Monthly Archives: April 2010

Science Run Amuck


Now Playing: 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, by White Stripes. “I’m bringing back ghosts, that are no longer there. I’m gettin’ hard on myself, sittin’ in my easy chair. Well, there’s three people in the mirror, and I’m wonderin’ which one of them I should choose.”

Science is running amuck again, and I’m not happy. Didn’t scientists do enough in the 1950s when they produced Giant Ants (in the great science-fiction film Them, starring James Whitmore and a very young Jim Arness) because of nuclear testing or in the 1960s when they created The Hulk with gamma-bomb testing or …

I’m talking, of course, with the change announced for Lay’s potato chips. I stray from Lay’s from time to time, dabbling in Cape Cod or Utz or Herr. I like those, but I always find my way back to Lay’s, usually to Original.

And that’s the thing, science is messing around with my Lay’s.

They’re monkeying with the salt.

Now, I’m not really a salt addict. I don’t generally add it to anything. In fact, I cringe when watching food shows and they add huge amounts of salt to stuff. But there are two places where I like it – chips and french fries.

And Lay’s has its scientists redesigning salt molecules. I don’t like it.

At its heart, it’s a guvamint conspiracy. (And yes, I know I wrote yesterday that government wasn’t Evil. What can I say? I’m a mass of contradictions.) Seems the good old FDA doesn’t have enough to do deciding whether drugs are safe and getting them to market. And isn’t it funny how often the FDA discovers, a few years later, that some drug it declared safe isn’t? Well, it’s not really funny, is it?

Anyway, the FDA is considering restricting the amount of salt on potato chips. So Lay’s scientists are working to redesign salt molecules to make salt taste saltier, so a smaller amount can go on each chip.

This has the potential, at best, to be another New Coke. They’ll either make it too salty or change the flavor. And at worst, they’ll change salt so that it does something more harmful than what it does now – whatever that is.

The thing is, I’ve seen loads of people who, when they sit down to eat, grab the salt shaker and literally pour it on their food. Think lessening the salt in chips is really going to help those folks?

Me, neither.

And, much as I want to be a superhero, I don’t want to turn into Crystal Man because some scientist has messed with my chips.

Of course, in the interest of my own health – and my waistline – I could just give up chips ….

Nyah, not gonna happen.

Shalom.

“An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence.” _ Raymond Chandler
“From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.” _ Groucho Marx

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Evil (bwah hah hah) … and not-so-evil


Now Playing: Hangin’ Your Life On the Wall, by Guy Clark. “I used to be an ex-bullrider, Livin’ on the edge of life itself , Now I can’t even find my buckle, Looks like I’m finally through foolin’ myself. Hang on just as long as you can, Get up whenever you fall, Shake it off, Boys, and go ’round again. Don’t be hangin’ your life on the wall.”

Mostly not-so-evil. It’s easy to succumb sometimes to the notion that all government is evil at worst, incompetent at best. The same goes for big corporations. It ain’t so, of course. Nobody remembers when they go to the driver’s license agency and get in-and-out in 20 minutes. It happens. It’s happened to me. And let’s face it, most of the time when we call a government office to get something done, it gets done. But we don’t remember those. We remember the bad stuff.

As for companies, again, it’s likewise. We remember the John Thains (the former Merrill Lynch CEO with the opulent office) and forget about the Leon Levines, the guys who give away so much money for good causes. It’s incredible the amount of good he does publicly – I don’t think he courts the publicity he gets – and I’d bet anything he does a lot that we never know about. And he’s not the only one. There are plenty of companies and CEOs and wealthy businessmen and women who do much good, not for the recognition but because it’s the Right Thing to Do.

Which brings me to Golden LEAF. Read a story this morning on Business North Carolina‘s Daily Digest, a roundup of the top business and government news around the state, about Golden LEAF and UNC-TV. Turns out the organization, which distributes the proceeds from half the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement, has given $300,000 to UNC-TV during the past couple of years. Since then, the public-television network has done some stories on its fellow nonprofit that fairly be deemed “positive.” Is there a quid pro quo?

I don’t know, and few others do either.

Interlude: Rex’s Blues, penned by the great Townes Van Zan and performed in this instance by Son Volt, which I also like. “Ride the blue wind high and free, She’ll lead you down through misery, And leave you low, come time to go, Alone and low as low can be. And if I had a nickel, I’d find a game. And If I won a dollar, I’d make it rain. And if it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry, And lay me down dissatisfied.” (Now that’s poetry right there. Did I mention that I really like Townes Van Zandt?)

