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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes goes to Hollywood

Usually, the more people like a book, the more disappointed they are with the movie. I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories so much I actually wanted to name my daughter Irene Adler Craig, after the one woman who fooled Sherlock Holmes, in "A Scandal in Bohemia." Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately (now that this movie has been made), my wife said no to that.

But I'm pretty sure I would have hated this movie even if I'd never read a single Holmes story. You don't have to be a Holmes buff to know that Holmes was known for his brains, not his brawn. (Many people who've never read Arthur Conan Doyle have sneered, "No shit, Sherlock," thus demonstrating their grasp of that basic concept as well as their lack of originality.) But this Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock engages in fisticuffs at every opportunity -- and of course, always wins. There are so many fight scenes with hulking villains that at times you think you've wandered into a Jean Claude van Damme movie by mistake.

Downey, who manages to look perpetually hungover, as well as wimpy, is a poor excuse for an action hero. But he's an even poorer excuse for an Englishman. Downey acts British by affecting supercilious expressions and trying way too hard to look snobby and disapproving. Actual upper class Brits are not like that. It's only the type of American who goes over there for six months and comes back speaking with a British accent who puts on such airs. I never blamed Guy Ritchie for Madonna's pretentious and unconvincing British accent. But Downey is now the second American he has had this effect on. You have to wonder.

Ritchie, who did excellent work with "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," seems to have lost his touch. He's tried to make up for the weak, ridiculous Hollywoodized plot with a lot of spectacle and loud noise. (Movies are a bit like people that way: the lower the IQ, the higher the volume.) Naturally, the plot involves plans for world domination by a megalomaniacal villain. (Mark Strong, who has been good in other roles, seems to be doing Lucifer-as-ham-actor here.) These days, on any production costing over $100 million, Hollywood demands nothing less than a hero who saves the entire world; a mere damsel in distress is no longer sufficient.

Speaking of overdone, the ridiculous score, which sounds like amped up Gypsy music, was yet another jarring element.

In the Arthur Conan Doyle books, Dr. Watson is pretty much a cipher, a Boswell to Holmes's Samuel Johnson. In the movie he is made into a major character, which is probably why Jude Law agreed to take the role. The two men bicker like a pair of old queens the entire time; we're supposed to be charmed by this. (Think in terms of how charming you find it when any old married couple bickers.) And make no mistake, they don't banter -- they bicker.

Another discordant note: Jude Law is far too pretty to be Dr. Watson. I don't recall any of the Holmes stories making reference to the fact that Watson was so good-looking he would attract the likes of Sienna Miller. And given Downey's very ordinary looks, this is just one more way in which Watson upstages Holmes, further upsetting the natural order.

Rachel McAdams-as-Irene Adler has to rank with Denise Richards-as-nuclear-physicist (in The World is Not Enough) as one of the all time unintentionally humorous miscastings. Having young sex symbols play women who are supposed to be extremely intelligent is a losing cause. (I can't wait for the inevitable biopic of Golda Meir, starring Jessica Simpson.)

I realize this won't bother most moviegoers as it did me, but Adler's character has been totally twisted by the movie. In "A Scandal in Bohemia" Adler was cool, cerebral, and self-possessed, but also decent in character and ladylike in her comportment. MacAdams plays her as an irrepressible flirt, vamping around making goo-goo eyes at Holmes. And the plot turns her into a habitual criminal.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave. Or rather, if he's following the lead of the villain in this extravaganza, he must be climbing out of his grave. (The only thing this movie lacked were the vampires from Twilight.) The chief villain here is named Blackwood, which left me wondering what happened to good old Professor Moriarity. Sure enough, he's introduced at the very end, in one of the least subtle advertisements for a sequel you'll ever see.

Not quite sure how they'll top this, though. Perhaps in the sequel Sherlock can battle space aliens.

For a Holmes purist like me, this movie is a sacrilege. For everybody else, it merely sucks.

Recommendation: Skip the movie, read one of the Sherlock Holmes stories instead.

Addendum, 1/1/10: My son just read this review and said, "No wonder J.D. Salinger doesn't want to sell the rights to his books to Hollywood. He realizes they'd probably turn Holden Caulfield into an M-60 wielding stud who just mows down the pimp who tried to bully him....And while they're at it, they could do a remake of Miss Marple starring Angelina Jolie -- you know, the way she was in Lara Croft, kicking ass all the time."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cause celebres

(on left, Karla Faye Tucker; above, Mumia Abu-Jamal)

The previous post about Tiger Woods and Snoop Dogg got me thinking about how much a person's appearance can influence public opinion about them. Two good examples would be Karla Faye Tucker and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Both became cause celebres while on Death Row.

Why? Because they were good-looking.

Tucker looked like a wholesome schoolteacher. Those cherubic cheeks would have looked right at home in a classroom, patiently teaching the little 'uns their A-B-C's.

But Tucker was anything but wholesome. A prostitute from the age of fourteen, she was eventually convicted for killing Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton, sinking a pickaxe into their bodies. Tucker enjoyed the sensation so much that she told friends it generated a triple orgasm for her (though she later claimed that she had said this merely to impress her friends). She was executed in 1998.

Tucker, who found religion while on Death Row, was for a while a focal point for opponents of the death penalty. Would this have happened if she hadn't been photogenic?

Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most famous Death Row resident. In the picture above, with his even features and soft cheeks, he looks like a friendly Rastafarian, the type who would be as happy to give you some ganja as sell it to you.

Abu-Jamal (slave name Wesley Cook) is a former Black Panther Party member and lifelong radical black activist who was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, who had stopped Abu-Jamal's brother for a traffic violation. Several witnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the man who ran across the street to shoot Faulkner. A .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver belonging to Abu-Jamal, along with five spent cartridges, was retrieved from the scene. Abu-Jamal himself was wounded by Faulkner during the shootout. Two witnesses from the hospital where Abu-Jamal was taken after the murder testified that during his treatment he said, "I shot the motherfucker. I hope the motherfucker dies."

The defense consisted mostly of character witnesses who stated that Abu-Jamal was viewed by the black community as a gentle, articulate, genial man, and that the prosecution witnesses were unreliable. Abu-Jamal did not testify in his own defense, nor did his brother, who stated, "I ain't got nothing to do with this."

Since then, Abu-Jamal has been made an honorary citizen of 25 cities around the world, and remains a pet cause of organizations ranging from the NAACP to Amnesty International. Would this have happened if he weren't photogenic?

Had Karla Faye had looked like Rosie O'Donnell, and had Mumia looked like Sonny Liston, neither would have become nearly as famous.

We're all influenced by appearance. But we should at least be aware of its prejudicial influence.

Can't judge a book by its cover department

One of the main reasons that people were so willing to buy into Tiger Woods' pristine image for so long was that he looks so baby-faced and wholesome. Some pictures make him look more like a Kewpie doll than a human being. At other times he evokes one of those innocent cartoon characters who are forever being threatened by the bad guys.

Contrast his face to Snoop Dogg's face. Snoop has perfected the insinuating sneer, but he has the natural advantage of a face tailor-made for sneering: prominent cheekbones, hooded eyes, flaring nostrils, and a complete lack of baby fat. Of course, Snoop has always tried to cultivate his gangsta image, so it's hard to imagine him as, say, a dedicated athlete.

Sex drive in men is highly correlated with testosterone, and testosterone is correlated with muscle. If you compare Tiger with Snoop on that score, they are each at the opposite end of the spectrum. Tiger, at least in his more recent years, is completely jacked, almost like a body builder. Snoop, if you've ever seen a picture of him without his shirt, is preternaturally thin.

Which means that as far as the women go, Woods is more of a tiger than he let on.

And Snoop may be less of a dog than he pretends.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Hangover

I saw The Hangover, now out on DVD, last night.

