Archive for March, 2009

In their own words: AIG and GM

March 21, 2009

This weekend, we’ll take a look at how some of America’s most notorious corporate scofflaws want to project a very different, very positive image to the public. I won’t attempt to duplicate the fuzzy-focus grandpas playing with their blonde granddaughters in fields of wildflowers that you’d see if you looked at a lot of their corporate literature. But I will repeat some of the written equivalents here.

We’ll start with what, for today at least, continues to be the baddest bad-ass out there – AIG.

Here’s what they have to say about their retirement services and products:

AIG: Live Longer Retire Stronger

Good science and good lifestyle choices are adding up to longer, healthier lives. And that is a good thing. But increasing longevity creates new retirement challenges. How do you pay for a 30+ year retirement? How do you ensure a reliable income when financial markets zig and the economy zags. AIG’s retirement services companies can help answer those and other important retirement planning questions. We are in the business of helping millions of Americans find fresh ideas to help fund those extra years and make the most of your nest egg. So go ahead … live longer. The AIG companies have the strength to be there when you retire, so you will never outlive your money.

 

Especially, I guess it goes without saying, if you find yourself in receipt of a hefty retention bonus.

As their name implies, AIG is primarily an insurance company, offering a variety of specialized insurance products. One of these interestingly is insurance that protects some of a company’s top officials.

Public Companies Directors and Officers Insurance

As management liability exposures for public companies continue to grow both domestically and internationally, everyone from company executives to independent directors, general counsel and risk managers face increasing personal risk. [Our] insurance provides public companies and their management with broad coverage for securities claims and employment practices claims. Coverage encompasses the many individuals likely to be sued in such claims. Coverage can be enhanced with locally-admitted policies for claims arising overseas via AIG Passport.

 

Meanwhile, our friends over at General Motors were crowing about themselves as recently as their 2008 annual report.

Excitement and style for our biggest global brand.

In one of the most anticipated new-car launches in years, the all-new Chevrolet Malibu served notice to the perennial midsize sedan leaders in the United States. Consumer demand has been very strong for the Malibu, which was named the 2008 North American Car of the Year. The recently restyled Aveo5 hatchback further defines the new face of Chevy. From Detroit to Shanghai, Sao Paolo to Russelsheim, GM’s lead brand just keeps getting better and growing around the globe.

 

Corporate responsibility at General Motors

We’re proud of the difference we’ve made since we started out in 1908 – a century of safe, dependable vehicles, and millions of people employed over the years to design, engineer, build and sell them. A century of impact, with billions spent with minority suppliers, billions in charitable donations and millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide taken out of facility emissions. A century of firsts, from the introduction of tail lights to pump technology that enabled the first heart transplant. A powerful century, but that’s all in the past. For us, the excitement is in focusing our technical talent on helping solve many of the big challenges facing our world right now.

 

GM Next

GM today stands at the juncture between our first and second centuries, between a tremendous heritage and a bright and exciting future. We’ve come a long way since the challenge of 2005, and still we have a lot of work ahead of us, but I believe that 2007 will stand as the tipping point in the history of GM, as we position the company for sustained competitiveness, profitability and growth.

Everyone at our company is working hard to make GM the industry leader with great cars and trucks, great brands and great business results. It’s a position that GM has attained many times in our history, and one we desire to achieve again. We have the right strategy, the right products and technology and, most important, the right people to do it again, and we’re committed to making it happen. We appreciate your continued support as we look to make this vision a reality.

 

Tomorrow, we’ll take a similar look at Citibank, Blackwater and the Peanut Corporation of America.

 

Website review: The Hoveround electric wheelchair

March 20, 2009

About five years ago, I had a procedure to remove a kidney stone. A cystoscopy sounds unpleasant, as most invasions of the urethra are, but it was actually pretty painless under the spell of highly effective anesthetics. When I awoke afterwards, the hardest part was probably the pressure the nurses put on me to pee before they would let me go. I have “bashful kidney” under the best of circumstances, so you can imagine how I felt with several highly paid health professionals standing by.

My recovery at home proceeded nicely, and within a couple of days I was ready for an outing. I was moving a little slowly when we entered the local Costco and I spotted the motorized shopping cart. I’ve always been interested in the concept of assisted mobility and yet hadn’t found the opportunity to ride a motorcycle or jet ski, so it looked like I’d finally have a chance for something close. I shuffled my handicapped urethra over to the machine and fired it up.

What a revelation life is when seen from about two feet lower than usual! Your whole perspective on the world changes. Everyone else seems so tall when you’re buzzing along at waist level; you come to appreciate why children are so wide-eyed with excitement at the life that surrounds them. A certain playfulness came over me as I sped up and down the aisles running into people’s ankles and nearly toppling the pot stickers sample table.

I thought back on this childlike wonder when I was at the gym the other day and a commercial for the Hoveround came on TV. Men and women not much older than me were motoring all over the landscape with great delight. As I joined their admiring grandchildren in watching them sightsee the Hoover Dam and romp through the grass at the base of the Statue of Liberty, I found I had a subject for this week’s website review: Hoveround.com.