But I do know Golden LEAF has taken a lot of heat over the years for some of its investments. Some think the money should only be used in agriculture-related causes, while others think it should benefit health causes. Others think it should promote alternative crops and jobs for tobacco farmers.

I’ve followed the organization a bit because I once did a story on it and its former chief, Valeria Lee. I should mention here that I admire her greatly. You talk about showing the ultimate grace under any and every form of criticism, she does it.

Anyway, I suspect some of the complaining about Golden LEAF is a ploy to have its account turned over to the state’s General Fund, where it will be gone in a second. Again, no evil, it’s just the way things work.

But here’s the thing. Most (and at one time it was all) of what Golden LEAF spends is, as I said, the proceeds of the money. It’s a giant trust, and the last I knew for share, the foundation hadn’t touched much, if any, of the principal. That money’s going to continue to help pretty much in perpetuity.

The other thing is, Golden LEAF tries a lot of things. It is building the factory that Spirit AeroSystems will use at the Global TransPark to build giant jet fuselages. It has contributed mightily to efforts to train biotech workers at N.C. State and N.C. Central. But what gets criticized are smaller projects. It gave one for development of sprite melons, for instance. One of the most criticized was for a horse park in Hoke County.

I know a little about the horse park. I went there and talked to a couple behind it a few years back. I don’t know how successful it is, the only event I’ve heard of there is the Stoneybrook Steeplechase. But I know the people involved in it were adamant that it could help Hoke County. How? By prompting development of hotels and restaurants, maybe shopping, to serve the folks it would attract. Has it been a success? I don’t know, but I know it gave those people hope for a better future, and I think it was money well-spent.

Golden LEAF’s valuable becasue it can take some chances on projects like that and sprite melons. Some are going to click and help a community. Someday one probably will hit it big and really boost a county or counties.

Even the failures can provide hope. That’s a pretty big benefit for something founded with money from selling death.

I don’t really know Dan Gerlach, who runs the organization now. I only talked to him a couple or so times when he worked for Mike Easley, who appointed him to the Golden LEAF job just before leaving office. The connection to Easley is enough in itself to make me wonder about him (while government isn’t all Evil, neither is it all Good).

But I like Golden LEAF, and I hope the state rejects the temptation to get rid of it.

Because that would be Evil.

“I, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, have covered the entire Eastern seaboard in tin foil! And when I put my giant magnet next to my ingenious magnetism magnifier, I will pull the East in a Westernly direction, thereby reversing rotation of the Earth! You may well ask yourself, ‘Why would he do this? What would he possibly have to gain?’ Well, let me just answer that by saying that I haven’t really worked out all the bugs yet. Ya know, tin foil alone costs a lot.” _ Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz, Phineas and Ferb (for those of you without kids, it’s TV show on the Disney Channel and Dr. D is the resident Evil Genius)

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Now Starring …


Now Playing: Almost Cut My Hair, written by David Crosby and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “Must be because I had the flu for Christmas, And I’m not feeling up to par. It increases my paranoia, like looking at my window and seeing a it up police car. But I’m not giving in an inch to fear, I promised myself this year, I feel like I owe it to someone.”

Back in the day, a young journalist, 23, and one of his best friends, 24, fell into the jobs of running a newspaper on the North Carolina coast. One of them, the younger, was me. Elliott and I had a pretty free hand with The Daily News. And we tried a lot of stuff. Some worked, some didn’t, but I’m confident I left the paper (Elliott never did, he’s publisher now) better than I found it.

Anyway, one of the things we tried was a long Sunday feature on who would play various Jacksonville leaders in the movie about them. We were sort of inspired by our friend (and the newspaper’s sports editor at the time), Robert Holland, who most definitely would have been played by John Denver. Anyway, we asked the people, and it ended up being pretty interesting who these folks thought would get them right on the big screen.

I thought of it this morning when I opened The Charlotte Observer and saw a big honking photo of Bank of America CEO . I’ve long thought that Moynihan’s biopic would star, in his first – and probably only – dramatic role, Conan O’Brien. (If I did it right, there’s Moynihan over to the right of this paragraph.) But I may have changed my mind this morning. I kinda think Quentin Tarantino could pull it off. Must be the high forehead.

Interlude: Just What I Needed, The Cars.  “I don’t mind you hanging out, and talking in your sleep. Doesn’t matter where you’ve been, as long as it was deep, yeah. You always knew to wear it well. You look so fancy, I can tell. I don’t mind you hanging out, and talking in your sleep.”