The movie is about a group of thirty-somethings who drive to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. But it is at heart a teen comedy, with the classic genre plot: a group of (theoretically adult) boys party a little too hard and irresponsibly and get into trouble.

The difference with this movie is that we don't see any of the wild partying, only the aftermath when the boys wake up to find they're in trouble, but can't remember the previous night. The premise works, because the clues eventually make (some) sense and most (though not all) of the loose ends are tied up at the end.

Most importantly, the movie obeys the number one rule of good filmmaking, which is that every word out of a character's mouth is something none of the others would have said. We laugh because we instinctively recognize the personality types, and think to ourselves, yeah, that's so so-and-so.

The least flawed personality seems to be Doug, the protagonist. We also see him the least, since he goes missing. The fact that he is supposed to get married the next day creates a sense of urgency.

His friend Stu, a dentist, is a grownup version of MacLovin, the character from Superbad. (There's even a slight physical resemblance.) A subplot revolves around Stu's theoretically soon-to-be fiancee, an extremely unpleasant woman. She is a very common type normally underrepresented in the movies, so it's good to see her onscreen in all her bitchy glory.

Another subplot involves a stripper/hooker, played by Heather Graham, whom Stu apparently meets during the night's festivities. She is the exact opposite of Stu's girlfriend back home: a hooker with heart of gold. Hookers with hearts of gold are about as realistic as those beautiful Hollywood superheroines who singlehandedly beat up gangs of thugs. Nonetheless, both types are normally overrepresented in the movies. But it's still good to see Heather Graham on the screen. (Does anyone have a good explanation for why she never quite graduated from starlet to star?)

The cool guy is Phil, the schoolteacher. We first see him calling his students nerds under his breath, a refreshing inversion of the usual teen comedy stereotype. Phil, as befits a slick operator, is also somewhat heartless, a point best demonstrated when the buddies find a baby in their hotel room, along with a tiger. Phil says they have to leave, and Stu points out that they can't leave the baby in the hotel room when there's a tiger there. Phil shrugs, "Why not? It's not our baby."

The most compelling character is Alan, Doug's future brother-in-law, who is constantly making inappropriate, lame, dumb comments. He seems to take a lot of things literally. The word "autistic" is never mentioned in the movie, but Alan's condition becomes apparent when it turns out that he has a special talent for card counting: a wonderful "aha" moment. (Alan had made an earlier reference to Rain Man as a "retard," but the foreshadowing -- which this movie does well -- was disguised by the way he mispronounced the word.) Alan is the butt of a lot of the movie's jokes. This brings up the question, is it okay to make fun of autistic people? Decent people would probably say no. (My vote is yes.)

Mike Tyson makes a slightly-longer-than-cameo appearance in the movie. He's not much of an actor, and comes across like a big kid tickled to be in a movie. He is a false note in a movie full of them; but because the false notes are such an integral part of the humor, they never jar. Tyson looks fat, underscoring what an advantage it is to have those outsize cheekbones, which allow you to still look fierce even when overweight. (That aura may also be helped by our knowledge that he was perhaps the most intimidating heavyweight of all time.)

The Asian gangster, Ken Jeong, plays to every stereotype of wimpy Asians. Probably in order to deflect accusations of racism, the filmmakers have Jeong's sidekick played by a handsome, manly Asian man in a mostly nonspeaking role.

And what better place to set a grownup teen comedy than Las Vegas? It allows the three thirty-something teenagers to behave like rock stars for a night, which, of course, is what Las Vegas is all about. Certainly every cliche about Vegas -- the Elvis background music, the luxury suite, the gambling, the drinking, the strippers -- is invoked in this movie.

Recommendation: Watch the movie, but have a drink or two beforehand.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Article on masters swimming

A brief article on the Swimming World website about the nature of masters swimming, and how it is more fun than scholastic swimming.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Just saw Avatar (in 2-D) this evening, and enjoyed every minute.

It was as predictable a movie as I've ever seen: you know exactly what conflict the hero will be faced with (whether to side with the rapacious earthlings or the noble nature-worshipping Na'vi of the planet Pandora). You know from the moment the female Na'vi heroine first appears (and spares the hero's life) that romance will ensue. In fact, you pretty much know the outcome of the entire movie after the first fifteen minutes.

All of the characters are two dimensional (the 3-D version of the movie does not add depth to the personalities). They all fall neatly into two categories, Good and Bad. Before even getting to the theater, you know from the publicity stills which category the Na'vi, with their big eyes, feline faces, elf-like ears, full lips, and thin bodies, fall into. Their nobility is just as obvious as Orlando Bloom-the-Elf's in Lord of the Rings: Hollywood may occasionally make good beings ugly, but it never makes evil beings beautiful.

One slightly discordant note: Stephen Lang, the accomplished stage actor who plays the evil Colonel Quaritch, has a much more intelligent face than Sam Worthington, who plays hero Jake Scully. Worthington, who was evidently up for the role of James Bond in Casino Royale before it was awarded to Daniel Craig, looks like a callow Ben Affleck (if that's not redundant). Lang has a more refined face, one which seems more capable of empathy, even as he struts and bullies in his role as chief bad guy.

The movie's anti-war and environmental messages are delivered in typically heavy-handed Hollywood fashion.

Avatar is also heavily derivative. When Jake Scully meets his first fearsome Pandoran beast, his dialogue is lifted from Will Smith's giant cockroach scene in Men in Black. The penultimate battle scene, with Na'vi on their Pandoran version of horses riding to their doom against the superior modern artillery of the earthlings, is straight from The Last Samurai. The Na'vi themselves are obviously derived from every Disney cliche about noble Native Americans.

And yet, despite all these faults, the movie was impossible not to enjoy. I don't like being instructed what to think -- and whom to root for -- anymore than anyone else. But I couldn't help but root for the Na'vi. (Who would argue against nature and for war?)

The idea of having a paraplegic Marine occupy the body of an avatar is ingenious. You can feel his joy at the liberation his new body brings him. But the real genius of the movie lies in the creation of the lush, beautiful planet. It is Pandora, and the essential sweetness of its inhabitants, that keep you involved, even as subsequent plot developments are telegraphed from a mile away. (I smell a well-deserved Oscar for art direction, probably along with a few undeserved ones, this coming March.)

Avatar reportedly cost upwards of $400 million. I'm not sure what that kind of money is supposed to look like, but it probably resembles something like Pandora. The rain forest is exquisite down to its last detail, and the colors are gorgeous (in contrast to the movie's messages, which are presented in black and white). The movie is like the cover of one of those old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels come to life. You can't ask for better entertainment than that.

Any movie which has the nerve to last two hours and thirty-six minutes had better be entertaining. This one delivered.

James Cameron is once again the king of the world.

Prediction: this movie will generate a whole slew of hardcore, Trekkie-type fans who will paint their faces blue and go to Avatar conventions as every opportunity.

Avoid them, but see the movie.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


The USA channel has been playing Enchanted all weekend there, and will play it again tonight at 9PM Eastern time. (The movie is not to be confused with Ella Enchanted.)

When my brother first told me I'd enjoy it, after the first ten minutes (which are in cartoon format) I openly mocked him. But you must see those first ten minutes in order to understand the story, so please stick with it.

It's far more clever and intelligent than most movies, and that alone makes it worth watching. As with most movies, the first hour is probably the best. (The early James Bond movies with Sean Connery are probably the best examples of this.) Enchanted gets a little sappy, but the movie also makes fun of itself, making the sappiness more palatable. (The low point on that score is probably the Central Park song/dance scene, where some choreographer was given way to much leeway.) The ending is downright ludicrous, but it is, after all, a fairy tale.

