Sunday, June 30, 2013

Once Around the Internet

The Eyes Have It: Ladies, you say your man doesn't understand you? Gents, you say you often don't know what she is thinking?

It's all very simple, according to a group of German researchers. They have conducted a study which shows that men do a much better job of interpreting one vital set of signals -- the emotions conveyed by the eyes -- when they're communicating with another man, compared to another woman.

Which explains why the sexes don't always see eye to eye.

The study involved 22 single men between the ages of 21 and 52. Participants took a test in which they looked at 36 pairs of eyes and chose between two terms (such as "distrustful" or "terrified") to best describe the mental/emotional state of the person pictured. Half the pairs belonged to men, half to women.

"We found that men actually had twice as many problems in recognizing emotions from female as compared to male eyes," the researchers report.

Before you dismiss the male gender as a bunch of insensitive and unfeeling clods, it's only fair to point out that it's not our fault.

From an evolutionary point of view, the study points out, accurate interpretations of other men's, rather than women's, thoughts and intentions -- especially threatening cues -- may have been a factor contributing to survival in ancient times. As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important to them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.

Actually, I'm not sure how much of this I believe.

You don't need to gaze into a woman's eyes to gauge her mood. For example, long periods of stony silence and banishment to a night on the couch will often indicate that she is upset. This is no time for eye gazing. This is a time for peace overtures.

Besides, I would rather engage in an axe fight with an ancient male rival then appear insensitive to the women in my life. An axe wound heals faster.

Air Sick: Passengers have rated their satisfaction with airlines three percentage points higher than last year on a new survey from the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

But before you assume that the Golden Age of Travel has returned, know this: Airlines just avoided last place, thanks to the ineptitude and callousness of the cable TV and Internet service provider industries.

Airlines received an average score of just 69 points on the Index's 100-point scale, although JetBlue (83 points) and Southwest (81 points) helped an otherwise lousy performance.

This, of course, comes as stunning news for those of us who have had our wallets and purses emptied by extra fees before we even set foot in a plane that is not only packed like a Tokyo subway but falls just short of Third World standards for cleanliness.

As one traveler remarked, "(The airlines) really would prefer we were all comatose so they could stack us like cord-wood in the hold and transport us as freight."

And if you think things might get better some day, be advised that some airlines are adding more seats to the majority of their planes, which could result in less legroom for passengers. Soon, before you can board, you will be required to demonstrate that you can sit for long periods of time in the pre-natal position or squeeze yourself into an overhead bin.

We can only hope there's a special place in hell where airline executives will have to ride for eternity in coach.

Mustn't See TV: I thought the worst reality show of all time was one called "Bridalplasty," in which brides compete for plastic surgery so they will look stunning for their wedding. Or, like a hockey goalie if things don't go well.

 But, alas, the Discovery Channel has achieved a new low with a little number called "Naked and Afraid."
In this burst of creative genius, two strangers, a man and a woman, are dropped buck naked into some God-forsaken patch of jungle for 21 days with nothing but a machete and a fire-starter. And followed as they struggle to survive.

 They are on their own except for a production crew who is sworn not to offer aid but probably slips them a sandwich and a cold beer from time to time.

The episode I watched featured a woman with food poisoning and a guy who constantly whined about how hard he had to work. As one critic remarked, it played out " like one long, bad first date, or a terrible vacation in a sour marriage."

Not to be outdone, the Syfy channel has cooked up a bit of edge-of-the-seat drama in "Sharknado," in which a supersized storm sucks sharks from the ocean and hurls them onto land. Thus, we have Los Angeles with sharks swimming through the streets and falling from the skies.  People get paid to write this stuff?.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Every Dog Has Its Day

"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." -- Otto von Bismark.

To hear tell, our elected representatives in Sacramento, always a nimble bunch, moved swiftly and heroically this past week to confront a crisis.

Budgetary issues? Bullet trains? Prison reform? Immigration?

Well, no. Actually, our lawmakers united as one in an attempt to save hot dog vendors from Crescent City to Calexico.

Apparently, your friendly neighborhood wiener wagon was about to be crushed under the heel of jack-booted health inspectors who were, ahem, dogged in their pursuit of these street corner entrepreneurs.