It’s a fairly simple site, which makes sense when you consider the generally limited computer skills of its intended audience. Most details are spelled out in a free information kit you can request to be mailed, though they also have “experts standing by” at a toll-free number if you’d rather talk to a live operator. (I frankly thought the choice of the phrase “standing by” was a little insensitive). The home page describes how electric wheelchairs and scooters are more than just a convenience, they are a bridge to fuller, more independent lives, and how Hoveround has spent the last 20 years committed to providing powerful, durable and safe vehicles.

The “About Us” section recounts how inventor Tom Kruse used down time during the filming of “Top Gun” to realize his vision to “build a chair that can go anywhere someone can walk.” He consulted with everyone from long-haul truck drivers to NASA scientists about how he could construct a small maneuverable wheelchair. (We can all be glad that the idea of using booster rockets was dropped in early prototypes.) When the final version was ready, he decided to bypass medical equipment dealers and sell directly to consumers, primarily through commercials.

Apparently it’s the round, compact nature of the Hoveround that sets it apart from bulkier wheelchairs. I had believed – mistakenly, as it turns out – that the name implied passengers rode on a cushion of air, much like those high-tech Hovercraft boats you see on certain ferry routes. I could’ve sworn I remember seeing segments of the TV ad where seniors were actually floating high above the Colorado River during their Grand Canyon tour, but I guess it was just wishful thinking. Riders unfortunately remain earth-bound.

There are a variety of models to choose from, depending on your mobility needs and your Medicare connections. The top of the line seems to be the MPV 5 which features a flip-up footplate, two large motors that give it enough power to work outdoors or indoors, and an optional power seat-lift controlled through the joystick. It offers a 300-pound weight capacity, a 15-mile range and, with a top speed of 5 m.p.h., it’s faster than walking (not to mention so much easier). Its two-and-a-half-inch ground clearance makes it a sweet low-rider, and yet it can still clear two-inch bumps or floor raises.

Other models include the Teknique FWD, a front-wheel-drive vehicle that presumably is better suited to wintry road conditions, the RWD, a rear-wheel-drive rover that offers a 20-mile battery range that appeals to wandering Alzheimer’s patients, and the GT, the fastest model which travels at a near hyper-sonic 7 m.p.h. All come with automatic braking, which seems like an especially worthwhile feature for that Grand Canyon outing.

The maneuverability of the Hoveround, with its extremely tight turning radius, will not accommodate the heftier handicapped. There is a Hummer equivalent in the personal mobility vehicle field – the Pride 1170 XL Plus, offered by arch-rival Jazzy – which is a wide-set behemoth that will carry a rider weighing 650 pounds that costs as much as a mid-sized sedan. But Hoveround chooses to remain in the compact sector of the market and, as such, remains the choice for most shoppers interested in economy.

That’s not to say, however, that you can’t spend a little extra to trick out your wheelchair or scooter. The website includes a wide selection of accessories: a beverage holder, a tray table (for those who want to recall the security of the infant high chair), a canopy, a crutch holder, a cane holder, a walker holder and an oxygen holder. You can also opt for a padded chest strap, which comes in a variety of fashion colors, to keep you from toppling forward into your own lap.

They also sell tie-downs and straps that will allow you to safely attach your electric wheelchair to the back of your car or van when you want to transport it cross-country. I would’ve thought you could just tie a rope and drag it from your back bumper but the small wheels can’t accommodate highway speeds and the thing would just bounce uncontrollably like a string of tin cans.

The only thing I see missing from Hoveround.com that you might find on other similar websites is a shopping option for those whose budgets won’t accommodate a motorized chair. I’m not quite disabled enough yet to qualify for the top-line merchandise, but if I wanted to start getting into the feel of the Hoveround lifestyle, I’d at least like to able to order a logo t-shirt, a cap, or at least a coffee mug. These are unfortunately not available.

Still, reviewing this very informative website has allowed me to dream of a future in which my legs can atrophy in peace while the rest of me can use the extra energy to take in the world from a fresh though slightly shorter perspective.

Fake News: The Running of the Models?

March 19, 2009

MADRID, Spain (March 18) – Municipal leaders in the town of Pamplona, known for its raucous Running of the Bulls festival every July, have contacted producers of “America’s Next Top Model” to negotiate a joint enterprise between the two.

Following last weekend’s model melee in New York outside a hotel where auditions for the popular TV show were scheduled, the Spanish officials made overtures to stage a pair of “home-and-home” events later this year. A group of aspiring models from the show would travel to Pamplona to join in the stampede of bulls headed for the local arena to face their deaths in a series of bullfights. Later, an unspecified number of enraged steers would board a flight for the U.S. and participate in the Tyra Banks-hosted runway competition.

The Spaniards were reportedly impressed with the fighting spirit and sense of recklessness shown by participants in the Manhattan brawl Saturday. Six women were injured and two were arrested for inciting a riot when hundreds of would-be fashion stars ran for their lives after rumors of a bomb began circulating. In what one onlooker described as “like it was 9/11 part two,” women were pressed against a retaining wall and unable to escape for several minutes.

