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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 16, 2009

MSNBC featured a couple of critics of the wonderful Wanda Sykes (at the Correspondents’ dinner) — the Correspondents’ dinner! — who claimed she’d gone ‘over the top’. Good goddess! Haven’t any of these people heard of Lenny Bruce? What do they think he did?

“CREDIT-CRUNCHED BANKERS”  (as the Spectator calls them) are enduring sexual problems following their financial setbacks, with some wives punishing their husbands in Lysistrata fashion (i.e. no sex) as payback for “carelessly losing their master-of-the-universe status.” Their women rationalize that they surrendered their own careers for a disappearing high-octane lifestyle, and now it’s payback time. The magazine reports that in the past six months, there has been a dramatic rise in sexually disturbed behavior, partly due to libidos crashing along with the stock market. None of the number of people he had treated recently for erectile dysfunction, commented  British doctor Philip Hopley, “had pre-existing psychosexual problems or mental health issues.”

THE MAY ISSUE of Fortune devotes 20 pages to a cover story “How Bernie Did It” which, although too technical to readily summarize, and not easy for the uninitiated to comprehend, does predict that Madoff’s chief deputy Frank DiPascali may be willing to sing like a canary in return for a reduced plea deal.

PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCES could benefit by including at least one question from the public at large, in the view of an activist group promoted by and the Nation magazine. Inviting the public to submit questions on the website, the group suggests that after questions have been chosen by vote, a credentialed journalist should present something that “the mainstream media couldn’t or wouldn’t think to ask” at the next White House press conference.

POND SCUM DOESN’T sound like anybody’s idea of a good time but it’s yet another new source of something with which we might all be eventually filling our gas tanks. A San Diego firm, Sapphire Energy, is just one of the companies researching algae which apparently contains so much fatty oil, that with minimal refining can power cars and jets. David Kurzman, a biofuels analyst, told Portfolio that “the problem is not so much the science (but) developing a major industrial process and whether this is cost-effective.” The cost of producing a barrel of fuel from algae is estimated to be between $40 and $80—roughly the same price as oil at present. Sapphire thinks it can produce 200,000 barrels a day by 2022. “We want to build an oil company,” says its spokesman. “This not just a short-term play.”

Homeland Security is soliciting sources to look (or sniff) into human odor as an indicator of deception, writes Bob Parks. “It’s not totally crazy.  Sweat due to nervousness comes from different glands, than sweat due to exertion, and has a stronger odor. But this has the same flaw as the polygraph.  It’s not clear whether liars or innocents will be more nervous.

EVEN AFTER OVERTAKING General Motors to become the world’s biggest carmaker, Toyota couldn’t escape the worldwide recession. Retail sales have dropped 20% and Its losses for this year are estimated to be $11 billion.  In Toyota City – Japan’s Detroit — more than 70% of the 422,000 population depends on the company and is suffering what’s endearingly known as Toyota Shokku prompting a local mayoral candidate to deride the one-industry philosophy that has prevailed for so long. “We have to change the character of the economy,” declares Masahiko Hosokawa.

IN HIS NEW BOOK, Showing Up for Life, Bill Gates Sr. talks about how he and his wife were depressed that his son (nicknamed Trey) was dropping out of college. “He told us he planned to take advantage of an opportunity he believed would be gone by the time he graduated from Harvard. However, he promised us that he would go back to Harvard later to get his degree. ‘Later’ finally arrived on June 7, 2007, the day Harvard awarded Trey an honorary law degree…(he) told the audience ‘I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this, Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.’”

ONCE REGARDED AS offering an all-purpose future, plastics are increasingly thought to be an all-encompassing disaster having “morphed from an engineering triumph into a global scourge.” Thus does Mother Jones categorize them as emblematic of a world “swimming in waste” pointing to the littered coastlines and thousands of whales, dolphins, seals, and millions of birds that choke to death on plastic waste. The magazine quotes the Worldwatch Institute’s Christopher Flavin who predicts that the next feat will be to make plastics disappear without a trace, “a complex engineering challenge that will keep many people employed for years to come.”

RISK COMPENSATION IS WHAT behaviorists call it when new safety devices are introduced making people feel less vulnerable, and thus more inclined to take risks. The subject was raised by a Smithsonian article marking the 50th anniversary of the standard “three-point” automobile seat belt whose invention, it was speculated, might have prompted drivers to drive with less caution. After all, improving the rip cord on parachutes caused some skydivers to “hit the silk too late,” and children who wear protective sports equipment tend to engage in rougher play. The magazine failed to find evidence that seat belt-wearers drove more dangerously but its research led to a corollary that what did change people’s behavior were rewards, such as lower insurance premiums or free license renewals for crash-free drivers.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Having killed thousands of innocent Iraqis in an unnecessary war, we’re now killing thousands of innocent Afghani peasants in another war. Who’ll be next?….. Perhaps somebody could set up a Cayman Islands company which ordinary people could part-own to avoid paying taxes in the US?…. When you read the small print in those newspaper ads offering “free” safes in which to store your Presidential Golden Coins, you’ll see its’ only cost is 20 payments of $98 ….“No matter how cynical you get,” muses Lily Tomlin, “it is impossible to keep up”…. A medical breakthrough about to get wider recognition is Single Incision Laparoscopic Surgery (SILS) which takes place via a single hole in the navel and leaves no scars…. British pharmaceutical companies have declined to produce a newly-developed five-in-one pill to treat cardiovascular disease because expected profits wouldn’t justify the expense of obligatory trials… Live commercials will be a feature of Jay Leno’s new 10pm show…. Our status as “empowered consumer” has led us to the belief that the body is “your canvas to be fixed, remade, and enhanced” says Susie Orbach. “What is wrong with our bodies as they are?”……Anybody gullible enough to work for Michael Jackson has only themselves to blame if they really expected he was going to pay his bills….Increasing alliances between Christian churches and Islamic groups in England are causing concern because of their joint antagonism to Israel….Determined to increase usage of the dollar coin, the US Treasury has begun a promotional campaign at Portland, OR; Grand Rapids, MI; Charlotte, NV; and Austin, TX…..When those unsavory lawyers have finished sliming Woody Allen on behalf of American Apparel, possibly Bernie Madoff or Robert Mugabe could use their help?…. Sheets of plastic with the strength of body armor, called X-Flex, have been developed for use on walls to protect against hurricanes or to withstand shrapnel in army units… An Arizona engineering firm has developed a new device to end car chases: a white disk which can be triggered to throw out a network of entangling wires when a car passes over it….. Karl Rove’s name is mentioned three times as being a passenger in National Review’s ad for its July cruise of the Mediterranean…. “Only a malicious person is always at his best.” — Somerset Maugham (1864-1965)

Now that John Yoo, who handed George Bush his legal excuse for condoning torture is back at UC Berkeley, what exactly is he teaching his law students there?….