If you don't like it, be as insulting to me as you like; I promise to publish your comment anyway.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What women like

I spent last weekend at a big masters swimming meet. These meets are always a blast, and have a bit of a cocktail-party-by-the-pool feel to them. I saw a number of people I hadn't seen in years, and that's always fun as well.

Among the people I saw was Benn Doyle, 51, who holds the world record in his age group in the 100 short course meter breaststroke. Ben stands 6' 4" and weighs around 230. He has a little bit of a gut, and is more hawk-faced than classically handsome. But he's nice looking in a rugged sort of way. In any case, the overriding impression he leaves you with is one of masculinity-to-spare, which, for guys, is probably more important than being pretty anyway.

Benn is a veterinarian. I asked how his practice was going, and he replied that he was busy, and hadn't seen any downturn in his business due to the recession: "People just love their pets, and will do anything for them."

He added, with a shrug, "I'm the same way. I cry when I see a baby squirrel run over in the street."

All I could think was, women must absolutely adore this guy. Most women's ideal man is a hulking monster with a kind heart (who also makes money), and Benn is exactly that.

(I also think it helps to be six feet four inches of testosterone on the hoof when you admit to guys you don't know that well that you cry at the sight of a dead baby squirrel.)

Benn explained that the worst thing was to see a squirrel that had been partially run over and was still alive but couldn't move; he said that he always made a point of backing up and running them over again, so their suffering would stop. He then mentioned a buck he had seen in his backyard which had had an arrow sticking out of its chest, and how he had tried -- but failed -- to trap him. "He actually survived for three more weeks," he said sadly.

(It did occur to me that these were just lines -- they're certainly effective ones -- but then I thought, he wouldn't have spent his life being a vet just to buttress this pose.)

I told him that my wife and daughter would be big fans of his.

Of course, being as wise as I am, I also know what women don't like: a strutting bantam rooster who's constantly trying to prove his toughness.

Like me.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shades of "Psycho"

The following AP article appeared yesterday:

NC woman accused of hiding corpse appears in court

Wilmington, NC -- A woman accused of hiding her elderly mother's corpse for seven months in the family's North Carolina home has asked for a court-appointed defense attorney.

Amy Stewart made her first court appearance Thursday before a district court judge in Wilmington.

The 47-year-old did not enter a plea. She was charged Wednesday with concealing a dead body, a felony. Stewart posted bond and was released from jail.

Police responded to the family's home Tuesday after a 911 call and found the body of Stewart's 87-year-old mother, Blanche Matilda Roth, in a bedroom. Police estimate Roth died in May.

If Stewart killed her mother, she probably could have gotten away with it if she had immediately reported her death. After all, the death of an 87-year-old will usually not excite suspicion. But now the coroner's office will be extra careful.

Or was Stewart simply so attached to her mother that she couldn't bear to let her go? Judging from the fact that a 911 call was made, things may be a little dysfunctional at the Stewart household, which generally means less than overly strong attachments. But the need for a court-appointed, i.e., free, attorney would hint at a lack of the kind of resources which might provide at least one kind of motive for murder.

Either way, it would have been more appropriate if Stewart's name had been Norma Bates.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Their diversity is their strength?

The three animals above were confiscated from Atlanta area drug dealers eight years ago -- at age two months -- and delivered to the Noah's Ark Animal Rescue Center in Locust Grove, Georgia. The lion, tiger, and bear -- unimaginatively named Leo, Shere Khan, and Baloo -- have been brought up together since their youth, and evidently get along fine together. (Rudyard Kipling, based in India, did not include a lion in his Jungle Tales book, so Leo had to settle for being named after an astrological sign.)

Baloo and Shere Khan are particularly close, because they both rise early and like to play. Leo, being a lion, prefers to sleep till late. The animals' natural instincts kick in in other ways as well. Since tigers and bears like water, the zookeepers have a creek running through their enclosure. Lions evolved in Africa, where the rivers contain hippopotamuses and crocodiles, both easily capable of killing a lion. So Leo has an instinctive aversion to water. Bears get fish, notably salmon, from northern rivers, so Baloo likes to play in the water. And tigers are strong swimmers; tigers from the Sunderbans mangrove swamps of India have been known to swim out to fishing boats, capsize them, and kill the occupants.

Diane Smith, assistant director of the rescue center, pointed out, "They are totally oblivious to the fact that in any other circumstance they would not be friends." True enough. Had they grown up in the wild and encountered each other there, each of these apex predators would have attempted to kill the others, or at the very least, avoided them.

The Koreans used to stage fights between lions and tigers, which would inevitably result in the death of one of the animals. Initially they used Siberian tigers, but those tigers were not aggressive enough, and would be killed by the lions, so they switched to Bengal tigers, which sometimes bested the lions. (When I was a child and would ask my father which would win in a fight, he would say the tiger. And that is what one would think, given the tiger's greater size and strength. But it's not that simple: a tiger generally pounces on its prey, whereas a lion clamps its jaws around the throat of its prey, which is the more effective fighting technique when two big cats are involved.)

The picture above was taken at an opportune time: it looks as if the three animals have just had a happy play date and are now heading home. It is surprising, at least after looking at the picture above, to hear that the felines each weigh around 350 pounds, whereas the bear weighs 1000. Black bears in the wild generally don't get above 500 or 600 pounds, whereas tigers get up to 660 pounds, and male lions 550 (there is more sexual dimorphism among lions). But bears have the ability to put on fat more easily than the other two, since fat is crucial to their survival during the long winter months when they hibernate. So a well fed bear in captivity has more potential to grow obese.

Unexpected fact: until 10,000 years ago, lions were the most widespread large land mammal after humans. They ranged all over Africa, from Western Europe to India, and in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru.

"Leo" is obviously a female (she lacks a mane), so if the tiger is a male, offspring could conceivably result. When a male lion mates with a female tiger, the offspring is called a liger; when it happens the other way around, which is rarer, the offspring is called a tigon. Ligers generally end up much bigger than either parent, since the lion sire passes on a growth gene, but the corresponding growth inhibitor gene is absent in the female tiger. So ligers can often reach lengths of ten to twelve feet and weigh upwards of 1000 pounds. (Male ligers are generally sterile, but female ligers have been known to produce offspring.)

One can't help but wonder what lessons this happy trio can impart to human beings. If a European, an African, and an Asian were, as far as they knew, the only people on earth, they would probably get along fine as well. It is only when there are large numbers of each that racial discord arises.

At least this rescue center can honestly claim that its diversity is, if not a strength, at least not a weakness.

But only, of course, under the most carefully controlled and artificial of circumstances.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Only the good die young

(Theodore Sypnier)

A 100-year-old child molester was released from his halfway house this past weekend. Here's an excerpt from the AP article of five days ago by Carolyn Thompson:

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Everything that pedophile Theodore Sypnier has to show for his 100 years on Earth is packed in a single duffel bag as he prepares to begin a new chapter in life: freedom.

New York's oldest registered sex offender is scheduled to move by week's end out of a Buffalo halfway house for released inmates and into a place of his own, after completing his latest term in state prison for molesting little girls.

The judge who sentenced him said at the time that she expected him to die behind bars.

But 10 years after his last arrest, as Sypnier prepared to shed the closely monitored lifestyle of the halfway house, its director warned that the spry and active Sypnier has not changed. "Whether he's 100 or 101 or 105, the same person that was committing these crimes 10, 25, 30 years ago still exists today and has an unrepentant heart," said the Rev. Terry King, director of Grace House, which has twice taken Sypnier in from prison. "He is someone that we as parents, as members of the community, any community, really need to fear."

(It sounds as if the judge's prediction may still come true: he will die behind bars, for his next crime.)