“That’s sort of what we do with the bulls,” said Manual Orientes, assistant to the mayor of Pamplona. “We block off the side streets then release the bulls so they can run only in one direction. Festival participants run along side the bulls and poke them with sticks, then jump over the barricades to escape.”

Orientes said the models could either run along with the other festival participants, ride on the backs of the bulls, or even wear horned headgear and rings in their noses to pretend they were panic-stricken animals. The only stipulation is that they would have to agree to be poked by sticks.

“We think it would add a lot to the appeal of our event,” he said. “Then, we can reciprocate in some similar manner with the Americans.”

Orientes said the exact format of a revised modeling competition, usually held in New York or Los Angeles, could be determined by producers of the show. He said the only requirement he would place on the treatment of the visiting cattle would be that they couldn’t be harmed, which would rule out dressing the beasts in high-heel shoes, short skirts or painful jewelry.

Producers of “ANTM” couldn’t be reached for comment, though Banks has reportedly heard of the proposal and offered a tentative “girl!?” in what some were interpreting as a promising response.

Adventures in cell phone AutoCompletion

March 18, 2009

As the least technologically savvy person in my family, I’m typically the one to inherit the oldest piece of electronics making its way through our household. This laptop that I’m current working on is an IBM ThinkPad, and I believe IBM sold its hardware division to China in about 1957. My cell phone is a Motorola “Razr,” very cool when it was introduced in 2004 but now hopelessly out of date. My iPod is a diesel.

In my family, when I say I’m “into 3G,” it means I’m third in line to get the latest gadgets.

Getting back to the cell phone, it’s virtually an antique in today’s high-turnover digital world. I sometimes think it would be more useful if it had an “o” added to its name, and I could use it to shave. I really like to use the text-messaging feature, even though it’s one of those keyboards with three letters per key rather than the modern qwerty interface that my wife and son have on their Blackberrys. So it’s awkward, but I’m an old typesetter and I love the fact that I can now set type any time, anywhere. Even, to the eternal annoyance of my wife, from the other end of the house when I need to ask her a question.

The problem is that this is a used cell phone, and the memory has not been wiped completely clean from the previous user, who was apparently involved in a number of questionable activities. The reason I know this is that the auto-complete function, which uses past messages you’ve typed to predict future ones, has come up with some very bizarre suggestions. I start to input an innocent communication about some routine daily activity, and it’s transformed into either sinister plotting or completely irrational pronouncements.

Some recent examples:

  • When I tried to ask my friend “when will you be home?”, it tried to ask “when will you be homo?”
  • When I tried to tell me wife I was “stopping by the atm”, it tried to say I was “stopping by the atomic bomb.”
  • When I asked my sister “will you pick up the baby?”, it tried to ask “will you pick up the baboon?”
  • When I went to a charity pancake breakfast that my son couldn’t attend because he was sick, I wanted to ask him “would you like strawberry or blueberry pancakes?”, it tried to ask “would you like strawberry or blueberry pancreas?”
  • When I tried to ask my son if he wanted anything from “burger king,” it tried to ask if he wanted anything from the “burn center.” (Admittedly, the two are similar.)
  • After I learned that he did want something, I tried to ask about “French fries,” and the phone tried to ask if he wanted “French Colonialism 1684-1803” with his Whopper Junior.
  • When I tried to ask my mother “do we need any milk?”, it instead wanted to start a philosophical geopolitical discussion about “do we need any military?”
  • When I tried to ask my wife if it was “raining at home yet?”, it wanted to ask the offensive “raining at home yeti?”
  • When I reminded her that we needed “to pay the phone bill,” it wanted to ask a question about the mythological “phone bison.”
  • When I wanted to tell my son that I had “to work overtime,” it (perhaps more accurately) suggested I had “to work over-wrought.”
  • When I wanted to ask “should I stop at grocery store?”, it tried to ask “should I stop at growth hormones?”
  • When I wanted to say I was stopping “for a cup of coffee,” it tried to imply that I was going for a “cup of codeine.”
  • When I tried to tell my wife I “got stopped by cop,” it tried to say I “got stopped by copulation.” (Admittedly, that would at least tend to slow you down.)
  • When I told her I was going to “get some gas,” it tried to say I was getting “some gag reflex.”
  • When I tried to tell my son I would “be home in 5 minutes,” it tried to say I would “be home in 5 Mini Coopers.”
  • When I tried to ask my wife when my son “will be done with school?”, it wanted to ask when he would “be done with schadenfreude”. That won’t be for quite some time, I fear.
  • When I was about to arrive home from work with a headache, I tried to text my wife to ask “do we have any aspirin?” but instead almost asked “do we have any asperger’s syndrome?”
  • When I left for work later than usual the other morning, I tried to say that “the cats have been fed,” but instead it tried to message that “the cats have been felt.” (They had actually been both fed and felt, though I didn’t really need to mention the latter.)

