Archive for April, 2009

OINK, I tell you. OINK!!

April 30, 2009


Dr. Harold Densmore, chief epidemiologist with the U.S. Health Service, told a packed room of reporters that early information is sketchy, but there seemed to be enough evidence to dictate an increased level of concern from the medical community.

“I know these places are half a world away. Still, preparation is vital,” Densmore said. “Who knows when they might climb onto a plane, fly into your town, come to your home and borrow your hankie?”

Densmore also noted that several other rare tropical or infectious diseases seem to be making a comeback in regions where they were thought to be all but eliminated.


In the wake of the recent outbreak of swine flu now sweeping through a couple of places, CDC officials wanted to be as forthright with the information they have as possible. Some observers had criticized their initial reaction to the new strain of influenza, saying they earlier had failed to show the proper level of urgency by talking only in caps and lower case.


The flu outbreak, which first became widely reported over the weekend, appears to have begun in rural Mexico at a site near a hog production farm. The ailment later spread to Mexico City, where several people reported feeling a little achy, and has since gone global with hundreds of reports of sniffles, tickly throats and a slight queasiness.

Densmore said he and his colleagues were working round-the-clock doing research on Wikipedia, searching for infectious and tropical diseases that could prove to be alarming. Especially promising and scary-sounding were Kallman syndrome with spastic paraplegia, Klumpke paralysis, ZAP0 deficiency, Jansky-Bielschowsky disease and Yaws.



Obama’s first 100 days: We expected more

April 29, 2009

With today marking the 100th day of Barack Obama’s presidency, both supporters and detractors are evaluating his performance thus far. In the kind of overkill that only the American mass media can accomplish, pundits from the left, the right and every data point in between are weighing in on what kind of start the president has achieved. While all observers admit there’s a lot to be done, they also maintain that the economy should’ve been fixed, the wars should’ve been finished, and healthcare and education should’ve been reformed by close of business yesterday, at the latest.

Sadly, Mr. Obama has failed. I use a genuine, heartfelt adverb there because I voted for the man and had great faith (and hope – don’t forget hope) that he had the smarts and the energy to do everything that needed to be done. A hundred days is a long time – almost half a term in dog years – and it seems we can reasonably have expected more.

So I join here with other commentators to look back at what we all wish could have and should have been done.

·        He shouldn’t have let Bea Arthur die.

·        He should have foreseen the rise of the Octomom, and taken steps to prevent it.

·        He should have kept the St. Louis Cardinals out of the Super Bowl, by executive decree if necessary.

·        He shouldn’t have allowed the flooding in North Dakota, using his substantial influence with the Creator to arrange more favorable weather patterns.

·        In addition to firing Rick Waggoner, GM’s top executive, he should’ve terminated that loudmouth that sits two cubicles behind me.

·        Satan and his minions still run the Underworld. Why is this allowed to continue?

·        In addition to the “Craigslist Killer,” we should’ve caught the “MySpace Skyjacker,” the “Facebook Jaywalker” and the “eBay Tax Evader.”

·        He shouldn’t have allowed my cat to get a kidney stone resulting in over $600 of veterinary bills. There should be health insurance reform for pets.

·       Instead of shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, he should’ve done a fist bump with the Queen.

·        It was way too hot this past weekend for so early in the spring. Summer temperatures should not start for at least another month. Also, there’s too much pollen this year, and birds keep pooping on my new car. This is not what we expected from a Democratic administration.

·        Tainted peanuts should not have been allowed to enter the food supply. I expect a hands-on commander-in-chief who will personally inspect field legumes if necessary.

·        He may have appeared on The Tonight Show, but I also would’ve expected guest stints on Project Runway and Samantha Who?

·        Despite all logical reasons to the contrary, Casey Kasem has not yet died of old age.

·        Efforts to make a more transparent government have largely succeeded, but we failed to take into account that transparency means we can see things better. And that’s not what we want when we’re looking at the ugly mugs of press secretary Robert Gibbs, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Please give us more physically attractive appointments, along the lines of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (hubba, hubba) and Attorney General Eric Holder.

·        Captain “Sulley” Sullenberger, pilot of the jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River, should’ve been allowed no more than one week to take a victory lap around the country celebrating his fame.

·        I know executive powers are strictly limited and defined by the Constitution and Supreme Court interpretations thereof, but that’s still no reason Katie Perry should be allowed to walk among us.

·        The scourge of Twitter still stalks the land. Make it stop now.

·        We are still not sure whether colon cleansers work as advertised.

·        There is no reason that Elisabeth Hasselbeck should be pregnant for the third time.

·        The tuna sub, which you would think is a relatively healthy sandwich, actually can have as much as 1700 calories.

·        He should do something to keep my grass from growing to the extent that it needs to be mowed every single damn weekend.

·        We continue to cement solid relations with India, that invaluable geopolitical counterweight in south Asia and the world’s largest democracy, and yet Anoop is allowed to be eliminated from American Idol.

·        We should be better protected against makeup mistakes that make you look older.

·        On January 30, not two weeks after the president’s inauguration, the Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers despite a 35-point performance by Lebron James.

·        The position of White House pet was left vacant for far too long. Even though Bo has now received full confirmation from the Senate, the right-wing blogosphere is correct in continuing to ask the hard questions: Was Bo born in the U.S. and, if so, where is his birth certificate? Why does he seem so reliant on a teleprompter for every little woof and growl? Did he sniff the Saudi king?