Six months after marking his 100th birthday in the Groveland Correctional Facility — becoming the first New York inmate to reach the milestone while incarcerated -- the retired telephone company worker now says he wants to get to know the youngest members of a family that has disowned him.

(Retired telephone company worker? Wasn't AT&T's former ad campaign "Reach out and touch someone"?)

A former daughter-in-law said he is not likely to get the chance.

"No one from the family plans to have any contact with him," Diane Sypnier said before ending a brief phone interview.

Being grandfatherly was how the 5-foot-5, 150-pound Sypnier found his victims, authorities say. After his most recent arrest at age 90 on charges of raping and sodomizing a 4-year-old girl and her 7-year-old sister, his neighbors in the suburb of Tonawanda recalled what appeared to be a kindly Sypnier offering rides to adults, handing out money to children so they could buy candy, and baby-sitting.

It's often the people who appear the warmest at first who are in fact sociopaths, who have a knack for great first impressions.

A ninety year old rapist? I wonder if he took Viagra before these encounters.

The nerve

From this morning's NY Post:

Sex Overdrive


A mother of two in New Mexico has lost some of her lust for life after an injury in a car crash left her with an insatiable sex drive.

"It's unbearable," Joleen Baughman, 39, was quoted as saying by the Telegraph of London. "Just my clothes rubbing against me gets me so aroused I can hardly think straight."

In the April 2007 collision, a nerve in her pelvis which controls desire was damaged -- and got locked in the "on" position. Because of the condition, the slightest movement turns her on -- even when she vacuums or walks, the newspaper said.

Could someone please tell me where this nerve is located?

Another piece in the puzzle

Dr. Anthony Galea, 50, who has treated Tiger Woods, Alex Rodgriguez, and Dara Torres among other famous athletes, was the subject of a front page article in the NY Times yesterday. He is evidently the subject of a doping inquiry and is suspected of providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs.

He is being investigated by both the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for smuggling, advertising, and selling unapproved drugs.

Galea has admitted that he has treated himself with human growth hormone for the past ten years, in order to "have a longer lifespan" with his wife, who is 22 years his junior. But he claims never to have prescribed Hgh or steroids to treat any of his elite athletes, among whom he is known as "Miracle Man."

In my opinion, the miracle would be if he hadn't.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Putting it all together

(At left, Tiger Woods while at Stanford; at right, more recently)

It came to me about the time that Tiger's eighth or ninth girlfriend raved about his insatiable sex drive: the reason Tiger was so incredibly horny is that he was on steroids.

According to the police report from the night of his accident, Woods's wife told them that he had been drinking earlier that day, and also had prescriptions for the sedative Ambien and the pain killer Vicodin. All of which means that Tiger certainly doesn't have anything against putting foreign substances into his body.

You may remember speculation a while back that the drastic change in Tiger's build from his mid-twenties to his early thirties was due to juicing. He said he had weight-lifted extensively before, but before his late twenties had never been able to put on weight. Then, all of a sudden, he magically went from 158 pounds to around 200.

Well, one of the side effects of steroids is that one becomes extremely lustful. I've heard bodybuilders say that when they're on the juice, they would need an entire harem to take care of their needs. The difference with Tiger was, he had the means to actually finance that harem.

Tiger was evidently so desperate for sex that he would have it in the back seat of a car in a church parking lot. He would text his various girlfriends and ask them for dirty pictures, or tell them that he would wear them out. And evidently he did -- most of his girlfriends during his many overlapping affairs were impressed by his stamina and drive.

If Tiger wasn't on steroids, he deserves a medal of some sort.

I certainly can't prove that Tiger was juicing. But it just makes too much sense. You rarely see the kind of wholesale change in build he went through in his late twenties. He simply switched his original body for another. And almost all of these affairs seem to have taken place in the last several years, during his marriage. If he was so driven by sex, why did he never had a reputation as a prolific womanizer during his single days?

If this is true -- and I'd bet a lot of money it is -- Tiger is in a bad place right now. At some level he must want to blame his wanton behavior on the steroids he ingested ("It wasn't me, I was in the grip of this powerful drug"). But he won't, because he knows what the downside is. If someone should happen to come forward at this point to say that he sold Tiger steroids, not only will Tiger's formerly pristine personal reputation be in tatters, so will his reputation as a great golfer. And the latter is now all he has left. I'm not sure what the rules are regarding steroids in golf, but at the very least the public would regard his record as tainted.

And instead of going down in history as Usain Bolt, he would go down as Ben Johnson.

Okay, I promise, this will be the last post on Tiger Woods. Well, I guess I can't promise that. The subject is just too juicy.

I guess if I had gone into journalism, I would have ended up writing for Star Magazine or the National Enquirer rather than the Wall Street Journal.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Test for sociopathy

This is a test which was circulating on the internet a few years ago. It's actually quite well done:

Read this question, come up with an answer, then scroll down to the bottom for the result. This is not a trick question. It is as it reads.

A woman, while at the funeral of her mother, met this guy whom she did not know. She thought this guy was amazing, so much her dream guy that she believed him to be just that. She fell in love with him right there, but never asked for his number and could not find him. A few months later she killed her sister. Question: what is her motive in killing her sister? (Give this some thought before you answer.)


Almost there.......

Answer: She was hoping that the guy would appear at the funeral again. If you answered this correctly, you think like a sociopath. A famous American psychologist used this test to see if someone had the same mentality as a killer. Many arrested serial killers answered the question correctly.

If you didn't answer the question correctly, good for you.

The basic idea is that a normal (nonsociopathic) person could never even conceive of taking someone else's life so lightly that they would snuff it in order to gain what they want.

I know of exactly one person who got the answer correct, a woman who used to work on Wall Street. (I didn't ask her the question directly, but someone I had passed the question along to asked her, and told me the result.) This woman was a marvel of plastic surgery, including a pair of double D implants which she would flaunt at every opportunity. She would throw herself at men to get business from them. She always struck me as completely lacking in shame and embarrassment.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Note to Tiger

(Left, Rachel Uchitel; top right, Jaimee Grubbs)

Tiger, could you have possibly picked two trampier-looking women? Both of these women are straight out of the "Housewives of Orange County" mold: plastic surgery, collagened lips, dyed hair, and implants. Neither would look out of place at the Bunny Ranch.

Next time pick a married woman. She might not have as much to lose as you do, but she will at least have some motivation to stay discreet.

And what is the point of paying Rachel Uchitel a million dollars to keep her mouth shut now? The story's already out.

Finally, next time, don't try to make your public image quite so pristine. That way people won't rejoice in your downfall.

Oops, too late for that.

Just not that big a deal

One of the myths we were taught in grade school was that the Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution. In fact, they came here because they were not allowed to persecute others the way they wanted to back in England. (Why do you think they were called Puritans?)

Our puritanical heritage has not totally disappeared, as we have seen in the reaction to Tiger Woods' flings, which seems all out of proportion to the deed. Tiger didn't kill his wife, nor did he hit her. He merely succumbed to some extracurricular temptation.

In Europe, such an affair would not even be a scandal. (The Italians would consider it more scandalous if Berlusconi stopped chasing young women.) Yet over here, it's front page news, though it belongs on Page Six.

The sexual attraction between any couple will fade, no matter how attractive the partners. And that ring on your finger doesn't prevent you from being attracted to other people. Europeans are realistic about this. Americans should be.

I've noticed over time that the people who become the most outraged by others' affairs are almost always those with no such opportunities themselves. Think of the people you know. It's always plain women, or older women, who are most incensed by others' affairs; jealousy and envy seem to be the key emotions here. I've never heard a beautiful woman spit venom at the idea of an affair (unless it's her husband's). And men tend to be less outraged about it in general, because they know what they would do if presented similar opportunities.

I'm not saying that having an affair is right. Merely that it shouldn't be front page news.