Who wants to see the hot dog disappear? There's nothing like biting into a sizzling mixture of mechanically separated edible turkey tissue, mechanically separated chicken and pork, water, salt, ground mustard seed, sodium lactate, corn syrup, dextrose, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium acorbate, sodium nitrate and flavor. All on a freshly baked bun.

Certainly not the state Assembly. According to the Los Angeles Times, that body's Health Committee took on the Herculean task of coming up with a legal definition for "hot dog."

Battered but unbowed after deliberations, they emerged with a change to state health law that states: "'Hot dog means a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in a casing that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna or knockwurst and that may be served in a bun or roll."

Thus defined, health departments can hold hot-dog vendors, who boil already cooked wieners, to a less-stringent sanitation standard than food stands that cook raw foods, Justin Malan of the California Association of Environmental Health Administrators, told the Times.

If this bit of legislative genius is passed into law, cart jockeys will be able to freely peddle what an old vendor on Market Street in San Francisco used to call "Turkey in Tights."

It's responsive and responsible government, a concept we can all relish.

Except I don't believe it. That's not the way things get done in Sacramento.

A more likely scenario is that some lobbyist, possibly from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council or the American Meat Institute, was involved in cooking up this particular legislation.

After all, these are hard times in the hot dog biz.

Just a couple of years ago, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating processed meat, such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage or processed deli meats, is associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

A report from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund showed that people who ate 3.5 ounces of processed meat a day had a 36 percent greater chance of suffering from colon cancer. A 2010 study from the National Institutes of Health and AARP that found eating processed meat raises the chance of developing prostate cancer.

About the same time, the nonprofit Cancer Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of three New Jersey plaintiffs asking the court to compel the companies to place cancer-risk warning labels on hot dog packages sold in New Jersey.

Of course, the Cancer Project is a vegan advocacy group so you can draw your own conclusions about their motives. As one wag noted, "Vegans complaining about hot dogs is like the Amish complaining about gas prices."

Let's face it, the hot dog industry is not going to disappear anytime soon. In 2012, consumers spent more than $1.7 billion on hot dogs in U.S. supermarkets.

But a cancer scare here, a heart attack there, and before you know it, the hot dog has gone the way of the cigarette. You can't expect the industry to sit back while its product is being replaced by broccoli on a stick.

So the hot dog industry teamed up with state lawmakers for the perfect solution: Don't improve the product, lower the standards.

Problem solving, Sacramento style.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Naming Rights and Wrongs

The city of Tacoma, Washington, is famous for a lot of things.

There’s ….uh, but of course there’s also….hmmm, wait a minute.

Now I remember. Tacoma, (a Native American phrase meaning “that other city in Washington”), is the birthplace of Father’s Day, an occasion, as one child observed, “that’s just like Mother’s Day only you don’t spend as much.”

Thanks to a nice lady named Sonora Smart Dodd, who conceived the idea in 1910, we dads can spend a long afternoon today slaving over a hot barbecue to feed family and friends.

As for me, I’m a bit puzzled why Ms. Dodd spent a lot of time and effort to honor a man who participated in naming her Sonora. I may be a little sensitive to this since I’m a guy known to most folks as Bob, a name that conjurers up visions of the manager of a lube and oil change joint.

But it underscores an important fact. The number one responsibility of parents is to give your child a proper name.

A lot of people fumble the ball here. Consider the cases of Merle Lester, Tyrannosaurus Rex Mullens, Tokyo Sexwhale, Deja Viau, Jed I. Knight, Hans Ohff and Genuine Ho, all actual names given to kids who are spending their lives trying to overcome it.

Some succeed. Mr. Sexwhale, for example, is a minister in the government of or South Africa. Others don’t. Mr. Mullens is a convicted sex offender.

Other names aren’t just mistakes in judgment. They are a full-blown assault on one’s dignity. Brazilian footballer Creedence Clearwater Couto was named after a rock band. He’s lucky his parents didn’t follow Hootie and the Blowfish.

A kid in New Zealand had to carry the name Number 16 Bus Shelter around for life. Model Peaches Geldof’s full name is Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof. Her sisters are named Fifi Trixibelle and Little Pixie.

Some folks just want to make a statement. According the British newspaper The Sun, Michael Howard of Leeds had his name legally changed to Yorkshire Bank PLC Are Fascist B*stards after being charged 20 pounds for a 10 pound overdraft. He closed his account and asked for a check with the balance to be made out in his new name.