So far, I’ve been able to catch all these potential errors in the auto-complete function and fix them before I was embarrassed by my lack of typing skills. Because I’ve worked so long in typography, I’ve taught myself to be a pretty good proofreader of my own work, when given the time. I’m afraid, though, that some day I’ll face an urgent situation and the mistakes won’t be able to be fixed. My panicked message that “oh god having heart attack” will instead be translated and transmitted as “oh gouda havarti head cheese.”

Fake News: ‘Quiet man’ in kill spree

March 17, 2009

LOS ANGELES (March 16) – A former dockworker who lost his job ten days ago has been charged by police in a murder spree that terrorized southern California for five hours yesterday afternoon.

Mark Crawford, 36, is being held without bond after highway patrol officers ended his rampage in a quiet neighborhood not far from the home that had been foreclosed on him only days ago. He had lived there with his recently divorced wife and teenage quadruplets until a judge had ordered him removed from the home Saturday. The cancer-stricken ex-con, who was reportedly undergoing treatment for alcoholism and was also trying to quit smoking, was believed to be living on the streets at the time of his arrest.

Killed in the mid-day horror were a family of three that lived just down the street, a convenience store clerk, two patrons at a fast-food restaurant, a librarian, four swimmers in a local pool, a motorist, two customers at a grocery store, the UC-Santa Barbara volleyball team, and “Dancing with the Stars” host Paul Bergeron. Also gunned down during the massacre were a pair of Golden Retrievers, four housecats, two feral cats, a hamster and a pig. During a period when Crawford led officials on a chase through a local zoo, he also slaughtered three howler monkeys, four gazelles, a giraffe, two white rhinos, a lemur, 16 flamingos, eight water buffalo, a peacock, and an astronaut ice cream vendor.

One former neighbor described Crawford as a “quiet” man who kept mostly to himself but still always had a kind word and a wave for others in his middle-class subdivision east of Los Angeles.

“I never would have imagined he’d be capable of something like this,” said Nancy Applegate. “He always seemed to be in a good mood and would often ask how your family was doing. He was just a nice, average kind of guy.”

Applegate said she often witnessed Crawford working in his yard, which she said he seemed to take great pride in maintaining. Most Saturdays would find him trimming his luxuriant hedges, cutting brush in the wooded area behind his home, or chasing down squirrels with his lawnmower.

Other former neighbors, however, described a very different man.

 “He always talked about how he’d like to kill a lot of people,” said neighbor Bob Hammer. “He even took out an ad in the paper saying he was going to do it. He had a television commercial saying he was going to do it. He even had a sign in his yard, and constantly wore a t-shirt that said ‘I’m going to kill people (and animals)'”.

“Don’t listen to crazy ‘Old Lady Applegate,’” said a man who would identify himself only as Gary. “Everybody in the neighborhood knew that guy was stark, screaming nuts. He’d stand out in his front yard all night at least twice a month, howling at the moon and discussing Australian regional politics with his mailbox.”

Gary said Crawford would often jog through the subdivision in nothing but a pair of plaid shorts and Doc Martens boots, carrying a 9-millimeter pistol strapped across his chest and singing off-key selections from the 1950s musical “South Pacific.”

“Even now, hearing ‘Bali Hai’ just sends chills down my spine,” Gary said. “We reported him to local authorities at least once a week but nothing ever happened.”

Another former associate from his days working at the Port of Los Angeles said Crawford used to talk to himself constantly throughout the workday.

“He’d hang a bottle opener from his ear and claim he was talking on Blu-Tooth, but everybody knew better than that,” said the unnamed coworker. “Sometimes he wore a hula dress and football shoulder pads to work, and the supervisor would always have to bring him down to the office to make him change. You can’t wear a straw skirt on the dock – you’ll get tangled in all the ropes.”

The former supervisor confirmed most of Crawford’s erratic behavior.

“Usually, when a mass killer goes off like that, you hear all his friends saying they never suspected a thing, that he was a model citizen who would never hurt anyone,” said Jack Pepper. “Well I’m here to tell you, Crawford was exactly the kind of guy to do such a thing. No one who knows him is surprised.”

Lives of the Dead: St. Patrick

March 16, 2009

It’s easy to forget that St. Patrick was a living, breathing person before he became better known as a Day and a Parade. Few people know much about him as a regular guy, so this seems like a good opportunity to take a look back through the ancient mists of time at who exactly he was.

Born as the unpronounceable Patricius Daorbae – he didn’t acquire the nickname “Saint” until later in his life – he was the son of wealthy Briton parents. The exact year of his birth is unknown, with some speculation putting his lifespan from 340 to 460 A.D., though most now believe he couldn’t have survived to be 120 with the pre-socialized healthcare system of ancient Britain. Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he took on the role for tax reasons rather than because he believed in anything in particular. That is actually true.

After a relatively uneventful childhood knocking around Wales and doing all the things that other Welsh children did at the time (trying to sacrifice each other, etc.), Patrick was taken captive at age 16 by a group of Irish raiders who had attacked his family’s estate. In a process strikingly similar to today’s NFL draft, Patrick was selected and transported back to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity, eventually becoming a first-team all-state herdsman.