·        We want not only a White House dog but also a budgie and a ferret.


Fake News Briefs

April 28, 2009

Captured Somali readies his defense

NEW YORK (April 25) – Captured Somali pirate Abduwali Muse revealed plans for his legal defense strategy through his attorneys this weekend, and it appears to rely heavily on influences he has felt during his ten-day stay in New York.

Attorney Malcolm Campbell said Muse will claim during his upcoming piracy trial that the alleged attack on the Maersk Alabama was merely a “performance piece” by himself and three fellow “actors,” and should be protected as an act of artistic expression.

“If you look at the circumstances carefully, you’ll quickly recognize that it wasn’t that different from much of the work being staged at venues throughout this city on a regular basis,” Campbell said. “The only difference — instead of off-Broadway, this was off Somalia.”

Muse will claim that the five-day hijacking that ended when the ship’s captain was freed by Navy Seals earlier this month was “a work of post-modern irony comprised of three acts.”

“The first act, throwing a line onto the deck and scrambling on board, is a modern dance statement inspired by the early works of Martha Graham,” Campbell said. “The second act, when the terrorized crew babbled incoherently while locked in a small supply closet for nine hours, uses elements of absurdist theater. After a brief intermission, the climactic third act was what we considered a floating installation, bobbing in a life boat on the open ocean, much like modern man drifts through an aimless, meaningless experience.”

Muse and his attorneys will assert that the production could’ve been a success if appreciated in the proper light. Though virtually all of the civilized world condemned the act as one of international criminality, Campbell noted that local reviewers gave it three gunshots on a scale of one to five.

“Those who were really close to the action and could feel the passion of the performers gave them what you could call very high marks,” Campbell said of the Navy marksmen who closed the show prematurely. “They felt my client had captured something special. It’s just very sad that it ended up being such a limited run.”


Stretching the meat

WASHINGTON (April 27) – Animal husbandry experts at the Department of Agriculture revealed several revolutionary new techniques yesterday that could profoundly affect livestock yields, especially in developing-world countries.

Following in-depth research at the agency’s genetics lab, scientists were able to devise a process that would allow farmers to market their cattle at a slow and steady rate rather than all at once after the annual slaughter.

“Basically, our technique involves harvesting only small parts of the cattle’s meat on an as-needed basis,” said Dr. Robert Rachel, professor of animal science at Maryland A&T and a researcher with the FDA. “With carefully calibrated surgical procedures, we can remove portions of beef while the animal continues to live and grow.”

Rachel described how chunks roughly the size of a hamburger can be cut away from a steer’s hide, and the wound can then be covered with a sterile dressing and allowed to heal. Larger cattle might even be able to survive the removal of an entire shank, which could be treated with skin grafts grown in a culture of the animal’s own cells.

“For centuries, this has been the primary dilemma for herdsmen throughout the world,” Rachel said. “They have this tremendous financial asset that can’t easily be redeemed. If they can market their meat gradually over the course of several years, and also sell an entire carcass at full maturation, that extra income will be all gravy. So to speak.”

Rachel also theorized that an entire leg, or even several legs, could be removed and replaced with prostheses. Tails could be removed for use in oxtail soup, and organ meats such as liver and kidneys could be taken in a surgery resembling transplantation.

“They could either collect just a single kidney, allowing the animal to live off the remaining organ, or they might be able to take it all and transplant replacements from a similar animal, like a buffalo, yak or moose,” Rachel said.

The researcher dismissed criticism from animal-rights activists that hacking off chunks of cow would compound the already significant suffering these animals face at the slaughterhouse.

“We’d be working with appropriate anesthesia in all procedures,” Rachel said. “We’re not butchers. Well, actually we are butchers, but in the very best sense of the word.”

Asked why this research was done at the FDA’s genetics lab, Rachel said his group was “just borrowing the equipment while it wasn’t being used over the weekend.”

“We figured it would sound a little better if we mentioned genetics in some way,” he said.



Help me, Honda

April 27, 2009

So there I sat recently in the waiting room of my local Honda dealer. The oil light came on as I was starting my 2001 Civic the other morning so I guessed it was time for another regularly scheduled maintenance, estimated “with a special we have” to cost me about $120. Funny how they always have those specials going at just the right time.

I’ve been a loyal customer of this same dealer for over 20 years now, so I suppose I trust them to do the right thing. I’ve bought at least six or eight cars over that time, and I’ve always felt obliged to get the service done there, even though I’m sure I’m spending more than I have to. At least I feel they won’t cheat me too badly and, if they do, they’ll do it in a professional and courteous fashion, not like I’ve had done too many times in the past by scruffy half-wits working in their yards.

Part of that extra premium I’m paying goes toward the comfortable waiting room. It looks very much like the break room you might see in any office, though instead of tables to sit at while you eat your lunch there are three rows of attached upholstered chairs. A couple of vending machines line the opposite wall but if you play your cards right, a salesman will treat you to a bag of Doritos for the price of a test drive. The other people currently occupying the room are faced in the general direction of a television playing General Hospital, primarily because no one has the nerve to change the channel. I’m at a counter with my back to the room, alternately sitting in a barstool chair and being afraid I’ll fall from its unstable height. There’s an outlet for my laptop, and more signs and brochures cluttering the surface than I care to read.