Well played, Mr. B*stards.

Others want to commemorate a historic event. A woman in Kenya last year had twin boys who she named Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For the record, Barack came out first.

Show Biz has stepped to the plate and made a major contribution to the field of weird handles.

Actor Jason Lee has a son named Pilot Inspektor while Sylvester Stallone hung the moniker Sage Moonblood on his boy. Bono of U2 fame has a child named Memphis Eve . Not to be outdone, U2 sideman Edge has a kid called Blue Angel. Jermaine Jackson contributes with his child Jermajestry.

All of this has resulted in the iron hand of government intervention in some corners of the world.

Several years ago, a New Zealand court ordered the parents of a young girl, "Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii," to legally change her name. Justice Robert Murfitt explained that unusual name "makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap," according to published accounts.

Not satisfied with that ruling, the government has banned the names Lucifer and Messiah, Mafia No Fear, 4Real and Queen Victoria.

Sweden also has a naming law and has nixed attempts to name children "Superman," "Metallica," and Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116." That child's parents settled on the name "A" instead.

According to CNN, in Germany, rejected baby names depend on gender -- if you can't tell the gender of the child by the first name , it's a no go. Presumably, that means you can name your kid Adolf Hitler as long as he’s a boy.

As for me, I had wished I could have been named Wordsmith. But considering what might t have been, Robert works just fine. But you can call me Bob.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Apocalypse Unending

I am not what you would call a movie buff.

Oh, sure, I attend a handful of flicks each year, usually after assuring myself that my entertainment dollar will be well spent based on critical reception and subject material.

And let’s face it, my attendance is limited by the fact that I’m just outside the 14-34 demographic, the Mother Lode for movie producers.

Nonetheless, I found myself in a theater in Washington, D.C., on a recent afternoon with my daughter taking in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” a movie that ranked just behind “The Hangover: Part 10” on my “must see” list.

I'm there because my daughter is a bit of a Trekkie, one of those devoted to the “Star Trek” franchise in all of its myriad manifestations. For the record, she does not run around wearing tunics or speaking Klingon. She is in fact a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C. who prefers fashionable shoes and smart handbags to phasers set on stun. But we all have our peccadilloes.

The movie is a particularly noisy rendition of good guys vs. bad guys in outer space. Dialogue and plot are secondary to special affects. This critic’s opinion: entertaining but not life altering.

That’s not the main thing I took away from the experience, however.

When I was young, the featured film was preceded by cartoons. Now, the opening fare is a seemingly endless series of previews each crafted to make the subject movie, no matter how lame it may be, look like a cross between “The Godfather” and “Citizen Kane.”

What was astounding on this particular afternoon is that 90 per cent of the films previewed featured individuals, families, cities, countries, indeed an entire world caught up in an apocalyptic nightmare.

Zombies running amok. Evil space creatures. Soulless paramilitary terrorists. Overlords. Demons. Enough bleak landscapes and despair to cheer End Times and/or Rapture true believers everywhere.

Call them Apocaflix.

The question before the house is this: does the American public have an insatiable lust for movies that portray civilization on the precipice of doom?

Or are we merely being bombarded by the kind of pap that Hollywood is so capable of producing by the bucketful?

Or are the Mayans still messing with us?

The answer: probably all of the above.

There’s nothing new about apocalyptic tales. Mary Shelley wrote “The Last Man,” a tale of a world ravaged by plague, in 1826. H.G. Wells penned “The War of the Worlds” in 1898. Edgar Rice Burroughs brought us “The Moon Maid” in 1926 in which evil Communists take over the Moon before turning their sights on the Earth only to be overthrown by free market capitalists.

Clearly, there is an appetite for this sort of stuff. But we seem to be gobbling it up like so much movie house popcorn.

Since movies often reflect of the hopes and fears of the era in which they are made, I can only assume we are horrified/fascinated by the prospect of nuclear war, terrorism, global warming, economic collapse and deadly viruses. Throw in the Dodgers and Angels playing like the Undead and it’s a bleak world out there.

Bob Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said in an interview with Reuters that "Americans do have an 'end-of-days' feel to them ... Our civilization is in decline, Congress can't get anything done ...The metaphor for the end of the world is simply an exaggerated story that deals with the same feelings."