Despite his skill in the position, he wasn’t particularly happy. He was constantly outdoors and away from people, lonely and afraid, and morbidly scared of sheep. It was at this time that he turned to religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian and dreaming of converting the Irish people to Christianity. Only later would he realize how convenient it would’ve been to actually learn the Irish language, which would come in handy in his eventual attempts at converting them.

Patrick escaped from his captors after a voice, which he believed to be God’s, spoke to him in a dream and told him it was time to leave Ireland (at least that’s what he thought “baa baa” meant in Irish). He walked more than 200 miles from where he was held in County Mayo – later scholars believe he may have taken a cab – to the Irish coast where he found a boat that was able to transport him back to Britain. Back in the land of his birth, he had a second revelation from an angel who told him in a dream to return to Ireland as a missionary. Longing to be through with the back and forth across the Irish Sea, he began a religious study that lasted 15 years before his ordination as a priest and his return to the Emerald Isle.

Already somewhat familiar with the Irish culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. Since the Irish were used to honoring their pagan gods with fire, Patrick suggested the same method of celebration be used for Easter, and only later introduced them to the concept of the Bunny. They also viewed the sun as a powerful symbol so he grafted it onto a cross. Purists back in Rome probably would’ve had a fit if they’d known about all this accommodation, which probably inspired Patrick to develop his theology of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Surprisingly little is known about the details of his ministry. No link can be made between Patrick and any specific church. The Irish monastery system evolved after his time, as did the model of the church that Patrick had tried to establish. It is known that he had a way with the ladies, converting many wealthy women to Christianity, including some who became nuns.

His position as a foreigner was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts and protection from the powerful left him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity, and without whatever that was, he was sometimes beaten, robbed and put in chains. The Druids offered their impression of how Patrick and other Christian missionaries were seen by those hostile to them:

Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,

His cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.

He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;

All his people will answer: “so be it, so be it.”

 

(Sounds a little like a mashup between James Joyce and Bono.)

Patrick is believed to have died some time in the 460’s, coincidentally enough on March 17, which is now celebrated as his day.

Modern scholars debate whether in fact there may have been more than one individual who became tied into the legend that became St. Patrick. According to the so-called “Two Patricks Theory,” many of the traditions later attached to St. Patrick were originally ascribed to Palladius, a deacon from Gaul who was sent to Ireland by the Pope. Additional early missionary work was done by Auxilius, Secundius and Iserninus, so there may actually have been close to a six-pack of Patricks, which would somehow be appropriate.

That might explain how he was able to spend so much time not understanding the Irish language while still mixing in the job of driving the snakes from Ireland (talk about multi-tasking). This story, perhaps the best known of the Patrick legends, may have been symbolic, since post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. Because of the serpent symbolism of the Druids, it may in fact represent the expulsion of pagan beliefs. He was also known to carry an ashwood walking stick that he would thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing, and supposedly his message took so long to get through to the people that the stick had taken root by the time he was done. I’ve sat through enough Christian sermons in my time to believe this legend might actually be true.

Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, which seems appropriate for such a downer of a guy. He shares a graveyard with St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Columba, who are also considered patron saints of Ireland. All will be covered by a thick carpet of green, green grass to celebrate tomorrow’s holiday.

 

More real news that sounds fake

March 15, 2009

Today, I continue with a look at some news stories from my hometown area that have the ring of satire even though they are completely true.

One important point I’d like to make: I’ve never been one to think that making up “funny” names for people is especially funny. Whenever I read a humor piece that cites someone named Herman Nostrilectomy or Lucille Boobie, I’m immediately turned off. Therefore, I want to make it clear that two of the people I’ve quoted in this weekend’s true stories – Dr. Peter Hyman in yesterday’s piece and Dick Blow in today’s – are not pseudonyms that I thought would be funny. Unfortunately (mostly for them and their heirs), they are real names.

Wonder why home sales are down?

A real estate agent has been arrested and charged with destroying a competitor’s sign.

Daniel LaFranca was arrested by sheriff’s deputies at his home after competing real estate agent Arthur Mullen told police he had video of LaFranca cutting apart a sign. Mullen said he’s had about 1,200 signs destroyed or stolen over the past six months, so he set up a video camera.

Mullen told police the video shows LaFranca destroying one of Mullen’s signs. In the video, a man walks up to one of the signs and cuts it in half before kicking it to the ground. Other parts of the video show a man walking away with some of the signs.

Mullen and LaFranca had worked together in the past, but Mullen left the company about a year ago to start his own business.

“We didn’t leave on the best of terms,” Mullen said.

Man attending World Pizza Games

The first time pizza entrepreneur Siler Chapman twirled dough in a competition, he was booed off stage.

But three gold medals later in the World Championship Pizza Acrobat competition, Chapman is part of the World Pizza Champions, a team of 40 international pizza superstars who compete and perform worldwide.

“I’m very competitive and I practice a lot,” said Chapman. “You need to be able to do that routine in your sleep.”

The pizza team is organizer of this week’s World Pizza Games, which will take place during the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. Chapman will help judge those seeking champion status in categories such as acrobat, biggest pizza, fastest pizza and box folding.

