters and anchors were too overcome with emotion to carry on.

If that wasn't enough, Tuesday's newscast carried a long interview with a woman who is the percussionist in the house band. Rim shot!.

Look, I like Jay Leno. I don't care if his jokes are corny. If I want biting political satire, I'll watch John Stewart or tune into Glenn Beck, who can't possibly be serious.

I'll certainly look in at Leno from time to time. It might help if his guest list didn't include Kayne West, who single handidly united both major political parties behind the President when Obama called him a jackass.

Or Tom Cruise and Michael Moore who appeared the next night. Who's next? South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson?

KNBC isn't the only station to sink into this ethical quicksand. KABC treats "Dancing With the Stars" as though it was bulletins from the front, giving it breathless and prominent coverage masquerading as news stories.

Lest we forget the L.A. Times which published a bought-and-paid-for story on its front page that was a shameless promo for a new TV series.

But it is becoming all too commonplace on TV which at the same time promotes its news product as legitimate and important. Listen to what Michael Fiorile, chairman of NBC's affiliates board, has to say: "...Jay is a committed pro. He knows that the better his show does (for our newscasts), the more we'll promote him."

I'm not sure who the local news people think they are fooling. Most viewers don't need my help in seeing through this charade.

But I also think they don't care. TV news is no longer public interest programming but a moneymaking endeavor driven by ratings.

And with the competition from cable networks and the Internet, it will only get worse.

Let the viewer beware.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Screen Shots

"It's 5 p.m. on Saturday, the biggest fire in year[s] is in the backyards of thousands of homes from Lake View Terrace to Pasadena, and NOT ONE Los Angeles TV station is providing continuous coverage." ---Email to the LA Observed website.

It's unclear if we will learn many lessons from the Station Fire. We have seen this beast before and we know him by his many names: the Old Fire, the Cedar Fire, the Oakland Hills Firestorm, the Malibu Fire.

But amid the triumphs and tragedies that these sort of disasters provide, there was scathing criticism. The media --- specifically television --- is being assailed for their coverage of the fire, or lack of it, particularly in its beginning stages.

No less a personage than L.A. County Mike Antonovich lashed out at television news stations for being negligent in failing to provide comprehensive fire coverage. "There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and
animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go," Antonovich said in an interview. "I'm upset. The media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county's history."

Normally, I would take Mike Antonovich's views with a grain of salt. His relationship with the media has traditionally ranged from lukewarm to lousy.

But in this case he had a point.

The LA Observed reader went on to write: "A few minutes ago, KTTV popped in with a brief update after the Dodger game, then returns to 'Whacked Out Sports.' KCBS did a half hour at 4:30 then went to an NFL preseason game. Sister KCAL is in syndicated schlock. KNBC: regular programming, some sort of taped feature show on hot cars at Mt. Pinos. KABC: live coverage from ABC News of the Kennedy interment. KTLA: some show about warlocks and evil spirits."

Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, herself an evacuee, wrote: "...Over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout. Granted, Ted Kennedy's funeral preempted many stories, but hours before my neighborhood was placed under mandatory evacuation, I could find nothing, NOTHING, about the fire on any TV
station, local or 24-hour news..."

Keith Esparros, assistant news director for KNBC-TV Channel 4, said that his station did cover the fire extensively in newscasts, updates and on the station's website with several reporters and crews over the weekend.

He called it an "odd fire" that started small and generally burned away from populated areas when it started midweek.

But news reports from early on indicated it was anything but an "odd fire."

"Residents are being evacuated in the northern part of La Canada Flintridge as the Station Fire rages out of control," the Pasadena Star-News reported on Friday, Aug 28 in a story that was written late Thursday night.

"At about 8 p.m. last night, the Station Fire was 10-percent contained and had burned 500 acres. Overnight, firefighters lost whatever containment they had and the fire has now scorched 1500 acres, spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service Gabriel Alvarez said."

By Saturday, The Times was reporting that "the Station fire was spreading rapidly to the east and west... prompting evacuations in La Canada Flintridge, Glendale, Altadena and Big Tujunga Canyon as temperatures reached triple digits."