If I shift around a little here, I’ll get a look at my fellow patrons. A woman and her daughter were just called back to the cashier’s desk by their service representative, who tells them “everything went well,” much like you’d expect a surgeon to report on how the operation went. That leaves a mom and her young son, an older woman with red shoes and weird earrings, and another woman doing a crossword puzzle who brought her father along for protection from the mechanic/predators.

Hang on a second. I’m being called back to the shop. This could be bad. Please keep me in your prayers.

We pass through an “employees-only” door and my service person asks if I want to borrow her safety goggles for eye protection. I’m good, I say. We maneuver underneath several elevated vehicles to where my car sits exposed on a lift. I avert my eyes, not so much for safety reasons as because I feel I’m looking up someone’s clothes. I bump my head on a tire, but try to pretend I did it on purpose.

My mechanic – “this is Glenn”– calls me over to look at part of the undercarriage. I’m really nervous now, as this is the part where I’m supposed to innately know what I’m looking at just because I was born male. He motions toward a wheely contraption and a belty thing and a moist greasy blob, and starts talking about what looks like an oil leak. I do know enough about auto mechanics to realize that when I hear the word “bad seals,” we’re not talking about misbehaving marine mammals but rather at least $1500 in repairs. Like an abusive father confronted with his child’s bruises in the emergency room, I desperately start trying out excuses.

“When the oil light came on yesterday, I tried to add a quart of oil,” I say. “I may have spilled some around the edge. Could that have caused it?”

“Well, that could be it, I suppose,” says Glenn. He seems disappointed, but my ever-perky customer service rep is as happy with this hypothesis as I am (apparently she’s not on commission).

“I bet that could be it,” says chipper Connie. “I bet you’re right. Yeah, that could definitely be it.”

We all agree that Glenn will clean up the spot, I’ll keep an eye on the driveway underneath my car for oil leaks, and I can return to the waiting room with my son’s college fund still intact.

Man, I didn’t realize how hot these soap opera actresses are. Currently there are three young blondes talking excitedly about something urgent, probably who’s pregnant and who’s not. Extreme close-ups reveal tiny pores and perfect teeth, apparently much easier to maintain than the cheap sets behind them. Just as I’m starting to get an inkling of what’s going on with what passes for a plot, we’re interrupted by the federally mandated thrice-a-day showing of Oprah. “How many people here want to live to be over a 100?” she asks her audience. As the camera pans the crowd, it appears most would rather be getting a free car, but a few sheepishly raise their hands and agree to outlive all their loved ones warehoused in an understaffed rest home.

“Dr. Oz travels to Costa Rica on today’s show to demonstrate how it can be done,” Oprah announces. At first I’m intrigued, but soon realize living that long in Costa Rica also involves back-country poverty, toothless neighbors and smashing my own corn meal.

I spend the rest of my waiting time checking out the brochures that surround me on the counter. I see that my “tires are talking,” trying to tell me about their pressure. I see a factory-style pin-striping offer, which will allow me to have 4-point double rules adhered to the length of my car (cool, I guess). I’m encouraged to ask my dealer about splash protection, a cargo tray, wheel locks, a remote engine starter system and UV protection. Did I know that quality starts from the inside with a Honda Genuine oil filter? I did know that.

Finally, my customer service rep reappears to tell me my car is ready, and I can report to the cashier’s window to settle my bill. As I approach, a young couple arrives from around a blind corner and gets to the counter just ahead of me. I soon realize this could take a while, as they have questions – How can it cost that much? Are you sure there aren’t any discounts we can get? Will you take a check? How much was that again? How do you spell “Honda”?

These sound like the kind of people who could recommend me a good gap-toothed shade-tree mechanic.


A revisit to NextLevel Church

April 26, 2009

A little while back, I reprinted an article about a local church that described itself as “rock ‘n’ roll-style,” and had spent large parts of its Easter service Twittering about members’ love for the Lord. The Next Level Church includes a number of creative twenty- and thirty-somethings who aren’t interested in evangelical churches that focus on what they call “the me-God relationship, with services full of prom songs to Jesus.” Instead, they wish to be with-it hepcats, as we fity- and sixty-somethings used to call them.

Today, I’m going to look a little closer at the Next Level Church through the blog they maintain on their website, Here are some highlights:

–In an economy like this, it flat out doesn’t make sense to give things away for free. I went to lunch yesterday at SubStation 2, which is AMAZING by the way, and they charged me 10 cents for water and 10 cents for ice. And that totally makes sense to me. (The name SubStation 2, however, does not make sense to me. Was there a SubStation 1? Is the sequel better than the original, which RARELY is the case? If history proves correct, there is a SubStation 1 out there that is the Mecca of sub shops. And I’m sure if I simply googled SubStation this mystery and my ignorance would be erased. I choose, however, to savor the unknown). My point is this: giving away free stuff just doesn’t make sense. Everyone is hurting financially and people should charge money for whatever people will pay for. Uh-oh. We have a problem. Next Level Church is an organization that exists to help people take their next step in their relationship with God, whatever that step is. Our teaching on the weekend is specifically geared towards helping people connect with God. We record these teachings every week on CD. Dilemma! To sell or not to sell?!