Chapman often entertains his store’s patrons with his dough-twirling techniques. He can twirl up to three pieces of dough at a time, standing or on his back. And he makes rolling dough like a saucer – down one arm, across his back and down the other arm – look easy.

Chapman said that at some performances with the team, hundreds of kids have swarmed them asking of autographs.

“We felt like rock stars,” said his partner, Joe Carlucci.

Although Chapman has been competing and performing for years, he said he still gets nervous.

“You wonder in your head – do they like you?” he said.

Elderly-on-elderly violence

A dispute over a real estate deposit led an 88-year-old Rock Hill man to shoot the manager of a realty office Wednesday afternoon, police said.

Dick Blow is charged with assault and battery with intent to kill and possession of a firearm during a violent crime after police say he shot 68-year-old Jerry O’Neill around 2:30 p.m.

O’Neill was shot in the lower abdomen and was airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center where he was undergoing surgery.

About 10 people were inside the office at the time of the shooting, but no one else was hurt, said police. It’s unclear whether the shooter said anything to O’Neill before firing, he said.

“There had been kind of an ongoing dispute and he (Blow) showed up today,” said police Lt. Michael Belk.

“It’s so random and so shocking,” said one of the victim’s co-workers, adding that the victim was known for his friendly nature. “He is all about the customer.”

Blow was still in the parking lot when police arrived, and he surrendered without incident, Belk said.

Blow, an author and former semi-pro baseball player, has written at least seven books.

“Pitched against Joe DiMaggio when he was in the service, and I said to him, ‘Joe, I can throw it past you.’ Well, on the first pitch he hit it so hard it would have torn off my head if I hadn’t ducked,“ Blow wrote.

Hyena is no laughing matter

A South Carolina man has been cited for having a hyena in his back yard.

The Myrtle Beach Sun News reported Wednesday that the year-old hyena named Bubbles has been moved to the Alligator Adventure facility in North Myrtle Beach.

The animal’s owner was cited for owning and displaying a wild or exotic animal after police went to his home last Friday and saw the beast. It had been housed in a chain link pen that had a dog house in the center.

The owner told police he brought the hyena from Texas.

 

Real news that sounds fake

March 14, 2009

The challenge with writing satire these days is that real-life events tend to be more bizarre than anything most people could think up. I wrote a piece a year or so ago about how ridiculous it would be for someone to have seven babies at one time, and then Octomom comes along. What’s a humorist to do?

One option I’m taking today is to blatantly steal from real-life newspapers. In particular, I’m looking at a couple of days last week when the moon was full over my small South Carolina hometown and very strange stories started appearing in the local newspaper. What follows are four items as they appeared in The Herald, slightly abridged but otherwise unadulterated. Enjoy the lunacy.

More than just a sunburn

Investigators have yet to say what caused a tanning bed in Lake Wylie to catch fire Monday while a man was inside, but regulators insist such a burn is rare.

It’s the first tanning bed fire on record in South Carolina, regulators said. While the federal government oversees tanning bad manufacturers, it’s up to states to police local salons. Shop owners are required to show that at least one employee is certified to run tanning equipment.

“It keeps us very busy,” said the state tanning program manager, who oversees two employees tasked with inspecting the 1,900 salons at least once every two years.

Salon owners must also register with the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Bureau of Radiological Health. But that group doesn’t inspect shops unless a complaint is filed. Routine inspections stopped seven years ago because of budget cuts.

The man caught in Monday’s tanning bed fire escaped unharmed, although neighboring shops suffered smoke damage that will likely keep them closed for several days. The victim, who declined to give his name, said he was working on his tan when he heard a popping noise, then saw a flame at the corner of the bed near his foot. He threw open the lid and jumped out, he said.

At least one other tanning bed this year caught fire with someone inside. A man in Saskatchewan told local newspapers that after three minutes in a bed he heard popping, smelled smoke, and then saw flames. The man escaped nude but safe, according to reports.

Local tanners said they’re undeterred by the fire.

“That could happen anywhere, not just in a tanning bed,” said tanner Kim Bazemore. “I would still feel comfortable (in a tanning bed). I’m fixing to get in one now.”

When an emergency isn’t

As part of an effort to reduce emergency room wait times, Piedmont Medical Center says it will begin encouraging patients who do not have a medical emergency to get treatment elsewhere.

“This allows the emergency room to focus on emergencies,” said hospital president Charlie Miller.

Sometimes a patient’s perspective of what a true emergency is and what a doctor determines to be an emergency can differ, said Dr. Peter Hyman, a practicing emergency physician.

“If a child wakes up in the middle of the night with an earache, the parents may think that’s an emergency,” he said. The doctor may decide the earache is not life threatening but if the earache is left untreated, it could become an emergency.

A candidate for losers everywhere

For a ballroom full of downhearted conservatives desperate for some good news, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford had an odd message. He urged activists gathered in late February to be prepared to lose, and to feel happy about it.

“Would you be willing to support a cause or candidate that is likely to lose?” Sanford asked.