I was close enough to the fire to be concerned. When I turned on the TV Saturday morning, I saw no coverage. I was forced to go Old School and rely on radio for information.

TV may have given coverage to the fire over the weekend but it was spotty and seen only during regularly scheduled newscasts, not the wall-to-wall coverage we have come to expect.

The issue also calls into question the definition of "coverage."

Webstites, blogs, tweets, texts and other electronic networking sites were operating at full speed over the weekend. Some of it provided legitimate information. Some of it, written by so-called "citizen journalists," spread rumors and engaged in conjecture.

It was coverage, however, if you chose to define it that way.

And it was cheaper than having a full contingent of reporters, camera operators and helicopter pilots in the field. After all, TV news has faced the same sort of cutbacks experienced in print media. Diminished staffs result in a diminished product.

There was also a bit of geographical ignorance going on here. I heard one newscaster wonder out loud where La Crescenta is. Others fumbled the words "La Canada Flintridge" as if they were attempting to speak an obscure tongue.

The affected Foothill communites operate by choice under the radar and don't have the star appeal of Malibu, for instance where, if you're lucky, you can spot a movie star watering down his roof while the flames burn nearby.

Of course, if Michael Jackson had lived in La Canada, the coverage would have been unprecedented.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Unfriendly Persuasion

In 1976, a film called "Network" written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, won four Academy Awards for its satirical portrayal of a television network.

In it, long-time "UBS Evening News" anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being let go because of the show's low ratings. He has two more weeks on the air, but Beale announces that he will "blow his brains out" during an upcoming live broadcast.

UBS immediately fires him but they let him back on the air, ostensibly for a dignified farewell. Beale promises that he will apologize for his outburst, but instead in an obsenity-laced tirade, complains that life is bull, to put it mildly.

The program's ratings soar and UBS execs decide to exploit Beale's antics rather than pulling him off the air.

In one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation with his rant, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and persuades Americans to shout the same phrase out their windows which they do by the millions.

Soon Beale is hosting a new program called the "Howard Beale Show," billing him as a "mad prophet of the airways" which becomes the highest-rated show on television.

Ironically, what caused belly laughs in 1976 is causing belly aches 33 years later.

The script for "Network" was written long before the advent of cable television which has made it all come true.

Now, we have a veritable Greek chorus of prophets, mad and otherwise, who fill our screens with opinions great and small. And like the fictional Howard Beale, the more outrageous they become, the higher their ratings soar.

I was reminded of all this by the recent very public dust-up featuring Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, two gentlemen from opposite ends of the political spectrum who on some nights sound like a couple of guys arguing down at the other end of the bar in some beer-and-a-shot joint.

O'Reilly, from Fox, is the darling of the right who, while alleging that his show is fair and balanced, squashes anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan like so many ants on the kitchen floor.

Olbermann is a onetime Grade B sportscaster who reinvented himself as a liberal commentator throws mud at anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi.

They are joined in this Tower of Babble by the likes of Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and John Stewart.

These people define political discourse in this country? May God have mercy on us all.

In a recent incident, Olbermann called O'Reilly "a racist clown" on the air. O'Reilly in turn has refused to let anyone utter Olbermann's name on his show.

Wait, it gets more sophomoric than that . O'Reilly once initiated an online petition to have MSNBC remove Olbermann from his timeslot, purportedly to have former slot host Phil Donahue's show reinstated.

Olbermann responded by playing a selection of disparaging television clips featuring O'Reilly and mocked the whole affair in signing the petition to have himself fired.

O'Reilly raised the ante claiming General Electric, whose NBC News Division operates MSNBC, was "promoting the election of Barack Obama and then seeking to profit from his policies."

The sniping caused the chief executives at General Electric and News Corporation, which owns Fox News, to reach an unusual agreement last spring to halt the regular personal assaults on each other's channels, according to the New York Times.

Eric Burns, the former host of Fox's media criticism show "Fox News Watch" said, "Even in an age where there seemed to be no boundaries, people at the very top of two networks thought, 'Well, I guess there are boundaries,
because they've been crossed.'"