Very few people list "Puritan" as their religious affiliation these days, but in this country their influence has not entirely vanished.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What you are

It's always a bit mystifying and off-putting when people adorn themselves excessively.

For the sake of argument, let's define "excess" as anything with no added utilitarian value, for instance expensive clothes which are neither more comfortable nor longer-lasting or noticeably better-looking than cheaper clothes. (A forty dollar pair of slacks can look sharper than a twenty dollar pair, but a hundred dollar pair is almost never worth the added cost.) Any showy watch (such as a Rolex or Omega) is also excessive, especially now that cheaper watches tell time so accurately.

The basic conceit is that wearing a higher quality product makes you a higher quality person.

I succumbed to this silly disease myself when I bought an expensive car several years ago. Prior to that, I had driven a Toyota Corolla. But five years of wearing a Corolla in my upper middle class town had left me feeling somehow....tawdry. So, even though I'd always looked down on people who put too much stock in their cars, I purchased a Lexus LS 430. (My standard joke is that now I just look down on people who drive lesser cars.)

For a while, having the car actually did, at some inane level, make me feel as if I were the human equivalent of a Lexus LS 430, a powerful, smooth, and well-designed piece of machinery. I never consciously analyzed it that way, but I did sort of feel that way.

(In self-defense: one's thoughts may be a reflection of one's IQ, but one's feelings are not.)

The only problem was, as I discovered, driving a Lexus does not make you the human equivalent of one. Ever since I bought it, I have only gotten older and weaker and slower and balder. And, now that I think of it, poorer.

The fact is, what you are at the most basic level is your intelligence, your character, and your body. Everything else is just window dressing. I suppose you are also your accomplishments, and some accomplishments can result in having more money. But possessions are still a very secondary definition of who you are.

If Albert Einstein had lost all of his money through bad investments, would this somehow have diminished him as a human being? (He might have felt diminished, but it certainly wouldn't have taken anything away from his accomplishments.) Away from his breakthroughs in physics, he seems to have been a fairly philosophical type, and one senses that he could have weathered the loss of his money better than most; maybe that's a better measure of one's worth as a human being.

I can't seem to recall any pictures of Einstein wearing gaudy jewelry. Neither can I recall any such pictures of Bertrand Russell, or George Bernard Shaw, or Leo Tolstoy. In fact, the very ridiculousness of such an image underscores the basic point:

The more expensive the bauble, the cheaper the human being.

An aside: Can those of us who take pride in our physiques pull rank over those who pay excess attention to clothing, or baubles? Probably -- but not by much. One thing I've noticed over time is that people who pay attention to fitness (ardent triathletes and the like) tend to pay less attention to their clothes. People who pay attention to clothes, on the other hand, tend to pay less attention to fitness (fitness being a related but separate issue from weight). I guess this means that if you meet someone who pays a lot of attention to both, you know he's really vain.

Anyway, my next car will be an econobox. Wearing a Prius means that some will mistake me for a liberal, but I don't care. At least I'll be getting better gas mileage. And, perhaps, hiding my shallowness a little better.

(By the way, have you ever heard a more long-winded justification for not dressing well?)


Back in August, I listed some Mark Twain quotes. Among them was the following:

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives he habitually uses in conversation."

Psychologists call this "projection," or projecting onto others what you are yourself. (When you do it with non-human species, it's called "anthropomorphizing.")

I used to work on a bond trading desk on Wall Street. (When you sit with the same guys for ten hours a day, you get to know them far better than you might want.) One thing I was able to observe was that they were constantly projecting their own traits onto others.

The dumbest guy on the desk was forever saying about various other people, "He just doesn't get the joke." This was his favorite insult. Yet he, himself, was remarkably clueless for a guy working at an investment bank.

Another trader, this one both dumb and self-satisfied, was always saying that various people "fell asleep at the switch." That would be a good description of his own trading style, which was to always try what worked the previous year.

The desk sociopath was forever saying, "I don't trust that guy. He lied to me once." (He thought that by saying this he was indirectly demonstrating his own honesty, but he was in fact doing the opposite.) He would say this about people who were basically honest as well as those who were not.

There was one fellow on the desk who was a truly decent person. He would frequently say of others, "He seems like a good guy." He said this about guys who were not as well as those who were.

I knew a guy in high school who was perpetually accusing other guys of being homosexual (he used the word "flitty," which was in vogue at that time). He would say this about many people who didn't strike me that way, and he would always sound very annoyed as he said it. I'm pretty sure he turned out to be gay himself.

I mentioned this tendency to a friend recently, and he said that he had noticed the same thing with his wife, who was always accusing others of being petty, suspicious, and vindictive. He said he had lost patience with her a couple times and actually said, "Not everybody is as petty and suspicious as you are."

My daughter constantly tells me, "Dad, you're not funny." She is an intelligent girl with many admirable qualities, but a sense of humor is not among them.

Projection is not always negative. I have one friend from whom I take investment advice, who frequently describes others as "very, very smart." This guy himself is extraordinarily intelligent (though his stock picking, unfortunately, has been less than perfect).

Think of the people you know and what their favorite (over-used) descriptions of other people are. You'll find a strong correlation with their own characteristics.

Just so you know, I find myself frequently raving about others' incredible toughness and intelligence.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Say it ain't so, Tiger

There has been a lot of speculation over the past two days over what really happened outside Tiger Woods' estate at 2:25AM on Friday.

The version that the Woods camp gave on Friday is that Tiger had a minor run-in with a hydrant and tree, and when his wife Elin Nordegren heard the crash, she rushed outside to see what was wrong, then smashed open the rear window with a golf club and pulled him to safety.

Coincidentally, on Wednesday the National Enquirer ran an article claiming that Tiger had been having an affair with an events planner named Rachel Uchitel. And, though Tiger had cuts on his face and mouth, there was no blood on the wheel of his SUV.

They should have come up with a more credible story: that Tiger wanted to get in line early for the Black Friday deals at the local Walmart.

It's pretty obvious what happened. They had a fight, Elin followed Tiger as he pulled out of the driveway, and in a fit of rage bashed in the rear window of his SUV with a golf club. This distracted Tiger enough to cause him to hit the hydrant and tree.

You can be sure that he is now in the midst of frenzied consultations with his advisers. ("He's sleeping," Elin told the police in an effort to forestall them.)

What we will get in a day or two is a carefully worded statement, which has been vetted by a small army of PR people and lawyers, in which Tiger will vaguely allude to mistakes he's made without actually spelling out any of those mistakes, and in which he will say that he and his wife are working to do what's right for their family and children. You can be sure that the words "family" and "children" will be mentioned prominently.

You can also be sure that the name "Rachel Uchitel" will not be mentioned. When Woods or his people are asked about her, they will probably say something to the effect of "You can't believe everything you read in the tabloids," without actually admitting or denying guilt.

The entire release will be calculated to be as bland and boring as they can make it, in an effort to make the incident disappear down the memory hole as quickly as possible. And it will. Six months from now people will be talking about Woods' next major tournament, and this episode will be referred to only in passing.

Woods, a Stanford graduate, is certainly no Daryl Strawberry. Woods has been very careful thus far to keep his private life private, and to keep his public pronouncements as bland as possible, in an effort to keep those endorsement deals flowing. And he's done an excellent job of this, until now.

What really happened is not even all that interesting. Woods is a young, healthy billionaire who is on the road a great deal of the time. He was undoubtedly constantly faced with temptation, and he succumbed. (He's only human, and it's hard to blame him for that.) His wife found out about it, had a fit, and we saw the results of that fit, if not an honest explanation for it. It's really a very old, and very boring, story.