Sanford’s speech prompted some to hope he seeks the White House in 2012. Nicole Quinn of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she felt “Sanford has the potential to win over mainstream voters. Whether or not he could beat Barack Obama, he would restore Republican credibility.”

Too much focus on winning leads to compromise, the governor said. As members of the audience leapt to their feet and applauded, Sanford declared “the name of the game is staying true to your principles and letting the chips fall where they may.”

Sanford’s following will likely grow among conservatives when he announces his formal rejection of some of the state’s federal stimulus funds. He’s scheduled an unusual statewide tour, with stops in three locations, to reveal his response.

The governor said he would write President Obama a letter seeking a waiver that would allow him to use the stimulus funds for something other than roads, schools, unemployment benefits and Medicaid benefits.

As for higher political aspirations, a prominent Republican consultant said “I don’t have a clue whether he wants to run, but he obviously is one of our better-known Republicans, having been on TV a lot.”

Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls – it doesn’t

A set of bell tower monuments will rise this month along Interstate 77, signaling the city’s latest effort to spruce up the area.

Two 45-foot-tall towers next to the exit ramps will greet drivers whizzing by in both directions. It’s all part of a $6 million makeover launched six years ago to generate more commerce in the surrounding district.

“If you’re going by at 70 miles per hour, you may wonder what it is, and stop on your next trip,” said developer Lee Thomasson. “It does make people think, what’s going on here? Should I stop and look? It will help just because of the curiosity factor alone.”

One tower next to Cracker Barrel restaurant will be visible to northbound traffic from nearly a mile away. On the opposite side, the other tower is envisioned as a gateway to South Carolina for drivers on their way out of Charlotte.

The structures will not actually contain bells.

Corporate risk factors revealed

March 13, 2009

General Motors was in the news again last week, and it wasn’t to promote the release of that stylish new Buick.

In their annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, GM’s auditors said the company’s survival was in “substantial doubt,” and that even if it received all $30 billion it hopes to borrow from the government, the automaker still might have to liquidate its operations. The company is perilously close to bankruptcy and faces a difficult restructuring.

“Our recurring losses from operations, stockholders’ deficit and inability to generate sufficient cash flow to meet our obligations and sustain our operations raise substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern,” GM said in its filing.

In other words, the company needs a little more “going” and a little less “concern.”

As someone who works with corporate filings of this type, I immediately recognized the language as coming from the “risk factors” section of what’s called a Form 10-K (so called because that’s how far report writers often stretch the truth, in kilometers). Public companies have to include a section each year that spells out in agonizing detail everything that could possibly go wrong with the company, so shareholders will be considered fairly warned if and when the firm tanks.

In the past, these were fairly modest confessionals, along the lines of “the husband of our chief risk officer is so ugly that we question her judgment,” for example. But with businesses failing left and right these days, the risk factors have evolved into multi-sectioned excuse-a-thons designed to protect executives from potential lawsuits. So you’ll see subheadings such as “Risks related to our business” or “Risks related to the return of rule by the dinosaur.”

Because this is annual report season (you can just feel it in the air), my usual Friday edition of “Website Reviews” won’t concentrate on one particular company but will instead feature some of the more creative caveats told in the risk factors portions of documents you can find online. For more fun-packed reading, check out www.sec.gov. Especially worthwhile are the 10KSB/A’s, the always-intriguing 13F-HR’s, the gripping yarns of the 20FR12G’s and the steamy 485APOS, a post-effective amendment filed pursuant to Securities Act Rule 485(a) that you won’t be able to put down.

_____________

We operate in a capitalist economic system, which is subject to market variables which could increase or decrease our stock price. At least, we used to operate in such a system.

Those two helicopters and the corporate jet we bought last year may not have been such a good idea in retrospect; we suppose they could crash into each other, allowing us to make a substantial gain from insurance, but such a scenario is not likely at this point.

We make incredibly unreliable electronics that are susceptible to catching fire, and many consumers may find this feature to be inconsistent with their corporate goals.

Our chief financial officer was last seen in a cab speeding to the international airport, and if he flees the country and expects us to figure out this mess he’s left us with, he’s got another think coming.

Our software may not operate properly, which could damage our reputation, impair our sales, and cause our clients to realize we don’t actually make software at all, but dog food.

Any failure by us to protect our intellectual property, or any misappropriation of it, could enable our competitors to market a competitive product with similar features, though that seems highly unlikely considering the garbage we produce.

Our earnings can vary significantly depending on a number of factors beyond our control, although a large majority of the responsibility is in fact ours but you’ll never get us to admit it in a court of law.

Inability to obtain consents needed from third-party providers could impair our ability to provide technology services, but that’s the least of our problems.

We operate in an intensely competitive market that includes companies that have greater financial, technical, marketing, intellectual, artistic and competitive resources than we do. Those taco trucks have incredibly low overhead and use bloodthirsty tactics to win clients that otherwise might choose to do business with us.

Our business strategy includes expansion into markets outside North America, which will require increased expenditures and investments, the difficulty of which will likely be compounded by the fact that we hate foreigners and their stupid languages and cultures, especially Asians.