The week after Easter is traditionally one of the most “dead” weeks of the year at church. Well yesterday, you never would’ve known it was the week after church. Our volunteers were sharp and energized. The worship team did an incredible job with a tough Rascal Flatts tune – even being guys who don’t like country. The new high school service was borderline insane. (Actually, it WAS insane. As part of a game I drank an entire McDonald’s Happy Meal that had been blended up into a shake. It tasted like puke long before any of it came back up. Needless to say, the students LOVED it.) You guys rock!

–We continue to get notes and emails from around the country as media attention to our Easter Twitter experiment has spread. I love the unintended consequences of this sort of thing. Go God!

–The whole Twitter experiment hit hard (in a good way) this week! What’s that? You demand evidence?! Fine. Exhibit A: Check out the front page of the Charlotte Observer, fools!! Exhibit B: Check the local news, suckers!! Exhibit C: We were on CNN, what now!! Exhibit D: And Creative Loafing, woot woot!! (I’m not linking to their website because it can be a wee bit inappropriate). Your participation in the Twitter experiment allowed thousands of people disconnected from God and His Church to hear about Next Level. And on top of that everyone in people’s twitter-spheres (I just made that word up) heard about the amazing things God is doing.

–Easter Sunday was pretty fantastic. Pastor Todd kicked butt, and the band flat-out rocked. Here’s some background on how the service was planned: Harrison picks out music for the Easter service. His original choice, “Circus” by Britney Spears, is chided by the rest of the staff. Instead we decide to play “Come Alive” by the Foo Fighters and “Magnificent” by U2. Decision is made to film the Schweigers for a FamReality promo video. Orders pre-teen brothers to fight each other on film for a truly churchy moment. Band practice irons out all the kinks in Easter songs. Drummer threw down some hot beats. We are mad impressed and ready for Sunday.

Robots gaining on humans (or ARE they?)

April 25, 2009

The following is an article recently published in a national newspaper and online. Most of it is hard to believe but true. However, there are six paragraphs inserted randomly throughout that are just slightly more absurd (and entirely more false) than the rest of the article. See if you can spot the places where we step over the line from science fact to science lunacy. (Answers are at the end)

WASHINGTON — Robots are gaining on us humans.

Thanks to exponential increases in computer power — which is roughly doubling every two years — robots are getting smarter, more capable, more like flesh-and-blood people. Matching human skills and intelligence, however, is an enormously difficult — perhaps impossible — challenge.

Nevertheless, robots guided by their own computer “brains” now can pick up and peel bananas, land jumbo jets, steer cars through city traffic, search human DNA for cancer genes, play soccer or the violin, find earthquake victims or explore craters on Mars.

At a “Robobusiness” conference in Boston last week, companies demonstrated a robot firefighter, gardener, receptionist, tour guide and security guard. You name it, a high-tech wizard somewhere is trying to make a robot do it.

A Japanese housekeeping robot can move chairs, sweep the floor, load a tray of dirty dishes in a dishwasher and put dirty clothes in a washing machine.

In one of the first Chinese entrants to make a public appearance, a yard work robot could mow the lawn, sweep sidewalks and clean roof gutters. An attempt to use a leaf-blower backfired, however, when it accidentally switched to the vacuum option and had a hand sucked into the machine.

Intel, the worldwide computer-chip maker, has developed a self-controlled mobile robot called Herb, the Home Exploring Robotic Butler. Herb can recognize faces and carry out generalized commands such as “please clean this mess,” according to Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology officer.

In a talk last year titled “Crossing the Chasm Between Humans and Machines: the Next 40 Years,” the widely respected Rattner lent some credibility to the often-ridiculed effort to make machines as smart as people.

“The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago,” Rattner said. It’s conceivable, he added, that “machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason in the not-so-distant future.”

One test could take place as early as this fall. Fox News Channel will premiere a new Sunday roundtable political discussion program made up entirely of robots. Producers declined to release the name of the show, as they didn’t want to prejudice viewers against their current lineup of human commentators.

Programming a robot to perform household chores without breaking dishes or bumping into walls is hard enough, but creating a truly intelligent machine still remains far beyond human ability.

Artificial intelligence researchers have struggled for half a century to imitate the staggering complexity of the brain, even in creatures as lowly as a cockroach or fruit fly. Although computers can process data at lightning speeds, the trillions of ever-changing connections between animal and human brain cells surpass the capacity of even the largest supercomputers

“Eventually, we’re going to reach the point where everybody’s going to say, ‘Of course machines are smarter than we are,’” said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. “The truly interesting question is what happens after if we have truly intelligent robots. If we’re very lucky, they’ll treat us as pets. If not, they’ll treat us as food.”

Some far-out futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and technology evangelist in Wellesley Hills, a Boston suburb, predict that robots will match human intelligence by 2029, only 20 years from now. Other experts think that Kurzweil is wildly over-optimistic.

According to Kurzweil, robots will prove their cleverness by passing the so-called “Turing test.” In the test, devised by British computing pioneer Alan Turing in 1950, a human judge chats casually with a concealed human and a hidden machine. If the judge can’t tell which responses come from the human and which from the machine, the machine is said to show human-level intelligence.