The only vaguely interesting part of that story is that while Elin Nordegren is absolutely gorgeous (he married her after he was rich and famous), Rachel Uchitel is not. (Uchitel is a little cheap-looking to boot; obvious plastic surgery tends to have that result.) It's always a little surprising when men married to beautiful women cheat on them with far less attractive women. (Anyone remember Steve Phillips?)

The more interesting question is how it has affected Woods. My guess is that he is feeling quite torn. He knows his public reputation is on the line, so he will rely on the PR people and lawyers who have guided him thus far. He also knows that if he goes to the police and gives them an honest accounting of the evening, it will get his wife in trouble. After all, he is now the victim of domestic violence, both when she scratched his face in the house and when she bashed in the back window of his SUV, which would potentially make her legally liable. He also knows that if the entire truth comes out, it will mean the end of his squeaky clean image.

I certainly don't think Woods, or even his temperamental wife, are bad people. They're just normal people with an abnormal amount of money and fame, caught up in the usual human desires and emotions. If he was bad, we'd have seen evidence of it in the past, and we haven't.

But no one, not even Woods, is as bland as he's pretended to be all these years.

Given the nature of golf, and Tiger's public image, it's hard to imagine that the Buick people are going to make humorous, self-deprecating reference to this incident in their future advertising. (But how funny would it be if their next ad showed him driving off as a blonde bashed in the back of his SUV?)

Addendum, same day: Woods has decided to totally stonewall: "This situation is my fault, and is obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I'm human and I'm not perfect. I will certainly make sure this does not happen again....the only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. Any other assertion is absolutely false."

I call bs.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why we're better than them, Part II

There has been a lot of press over the past three days about the three SEALS who are charged with dereliction of duty for having bloodied the lip of Ahmed Hashim Abed while he was in their custody.

Abed was the one who organized the murder of four US civilian contractors working as security guards in Fallujah in 2004. After murdering the four men, the terrorists burned two of their bodies and hung them from the Euphrates Bridge.

One of the three SEALs who captured Abed, Matthew McCabe, evidently punched him after they captured him. Abed complained, but the other two SEALs refused to testify against McCabe, so all three will be arraigned on December 7th.

Contrast this to the record of US combat forces who've been captured in Iraq and Afghanistan: not one has returned alive.

The Geneva Convention states that prisoners of war must not be mistreated. But if the we abide by the rule of law while our enemies don't, we're merely hamstringing our troops. And the rules of engagement state that a non-uniformed enemy combatant, when found, can be given a summary execution on the spot as a spy. Armed forces are supposed to wear identifying insignia. Abed was wearing no such thing.

Recent polls indicate that 98% of the American public believes that these SEALs should not be brought to trial. Enough has been said on that score, I won't belabor the point here.

The point I want to make is that this upcoming trial, as ludicrous as it is, is one more piece of proof that we are better than the people we are fighting.

We're so much better than them that they are not, in fact, worth our time. They're certainly not worth American lives and money. We should bring all our troops home and let the Middle Easterners kill each other instead.

Marion Jones

An AP article about Tim Montgomery today reported on why Montgomery used steroids (he wanted to beat Maurice Greene) and his subsequent ban from track and field. The article also discussed his incarceration for having taken part in a check kiting scheme.

The most interesting part of the article came when Montgomery talked about Marion Jones, the mother of his child and formerly the world's fastest woman.

Montgomery said that Jones could make herself cry for the cameras and that her "best work" came when she passed a lie detector test.

I've never known of anyone who wasn't a sociopath who could just will themselves to cry on command. (Tonya Harding, another disgraced Olympian, was also known for this ability.)

Hearing about this ability brings back memories of all those times Jones brazenly and self-righteously denied her involvement with steroids and talked about how drug use was wrong.

Passing a lie detector test is another sociopathic specialty. Polygraphs measure respiration, pulse, blood pressure, and skin conductivity. Lying is stressful for a normal person, so the machine measures stress. The only type of person for whom a lying is not at all stressful is a sociopath.

I'd thought Marion Jones was juicing long before she was actually caught. But this is the first time I ever thought of her as a sociopath.


One rule which most try to follow is that you can make fun of people for their behavior, but not for things they can't help. This is just basic decency.

Thus, appearance, race, gender, and sexuality are off limits. But hypocrisy and the various other sins are not.

Some sins, such as gluttony, or vanity-resulting-in-plastic-surgery, both of which can result in changed appearances, occupy a gray area. But the basic division is one on which there is general agreement.

So where does that leave stupidity? Most of us, even if we would never make sport of someone's looks or sexuality, don't hesitate to mock stupidity.

We all enjoy laughing at those lists of incredibly dumb mistakes that students make, and don't feel the slightest guilt about doing so. Yet we call it a guilty pleasure when looking at, say, a National Enquirer article showing a series of photographs of stars with cellulite.

Yet neither of those are things which people can help.

Certainly no one hesitates to criticize bad character. But being able to camouflage bad character is often a matter of intelligence. A smart person is more aware of the image he is presenting, and will remember his own past behaviors better. And he will use his superior memory to guard against appearing hypocritical, even if he is a hypocrite. Likewise, a smart criminal is more likely to get away with his crimes. So when we criticize bad behavior, at a certain level we're actually criticizing stupidity as well as character.

Yet intelligence is something that we are essentially born with. Without getting into an extended discussion of the nature/nurture argument regarding IQ, the fact is, it's basically something we can't help.

So maybe stupidity is something we shouldn't make fun of.

Nah. It's too much fun to do so.

(Full disclosure: the author is not quite as observant of the above rules of etiquette in person as he pretends to be on this blog.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How would you react if you found out that your real father was Charlie Manson?

(Matthew Roberts, left; Charlie Manson, right)

Two different people sent me the following article from Tuesday's NY Daily News about a 41-year-old man who was adopted as a ten year old and raised in Illinois, and who recently discovered that his real father is Charlie Manson.
(Italics mine.)

It's like finding out your father is Hitler," Matthew Roberts told the Sun newspaper.

Roberts found out about his long-lost daddy about a dozen years ago after using a search agency to find his birth mother. The birth mother told him that she had been raped and that the 1960s Helter Skelter killer was his father.

(Gotta wonder if it was really, in the immortal words of Whoopi Goldberg, "rape rape." If I were the mom I'd probably be claiming it was nonconsensual too.)

"I'm a peaceful person - trapped in the face of a monster," Roberts said. "My hero is Gandhi. I'm an extremely non-violent, peaceful person and a vegetarian. I don't even kill bugs."

The truth of Roberts' birth unfolded gradually as he and his mother began to write each other.

At first she refused to pass on details, but ultimately she revealed that she had been captivated by Manson and joined his cult in San Francisco.

When his mother saw Roberts' photograph she said her suspicions were confirmed. The killer and his son share nearly identical facial features and they have the same thick, dark hair.

Roberts has corresponded with his unrepentant father, now 75 and confined for life in California's Corcoran State Prison.

The mass killer confirmed he is Roberts' father, and recalled the times he spent with Matthew's mother in a string of ten rambling handwritten notes and postcards signed with a swastika - the same symbol he has tattooed on his forehead.

"He sends me weird stuff and always signs it with his swastika," Roberts said. "At first I was stunned and depressed. I wasn't able to speak for a day. I remember not being able to eat."

(That sounds like a little bit of an exaggeration. Not able to say a word for an entire day? And he certainly doesn't look as if he's missed too many meals. Who knows, maybe his father is trying to help him diet with those weird missives.)

But, he added: "He's my biological father - I can't help but have some kind of emotional connection. That's the hardest thing of all - feeling love for a monster who raped my mother. I don't want to love him, but I don't want to hate him either."