Our operating results may fluctuate significantly and may cause our stock price to decline. If it’s possible for a share price to fall below zero, we’ll likely be the ones to make it happen.

Loss of revenue from large clients could have significant negative impact on our results of operations and overall financial condition. If we had any large clients. Unless we can count that fat guy who is always sneaking into our breakroom and using our vending machines.

We may be required to repurchase mortgage loans in some circumstances, which could harm our liquidity, results of operations and financial condition. Why do you think we repackaged, disguised and sold them off in the first place?

Recent governmental actions to help stabilize the U.S. financial system or improve the housing market may not be successful. If they are, we’ll be happy. If they aren’t, we’ll remind everybody that we voted for McCain.

Our business is highly regulated, which limits our ability to be profitable and disrupts our revenue stream from protection rackets and gun running.

We have not been profitable in the past and may not be profitable any time soon. We’re not even sure why we’re in business, to tell you the truth.

Compliance with public company rules and regulations is costly and requires significant resources in proportion to our revenue. Contact your congressional representative to let your opinion be known that it’s time to let the marketplace run totally unfettered.

Our internal control systems could fail to detect certain events such as data processing system and accounting software failures. However, if our net income suddenly changes from dollars in thousands to dollars in gazillions, we’ll conveniently be looking the other way.

We received a letter regarding a confidential informal inquiry by the SEC and have recently received a subpoena from the SEC as well. Cooperation with such governmental actions may result in charges filed against us and in fines or penalties. We have not been in compliance with SEC reporting requirements and may continue to face compliance issues. If we continue to fail to comply with these requirements, the price of our common stock could be negatively impacted. Not to mention, this writer could personally go to jail, and that’s not going to happen without me taking a whole bunch of my fellow executives with me.

If we do not respond rapidly to technological changes or changes in industry standards, our products could become obsolete, though we believe typewriters and carbon paper will continue to be significant profit centers for us into the end of this century.

If our employees were to unionize, our operating costs would increase, our ability to compete would be impaired, and our feelings would be hurt.

Our latest pharmaceutical release, Eksinex, could actually make people feel worse rather than better, which could result in lawsuits, damage to our public reputation and decreased gross income. However, as soon as young people discover that it gets you incredibly high, we anticipate a significant rebound in sales.

The condition of the U.S. and international financial markets may adversely affect our ability to draw on our credit facility. Ha-ha, that’s a good one.

 

Fake News: Bank makes money

March 12, 2009

NEW YORK (March 11) – In a rare piece of good news from the nation’s battered banking sector, sources reported Tuesday that Citigroup was actually going to be profitable for the months of January and February, due to strong trading results and fatter lending margins.

“You mean profitable as in making more money than we’re losing?” asked Citigroup’s chief executive Vikram S. Pandit. “I had not yet heard that report but it certainly would be good news.”

One of the biggest and most troubled of the big banks, Citigroup had seen large drops in its stock price in recent days, even briefly sinking below a dollar per share last week. News of the profits contributed to a huge rally on Wall Street, with the Dow gaining almost 380 points.

“Are you sure you’re talking about us? There are other banks with variations of ‘city’ in their name, you know,” Pandit said. “I certainly think we have the potential to make a profit, though I don’t want to be overly optimistic… Who is this, anyway?”

After more than a year of staggering losses and three rescues from Washington, the giant financial company was again making money, and appeared on track for its strongest quarter since late 2007, when waves of bad loans and trading losses began to crash down on the company.

“Seriously, if this is a joke, I’m going to be really mad. Is this Bob from governance?” Pandit continued. “Bob, if this is you and you’re yanking my chain again, you’re going to be in really big trouble.”

Tuesday’s breathtaking stock market rally left investors a bit giddy. Investors finally got a taste of what they desperately craved, a glimmer of good news in the financial industry.

“Bob, you’re in the conference room, aren’t you?” Citigroup’s beleaguered leader speculated. “I’m walking down the hall right now and if I see you on the phone in there, you’re a dead man.”

Troubled financial shares paced the gain on Wall Street, which saw its biggest one-day rise this year, and one of the largest on a percentage basis since World War II. Stocks surged 5.8% to 6929.46 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, while the broader S&P 500 index jumped 6.7% and the tech-heavy Nasdaq jumped over 7%.

“You know, this isn’t funny any more. I can take a joke as good as the next person, but when you start making fun of our company like this, you’re treading on thin ice, buddy” Pandit said. “You need to stop it right now. Stop it, I say, or I’m going to tell.”

Banks large and small saw their stocks surge throughout the day, but the main catalyst was the news from Citigroup, which, with large consumer and investment banking operations in more than 100 countries, is viewed as a proxy for the broader banking industry.

Pandit has been frequently quoted as saying that his company’s business is financially sound, its businesses strong, and its deposits relatively stable. He continues to claim that the Citigroup is adequately capitalized, but “not to the point where we’d actually come out of the red.”

“All right, that’s it,” the CEO concluded, speaking from his midtown Manhattan office. “I’m hanging up the phone now and pretending that this call never happened.”

“Really, Bob, that was a low blow,” he concluded. “This is so uncool.”