“We can expect computers to pass the Turing test, indicating intelligence indistinguishable from that of biological humans, by the end of the 2020s,” Kurzweil wrote in his 2005 book, “The Singularity Is Near.” To Kurzweil, the “singularity” is when a machine equals or exceeds human intelligence.

He predicted, however, that he could see that date moving up by as much as ten years if the concealed humans were beauty pageant or “American Idol” contestants.

Intel’s Rattner is more conservative. He said that it would take at least until 2050 to close the mental gap between people and machines. Others say that it will take centuries, if it ever happens.

Some eminent thinkers, such as Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, and Mitch Kapor, a leading computer scientist in San Francisco, doubt that a robot can ever successfully impersonate a human being.

It’s “extremely difficult even to imagine what it would mean for a computer to perform a successful impersonation,” Kapor said. “While it is possible to imagine a machine obtaining a perfect score on the SAT or winning ‘Jeopardy’ — since these rely on retained facts and the ability to recall them — it seems far less possible that a machine can have true imagination in a way that matches everything people can do.”

A contestant robot was scheduled to appear on the game show “Deal or No Deal” earlier this year, but backed out at the last minute. Programmers denied it was possible for the robot to feel the human emotion of embarrassment, and claimed instead that the android had a case of food poisoning.

Nevertheless, roboticists are working to make their mechanical creatures seem more human. The Japanese are particularly fascinated with “humanoid” robots, with faces, movements and voices resembling their human masters. A fetching female robot model from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology lab in Tsukuba, Japan, sashays down a runway, turns and bows when “she” meets a real girl.

“People become emotionally attached” to robots, Saffo said. Two-thirds of the people who own Roombas, the humble floor-sweeping robots, give them names, he said. One-third take their Roombas on vacation.

The most popular destinations for human/Roomba vacations tend to be in developing-world countries. Often, the people will be involved in a charity project like Habitat for Humanity while the Roomba roams the streets feasting on filth.

At a technology conference last October in San Jose, Calif., Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT robot developer, demonstrated her attempts to build robots that mimic human and social skills. She showed off “Leonardo,” a creature that reacts appropriately when a person smiles or scowls.

“Robot sidekicks are coming,” Breazeal said. “We already can see the first distant cousins of R2D2” the sociable little robot in the “Star War” movies.

Other MIT researchers have developed an autonomous wheelchair that understands and responds to commands to “go to my room” or “take me to the cafeteria.”

The wheelchair will respond to any request it can physically perform that is made by its occupant. Researchers are still working to set up a filter that will block requests from rest-home residents to inflict physical harm on staff members.

So far, most robots are used primarily in factories, repeatedly performing single tasks. The Robotics Institute of America estimates that more than 186,000 industrial robots are being used in the United States, second only to Japan. It’s estimated that more than a million robots are being used worldwide, with China and India rapidly expanding their investments in robotics.

Fake paragraphs below:

In one of the first Chinese entrants to make a public appearance, a yard work robot could mow the lawn, sweep sidewalks and clean roof gutters. An attempt to use a leaf-blower backfired, however, when it accidentally switched to the vacuum option and had a hand sucked into the machine.

One test could take place as early as this fall. Fox News Channel will premiere a new Sunday roundtable political discussion program made up entirely of robots. Producers declined to release the name of the show, as they didn’t want to prejudice viewers against their current lineup of human commentators.

He predicted, however, that he could see that date moving up by as much as ten years if the concealed humans were beauty pageant or “American Idol” contestants.

A contestant robot was scheduled to appear on the game show “Deal or No Deal” earlier this year, but backed out at the last minute. Programmers denied it was possible for the robot to feel the human emotion of embarrassment, and claimed instead that the android had a case of food poisoning.

The most popular destinations for human/Roomba vacations tend to be in developing-world countries. Often, the people will be involved in a charity project like Habitat for Humanity while the Roomba roams the streets feasting on filth.

The wheelchair will respond to any request it can physically perform that is made by its occupant. Researchers are still working to set up a filter that will block requests from rest-home residents to inflict physical harm on staff members.


Website Review:

April 24, 2009

This week’s Website Review is going to be a bit of stretch for me because I’ll be looking at a company I actually admire and whose services I use virtually every day. Panera Bread is a chain of bakery-café restaurants that sells breads, sandwiches, soups, salads, bakery items and, most importantly, this amazing frozen chocolate coffee drink. I tend to loathe in principal any corporate entity that boasts over $600 million in annual sales and three founders. So I’ll try to be as snarky as I can while trying to keep my enthusiasm wrapped up as tightly as one of their succulent dark chocolate croissants.

First, a point or two of disclosure is probably in order. I discovered Panera about ten years ago on a business trip to Pennsylvania. I spent two weeks having the cinnamon crunch bagel for breakfast, then loaded another several dozen onto my return flight. When I found the closest franchise to my home was only 100 miles away, I made not one but three trips to restock my stash. When a store finally was built in my hometown, I showed up the night before the official opening to discover the inexperienced cashiers needed to practice on their registers (“we’re not trained to accept cash yet,” one told me) and I walked out with a complimentary armload of baked goods.