Anyway, I quickly thought of a couple more (and again, I’ll try to post images, in case you don’t know what they look like).

Reynolds America (what used to be R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) CEO Susan Ivey would be played by Christine Lahti. And if you’ve seen Lahti on Law & Order SVU you know why I think she’d be good in the role.

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers (who is the cover story in the May issue of Business North Carolina magazine, my old employer) would be played by a young Harvey Korman, in his greatest movie part since Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles.

President Obama would be played by the young Joe Morton, the guy who played the scientist in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the one who invented Skynet, which inadvertently caused the rise of the Machines. (And I swear I’m not making a political statement – I like Obama and respect the job he’s done under the circumstances.) He was also in The Brother from Another Planet (and it wasn’t Kenya – for all you Fox News Fans).

You see how it goes.

Which brings me, as it usually does, to me.

Who would play the lead in The Arthur O. Murray Story?

Three possibilities come to mind:

One would be Robert Downey Jr. I absolutely love him in everything, and I think he could capture my irreverence perfectly. But he’s on the short side and while I’m short, too, I’d want to be played by someone taller. (Don’t forget – I’m the casting director of this film – I call it a film because that’s what Serious Movie Fans call a movie.)

So maybe the young Bob Mitchum. He’s got the rugged physique, sleepy-eyed, world-weary look. “Build my gallows high, baby.”

But I think there’s really one obvious choice. He looks like me, I generally like his movies and he could capture my essence perfectly. He’s even got some gray hair and wrinkles. Yep, it has to be George Clooney.

“Life ain’t nothing but a blending up of all the ups and downs; Dammit Elvis, don’t you know; You made your Mama so proud; Before you ever made that record, before there ever was a Sun; Before you ever lost that Cadillac that Carl Perkins won.” _ Drive-By Truckers, Carl Perkins’ Cadillac

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Beauty is Skin Deep, Stupid Cuts to the Bone


Now Playing: Lodi, by Credence. “The man from the magazine said I was on my way. Somewhere I lost connections, ran out of songs to play. I came into town, a one night stand, Looks like my plans fell through. Oh ! Lord, Stuck in Lodi again.”

This I do swear: The following blog has nothing to do with my loathing of dook basketball (or any of the university’s other sports – do they field any other teams?). I have much respect for many parts of the university, including its fine hospital. That’s where my Dad received cancer care, which was ultimately unsuccessful, but they did the best damn job they could and treated him kindly and with great respect for his wishes. The outcome was much better for son Garrett, who went there as an infant because of a horrible virus that left him severely dehydrated before we could blink. They fixed him, and again, the folks there couldn’t have been nicer.

But as I was looking today through Business North Carolina‘s Daily Digest (a roundup of all the state’s best business and government articles), I saw what may have been the stupidest thing that ever passed for academic research.

Three finance professors there conducted a study and published a paper, “A Corporate Beauty Contest.” As near as I can tell from the News & Observer story describing it, it concluded that the profs found that good-looking CEOs have their performance judged differently than average or ugly ones. OK, sounds a little interesting so far. And I admit, we good-looking folks do tend to get a few breaks along the way (ducking as Karen throws something at me) …

Interlude: Rag and Bone, White Stripes. “You sure you don’t want it? Take it. They’re just things you don’t want. I can use ’em. Meg can use ’em. We can do something with ’em. We’ll make something out of ’em. Make some money out of ’em at least.”

But as I continued reading, it seems that the gist of the study was showing pairs of corporate-type photos to participants and asking which person was more competent, trustworthy, likable and attractive. In other words, the study asked participants to judge the people on looks and then found that respondents judged people on looks. (Or at least that’s what the story said.)

This is research?

Regular readers – I tell myself there are some – know that one of my goals in life is to establish a think tank, The Institute for Frivolous Thought (IF). But I think these guys may have beaten me out, especially if they got paid for these stunning revelations.

And you know what. I still don’t give a damn about Duke University.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

– John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

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Fathers, Mothers, Sons and Daughters


Now Playing: Sixth Avenue Heartache, by the Wallflowers. “Look out the window, down upon that street; And gone like a midnight where was that man; But I see his six strings laid against that wall; And all his things, they all look so small; I got my fingers crossed on a shooting star; Just like me just moved on.”

I think this will be a short one today. I’m taking care of my mother-in-law, who is here recuperating from her third heart attack. I can’t imagine how much courage it takes to keep fighting the good fight in the face of a pretty grim prognosis. [Editor’s note: She lost that fight April 26, 2011, a year to the day after I wrote this post.]