What's interesting is that the corporate suits were not only trampling on the First Amendment, but engaging in some dubious business practices since O'Reilly and Olbermann draw big ratings.

All of this would be mildly amusing if these clowns weren't contributing to the dangerous polarization of this country, a place where town halls become blood sport.

Olbermann once accused then President Bush of "subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely-motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but instead to stifle dissent.I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought."

Fox's conservative pundits paint President Obama as everything from a socialist to a Marxist to a racist and "illegitimate Kenyan fraud."

It "invites, incites and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence," according to David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.

I understand that reasoned, analytical and rational discussion of the issues facing this country can be boring stuff. If it wasn't, C-SPAN would be the most watched cable system in the United States.

But we have reacheded a point where the winner is the one who shouts the loudest.

It's time we all got as mad as hell and vow not to take it anymore.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tough to Digest

GROWING up in the 1950s, my life revolved around Hopalong Cassidy movies, Superman comic books and Schwinn bikes.

And, believe it or not, the Reader's Digest.

The Digest was a staple in our house, rooted as we were in suburbia and living in the golden era of the Great American Middle Class.

Times were good. There was a roof over our heads, a car in the garage and chicken dinners on Sunday. Just the kind of life the Digest extolled.

Dad wore a suit and tie. Mom wore an apron. They drove us to church every Sunday in a Chevy and voted the straight Republican ticket.

I don't remember going to a lot of movies and TV didn't make an appearance in our home until I was nearly in my teens. But there was always plenty of reading material around. Most of it was rooted in the Reader's Digest.

We received the monthly magazine in the mail for as long as I could remember and there were dozens of Digest-produced condensed books in our home.

I lapped it up even as a young kid. I loved the cornball jokes - Humor in Uniform, Life in These United States - and even read Increase Your Word Power, all recurring features in the magazine. There were true-adventures stories and odd medical features written in the first person from the perspective of a body organ ("I Am Joe's Gall Bladder.")

The condensed books were just right for young men with more energy than attention span. It wasn't until I grew older that I wondered what was left out.

Nonetheless, they introduced me to such titles as "East of Eden," "The Last Hurrah," "The Ugly American" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The Digest was safe-for-the-family reading, claiming a circulation of close to 8 million worldwide and a readership of 38 million. I'm thinking those figures included several million copies in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists.

And now this:

This past week, Reader's Digest, an American icon for almost 90 years, filed for bankruptcy, a victim of bad management, a precipitous drop in print-on-paper popularity and a disastrous economic decline that has squashed many famous American brands like so many grapes.

The Digest announced it would cut the circulation guarantee it makes to advertisers to 5.5 million and lower its frequency to 10 issues a year from 12. This doesn't mean it will soon disappear. But it may be a matter of prolonging the inevitable. The future of print isn't particularly bright.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Digest, after years of trying to broaden its appeal, is being pushed in a decidedly conservative direction.

It is cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories. Out are generic how-to magazine features; in are articles about military life.

"It's traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church," said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader's Digest Association.

That struck me as odd. The Reader's Digest has for most of its history maintained a conservative and anti-Communist perspective on political and social issues. It extolled the virtues of motherhood and apple pie and offered its readers a cozy world view.

Democrats, ethnic minorities, non-Protestants and poor people were about as rare in its pages as Barbra Steisand at a GOP fund-raiser.

In fact, the Digest took issue with the characterization that they were being pushed in a different direction. Instead, they say they are focusing on core values.

The larger question for the Digest, and many more publications, is: where do they go from here?

"Magazines and cable channels are trying to figure out what they can add to the mix if people already have the basic facts from the Internet and elsewhere," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"A lot of them will aspire to do that around ideology, because it's the easiest way, the simplest way, to organize an audience."

Indeed, the Digest plans to introduce a new multifaceted effort produced with Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, called the Purpose Driven Connection. For about $30, subscribers get a quarterly magazine with religious workbooks, along with DVDs featuring Warren, and membership in a social-networking Web site, including tips on what to pray for each week. It is available through churches and at Wal-Marts.

