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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 20, 2011

by John Wilcock


RED LIGHT CAMERAS at traffic intersections have definitely overstayed their welcome, with rebellious drivers all over the country demanding their removal. “Cities and towns are dismantling their red-light camera routines,” says the Weekly Standard; “It shows that even at this late date the people can, from time to time, hold their governments to account.” Typically, big corporations install the cameras, collect the fine, and return a (minuscule) portion to the municipality. “It’s a like privateering,” the mag comments. Unsurprisingly, greed tends to take over, with the enforcers having a monetary incentive to write as many citations as possible — shortening the amber light period, for example. Cities in 25 states originally signed up and there were millions in it: $64m for Chicago in 2009, $15.6m for Washington DC in the first 30 months. But in Los Angeles — where the Police Commission has now voted to drop the scheme — even with tickets costing drivers $476 and $80m worth of citations issued, the corporation took such a rapacious cut that the city actually lost money.

ONE OF THESE DAYS somebody is going to challenge the rights of the rapacious Time-Warner company over copyright to the song Happy Birthday which pulls in $2million annually from commercial use of the four-line ditty. Their rights are very shaky, the song having been written in the 19th century and not copyrighted until 1934, under an act that has since shamefully been twice extended. In 1998, Warner/Chappell Music bought the company that distributed it, but rights to the song itself have always been in question. “Warner has no claim to copyright,” declares professor Bob Brauneis of George Washington University. Most people though, pay up rather than hire a lawyer.

The examples mentioned in Smart Money’s story look box-like and unglamorous so they offered this gold-plated illustration instead.

THE $6,000 DOLLAR TOILET is not a novelty anymore but they keep getting more and more elaborate, with the Regio programmed with nature sounds such as chirping birds and a babbling brook. It’s Japanese, of course, as invariably are the more adventurous ones. The Kohler Numi ($6,390) melds toilet with bidet and includes a floor heater and a lid that rises as you approach… Although the typical American spends a mere $250 on a toilet, Smart Money says the market for the elaborate Japanese models is the same people who buy Sub-Zero refrigerators and Jacuzzi tubs. Among the 15,000 buyers of smart toilets last year were customers of Toto US. Their spokesman, David Krakoff, reports that dinner parties usually end up in the bathroom where everyone gathers to admire the commode.

HOT OR NOT is a superficial, subjective judgment made by people about other people, but when it comes to peppers, there’s an officially agreed-on measurement, the Scoville Scale. Named after an early 20th-century chemist who progressively diluted pepper extract (capsaicin) in sugared water until its spiciness could no longer be discerned, the rating is the number of times the concentrate had to be reduced. In the case of jalapeno, for example, 5,000 times, thus giving it a rating of 5000 Scoville heat units (SHUs). But there’s a continuing battle between scientists in different countries to claim hotter and hotter peppers. Currently, Australia seems to be winning, boasting they have grown a pepper from a strain of Trinidad Scorpion that rated 1,463,700 SHUs, far hotter than such previous claimants as the Naga Viper and Infinity. Is such taste torment bearable? For some people. Popular Science reports that university studies have suggested that capsaicin consumption might even aid weight loss and inhibit tumor growth. ( It may be exactly what I need: a severe cough sadly erased my sense of taste, sparked now only by excessive salt or seasoning.)

IT’S NOT ALL PLAUDITS for the eight-year role Bill Keller played as New York Times executive editor. “(He) did not challenge power — he served it,” alleges FAIR, assessing his “record of major editorial decisions — especially on matters of national security, foreign policy, and domestic surveillance” was “littered with journalistic disappointment that warrants criticism rather than praise.” In its newsletter Extra, the media watchdog says that as a reporter, Keller routinely used the word torture for waterboarding but as editor “erased it from the paper’s vocabulary.” Summing up, Extra added that the reality was that “Keller has contributed to the further degradation of trust in the US corporate media, which continues to demonstrate its subservience to power and deeply held institutional biases.”

‘CONFUCIUS HE SAY’ was the opening line of the mid-1920s series of derogatory gibes, each one more chauvinistic and insulting than the last. “If rape inevitable, lie back and enjoy it,” especially rankled feminists. But their outrage paled in comparison with the repudiation by the Chinese themselves of the great 6th c BC philosopher whose actual pronouncements were more along the lines of Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it. It’s hard to argue with thoughts like that. Yet during the reign of Mao Zedong, the old sage’s respect for ancestor worship and praise for elders was regarded as being “too feudal” for modern China. When Mao died, Confucius became popular again with his philosophy respecting authority seemed to align with Communist ideals. Now the pendulum has swung once again and his portrait on Tiananmen Square has been quietly removed — without explanation.

PERSECUTED BY THE GOVERNMENT is something we’re always hearing about in Third World countries, but it’s happened in America, too, and the just-published Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex is a notable example. Reich, a psychoanalyst who was a pupil of Freud, fled Germany after the Nazis burned his books, arrived in New York just days before WW2, was constantly harassed by the FDA, had his books burned here, and spent the rest of his life in jail where he died in 1957. His crime? He invented and built the popular orgone box in which a sitter could purportedly improve his “orgastic potency” and “mental health.” The Orgone Energy Accumulator, an insulated wooden cupboard about the size of a phone booth, was banned after the FDA charged Reich was making fraudulent claims, and jailed after he continued to sell it. “Reich became the scapegoat for the new morality, because, as the guru of the new cult of sex and anarchy,” comments The Week, “he seemed to give a philosophical purpose to the sex data (compiled by) Alfred Kinsey.”

The BOOK of Kerryman JOKES

IN IRELAND, the natives tell jokes about the county of Kerry like the way everybody used to tell Polish jokes, and the way that New Yorkers still tell jokes about New Jersey.

A FELLOW walked into a bar in Dublin and asked the barman if he had heard the latest Kerryman joke. “I’m warning you,” said the barman, “I’m a Kerryman myself.” “That’s alright,” said the fellow, “I’ll tell it slowly.”

A Kerryman went to London and found himself in the Underground late one night. Seeing a notice DOGS MUST BE CARRIED ON THE ESCALATOR, he moaned to himself, “Where am I going to find a dog at this hour of the night?”

HOW DO YOU make a Kerryman laugh on a
Monday morning? Tell him a joke on Friday evening.

A Kerryman’s house caught fire, so he rushed to the nearest telephone kiosk and dialed very quickly. “Hello, is that 999?” “No, This is 998.” “Well, would you nip in next door and tell them my house is on fire?”


John Wilcock is currently visiting San Francisco