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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: April 4, 2009

“Scandal requires an audience: without a punitive-minded public primed to dole out the requisite shame and censoriousness, scandal as we know it would cease to exist. In short, we are the necessary ingredient to the enterprise. We pay attention; in fact, we’re positively rapt. Scandal makes the world a more lively and unpredictable place, largely because moral superiority about other people’s screw-ups is one of the great human pleasures.” — Laura Kipnis reviewing two books about the subject in Harper’s.

in style again because of 3D movies, are inside Fortune‘s four gimmicky pages of shoddy images. These include ads for Disney’s Monsters vs Aliens — the first of 21 different 3D epics scheduled for this year. Fortune‘s issue contains several pages of 3D pix, including ads, along with the familiar blue and red glasses. The Big Mac looks the same with or without glasses. Before long we’ll doubtless have masses of classy glasses, offered by firms wanting to promote their wares.

THE BIGGEST AND best-financed private satellite company is Space Exploration Technologies Corp., whose founder Elon Musk proclaims that his rivals at government-sponsored companies are “sort of bureaucratic and a bit drab. They feel more like mausoleums.” The industry needs to look more into hiring “fresh out of college. You get a lot of energy and enthusiasm with somebody who is fresh out of school,” he told Via Satellite. “You definitely have to have companies that are exciting to work at. With the big aerospace companies, that issue is sort of a self-inflicted wound.” Musk last week unveiled his $50,000 Tesla car, and SpaceX, as his company is known, has existing contracts with NASA and plans to launch its 188-foot Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral this summer.

THE OLD TASTE TESTS that allowed drinkers to compare Coke and Pepsi are making a comeback in the form of Dunkin Donuts vs Starbucks, Select Harvest (chicken soup) vs Progresso, and Domino’s (sandwiches) vs Subway. Stores magazine predicts that eventually “taste-test fatigue” will set in, but meanwhile tips its hat to Burger King which in one ad mingled Thai villagers, Transylvanian farmers, and Greenlanders.

NATIONALLY-ADVERTISED BRANDS are facing their biggest challenge in 20 years because of customers switching to private brands reports Advertising Age. The trend is likely to grow, the mag forecasts, because “bedrock categories” (laundry detergents and toilet paper) are now being supplemented by skincare and feminine protection, this as even affluent shoppers are searching for bargains. Retail consultant Burt Flickinger forecasts that this kind of choice-changing could last for several years, leading to a “‘downturn generation’ that learns to scrimp and save permanently.”

YOU CAN IMAGINE how much political and inexplicable art that Jerelle Kraus must have monitored in her 14 years art directing the New York Times Op-Ed page. In her book, published by Columbia University Press, the work of 134 contributors can be admired, inadvertently demonstrating how much less adventurous the Op-Ed page is today. “No cultural movement,” Jerelle reflects, “survives long beyond its initial impetus.”

TRY TO GUESS WHO this is a description of:

“He is variously described as aloof, contained, preoccupied, crippled by shyness, gossipy, grumpy, penurious, remote, unfeeling, abstract, disembodied, puzzling, old and old-fashioned, a fifties guy, a guy’s guy, and a reluctant socializer.”

The words are by David Nasaw reviewing The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch by Michael Wolff in the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review, and while pinpointing the media mogul’s perceived flaws, the essay also points up some of his virtues. One of these, writes Nasaw (author of earlier bios of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst) is rescuing (and continuing to lose money on) newspapers that would otherwise have folded. “There is something heroic about Murdoch’s foolishness,” Nasaw writes, “and something scandalously and stupidly short-sighted about the foolishness of those who profess a love of newspapers but oppose his attempt to purchase another one.”

THE LATEST REVOLUTIONARY ‘HERO’ with feet of clay is Nicaragua’s re-elected Daniel Ortega who battled the right-wing contras in 1979 as a fighter for the masses but now, in trying to eliminate term limits so he can run indefinitely, has become (writes Tina Rosenberg) an old-fashioned caudillo. His ideology is no longer Marxism but simply Danielism.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: Does the U.S. Treasury know the exact tipping point between printing more and more currency, and inflation?….. If this country finds itself at war with China over Taiwan (or anything else), will that mean we can keep all the money we owe them?…..Although China is nominally a Communist country, Karl Marx would be horrified to see it today declares a writer in The American Prospect. “With policies that favor the urban elite and virtually no social welfare programs left, this ‘communist’ nation has become one of the most unequal countries in Asia”…. And maybe Mexico would be in less of a mess today if the French occupiers hadn’t abandoned it (143 years ago next month)…… Suicide is a lonely death and not many people would do it in front of a washed-up record producer….More of McDonald’s 58 million daily customers buy chicken than beef… Indian army recruits in Karnataka no longer have to capture and eat a venomous snake to prove their survival skills….. Prison authorities say they could save money by letting minor offenders out early. And they could save even more if they were given alternatives to prison….“Twitter” muses Larry Magid, “doesn’t add anything (to the media mix) other than the ability for people to grab messages quickly and respond in kind”…..Sweet tooth fans are “comfort-eating their way through the recession,” says The Week, commenting on the fact that Cadbury’s annual profits are up 30%…. “It’s more important that there be a red carpet for valued people when they leave than when someone joins,” declares DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg. ”We try to be very generous when someone has an opportunity outside the company because we usually want them back” … Only one out of the first 27 listees (Toyoto, #3) in Fortune’s “The World’s Most admired Companies” is not American….” “Hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper.” — Spanish Proverb