Now we will see if God Himself can save the Reader's Digest.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Post Mortem

Dear President Obama:

With the national debt in the trillions of dollars, every little bit of savings helps. So, Mr. President, I've come up with a proposal to save a few billion dollars, not much by Washington standards but, what the heck, a billion here, a billion there adds up.

My plan is quite simple. Dump the U.S Postal Service. That's right, shut down the post office. Or at least, make it a shadow of its former self.

Let's face it, the post office ranks up there with pay phones, curb feelers and forward artillery observers when it comes to concepts made irrelevant by the march of time.

Oh sure, Mr. President, closing it down would be bad news to stamp collectors and those who can't get their fill of rudeness at the DMV.

But as I'm sure you know, sir, the post office is leaking oil like the Exxon Valdez.

This is not news to postal authorities. They plan to offer early retirement to 150,000 workers, cut management and close offices. The Postal Service lost $2.8 billion last year and is facing even larger losses this year.

Postmaster General John Potter has even asked Congress to consider allowing the agency to cut mail delivery back to five days-a-week to save money.

Over the past year, the post office by its own estimates has cut 50 million work hours; stopped construction of new postal facilities; frozen salaries for postal executives; began selling unused facilities; and cut post office hours.

The pony express probably faced the same sort of downsizing.

I've come up with this plan by watching my own mail over a long period of time. We get the occasional letter, an assortment of bills and enough junk mail and unsolicited catalogs to clog a landfill.

Like most Americans, we do most of our letter writing now via e-mail, pay bills and do banking online, buy tickets to movies, theater and sporting events and even do a bit of shopping by computer. Our kids Facebook and tweet to their heart's content without so much as licking a stamp.

The reality of it is you can buy a house, furnish it, purchase a car, find a lifelong soul mate, home school your children and, when it's all over, buy a burial plot on the Internet. Getting your mail electronically is not a big stretch

.I understand, Mr. President, that a lot of what passes for junk mail reflects the flow of commerce on which much of our economy is built. And I know there are rural areas in this county where computers are as rare as gourmet wine shops and spa showrooms.

But there are more than 227 millions computers users in the U.S. and that's about 75% of the population. According to Fiserv, Inc., a financial services technology group, 64.4 million households --nearly four out of the five households with Internet access -- pay at least one bill online, either at a bank or a company Web site.

And consider this, Mr. President: A Westlake Village company called Zumbox is offering consumers the equivalent of an online mailbox that is linked to their postal addresses. The virtual boxes can be used to receive electronic versions of documents such as personal correspondence, bills and promotional mailings.

The company claims to have created a digital mailbox for every street address in the United States. Companies would pay to send electronic versions of paper catalogs or other marketing materials to the mailboxes, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Zumbox plans to provide the mailing service for free to government agencies, non-profits, consumers and businesses for bills and other non-promotional purposes.

Users' mailboxes would be organized in the equivalent of folders, so that advertising-type messages are kept separate from traditional correspondence; they will also be able to block messages from specific senders.

Innovation breeds imitation. Zumbox is the first; there will be others.

The handwriting, Mr. President, is on the wall. Keep post office service where it is absolutely necessary, rural
areas with no viable alternative. Let it continue to service the military.

After that, I'm guessing you could reduce the size of the U.S. Post Office by 75 per cent. Since the post office will lose an estimated $6 billion this year, that's a fair chunk of change.

Providing less service will not improve the product, Mr. President.

You can't deliver what's not there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Barack's Brew

Once around the new cycle:

News: Faced with an uproar over race relations following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police, President Obama did what any reasonable person would do: He called the protagonists together for a beer.

Gates, Obama, Police Sgt. James Crowler and Vice President Joe Biden gathered for a cold one in the Rose Garden one recent afternoon to hash out their differences.