And speaking of parents and children, a friend, Bill Sheridan, recently posted this exchange on Facebook between his daughter, Molly, who i guess is around 7 or 8, and his wife, Alison, also my friend. Alison to Molly: “Wanna hear something funny?” Molly in reply: “Is it actually funny?” Are our stories really that bad?

Wow! And the thing is, I can hear both of my sons saying that, too. Kids naturally think their parents are the dumbest, lamest people in the universe.

Which got me to thinking about my own mom, who died a couple of years ago from a massive heart attack on her birthday, and how she got smarter as I got stupider, which is to say as I grew up.

I always loved my mom, but like most teens of that era – the ’70s – thought I was the smartest thing going and that my parents were, well, not dumb but unsophisticated.

Which was overlooking a lot of facts. Fact 1: My mom and dad gave three kids every opportunity to go to the college of their choice, which in my case was the University of the People (UNC Chapel Hill, for those who don’t remember the Charles Kuralt commercial). Which meant out-of-state tuition. Fact 2: My mom went back to work a couple of times while I was in school. Her first attempt was at a local furniture company. She hated it and quit the first day. (More on that later.)

Interlude: In the City, by Joe Walsh. “Somewhere out on that horizon, Out beyond the neon lights, I know there must be somethin’ better, But there’s nowhere else in sight.”

A couple of years later, she tried again, taking a job at a nursing home. She liked it but wanted better things, mostly for her family. So she went at night to nursing school and became an LPN. She loved being a nurse and worked many years for two private practices in town. As I sit here looking for new direction in my own career, I marvel at how she found an occupation and embraced it.

That wasn’t all. My mom was cool beyond belief. Here’s a story I heard only after her death. One night as she was cooking supper, after my dad died, a man knocked on the door. He was down and out, a bum, and asked her if she could spare some money for a meal. She couldn’t, money was usually tight around the house, but my mom didn’t send him away hungry – if that’s what he was.

She invited this stranger in, told him to sit down, and rustled up some bacon and eggs and toast for him before sending him on his way. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that in a million years. I’d have either slammed the door and threatened to call the cops, or at best I’d have given him a fin just to get rid of him. She fed him and talked to him. I don’t know what she said, but I bet he left there feeling full and better about himself.

Back to quitting on that first day (she didn’t go back after lunch). To me, that shows me she had a good sense of what she liked and didn’t like and didn’t want to waste her time doing something she hated. I think that’s a lesson we could all learn. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy being a journalist, which is why it’s so difficult to find another path.

But like I said, I never realized my mother’s wisdom and coolness and ability to help her fellow man while I was growing up. So Allison and Bill, my friends, there’s hope. Knowing you as I do, I’m betting Molly will someday decide your stories are funny and that you guys are wise and cool and the best parents ever.

Maybe there’s even hope for me and my boys.

“Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, ‘Rip down all hate,’ I screamed, Lies that Life is black and white, Spoke from my skull I dreamed. Romantic flanks of musketeers, Foundations deep somehow, Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” – Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

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Fame Is A Bee, and I Feel Stung


“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.” – Groucho Marx.

I’m not a fan of Halls of Fame. They may start out with good intentions, but they always end up watering themselves down by inducting too many above-average-but-not-great performers [see Major League Baseball Hall of Fame – Dave Winfield division, also known as the Mr. May wing].

Of course, some Halls of Fame should never have been. Here I’m talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Always thought that was a stupid idea from the get-go. At its best, rock ‘n’ roll should be an anti-establishment, rebellious expression of art. There’s no place in my Rock and Roll for tuxedo-wearing, sober, humble performers thanking their managers and record companies and agents all those people who don’t have a damn thing to do with good music.

And then there were the choices. Just look at the most recent class. ABBA? What the hell does ABBA’s music, if you can call it that, have to do with rock ‘n’ roll? Genesis? A more bland group I cannot imagine. The Hollies? Sappy, and just not good enough. The Stooges. Really? I like Iggy Pop OK, but is he really Hall of Fame material? Jimmy Cliff I like but I don’t really see him in a R’n’R Hall, either.

But the real gripe is the Hall is just another rock ‘n’ roll sellout, like the Who, which sung “Hope I Die Before I Get Old.” Only one member managed it, of course, but they continued making money off their legacy. Or the Stones, who criticized adds telling how white their shirts could be and cigarette brands but then managed to let “Start Me Up” be appropriated by Microsoft for a stupid commercial. And I love The Who and the Stones. There’s just no need for a R’n’R Hall, and it damn sure shouldn’t be in Cleveland.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only two decent Halls of Fame, and I’m getting a little shaky about one of them. The Pro Football Hall always has been the most exclusive of the sports museums. But a couple of years ago, it added Art Monk, who had been the subject of a heavy lobbying campaign by all the damn Redskins fans and writers, who pretty much are fans, too. Who’s next? Billy Kilmer? Gus Frerrotte?

