Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Civility and Other Myths

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, people of good will have decided to tone down the political rhetoric in this country.

OK, I'm on board. I will no longer call you a fear-mongering wingnut if you refrain from referring to me as a dupe of the Marxist conspiracy.

Anything that cools the atmosphere of verbal extremism is to be embraced.

It will take a little restraint and discipline and it may make it harder for the Limbaughs and Olbermanns of the world to make a living. But that's a bonus.

Civility, it's what's for dinner.

Unfortunately, not everyone has received the message.

A spokesperson for the Governors Highway Safety Association, recently noting an uptick in pedestrian deaths in 2010, laid the blame at the feet of First Lady Michelle Obama.

In a bit of logic as tortured as any you will find, the spokesperson pointed out that the increase coincided with the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign, which encouraged people to get out and walk.

Michelle Obama is "trying to get us to walk to work and exercise a little bit more. While that's good, it also increases our exposure to risk," said GHSA's Jonathan Adkins.

Someone from the GHSA later said the agency was "misquoted." Of course. It's difficult to understand someone who has his foot in their mouth.

At least Mrs. Obama didn't get blamed for global warming. Yet.

In a related development, a story in the New York Post disclosed
that ratings for the Food Network, once one of the hottest destinations for cable TV watchers, have taken a major hit.

The network posted a 10.3 percent drop among viewers ages 25 to 54, considered a key category for advertisers. What's more, the network's quarterly declines worsened throughout the year, falling 3.3 percent in the second quarter and 4.5 percent in the third quarter, according to Nielsen figures

The blame here can clearly be laid at the feet of the Tournament of Roses. After all, the Rose Parade folks have been trolling the Food Network the last few years in search of grand marshals.

First, there was Emeril Legase, whose show was canceled faster than you can say "bam" even as he rode down Colorado Boulevard.

Next was Paula Deen, whose Southern-style fare can best be described as deep-fried cardiac arrest. Her recipes were once described as demonstrably more dangerous to America than a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Apparently, riding at the head of a parade whose television ratings are also declining is the career equivalent of a flat souffle.

Maybe next year the Tournament can solicit from a show with better ratings, like "America's Biggest Loser."

Unrelated to any of the above, the Chicago Bears and the Green Pay Packers will meet in the NFC championship game today in what is a special treat for lovers of old-time football. Really old-time football.

The two teams first met in 1921 and have butted heads and other body parts 181 times over the years.

Just to set the proper tone for the rivalry, the Bears and Packers are credited for the first-ever ejection of players for fighting during a game in 1924. The Bears' Frank Hanny and the Packers' Walter Voss were ejected before the end of the first half as verbal exchanges led to punches being thrown.

The teams will be dressed in their traditional uniforms, none of this fancified Nike stuff, which sometimes looks like it was designed by Jackson Pollock.

They will play on a rock-hard field in the bitter cold. No domed stadium for these guys.

And just for the record, President Obama likes Chicago by three points. Bet accordingly.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Recipe for Disaster

Here's a recipe for disaster:

Take a mentally unhinged young man.

Put him in a state with some of the most lenient gun laws in the country.

Then place him in a county that has had more than 45 percent of its mental health service recipients forced off the public rolls in the name of a leaner government.

Allow him to buy a semi-automatic handgun after passing an instant background check. And let him conceal and carry his firearm, no permit necessary.

Mix in some highly charged political rhetoric which suggests "Second Amendment remedies" as a solution to the nation's real and imagined problems.

Bring it to a boil at a town hall session for a local congresswoman in front of a supermarket.

The result: An atrocious shooting rampage in Tucson that killed six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and wounded 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who took a bullet in her brain. A troubled loner named Jared Lee Loughner, who apparently targeted Giffords, was arrested and charged in the attack.

In the aftermath, proposed solutions are met with a shrug of the shoulders. And then there's this:

One-day sales of handguns in Arizona jumped 60 percent the following Monday compared with the corresponding Monday a year ago, the second-biggest increase of any state in the country, according to FBI data.

Many of those sold were the Glock 9mm, used in this assault and also the weapon
of choice for Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a shooting spree at Virginia Tech. Handgun sales rose 65 percent in Ohio; 16 percent in California; 38 percent in Illinois; and 33 percent in New York, the FBI data show.

And this: Two House of Representatives lawmakers - Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat - are pledging to carry firearms to guard against potential copycat attacks.