Views: Nothing like cooling off a couple of hot heads with alcohol. But beyond that, if the President wants to bring the country together, next time he might serve suds from an American-owned brewry. Crowler had a Blue Moon (made in Canada) and the President grabbed a Bud Light (now owned by a Belgium firm). What's worse, Bud Light is to
beer what tap water is to Pinot Noir.

Gates for his part ordered a Red Stripe (made in Jamaica) but emerged as the patriot in this gathering by settling for a Sam Adams, a Boston brew.

Biden doesn't drink alcohol for which we can all be thankful.

Personally, I would have offered up a selection from Washington's very own Capitol City Brewing Company -- which owns a brewpub just a few blocks from the White House.

It's name? "Equality Ale."

News: The Pew Research Center, who brought us the startling news recently that rich people are more happy than poor people and, the somewhat more dubious finding that Republicans are happier than Democrats, have boldly tackled another hot topic.

They found that 34 percent of American adults had taken a nap in the past 24 hours. Men nap more than women, blacks more than whites and Hispanics, the unhappy more than the happy.

Views: We've come a long way in this country. Naps used to be attributable to the three martini lunch. Now we understand that if you're an unhappy low-income male, you are good bet to dose off during the day.

According to the Pew people, napping is quite common at the lower end of the income scale; some 42% of adults with an annual income below $30,000 report they napped in the past day. As income rises, napping
declines. However, at the upper end of the scale (adults whose annual income is $100,000 or above) the tendency to nap revives and reverts to the mean.

What this means remains unclear. We do know that unless you're an airline pilot or a brain surgeon, most people find that a "power nap" in the middle of the work day actually improves your performance.

Indeed, the National Institute of Mental Health discovered in a study that a midday snooze reverses "information overload."

To underscore that point, the more I read or write about this subject, the heavier my
eyelids get.

News: Astronaut Koichi Wakata is returning to Earth with the underwear he used during his four-and-a-half-month space station stay so scientists can check them out. He says he kept them on for a month at a stretch.
They're experimental high-tech undies, designed in Japan to be odor-free.

Views: I knew some guys in college who would have been ripe for this experiment. Wakata, however, was getting funky in the name of science.

The Japanese textile makers who supplied the special nano fabrics and fasteners have announced the experiment a success. The garments can repel static, wick away water, kill bacteria, neutralize odors and "prevent fouling, or permanent odor infusion."

Sounds like just the thing for old editors.

Look for these products to hit the market in the near future. Just think of the convenience and savings if you washed your underwear just a once a month.

Or maybe not.

News: A truck driver had a lucky escape when his cucumber-laden rig rolled near a crocodile-infested river after hitting a buffalo yesterday.

Views: What's this, a "Saturday Night Live" skit? No, it's all true. According to the dispatch from Australia, the 22-ton freight truck came to rest on its side when it ran into a power pole, spilling its load of cucumbers over the

The driver sustained minor injuries and was taken to the Palmerston Health Clinic before being transported to Royal Darwin Hospital.

The story described the incident at taking place along the Arnhem Highway near the Adelaide River Queen Jumping Crocodiles tour site.

Remind me not to include a place with "jumping crocodiles" in its name on my bucket list.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Green Is Gone

It's summertime, 2015.

I'm out tending to my front yard. It used to be grass but with increasing restrictions on water usage and a drought that has dragged on for years, it is now what we euphemistically call "California native."

That means it's dirt. We have some drought resistance plants - buckwheat, manzanita and the like - out front, but they don't begin to erase the memories of a green lawn dotted with begonias and zinnias.

You don't hear birds sing much any more. Nor crickets on warm summer nights.

We have a neighbor who tried to keep a bed of flowering plants going in a hidden corner of his back yard, but the drought cops - snoopy neighbors in this case - turned him in to the authorities and he was heavily fined.

There's no chance of that happening to me. I bricked over my back yard several years ago.

My work on this particular day consists of compacting the dirt out front. If I don't, it will blow into the house the first time a Santa Ana wind kicks up.

Afterward, I head for the shower. We are limited to three minutes of bathing time now so showering becomes an exercise in multi-tasking. With a little bit of skill, I can brush my teeth and shave at the same time I bathe. There's a bucket in the stall to collect extra water so we can use it in the toilet tank.