That leaves only one HOF that I really like, and as it turns out, I’m a member. We’re talking here about the Daily News Hall of Fame, made up of former employees at the newspaper in Jacksonville. The curator/membership committee/Grand Poobah is my friend Robert Holland, who still works there. What did I do to win election to the hall? Not telling. Some of the details can’t be revealed until after my death and those of my fellow perpetrators – I mean participants. (Or maybe they’ll be the subject of a blog another day.)

But I will mention some qualifications of one inductee, whom I’ll call Tim Tate. Tim covered the military for us and later worked some for Soldier of Fortune magazine and a bureau or two in Washington and elsewhere. He had a gas mask and an AK-47 and dated a woman who worked for awhile at one of J-ville’s massage parlors. Again, many of Tim’s escapades can’t yet be revealed.

Then there was my friend Paul Schmidt. Paul was a sports reporter who lived hard and died young when he choked in a restaurant. I’d have never managed my first move to Charlotte without him.

There was my friend Jackie, who liked to perform “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” at a local pool hall. (She now works for an addiction-treatment nonprofit in Florida.)

The point is, membership is very exclusive and must be earned. No half-assed, mediocre inductees for this outfit.

Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

I believe in that, too. I’m not much of a joiner. But I’m a proud member of The Daily News HOF.

“I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” – Groucho Marx

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Words From The Man and words from the man


Now Playing, “Right In Time,” Lucinda Williams. “I stand over the stove in the kitchen, Watch the water boil and I listen, Turn off the television, Oh my baby, The way you move it’s right in time, The way you move it’s right in time, It’s right in time with me.”

As I was reading the top business stories in the state this morning (on www.BusinessNC.com – Shameless Plug Department), two items struck me.

Words From The Man: Hanesbrands made $36.5 gazillion in the first quarter. More power to ’em. That’s what they’re supposed to do. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, here’s how The Man, Hanesbrands Chairman and CEO Richard Noll, explained the jump from a $19.3 million loss during the same quarter last year: “We are off to a strong start to 2010 as a result of our investment in our brands and in our supply chain during the recession.” By the end of 2010, the supply chain labor breakdown will be 58 percent in the Caribbean Basin, 34 percent in Asia, 7 percent in the U.S. (down from 22 percent in 2006) and 1 percent in Mexico.

Here’s what The Man meant: We laid off a bunch of people in the U.S. and sent work to countries where we don’t have to pay squat in wages.

OK, on one level I get it. Noll is paid very well to maximize return for shareholders. He did it by outsourcing two-thirds of the company’s domestic jobs. Pretty disturbing, if you ask me. Next time you see Michael Jordan or Charlie Sheen in a Hanes commercial, just think about it.

Which leads us to …

words from the man: I saw them from an article in The Mountaineer, in Waynesville. The article was about the pending purchase from bankruptcy of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley. As often happens in a bankruptcy, most creditors will get only a fraction of what they’re owed. Particularly hard hit in this case, according to the Mountaineer, will be Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan, who loaned the park $250,000 from his retirement account when things started going bad. Here’s what Bryan had to say (according to the article): “There’s a substantial amount of money owed to me, but that’s just one of them deals. I will make the best of it. I’m not leaving them. I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me because I want to see the place grow. That’s the reason I invested to begin with. If everybody turns their back on it, it’s going to die, but I see a lot of people in Maggie Valley who will be able to live if the park stays open. There’s a lot more to it than just money. You can’t live without money, but you can’t take it with you, either. It’s not that I don’t want it back, I do. I could buy a house with what I’ve got into it, and a real nice one. But if it makes life better, gives people jobs and puts people to work, that means something, too. It’s not just the money … I’d love to have it back, but I never questioned it when I handed it to them. I knew I might not get it back. Life is a gamble. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. …I guess it’s just me wanting to see something good in life for a change. If I can make a few things positive for people, that’s what life is all about.”

Wow! I’m tearing up again as I read it.

The Man and the man. You tell me which one we should respect.

A couple of quotes from Mark Twain:
“Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the under dog in the fight – this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one – this is business.
“The primary rule of business success is loyalty to your employer. That’s all right – as a theory. What is the matter with loyalty to yourself?”

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