Now, another one has opened within a five-minute drive of my office, so that’s where I spend my mid-morning break reading humor blogs. The wi-fi is free, there are plentiful electrical outlets, bread samples are given out next to the coffee urns and there’s usually a New York Times abandoned in a rack next to the trash can. I’ll typically buy a fountain drink out of guilt as much as thirst (though I’m not so responsible that I’d forego getting my frequent-customer card stamped toward a free chai tea latte), but recently I’ve become such a regular that the manager on duty doesn’t even charge me for the drink.

So you probably see some of my motivation here.

The corporate history page reveals that Panera began as the St. Louis Bread Company in 1981 in St. Louis, or else in 1987 in Kirkwood, Missouri, they’re not sure. It was largely a local concern until a complicated transaction in either 1993 or 1999 brought about the current name. St. Louis Bread was renovating its 20 cafes, which motivated Au Bon Pain Co. to purchase the company by selling all its own Au Bon Pain franchises to the Compass Group, then renamed itself Panera, except in Missouri where it’s still known as St. Louis Bread.

The company now operates or franchises 1,252 locations in 40 states and Canada employing almost 5,000 full-time employees. In 2005, it ranked number 37 on BusinessWeek’s list of “Hot Growth Food-Service Companies,” which I presume is a good thing unless there are only 38 total.

On the Company Overview page, we learn that the company has a mission statement and that it is, quite simply, “a loaf of bread in every arm.” This mission is also reflected in the company logo, which looks like a windblown Virgin Mary looking adoringly at a curiously oblong Baby Jesus cradled in her arms. Turns out, He’s a baguette.

This page also takes the opportunity to discuss the company’s philosophy of “bread leadership,” which it describes as the singular goal of making bread broadly available to consumers across America. I’d speculate that the creator behind this concept has never been along the entire back wall of any major grocery store, but instead spent his time working on noble language for the website. For example:

“Every day, at every location, trained bakers craft and bake each loaf from scratch, using the best ingredients to ensure the highest quality,” he writes. “Panera showcases the art and craft of bread making, helping customers truly appreciate and enjoy a great loaf by studying its crust, crumb and craft.” Except, perhaps, at the Rock Hill location near my home, where the display window to the bakery area was mysteriously walled off not too long ago. (So much for the next disgusting YouTube sensation.)

Of course there’s an online menu, both for bakery and café items, and a nutrition guide based on “standardized recipes, representative values provided by suppliers, analysis using industry standard software, published resources and/or testing conducted in accredited laboratories, expressed in values based on federal rounding and other applicable regulations.” In other words, if your sandwich guy slathers on a few extra tablespoons of smoky chipotle mayonnaise at your request, you may experience your own case of “federal rounding” despite what the official calorie count says.

Let’s take a look at a few specific products that Panera describes. Of their coffee, they say “we believe that making coffee requires the utmost attention,” not only to make sure olive oil isn’t accidentally substituted for water but to be sure nobody gets burned. They’ve recently started offering a line of breakfast sandwiches with a thick slice of Vermont natural white cheddar cheese, freshly baked Ciabatta bread and eggs “freshly cracked-to-order.” I’m not sure how the customized cracking makes that much difference in the taste, though I usually ask that mine be bounced off the ceiling just for the entertainment value. A healthier option for breakfast is the strawberry granola parfait, inspired by the 5-year-old daughter of the head chef. “He scrutinized everything in the granola – even the exact size of the coconut pieces,” though presumably he omitted her suggestion to place a Barbie head on the top.

Finally, I’ll mention some of my very favorite items. The sandwiches are excellent, especially the paninis (paninae?) and the Asiago roast beef, with creamy horseradish sauce. There are some great soups, including the forest mushroom soup, made with three flavorful types of mushrooms, none of which are fatal. And there’s possibly the best salad ever in the form of the Fuji apple chicken salad, with sweet apple juice and balsamic vinegar dressing, mixed field greens, pecans, gorgonzola and apple chips. It’s especially delicious when they remember to include the chicken.

My full assessment of the Panera website? The hell with it. Just go to the actual restaurant with a hearty appetite and an ability to withstand jazz saxophone Muzak, and you’ll enjoy yourself immensely.


Fake News: Pirate (hearts) NY

April 23, 2009

NEW YORK (April 25) – Captured Somali pirate Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse arrived in New York earlier this week to face federal charges in connection with his role in the hijacking of an American container ship in the Indian Ocean.




Happy to be in New York

Happy to be in New York

Smiling broadly for photographers as he entered the huge federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Muse spoke in broken English describing events of recent weeks that have thrust him into the international spotlight. He is the sole survivor in a foursome of pirates who briefly captured the Maersk Alabama, then held its captain hostage for several days before Navy Seals freed him by killing Muse’s three cohorts.

“I so very happy to be here in New York,” Muse said in a brief statement. “This is greatest city in the world. I never dream that poor desert goatherd like me would make it here.”

Muse was charged by Judge Andrew Peck with five counts in Tuesday’s hearing, the most serious of which was “the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations.” Though his father, speaking by telephone from Somalia, said Muse was only 15 years old, the judge declared he was an adult and ordered him held without bail.

But before he headed off to jail, Muse planned to take in the sights of the city and capitalize on his new-found fame.

“I want to see Empire State Building and Times Square,” Muse said. “I want to go to ESPN Zone and Museum of Modern Art and Apple store. I very hungry and want to have apple.”