You can buy water around town but the prices have been jacked up sky high. The California legislature promised to deal with this type of thing but years have gone

by and the issue is still gridlocked by partisan politics.

Water isn't the only thing that's expensive. So are groceries. The drought has severely impacted the state's agriculture production and foods that were once commonplace are now hard to find.

Looking back, how did we get to this point? After all, the warning signs had been around for years.

"The U.S. West will see devastating droughts as global warming reduces the amount of mountain snow and causes the snow that does fall to melt earlier in the year," one study written in 2008 said.

"Our results are not good news for those living in the western United States," the journal Science reported that same year.

California may be at the beginning of its worst drought in modern history, state officials said in 2009.

One UCLA study warned that if the climate behaves the way it did the last time we had global warming, we should probably get ready to settle in to a more arid climate.

Glen MacDonald, the director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment, warned in 2005 that local officials were underestimating the likely duration of new droughts, which in the past century have not lasted more than about five years.

When drought struck, the burden fell on our residents. Most Southern Californians did the right thing and conserved. But even with restrictions and a willing public, Mother Nature was a tough foe to defeat.

Frankly, we had a lousy game plan.

Along with conservation, we should have been building desalination plants and made it easier to build them. Planning and permitting took 15 years for the Carlsbad Desalination Project in San Diego County. That's too long.

We should have encouraged the use of gray water by homeowners sooner. Gray water is nonindustrial wastewater generated from domestic processes such as dish washing, laundry and bathing.

For years, homeowners were forced by the state to build treatment centers if they wanted to use gray water for landscape purposes. It wasn't until 2009 that those restrictions were eased.

We should have done a lot more recycling, reuse and recovery.

We should have fixed a lot more leaky faucets and sprinklers.

We should have done a lot more planning and a lot less development.

But most important, we should have learned long ago that droughts are not a sometimes thing. They are a fact of life. And we should have learned to mitigate them before they struck.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Capitol Time

How I spent my summer vacation.

We found ourselves in Washington, D.C., recently on a trip to the East Coast to visit family and friends. This was not a new experience. We visit our nation's capitol often. We have a daughter there and both my wife and I used to live in Washington pursuing wildly divergent careers.

She worked for the CIA. I was in the military. But that's a story for another day.

No matter how many times we visit D.C., we never tire of visiting the museums, galleries and monuments. This time was no exception.

The weather, usually approximating high noon in Borneo, was mild. Tourists were plentiful, mostly gawking parents with bored kids in tow, although seemingly in smaller numbers than we've seen in the past.

Blame the economy, which seems to be the whipping boy for everything from job loss to ear wax.

Conventioneers were visible. The Islamic Society of North America and the Christians United for Israel were meeting at approximately the same time. No incidents were reported.

Also on scene were the Romance Writers of America, the Texas Bandmasters Association, the American Bridge Teachers Association and something called the Magic Lantern Society. Is this a great country or what?

Contrary to what you may have read on the Internet, I didn't see any roving bands of Socialists, loudly promising equitable distribution of the nation's resources. That's not exactly true. I did see a few. Albert Einstein, Hellen Keller and Susan B.Anthony, socialists all, stand etched in stone here.

I expected to see a gaggle of protestors and/or supporters in town for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. But there were none, reflecting the often boring nature of the hearings despite the cable TV networks' attempt to present it as edge-of-the-seat excitement.

I did see one kid in front of the Supreme Court building hawking "Sonia" T-shirts.

We visited the new Washington Visitor Center, which extends beneath the U.S. Capitol building. It is spiffy and efficient. It should be. It cost $621 million to build, $360 million over original estimates.

Now a group of congressmen want to inscribe "In God We Trust" on the walls of the center which will cost another $150,000. This, of course, is pitting religious types against church/state separation advocates. Maybe the California legislature can them help reach a speedy resolution of the problem.