And also this: Legislation is being proposed in Arizona that would require the state to train and arm all elected officials and their staffs.

You read that right: the solution to gun violence is to arm even more people. If there's a problem, let them shoot it out.

Who needs due process? Why have a justice system? Just fire away and let the bodies fall where they may.

This surely is the road to insanity.

Let me establish something right here. The Second Amendment is a reality. We have the right to keep and bear arms and I do not wish it repealed. Second, I am no pacifist. I served in the U.S. Army Infantry and fired everything from carbines to mortars with great gusto.

I do not believe, however, we can blindly sell semi-automatic, concealed handguns with high-capacity magazines to anyone with the asking price, then react with shock and horror when an act of carnage takes place.

I do not believe, like a lot of yahoos, that the Second Amendment means we have a responsibility to bear arms.

I do believe we need to reinstitute the federal assault weapons ban, signed into law by President Clinton and allowed to expire under President Bush. It would, among other things, have prohibited the magazine which allowed the shooter to fire 33 rounds before he was stopped.

Are these manufactured for target practice? Get serious.

I believe we need to expand the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It's unclear if the suspect would have been flagged in this system. But he should have been. He was well known to police and had been tossed out of his community college because of mental health issues.

I believe we need effective gun control. The right to bear arms doesn't allow you to own nuclear weapons, surface-to-air missiles or flame-throwers. We should add to that list semi-automatic handguns, super-sized ammo magazines and concealed weapons of any kind.

There are enough high-powered rifles, shotguns, target pistols and ammo available to keep the most ardent gun enthusiast happily occupied until his trigger finger bleeds.

If we do nothing, we have learned nothing from our bloody past. And we are doomed to repeat it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Transfixed by TV

I was 10 years old when the Old Man finally broke down and bought the
family its first TV set.

We wheeled it into the living room, hooked up the rabbit ears,
plugged it in and proceeded to gaze, slack jawed and wide eyed, at
anything and everything that appeared on the screen.

From “Time for Beanie” and “Space Patrol” to Jackie Gleason and Steve
Allen, from Alfred Hitchcock to “Playhouse 90,” from Ed Sullivan to
“Your Hit Parade”, we were transfixed.

Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians?. We watched it. Spike Jones?.
Absolutely. “I’ve Got a Secret” and “What’s My Line?” We were there.

Sports? I was in heaven. There was major league baseball, never seen
before in these parts. College and professional football, and, for
comic relief, roller derby and wrestling. The Gillette Cavalcade of
Sports, a fancy name for boxing, was a Friday night tradition.

Even then, the staples were doctors (“Dr. Kildare,” “Ben Casey”),
lawyers (“Perry Mason,” “The Defenders”) and cops (“Dragnet,” “Naked

American Idol? We had “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” which was the
same show without the voting. We weren’t very interactive in those

Reality shows? We had the mother of them all: “Candid Camera.”

I thought about all this the other day when I read the latest data on
American viewing habits as measured by the Nielsen Company, which has
been mapping the vast wasteland for more than a half century.

How much, I wondered, have things really changed since the 1950s?
Oh sure, we watch our shows on whiz-bang high def technical marvels
that gobble up wall space while doubling our utility bill.

And TV’s portrayal of America no longer consists of suburb dwelling
white people whose families are headed by kindly all-knowing fathers
with unlimited amounts of good advice and disposable income.

But some things remain the same. The Nielsen folks found that our
addiction to TV remains just as strong as it was in the early days.
In fact, Americans watched more television than ever in 2010. Total
viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1
percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.

Interestingly enough, Nielsen said that the most popular new offering
on television this year was “Hawaii Five-O,”) a remake of a
40-year-old cop show. Homicides and hulas, it seems, never get old.

Over the years, TV has seen more evolution than innovation.
Drama was a staple of early television. But whereas early offerings
were basically theatrical productions staged in a TV studio, today’s
presentations have broken old structural and narrative rules by
becoming serialized.

It isn’t “Death of a Salesman” but it isn’t bad.

Reality TV, born of economic necessity, evolved from simple game
shows to today’s endless parade of mind numbing silliness that has a
lock on prime time while filling the ranks of valet parking
attendants and waiters with unemployed actors.

As the New York Times reported recently, “Historians may someday note
with wonder that by the end of 2010, at least six cable television
shows were about auctioneers and pawnbrokers. And all were considered
successes by their respective channels.”