Authorities made the unusual move to honor Muse’s request for a brief period of freedom before he likely spends the rest of his life behind bars. New York police detective Frederick Gallaway said he agreed to allow Muse one day of what he called “shore leave” before his imprisonment.

“Just look at the smile on that little guy’s face,” Gallaway said. “He’s so absolutely thrilled to be here that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to say no.”

Muse did a round of souvenir shopping in the midtown area, where he at first had a bit of difficulty purchasing the requisite “I (Heart) New York” caps and t-shirts. Merchants were reluctant to accept the $100,000 bill he presented for payment, though most eventually gave the items away when they saw the throng of reporters accompanying Muse.

Before heading downtown, Muse stopped by the studios of “The Regis and Kelly Show” for one of several television interviews he said he had scheduled.

“Regis keep asking how I felt winning Boston Marathon,” Muse said. “I say, ‘no, no, I am Somali, not Kenyan,’ but he just laugh. He funny funny man.”

Muse then took a taxi to the financial district after a brief and accidental detour through the Lower East Side. Cab driver Hakim Akbar, also a Somali native, let Muse take the wheel for the final half of the drive and “he took to the sidewalks and curbs like a natural,” Akbar said. “It is in the blood of our people.”

Muse made a brief visit to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange while on Wall Street. He was surprisingly well-versed in trading operations despite having no formal education and little contact with the outside world while in east Africa.

“Our pirate union had set us up with the 401(k),” Muse said. “I thought I was well-diversified and taking conservative approach to long-term growth, but still lost money. I wanted to shake my fist and put the ancient camel curse on Morgan Stanley.”

Muse next wanted to take the Staten Island Ferry to get some pictures of the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island, but that plan was scrubbed by security officials for obvious reasons.

“He’s a freakin’ pirate, for cryin’ out loud,” said ferry captain Emmet Anderson. “Jeez.”

Muse ended his one day of freedom with a trip to Queens to see the day-night doubleheader at brand-new Citi Field between the Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Mets took the first game 4-1 with a strong two-hit performance by Johan Santana, but the Pirates rebounded to squeeze out an 8-7 win in the nightcap.

“The Bucs, they look good,” Muse said before returning to federal custody. “But that Santana, whoa. He a horse.”





A word or two against Earth Day

April 22, 2009

If I may, I’d like to raise a contrary word during today’s celebration of Earth Day.

Surely there’s nothing more universally accepted across the political spectrum than the premise that our Earth is a good place, worthy of our devoted stewardship. Whether you’re on the religious right and believe it was created by God in six days, or on the scientific left and believe it’s a remnant of the Big Bang, or somewhere in the middle and believe it was coughed up by the Great Turtle, you still respect and honor the big blue orb. It is beloved by us all as our nurturing mother, our protecting father, the annoying little brother we can pick on with impudence.

Is this love we have for our home planet grounded in a verifiable reality? We feel affection for our families, our hometown and our country primarily because they are ours; they must be the best available because they’re associated with us. There’s no objective comparison involved, since few of us with all our teeth can claim to have lived on another planet.

While I too like the Earth, I’m not quite so terra-centric as to believe it’s necessarily the best of all possible worlds. In the spirit of skeptical curiosity that prompts us to demand the best of those we love (with the exception of spouses), I’d like to honor our globe today by pointing out a few flaws it could stand to work on.

For example, there’s the whole concept of plate tectonics. Exactly whose idea was it to have our land masses floating on a worldwide sea of searing magma? And even worse, these plates aren’t even moving in the same direction, so they periodically collide into each other causing catastrophic earthquakes. Or the lava erupts through a volcano and obliterates helpless villagers and camera crews. It’s not a requirement of habitable planets that they follow this model. I probably wouldn’t rather live on a gas giant like Jupiter, where it’d be hard to get your footing, but a simple solid rock with no fancy innards would suffice.

Then there’s the related issue of topography. Mountains and valleys certainly make for some nice scenery, but they become terribly inconvenient if you’re trying to traverse them, especially in a four-cylinder Honda Civic like mine. And they’re strewn about so randomly. You’re headed cross country on the wide open Great Plains, then all of a sudden there’s the Rocky Mountains, showing up out of nowhere (at least according to MapQuest). If we need a little variety, might I suggest something like the dimples of a golf ball, so you could easily negotiate your way around the variations if you wanted.

I’m also not thrilled about the whole concept of air. I know that we theoretically need it to breathe, but having it be invisible doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in its availability. You walk into a room and you can’t tell immediately whether it has any air in it or not. And on the occasions when it is visible (smog alert days, windstorms, anywhere in urban China), you really don’t want to be inhaling it into your body. My ideal would be to have this life-sustaining vapor instead manifest itself in a solid state. It would condense in the space around us, then become weighty enough to fall to the ground, and we could eat it for our oxygen requirements. A nice raspberry flavor would be pleasant.

The prevalence of water collecting into various depressions around the globe is another notion worth challenging. I know that stuff about it being the basic building block of life and all, and yet I don’t understand why it so often has to be muddy or salty. There are also fish, amphibians and reptiles living there that are bound to give it a less than flavorful taste. I’d propose removing all the bothersome creatures, put down a nice sealant to prevent soil and other organic matter from seeping in, and replacing the water with a more popular beverage, either Fanta Orange or Pepsi.