Judging from the fact that Roberts now wears his hair like Manson -- hardly the current fashion -- and affects that devilish goatee, one would have to assume that he feels more than a little connection. (If he were really so embarrassed by his heritage, wouldn't he cut his hair short, maybe dye it blond, and don a suit and tie?) Plus, he actually corresponds with Manson, something not everyone would do.

(The above photograph, by the way, is from the NY Post version of the story. The Daily Snooze only saw fit to include a picture of Manson, even though we already know what he looks like. The Post also mentioned that Roberts suffers from schizophrenia, though judging from the commonsensical tone of his comments, I'd guess he's been taking his meds.)

How would most people react if they happened to discover, mid-life, that their biological father was an infamous killer? I can imagine several reactions, depending on one's character:

One would be utter dismay: Oh no, I'm cursed! I have the mark of Cain on me! No wonder I have these mental problems! I wonder if it's my fate to snap one day.

Another would be embarrassment: Oh god, the shame of it all. I'm going to change my name and go into hiding.

Another would be a sort of twisted pride (especially if the adoptive parents hadn't done such a great job): Yeah baby, no wonder I'm such a badass! Yes! Here I am boys and girls, the second coming of Charlie Manson! Watch out!

Yet another would be the socially savvy response: I'll be able to dine out on this for the rest of my life! People are going to find me fascinating. Everybody will want to get to know Son of Charlie. It'll probably turn me into a bit of a chick magnet, too, at least with a certain type of girl. I know Dad never had a problem getting girls.

One has to wonder how much of Roberts' personality is a matter of nature, rather than nurture. To the extent that it's nature, he must have some of Charlie's characteristics.

On the other hand, his upbringing was undoubtedly more wholesome than Manson's. It would be near impossible for it to have been worse. Manson was born to a 16 year old prostitute who had no idea who his father was. When Manson was a little boy, she once tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. His uncle forced him to dress like a girl for his first day of kindergarten. Manson was in and out of juvenile detention facilities from the age of ten. (As an 11-year-old he reportedly raped another boy in one of those facilities.)

Given Manson's own hellish background (who knows how he would have turned out had he had a more normal upbringing), Roberts is hardly a case from which one can draw conclusions about the nature/nurture debate.

But he does make an interesting case study about how finding out that one has an infamous father can affect someone.

Addendum: My sweet 15 year old daughter just read this and offered, "Dad, he's better off than I am."

(updated version) Man -- a dog's best friend

From Monday's news, via the AP:

Kangaroo tries to drown dog, attacks owner

The Australian, Chris Rickard, was in stable condition Monday after the attack, which ended when the 49-year-old elbowed the kangaroo in the throat. He said he was walking his blue heeler, Rocky, on Sunday morning when they surprised a sleeping kangaroo in Arthur's Creek northeast of Melbourne. The dog chased the animal into a pond, when the kangaroo turned and pinned the pet underwater.

When Rickard tried to pull his dog free, the kangaroo turned on him, attacking with its hind legs and tearing a deep gash into his abdomen and across his face.

"I thought I might take a hit or two dragging the dog out from under his grip, but I didn't expect him to actually attack me," Rickard, 49, told The Herald Sun newspaper. "It was a shock at the start because it was a kangaroo, about 5 feet high, they don't go around killing people."

Dogs often chase kangaroos, which have been known to lead the pets into water and defend themselves there.

Rickard said he ended the attack by elbowing the kangaroo in the throat, adding Rocky was "half-drowned" when he pulled him from the water.

What an interesting and effective way for the kangaroo to defend itself.

Australia has long been known to zoologists for its unique fauna. The other continents all have relatively similar animals. Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and North American all have (or had, in Europe's case), big cats. Asia has the tiger and the snow leopard. Africa has the lion, the leopard, and the cheetah. Europe used to have the lion. North America has the cougar, and South America has the jaguar. There is some overlap (jaguars have been spotted in North America, and there is a small population of Asian lions), but each continent basically has its own version of a large cat. Australia has none, unless you count the Tasmanian Tiger, a unique cat/dog hybrid which may or may not be extinct, depending on whether the recent sighting reports are to be believed.

(Africa actually has its own version of a cat/dog hybrid, the hyena, which, surprisingly enough, is actually more closely related to the cat family than to the dog family.) But most of the continents have similar canine, ursine, porcine, and ungulate species as well, with varying subspecies.

Australia is different. The kangaroo is found nowhere else on earth. The koala "bear" is found nowhere else. And the duck-billed platypus is famous for being the only known "mammal" which lays eggs.

The ten most poisonous species of snake all live in Australia. Roughly 30,000 people a year die of snakebite, and 25,000 of those are in South Asia. This makes sense, when you think of all the poor people who work barefoot in rice paddies and live in primitive open air housing with cobras and kraits and Russell's vipers slithering around. You don't hear of as many people being killed by snakebite in Australia; that's because most of the really poisonous snakes live in the Outback, where there just aren't that many people. Australia is an entire continent with a population of only seventeen million.

North America was until recently home to much more spectacular animals than now roam the continent. A mere 10,000 years ago -- the blink of an eye in evolutionary time -- we had saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, 500 pound beavers, giant elk, and giant ground sloths wandering the continent. Hard to imagine them wandering among the subdivisions and freeways today.

One of the most fascinating things about wildlife are the number of species which are still being discovered. Most of these are various kinds of subspecies of insects, or small fish. And many of the unknown species are supposed to live in the shrinking Amazon rainforest. But there have been 408 new species of mammals discovered since 1993. Some of the more notable of these include the so-called barking cow in Laos, a new rhinoceros species in Viet Nam, and a giant peccary in Uruguay. And 25 new species of monkeys have been discovered (including 9 lemurs).

There are certainly plenty of wild places left away from the Amazon rainforest which could harbor unknown species. Even a place like the United States, which we tend to think of as very civilized and even overdeveloped, has lots of wild areas. We have a tendency to think of the entire country as being like the suburbs or cities where we live, with a few national parks thrown in to remind us of what the continent used to be like. But the next time you fly across the country, look out your plane window. Most of what you see is green (or brown, depending on the time of year). The towns seem few and far between.

Who knows what species we have yet to discover.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rock star sex?

From this morning's AP, via the NY Post:

Sully's heroic landing led to 'rock star sex'
LOS ANGELES — Pilot Chesley Sullenberger jokes that his heroic handling of a disabled jetliner brought him "rock star sex" in an interview for "NBC's People of the Year" TV special.

Sullenberger, who safely ditched a US Airways plane in New York's Hudson River after geese hit the engines, is among those interviewed by Matt Lauer for the Thanksgiving Day special.

Lauer asked Sullenberger and his wife, Laurie, whether his sudden celebrity helped or hurt their relationship.

"He doesn't know I'm gonna say this, but I had joked the other day that ... the hero sex really helps a 20-year-old marriage," Laurie Sullenberger said with a laugh, according to an NBC transcript.

"Rock star sex," Chesley Sullenberger chimed in.

Sully, you are a true hero for having walked the length of that plane twice after it landed in the Hudson to make sure there were no passengers left on board. But I don't think that the phrase "rock star sex" refers to sex with a woman you've been married to for over twenty years.

On the other hand, if that's what makes you happy, I'm glad, because you certainly deserve whatever good in life comes your way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The perp walk

One of the time-honored traditions of law enforcement is the perp walk, where the authorities parade the guilty party in front of the cameras to show the public that they are doing their job. This is done by both the FBI and the local police.

Above left is a picture of this morning's featured perp, the "baby-faced" (according to all the newspapers) Carvett Gentles, whose stray bullet managed to find its way into the skull of innocent 17-year-old bystander Vada Vasquez.