We took a guided tour of the capitol, something I haven't done in 40 years. The tour hasn't changed much. You visit the rotunda, the old Senate Chamber and the crypt beneath the Rotunda. I noticed that guarding the entrance to the Senate chamber is a large statue of James Garfield. I though it odd that Garfield would occupy a room peopled by the likes of Eisenhower, Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King. It would be like finding Gerald Ford in the pantheon of American heroes.

Garfield's main claim to fame is that he was assassinated, the second president (after Lincoln) to be killed in office. Later, I saw an ornate statue of Garfield near the Potomac River. Quite a tribute for a guy who served six months in office.

Not all was well in Washington. The National Mall, which runs 1.9 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and is often referred to as "America's front yard," was in appalling condition.

Most of the grass is dead or dying. Reflecting pools are filled with putrid water. Sidewalks are crumbling.

An Associated Press analysis of congressional spending since 2005 found the mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for extra funds doled out by lawmakers, compared with sites that are represented by powerful members of Congress.

Because the mall is in Washington, D.C., it has no vote in the House or Senate.

Last year, when dozens of ducks and ducklings died of avian botulism because the water in a mall pool near the Capitol was so fetid, and as urgent repairs were needed to stop the Jefferson Memorial's sea wall from sinking into the mud, the Senate killed a $3.5 million earmark for the mall, according to the AP. Instead, funding went to projects back home.

The Obama Administration recently steered $55 million in economic stimulus money toward repairs, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that's only a down payment on the nearly $400 million needed to fix things up.

It's a hell of a way to run a capitol.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Breaking News

There were times in my newspaper career when I would work a shift so devoid of news, I went home exhausted just from being poised like a puma waiting to jump on the breaking story that never happened.

Then there were periods like the last few weeks when every hour sent a shock wave through the newsroom.

A near revolution in Iran. The deaths of Michael Jackson, FarrahFawcett, Ed McMahon, yes, and even pitchman Billy Mays.

Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to a term so long we may be colonizing Mars when it expires. Ditto the California budget crisis. The governor of South Carolina opts for tan lines over family values. And the Supreme Court tinkers with the Civil Rights Act.

We were promised long hours and lousy pay but this is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is that all of us who get involved in this business are basically adrenalin junkies for whom a good story is its own reward. Fueled by pots of coffeeand the best of intentions, no day is too long, no quest too impossible in pursuit of a story.

What's interesting about this mega outbreak of news is that is occured in an era of cut-to-the-bone reporting ranks, shrunken budgets and reduced pay, making it an unprecedented challenge.

For the most part, our bruised and battered media rose to the challenge.

Farrah Fawcett was remembered as a pin up girl who did for curling irons what Elizabeth Taylor did for diamonds. More importantly, she didn't just stand around looking beautiful. She could act.

Ed McMahon couldn't act, sing or dance. But he found fame as the perennial sidekick, a sort of Gabby Hayes to Johnny Carson's Hopalong Cassidy. Despite his booming laugh, I always thought Ed looked a little uncomfortable in his role. I mean, here was a former Marine Corps aviator pitching dog food and making small talk with ditzy actresses. But in the end, he was front page news.

Bernie Madoff got 150 years. I hope he serves every minute. Yet his lawyer, interviewed on TV, said he thought the punishment was too harsh because Bernie surrendered instead of fleeing. Well, so did Al Capone. But the interviewer didn't pursue it.

Then there is Michael Jackson.

His death was Princess Di, Anna Nichol Smith and OJ all rolled into one. It blew every other story off the front page.

Michael was an artist, no doubt about it. Although he hadn't been in the spotlight musically in recent years, he has sold an estimated 750 million records.

But there was more at play here. Jackson's bizarre life-style and appearance, the accusations of pedophilia, the never ending fiancial problems, held the public's rapt attention as much as his music.

He was fragile. He was ill. And watching Michael Jackson's life unfold was like watching a slow motion train wreck. You couldn't avert your eyes.

It was a wreck we've seen before. We've watched Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis unravel in public.

We weep and wait for the next generation of tragic heroes.

And they come. Kurt Cobain. Chris Farley. Heath Ledger.

