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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 18, 2007


WITH BURNING MAN LESS than three weeks away, some purists are getting worried. Could this be the year that dreaded commercialism marks the beginning of the end? For the first time, the annual late-August event is going to allow companies to exhibit their products, albeit without displaying their names. “People profit greatly from an environment where they’re not being huckstered all the time” founder Larry Harvey told Business 2.0 magazine. Theme for this year’s happening, the 21st, is The Green Man and what Harvey calls “Disneyland inside out” is bringing in green-energy companies to demonstrate their wares sans logos and marketing material (In the past, even participants arriving in U-Haul trucks have been asked to cover the branding). Despite gate entry fees of $400 from the 40,000 attending the Black Rock site in the Nevada desert, Burning Man itself barely breaks even after forking out $800,000 for security, toilet facilities, ice, coffee, lighting, and the $4-per-day per person “rent” charged by the Bureau of Land Management for use of the desert.

TRYING TO DECIPHER the text of most closed-captioning is “like no other experience you will have… I wonder if (the texters) know how entertaining their work can be” writes Jim McKairnes in Television Week. Apart from the clueless misspellings — chaftize, oozy, blind-blowing and Sir Yea (for Syria) — he notes how often that the text is missing in its entirety “at crucial points in story-telling.”

WHAT’S NASA’S POLICY about sex in space? Well, actually there isn’t one. “It’s a sensitive and delicate issue” says NASA’s chief health and medical officer Richard Williams. “It’s pretty much left up to individual judgment as to what’s prudent and appropriate.” However, now that future missions might last a year or more it may be necessary to offer some guidance, not only about sex, but how to cope with an injured astronaut with, say, a burst appendix or a broken leg — even a death on board. But any rules will have to be adaptable. “The more specific you are about these things” says Williams, “the less flexibility you end up with.”

THE FRENCH GAME of petanque (a variation of boules in which the player stands still while making the shot) has gotten so unruly that some of its 7,000 clubs have been suspended after losing teams threatened referees and began throwing balls at the losers. Spectators behave like football hooligans, charges Le Parisien, which attributes the decline to petanque becoming a TV spectator sport and the injection of money by greedy sponsors.

EXPERIMENTING WITH RATS, a neuroscientist at New York University claims that the drug UO126 can be applied selectively to block a specific memory. “Only those memories that are activated are vulnerable” says Joseph LeDoux, explaining that it could be possible to reduce the traumatic impact of people’s memories without “erasing their memory bank.”

“What exactly is so ‘Christian’ about these multimillionaire Republican televangelists who plainly look upon their flock as so many fat sheep to be fleeced?… Contributions are routinely misused to purchase enormous luxury estates, private jets, antique collections, lavish vacations in Las Vegas and other worldly resorts, rather than to propagate the gospel in Asia or to relieve suffering in Africa as advertised. Indeed, very little of their reaping reaches the mouths of the hungry.”
— Joe Conason in the New York Observer

THE WORLD’S LONGEST BEACH, at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, sees no swimmers because Islamic authorities are in charge and in Muslim countries people are not seen unclothed in public. “I’ve seen beaches in Brazil, Spain, and Thailand” explained one visitor, Syed Ahmed Khair, a merchant navy officer, ”but in terms of beauty this is the best. But Bangladesh is a conservative country.”

THANKS TO HOLLYWOOD and television, everyone in the English-speaking world is familiar with the implications of being tagged Lord and Lady says Andrew Bulpin. And for a mere $350 or so you, too, could add that distinction to your otherwise drab and unpretentious name. But that’s not all. You could be an Earl, a Viscount, or even a Duchess. ”With a title in front of your name you will sense a difference in people’s attitudes” Bulpin says, “and for a career, it’s a real door opener. Check out

SHOPPERS WHO DRIVE to Oklahoma City’s AutoTram will never need to leave their cars as customers make their selections at a touch screen kiosk and within minutes the items will be bagged and placed on a high-speed conveyor belt to be delivered to the exit ramp. Described as the world’s first “conveyance store,” it will open next month.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Those “forever” stamps the post office is peddling cost 41c, same as the current rate for first-class mail. What’s the betting on how “forever’ they’ll remain next time the rates go up….? Since Irish shops started charging 20¢ each for plastic bags, their use has dropped by 90%…. “The great virtue of a democracy” suggested historian A.J.P Taylor, “is that it always thinks its leaders are frightful….”An Epoc headset embedded with 16 electrodes from California’s Emotiv company measures brainwaves, translating the wearer’s thoughts into action by an onscreen avatar…. Wrap icebergs in blankets so they won’t melt as fast, suggests Swiss textile boss Fritz Landolt who claims to have tried it successfully in Switzerland on the 300,000 square foot Vorab glacier…. Nearly half of the thousands of alcoholism deaths in Russia each year are from drinking household products such as eau de cologne…. “The urge to save humanity,” noted H.L. Mencken (d.1950) “is almost always a false front for those who want to rule it….” We’re a year or two away from developing for offensive use the new RM (reactive materials) shrapnel composed of powdered metal which will ignite and burn up on striking the target. “(It has to be) strong enough to survive launch but fragile enough to react on impact” says Judah Goldwasser at the office of Naval Research….” An early 1956 printing of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage is offered for $11,000 by a NYC rare book dealer who seeks $9,200 for Cole Porter’s 1936 Red, Hot & Blue. Books are often a better investment than stocks. Even one of my books, The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol ($5 when published in 1971) is now worth more than $100 on Amazon…. Savonlinna in Finland is the site of the mobile phone throwing world championship on August 25…. Announced for October publication by Doubleday is John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge…. Manhattan’s famed Plaza Hotel will reopen with 181 condos (one costing $56 million) on its 100th birthday in October…. “No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.” — Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)