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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 26, 2008

SIDEWALK BOXES HOLDING catalogs for The Learning Annex can be found on almost every corner in New York but founder Bill Zanker always had headier ambitions. Now his Real Estate & Wealth Expo is a $100m a year business bringing in huge crowds (70,000 in San Francisco, 50,000 in Toronto) to hear a score of speakers whose stars are headed by George Foreman, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, the last-mentioned of which Zanker paid Trump $30m for 20 performances — $1.5 million for each one-hour speech. Biz writer John Dean says that Trump wouldn’t even come to the phone until he was offered $1million. Zanker and Trump co-authored a best seller, Think Big and Kick Ass (in Business and in life). Each show, according to Inc., costs between three and five million dollars to stage, nearly half of which is spent in advertising and promotion. “We change people’s attitudes says Bill Zanker. Everybody wants to change something and we’re right here.” He estimates that the Change-Your-Life business is worth $18billion a year.

THE ECOLOGY OF FEAR is how Oregon State University researchers describe the fact that aspen trees are making a comeback along the shores of rivers in Yellowstone Park. Apparently these are the areas favored by wolves which were re-introduced into the park a decade ago, thus scaring off the elk which had always found aspen especially tasty.TRANSFORMING A HANDFUL of its stores into ‘fictional’ Kwik-E-Marts for The Simpsons Movie paid off for 7-Eleven last year, which topped Entrepreneur magazine’s Annual Franchise 500 for the first time in 29 years. “It was astounding,” says CEO Joseph DePinto. “There were lines coming out of these stores and some of their volumes were unbelievable.” Such items as Malt-0-Meal, Buzz Cola, and Krusty-Os cereal were specially created for the promotion which took place in only a dozen of the 5,580 7-Elevens in the US and none of the 25,062 abroad.

MATHEMATICIANS ARE FASCINATED by the simple mechanics of the Rock/Paper/Scissors game so it was inevitable that computer programmers would try to produce the ultimate player. It turns out that even though they think they are being random in their choices, most people consciously or unconsciously follow a sequence in their head. “Spot it, and they are toast,” says New Science, which advises “play the throw that would have been beaten by your opponent’s previous throw” because “some kind of subconscious activity seems to encourage players to aim to beat their own preceding throw.” Different studies show that rock comes up the most often but as only rookies tend to use it as an opener, the safest way to start is with scissors, usually forcing at least a draw.

WITH THE COST of a light jet plane (Eclipse 400) costing roughly $1m., it’s expected that the 14,000 business jets now crowding the air will be doubled within a decade. For mere renters, a couple of hundred thousand will buy you an ‘entry level’ in NetJets, plus 25 hours of flying time.

IN A PIECE TITLED The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League, Anthony Bianco claims that impressionable students and ambitious parents have come to view college as a form of conspicuous consumption — a striking manifestation of the contemporary American tendency of the rich to get much richer. “While the Ivies, which account for less than 1% of the total, lift their spending into the stratosphere,” he writes in Business Week, “many public colleges and universities are struggling to cope with rising enrolments and less state aid.” Distinguished faculty members along with their research grants are being lured away with salaries averaging $100,496 but sometimes running to more than $1 million. Harvard&’s staff of 2,146 faculty members is a 50% increase over the decade. Robert J. Birgenaugh, chancellor of UC Berkeley, says that public schools are being drained for the benefit of the ultra elite and the mag adds that “the Ivies’ superior spending power puts even the finest public universities at a disadvantage in the competition for faculty.”

NIGHT PEOPLE TEND to be more imaginative and receptive to unconventional ideas according to Juan Francisco Diaz-Morales, a Spanish researcher who administered personality tests to 360 university students, chosen because they were presumably less influenced by “time schedules and social patterns.” Early risers, the study concluded, are more formal, self-controlled and respectful of authority, whereas night owls tend to be more independent and non-conforming.

“I just think it is a bit vulgar to decorate yourself with your affiliations, your sympathies, your achievement. We are not sandwich boards, nor cattle to be ear-tagged… I don’t like wearing uniforms either; and surely many would agree.”
— Matthew Parris in the Spectator, bemoaning tattoos and displaying ribbons

THE WILCOCK WEB: Performed by the London Oratory School Choir, the DVD Santa Subito! — a musical montage of film of the late pope John Paul II — is set to become the Vatican’s best seller with its potential audience of one billion Catholics worldwide… The most overrated of all NYTimes columnists, Maureen Dowd, is a big favorite with her media chums, but some of the red haired reactionary’s recent effusions are just silly compared with her fellow columnist Gail Collins…. Celestial Seasonings claims that not having a string tag on its teabags saves 3m pounds of paper a year….. “I get to exorcize whatever demons I have by making movies” confesses Tim Burton. “Movie-making is like an expensive form of therapy. Only you don’t have to pay for it. Other people pay for it…. A couple of English Parliamentarians want to pass a law banning sex for money but no mention, as usual, of politicians prostituting themselves…. “A cheerful pessimism is the only proper response” to politics wrote Simon Carr in the Independent…. The Japanese have invented a car that can climb steps….. Nearly two-third of the 86,000 books published in Britain last year sold on average 18 copies…. ”Today is a disastrous day. If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em” is a sample of the “cautious” rather than “negative” mottoes that New York’s Wonton Food company is inserting in its fortune cookies…. Pasta palindrome: Wonton? Not now….. Now there’s a microwave that can be powered from the cigarette lighter outlet in your car (….. The Economist calculates that filling up an SUV’s gas tank with ethanol uses up enough maize to feed a person for a year….. Only a malicious person is always at his best. — Somerset Maugham (1864-1965)