And when they die, especially under mysterious circumstances, it's a big story.

Maybe too big. About two-thirds of the public (64%) say news organizations gave too much attention to the death of the 50-year-old performer. About three-in-ten (29%) say the coverage was the right amount. Only 3% say there had been too little coverage, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

We weren't united in our grief. Blacks followed the death of the African American singer more closely than the population as a whole, the Pew survey found. Eight-in-ten African Americans say they followed news about Jackson's death very closely, compared with 22% of whites.

Despite these finidings, ratings for the cable networks and web site traffic was at an all-time high.

When it came to Michael, we were all Paparazzi.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tweet Talking

President Obama does it. So does Karl Rove.

So does Martha Stewart, Lance Armstrong, Miley Cyrus and Al Gore. Ditto Orpah Winfrey, Yoko Ono, Steve Jobs and Neil Diamond.

They all use Twitter, the social networking phenomenon in which userscan instantly communicate via text to friends, fans and family whatthey are doing or thinking at any given moment.

"I'm eating a bowl of Fruit Loops." "I'm walking the dog." "I'm contemplating a nap."

These are only a few of the fascinating messages you can give or receive if you Twitter. Or Tweet, as they call it. (Does that make the participants Twits? I'm just asking).

Personally, I'd rather read the fine print on my cell phone bill.

But I'm wrong, according to Time magazine. An article in that publication tells me that "Twitter turns out to have unsuspected depth. In part this is because hearing about what your friends had for breakfast is actually more interesting than it sounds.

"The technology writer Clive Thompson calls this "ambient awareness": by following these quick, abbreviated status reports from members of your extended social network, you get a strangely satisfying glimpse of their daily routines."

What does Time magazine know? It once selected Adolf Hitler as its "Man of the Year."

I don't have time to continually invest in the daily routines of my friends. And I doubt they would find an outpouring of messages about the mundane events in my life "strangely satisfying." If they do, they kinda creep me out.

Maybe it's my fault that I don't have friends or family that climb Everest or dine with Warren Buffet. But even if I did, I doubt they could convey the essence of these experiences in 140 characters or less.

I'm not alone here. The Nielsen research tells me that "Currently, more than 60 percent of Twitter users fail to return the following month or in other words, Twitter's audience retention rate, or the percentage of a given month's users who come back thefollowing month, is currently about 40 percent."

And let's face it. Most of the stuff appearing on so-called celebrity tweets is written by public relations types and has all the substance of a bowl of meringue.


Brittany Spears: "I want to thank everyone at the Mandarin Oriental in London for the hospitality this month! You made my boys and I feel right at home -Brit."

President Obama: "Hosting a town hall on health care reform at the White House today. Watch on ABC tonight at 10pm ET."

Elen DeGeneres: "A big margarita sure is refreshing, but to really beat the heat, watch my show for a chance to win prizes! "

Michelle Wie: "Did you know that babies are born without knee caps? Weird!"

On it goes.

To give Twiter its due, it along with other social networking sites most certainly has played a role in the recent post-election protests in Iran. Indeed, it has helped keep the rest of the world connected to events inside the country as the Iranian leadership repressed dissent and the coverage of it.
And while we'd like to imagine that a tool designed to entertain attention-deprived adolescents will change the balance of power in the Mideast, it's not that simple.

First, it gives too much credit to the tool, not the people who use it.

Second, as foreign policy expert Evgeney Morozov told the Washington Post "...Whether it has helped to organize protests -- something that most of the media are claiming at the moment -- is not at all certain, for, as a public platform, Twitter is not particularly helpful for planning a revolution (authorities could be reading those messages as well.")

Some day down the road, Twitter will be superseded by some other networking device, perhaps some sort of "Star Trek" transporter system so you can actually stand by while your friend brushes his teeth or buys a loaf of bread.

In the meetime, beware of how you tweet.

A story making the rounds on the Internet tells of a guy who just got a job with Cisco, the giant technology firm. He tweeted, "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work." His tweet caught the attention of a Cisco employee. To which he responded: "Who is the hiring manager. I'm sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web."