By far the biggest change in the television landscape is sports.
While it began as a weekend diversion (early TV execs believed
weekday viewers were mostly women so they began broadcasting sports
on weekends to attract male viewers), it has grown to a billion
dollar monster that dominates the landscape.

There’s not a minute in the day when there isn’t a sporting event
being broadcast. And the viewers lap it up.

Of the top 10 most viewed programs in 2010 as measured by Nielsen, 8
were football games. Even the best-liked commercial was a Snickers
spot featuring Betty White being tackled in a football game.
Who would have predicted it?

In the future, we may be getting our television broadcasts fed over
the Internet. And probably in 3-D.

But I’m betting there will still large helpings of sports and reality
shows. And lots of cops, lawyers and doctors.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Fat of the Land

The month of January is largely characterized by the shocking
realization that our caloric intake over the holidays approximated
that of Sherpas ascending Mt. Everest.

And just to reinforce that notion, most TV commercials this month
will be hawking diet plans, gym memberships or weight loss surgery.

Shamed into submission, we vow to shape up. Assuming we listen to our
inner skinny person, we should all look like citizens of Sparta by
the time spring rolls around.

But there’s trouble up ahead. You can bet your broccoli floweret that
the fast food industry will attempt to lure us back into bad habits.

Indeed, just in time for the diet season, Burger King is offering the
Ultimate Breakfast Platter. That would be scrambled eggs, hash
browns, sausage, a flaky biscuit and three pancakes with syrup. If
you’re counting, it’s 1,310 calories and 72 grams of fat.

Not to be outdone, Dunkin' Donuts is launching Pancake Bites, with
bite-sized sausage links wrapped in a maple-flavored pancake.

Burger King counters with Funnel Cake Sticks, covered in powdered
sugar with a cup of icing sauce for dipping.

Jack in the Box has the breakfast pita pocket stuffed with scrambled
eggs, sliced ham, bacon, and melted American cheese. According to one
report, the breakfast pita has 438 milligrams of Cholesterol. That’s
146% of the USDA recommended daily amount.

That’s a great breakfast if you’re going to plow the back 40. If you
work at a desk, you’re in trouble.

There’s no letup for lunch or dinner.

Papa John’s is presenting a “gourmet” double bacon pizza with six
kinds of cheese.

KFC’s double down sandwich features two thick boneless Kentucky Fried
Chicken filets, two pieces of bacon, two melted slices of Monterey
Jack and pepper jack cheese and the Colonel's Sauce whatever that is.
That checks in at 1430 milligrams of sodium, just about your average
daily allowance.

The heavyweight champ is the Burger King pizza burger featuring four
quarter-pound Whopper patties on top of a nine-and-a-half inch sesame
seed bun. The burgers are then covered in pepperoni, mozzarella
cheese, marinara and Tuscan pesto sauce. Figure on consuming 2520
calories, and 144 grams of fat when you push away from the table
assuming you can.

If that isn’t bad enough, a new study shows that
toxicperfluoroalkyls, which are used in surface protection treatments
and coatings to keep grease from leaking through fast food wrappers,
are being ingested by people through their food and showing up as
contaminants in blood.

That’s right, the wrapper could make you ill.

The above is not an attempt to whet your appetite. Instead, it’s a
declaration of war.

As we did with tobacco, it’s time we do battle with an industry that
makes us ill.

You can argue that as an American, it’s your God-given right to pack
on the pounds. But consider this: As your waistline expands, so do my
health care costs.

More than half of Americans will have diabetes or be prediabetic by
2020 at a cost to the U.S. health care system of $3.35 trillion if
current trends go on unabated, according to analysis of a report
released by health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc.

There’s good news from the front. A state law which went into effect
Jan. 1 requires that calorie counts have to be included on the menus
of restaurants with 20 or more locations in the state.

The state law will be superseded my federal regulations this spring
which will cover more restaurant chains and more items, including
alcoholic beverages.

That’s a start. But we need to start putting warning labels on fast
food, just as we did with cigarettes.

And, just as we restricted where and when people could smoke, we need
to restrict the number of fast-food outlets in this country. There
are nearly 14,000 McDonald’s in the U.S. and nearly 32,500 worldwide.
By comparison, there are 5,759 hospitals in the U.S.

Just something to chew on next time you order.