I think we could also demand a lot more of our non-human animal life. Too much of it is either microscopic or threatening or, in the case of viruses and bacteria, both. I’d like to see a lot more of it be of the cute variety (like kittens, baby bears, Sarah Palin) or the docile yet delicious variety (beef cattle, decapitated chickens, etc.). I understand that there does need to be some class of creature that can rival man for his dominance at the top of the food chain, yet I don’t think lions and wolves and rhinos are doing their job. We need something about 50 feet tall, with fangs of steel and fire-breathing capabilities. Let’s see the weekend hunters tackle that.

Speaking of the great outdoors, I’d like to weigh in on our plant life too. I know “going green” is the theme of the day today, in honor of leaves and grass and various shrubberies. If you think about it, though, that’s not really the predominant color we see in nature. Go outside right now and hug a tree and tell me what you find in your face: that’s right, it’s scabby, resinous tree bark. Now try to get that stickiness out of your eyebrows – good luck.

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention one of my least-favorite forces of nature, gravity (the most-hated is centrifugal force, which always knocks my groceries all over the back seat of my car whenever I make a hard left). We tend to take it for granted that we’re attached to the surface of the Earth without ever considering whether that’s really necessary. It doesn’t just have to be in science fiction or on the space shuttle that we can float about freely. I know they’re called the “laws of gravity,” but it’s worth acknowledging that there exists a judicial appeal process in modern liberal democracies. Perhaps if President Obama gets a couple of Supreme Court appointments in the next few years, we’ll have the votes needed to challenge such an arbitrary and archaic statute.

Finally I’m going to mention a particular peeve of mine that I think we’d all be better off without. The Van Allen Belt is a band of charged particles about 75 miles above the Earth, held in place by our magnetic field. While it may not technically be considered an everyday part of our world, it still hovers menacingly above us, compressed by the solar wind into the ominous-sounding Chapman Ferraro Cavity. Theorized about for decades, its existence was finally confirmed in 1958 by Dr. James Van Allen. (Coincidence? I think not). As our planet grows larger and larger with obese humans, discarded trash and greenhouse gases, the belt will gradually tighten around our waist until it no longer fits our enlarged form. My idea: let’s switch to Van Allen suspenders while we can still claim it’s a fashion statement rather than a requirement of our girth.

Oh, and one more thing: the name, Earth, itself. Or, more formally, the Earth. Any geographic location preceded by “the” is almost always a loser-land: the Sudan, the Ukraine, the Bronx, even the Moon. Seems like only the Discovery Channel and well-educated guys with English accents drop the “the,” and they’re usually mispronouncing it as “uth” anyway. All the other planets in our solar system have cool Roman names, so I’d propose something similar for us. We should consider Terra, Lasagna or Urethra.

So as we all do our individual parts to celebrate Earth Day today (for example, I just ate my Styrofoam coffee cup rather than throw it in the trash), let’s also remember that our home is far from perfect and let’s continue to look for ways to improve it.

Fake News: El Presidente in Espanol (sort of)

April 21, 2009

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (April 20) – President Barack Obama wrapped up his attendance at the three-day Summit of the Americas Saturday promising greater cooperation and a new era of respect for our neighbors to the south.

The president acknowledged that his high-school Spanish “may be a ‘poco rustisimo’,” but still made a symbolic effort to communicate with most of the Latin American leaders in their native language. Some of the conversations may not have been quite what Obama intended, though State Department specialists were quick to step in with clearer interpretations where they were needed.

“Se me olvido mi cuaderno,” Obama announced to the cheers of assembled leaders. “La pluma esta en la mesa.”

Though literally translated to mean “I forgot my notebook; the pen is on the table,” U.S. ambassador to Mexico Ronaldo Lopez said that what the president meant was that the portfolio of past American tactics was being left behind, and that all parties could now work together to write new guidelines for the relationship.

The president asked those in attendance to bring a fresh perspective to how relations could progress between the increasing number of leftist governments in South America and the economic and social powerhouse to their north.

“Es esto la caja?” Obama asked rhetorically. “Es esto la lampara o la silla?”

By asking “is this the box?” and “is this the lamp or the chair?”, Ambassador Lopez said the president was requesting that delegates “think outside of normal conventions and consider whether it was more important to illuminate past differences or sit together and find similarities.”

“El arroz con pollo es la especialidad,” the president continued. “Yo quiero pina fria y una taza de café puro.”

“Yes, he did point out that chicken and rice is the special, and that he prefers cold pineapple and a cup of black coffee,” Lopez interjected. “I think what he’s trying to say is that agrarian reforms being carried out in large parts of the continent are producing better agricultural yields and addressing many nations’ chronic problems with hunger.”

“Para bailar La Bamba se necessito una poca de gracia. Los cuadrupedos viven en la tierra,” Obama told the crowd before boarding the presidential helicopter for his return to the airport. “Yo no tengo cortaplumas; no puedo cortar el papel. Nos disgusta mucho el ruido cuando queremos dormer.”

A look of exasperation crossed the ambassador’s face as he made his translation.

“I can only tell you what he said: ‘To dance the Bamba requires a little grace. The quadrupeds live on the ground. I have no penknife; I cannot cut the paper. We dislike noise when we want to sleep’,” Lopez recited. “I’ll leave that for the peoples of Latin America to understand for themselves.”