So we flock to the movies to see how it’s all going to turn out.

Not satisfied with mere Armageddon, however, Hollywood often enlivens the proceedings with a ham-fisted political message.

In “Elysium,” due out this summer, it’s the year 2154 and the very wealthy live on Elysium – a space habitat in Earth orbit – while the rest of us live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the planet’s crime and poverty, and they critically need the state-of-the-art medical care available on Elysium – but some in Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ luxurious and carefree lifestyle.

Let me guess which political party rules Elysium.

As for me, I’m sticking with watching sports until this whole fad blows over. Even if your team loses, it doesn’t take the entire planet down with it.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Tourist Traps

We were in Paris a few years ago and decided to take a side trip to see the palace of Versailles, the spectacular 17th century royal chateau built by Louis XIV and his band of merry excellencies.

It was early spring — the crush of humanity that descends on the place in the summer had yet to arrive — so we were enjoying an unhurried stroll through 721,000 square feet of opulence set amid sprawling grounds and gardens.

As we entered the queen's bedchamber, the door at one end of the room flew open and in charged a tour guide followed by her minions.

They stopped just short of elbowing us out of the way and seemed perturbed when someone suggested they were rude.

When they flew off down the hallway to terrorize other visitors, one of the survivors of the encounter muttered "Italians!" Others nodded knowingly.

I made a mental note to myself: Italians. Enjoy their food, culture and music but avoid them if they travel in packs.

The irony is, of course, when it comes to lousy tourists, Americans often win top prize. And who says so? Why, the Americans themselves, according to findings published in USA Today.

Maybe it's because we wear socks with sandals and gave birth to the fanny pack.

Australians and Canadians also don't like us much but who cares? They're just Americans who talk funny.

The research further disclosed that the Irish hate the Brits and the Brits loathe the Germans although I suspect there's something much deeper than tourism at work here.

Throw in the French and the Russians and just about anyone who travels seems to make it on a "worst" list.

All of this may be a moot point since the Chinese have suddenly emerged from the back of the pack in just one week to contend for the Ugly Tourist Award.

For that, we can thank one Ding Jinhao, a young lad from Nanjing, who was visiting Egypt with his parents. While mom and dad were otherwise occupied, he decided it would be fun to deface a panel of hieroglyphics in a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple by scrawling "Ding Jinhao Was Here."

On a vandalism scale of 1-10, 10 being the worst, he scored about 100.

When the whole thing hit the Internet, it caused a mass outbreak of self-flagellation on the part of the Chinese citizenry, an outcry so loud that it moved the ruling Communist Party to issue guidelines advising Chinese going abroad on etiquette, from waiting in line to refraining from spitting and littering.

"They speak loudly in public, carve characters on tourist attractions, cross the road when the traffic lights are still red, spit anywhere and (carry out) some other uncivilized behavior. It damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact," Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang complained.

In the meantime, Ding's parents publicly apologized. In an interview with a Nanjing newspaper, Ding's father said "the child has committed a mistake and the main responsibility falls on the adults. It was because we did not supervise him well, and have not taught him well."

The boy's father then begged Internet users to stop hounding the teenager. "This is too much pressure for him to take," he told the paper.

Too much pressure? If it was my kid, he would have been required to memorize the names of all the pharaohs of Egypt and would be required on demand to recite them backwards and forwards. While doing push-ups. He would required to get a job and donate his earnings to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. He would be required to write and publish a 2,000-word paper on "Respect for Other People and Their Institutions" after completing a 10K run. Just for openers.

But I digress.

Look, tourists are tough to love. Sure, they throw a lot of money around. They also speak a foreign tongue, move around in swarms, act differently from the natives and clog the streets, restaurants and bars.

It's culture shock that works both ways. If you don't believe it, wander down to Hollywood Boulevard some evening and watch the people of the world encounter our local goofballs.

After doing a highly unscientific study on the Internet, I found that most people dislike tourists because they get in the way of their busy lives. Which I interpret as resentment based on the fact that these people are on vacation and you're not.

We could solve a lot of this discord if we took a lesson from the Hawaiians and made people feel truly welcomed. It would work wonders for both sides.

Just don't expect me to give Ding Jinhao a big hug.