The picture brought to mind a pattern I've observed over the past few years, whereby the law enforcement authorities seem to try to match their perps with an officer of the same race, at least while the cameras are rolling. The image of an innocent-looking young black boy, no matter how heinous his crime, being manhandled by two Dick Butkus-lookalikes is not the one that the NYPD wants to project in this racially hypersensitive age. So they carefully matched young Carvett with an older "brother" to hold his left arm.

The thinking seems to be, well, we all know that law enforcement is dominated by whites, and we all know that crime, especially violent crime, is committed disproportionately by nonwhites. But be that as it may, we have to work against the perception fostered by the media that we're just a bunch of cowboys going around looking for minorities to roust. So every time we stage a perp walk, let's make sure that we have an officer on hand who looks like the perp.

The same thinking was at work with the arrest a month ago of hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam. Evidently the FBI didn't have an ethnic Indian available, so they made do with the closest thing, an East Asian, to hold his arm for the cameras (see picture above right). The feds were able to hit the mark exactly, however, when announcing their indictment of Rajaratnam: they had U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara handle the news conference.

You know, just so no one would think they were "racist."

It's a wonderful new world we live in: if you commit a crime, you get to be arrested by your own, at least when the cameras are rolling. (No such guarantees when it comes to the unfilmed jail guards, however.) It's unclear exactly what the point of all this is, other than proving that the law enforcement authorities are exquisitely sensitive to ethnic sensibilities these days.

If you're aware of this pattern, you'll notice a lot of it. This transparent image-burnishing would actually be sort of funny if it did not reflect a deeper rot.

A long, sad journey

When I was 17, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and thought it was the greatest book I had ever read. As a teenager, I was also partial to Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut.

In my twenties, I was an omnivorous reader, with a slight preference for science fiction and thrillers.

In my thirties, mysteries became my favorite form of escape. (Particularly mysteries I had already read.)

By my forties, I had lost my sense of shame, and was happy to indulge in gossipy books.

By age fifty, my favorite reading was the National Enquirer. (The Kitty Kelley oeuvre simply required too much uninterrupted attention.)

Now that I'm addicted to the internet, I can no longer even make it through an entire Enquirer.

The really sad thing is, none of this bothers me in the least.

Why we're better than them

I'm not sure how, but I seem to have gotten onto the HumanEvents mailing list. Today they sent out an email containing an article written by Chuck Norris. Yes, that Chuck Norris. I normally don't read his stuff because, frankly, his writing is about on a par with his acting. (He strikes me as a fine fellow, by the way, just not much of an actor or a writer.) But today's article was titled "Visiting Major Nidal Hasan's Hospital" and I was curious what it was about.

The article was mostly about Norris' visits to Ft. Hood and West Point. He got very welcoming receptions from the soldiers at both places. Norris said he was sickened (and moved) by the fact that Hasan was receiving the finest care in the Brooke Army Medical Center, the same place where the soldiers he wounded were being treated.

This got me to thinking, in how many other countries would this be the case? Certainly not in the countries we are fighting wars in right now. Speaking as someone who is a fan of neither war, and who would like to see all our troops withdrawn immediately from both places, I have to say that this is as much proof as anyone would ever need that we are a civilized country and they are not.

In fact, it would make me downright proud -- if it weren't for the fact that I'm not so civilized.

I'd prefer to see Hasan handed over to the parents of the soldiers he shot.

Sociopathic motivation

(Alyssa Bustamante)

From the AP this morning:

Girl, 15, Charged as Adult in Murder

Police Say She Killed 9-Year-Old to 'Know What It Felt Like'
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Nov. 18) - Blessed with a Friday off school, 15-year-old Alyssa Bustamante dug two holes in the ground to be used as a grave, authorities said. For the next week, she attended classes, all the while plotting the right time for a murder, they said.

That time arrived the evening of Oct. 21, when Bustamante strangled 9-year-old neighbor Elizabeth Olten without provocation, cut the girl's throat and stabbed her, prosecutors said. Why?

"Ultimately, she stated she wanted to know what it felt like," Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. David Rice testified Wednesday during a court hearing over the slaying.

It's surprising how often one hears of a motive like this for murder. Most people, upon hearing such a statement, usually assume that there must have been some other, hidden motive, like a long standing animosity, or jealousy, or somesuch. But with a sociopath, a mild curiosity is all it takes.

Edmund Kemper, the 6'9", 280 pound serial killer who operated near Santa Cruz in the 1970's, killed his grandparents when he was fifteen. He later stated he did it just out of curiosity to see what it felt like. Around fifteen years ago there was a case in New Jersey where a boy killed a pizza delivery man. He later said he just wanted to see what it felt like.

You can't understand sociopaths until you can fathom their absolute lack of consideration for other human beings. To them, you're no more than a toy, to be discarded when they have no further use for you. The problem with recognizing sociopaths is, they are often so good at counterfeiting the positive emotions (love, affection, loyalty, gratitude) that at first you are apt to think them actually nicer than average. But they are merely acting. The only reason most sociopaths won't kill you is that they don't want to be bothered with the possible repercussions.

It's hard for a normal person to get his mind around such an alien mentality. But it's better to understand them, and be on your guard against them, than to let them catch you unaware.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Rockford Files

(James Garner as Jim Rockford)

One of the best shows ever to run on TV was The Rockford Files, which lasted from 1974 to 1980. The show has been in syndication ever since. I've watched a number of episodes recently (you can see them on

The show starred James Garner as private eye Jim Rockford. Rockford was a departure from previous television heroes in that he would lose half the fistfights he got into, and was also a self-professed coward. All previous private eyes had essentially been superheroes. Garner was perfect for the role, exuding a regular guy-ness which was refreshing in that era.

Almost every show had a designated turkey, usually Rockford's friend or client, as well as a villain. The turkey -- often Angel Martin, played by Stuart Margolin with consummate sliminess -- was there to give Rockford a foil, as well as someone to rescue.

The Rockford Files ended mid-season in 1980, not because of sagging ratings, but because Garner's various injuries were causing him too much pain. (Garner did most of his own stunts.) There hadn't been any studio-related contractual dispute, either, as it was Garner's company, Cherokee Productions, which produced the show. (Garner is one quarter Cherokee.)

Watching the show now, the frequent car chase scenes seem curiously anachronistic. (Garner had raced cars when he was younger, and must have encouraged the inclusion of such scenes.) Rockford is a little too good to be true, though that's forgivable for a TV hero, and Rocky (his father) is a bit too cornpone. And the plots don't always make perfect sense.

But the shows are still worth watching, both for the dialogue and the humor.

Much of the humor is set up by each show's designated turkey. In one episode, Rockford is trying to help a young lady who is being scammed by a corrupt "guru" who is in fact only interested in her money. When Rockford asks her a specific question regarding her situation, she airily replies, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" (This was a popular pseudo-mystical, Zen-derived expression of the era.) Later on, when the guru's scheme unravels and the girl provokes him, he slaps her. Rockford witnesses this, then informs her, "That was the sound of one hand clapping."

One of the funniest episodes revolved around Rockford's unwilling partnership with another private eye, Lance White, played by Tom Selleck (soon to become famous as Magnum PI). White is adored by all the characters Rockford is despised by, including the police lieutenant Rockford regularly locks horns with. White is also impossibly idealistic and naive -- but turns out to always be right, against all odds. In one scene when he and Rockford are held captive by an aging, legendary criminal kingpin (who has just been rejected for asylum in Israel), White high-mindedly informs the man, "You should know by now -- crime doesn't pay." (Of course, it has for this kingpin, and spectacularly so.) Both the kingpin and Rockford roll their eyes at this. But of course, White is able -- through a very lucky set of circumstances -- to bring the man to justice. And Rockford, though he saves White on several occasions, ends up looking like White's ineffectual sidekick.

Unfortunately, this episode is not available on Hulu, but many others, all worth watching, are.