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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 23, 2009

A LITTLE WHITE PILL on which too many Cubans “drug themselves to escape,” marks the comeback of Milton, the Sixties mood-changer that preceded Valium. It’s become the single most popular drug on the Cuban black market and “nearly every household seems to have a stash,” says the Utne Reader in a story that blows a hole in those vaunted claims for the island’s health system. Cubans have to wait in over-long lines for overworked doctors who give them prescriptions that can’t be filled by empty pharmacies, reports the mag. After the Soviets pulled out, writes Lygia Navarro in the Quarterly Review, the consequent depression was called the Special Period filled with uncertainty and scarcity. Now there is widespread agreement that many people have never pulled out of it. They remain “subtly traumatized.”

HAS ANYONE CONSIDERED the possibility of terrorists destroying or disrupting a satellite? Reassuringly, the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) has realized that both military and commercial satellites are a potential target, not only up there but also via their ground stations and communication links. Their vulnerability can be reduced, ESPI suggests, by European countries working together so that terrorists cannot target a particular country. But, says Via Satellite magazine, “this approach is unlikely to be welcomed by any satellite operator in Europe and raises an enormous number of institutional and political questions.”

IN THE WORKS is a projected reality cable TV show about Frank Sheftel, owner of the Los Angeles Candy Factory, who also operates a medical marihuana dispensary. The drama and comedy in Grass Roots will come, says TelevisionWeek, from Sheftel “trying to balance his dual identities as well as his very different customer bases.” Are candy lovers and dope smokers different? Nah.

LIKE ALMOST EVERYBODY else, moviemakers are noticing how little extra money is floating around these days. “Angels are getting scarce,” notes Forbes.  “Now the sources of film financing are running dry.” Banks, hedge funds, and other wealthy backers poured $6.7 billion into the industry from 2006-07 which helped Hollywood release 605 movies last year. Today even Steven Spielberg “is struggling to get financing” and DreamWorks has to more than double the usual 20% it puts up for each of its films.

THE PETER PRINCIPLE:  Why Things Always Go Wrong by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull was just been republished in a new edition to celebrate its 40th birthday. “The principle posits that employees are rewarded for competence by being shoved up the hierarchy until they reach a position that overwhelms their skills. At that point, they stick,” quotes Inc. Consequently,  said the late authors, “In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.”

AFTER BEING ALMOST wiped out by 1940, the whooping crane became a project for preservation so now there are several hundred of them in North America. But raised in captivity, they didn’t know how to migrate to warmer climates in winter, so every year ultra-light planes relaying the birds’ distinctive call, lead them on the 1,285-mile trip from Wisconsin to Florida. The May issue of Popular Science carries a picture of one of Operation Migration’s helpful flights.

MORE THAN 200 companies are developing next-generation bio-fuels using a bewildering array of technologies, reports Business Week, but this doesn’t look like it’s a big opportunity for the little guys. “Replacing petroleum fuels is a tough business. As the industry develops, many of the companies — probably most — will not survive,” according to the mag’s gloomy prediction. “The probable winners will be those with deep pockets and patience. Such as Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Dupont, and agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland.”

FOR 520 DAYS, roughly the time it will take to get to Mars and return, a group of would-be astronauts will be locked into a series of metal tubes in Moscow next month to see how they fare. Chosen from an international pool of 5,000 applicants, they will be closely monitored via a network of video cameras as they live on a diet of reprocessed urine and freeze-dried food. “Psychologists and biologists will be observing the effects of cramped quarters and social isolation,” reports Popular Science.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Shoe repair shops which have dwindled to a mere 3,000 (once there were 100,000) are currently in demand, as more and more worn soles seek the once-familiar cobbler…With the gradual infiltration of English lettering on Saudi Arabia’s license plates, authorities have issued a banned list which includes SEX and USA….“The music business isn’t what it used to be,” muses Dolly Parton. “After you reach a certain age, they think you’re over. Well, I will never be over. I’ll be making records if I have to sell them out of the trunk of my car”…..Why all this endless speculation about what will replace newspapers? The answer lies plain to see in the HuffPost front page…. The Texas state legislature is thinking of allowing helicopter pilots to take up paying customers on a hunt for wild hogs. Hogs have been causing $400 million worth of property damage each year reports the May issue of the Helicopter Newsletter…. Even without any intelligible words, those TV commercials for Canada must be the most pointless ever screened in the English language…. Does Longchamp really believe that those pouty blonde models are an asset?….A canola-like weed called camelina is being nurtured by Montana’s Sustainable Oils as a potential source of airplane jet fuel… The Powermat, due this fall, is a pad on which laptops or cellphones can be placed to be recharged (without wires) by magnetic induction…And MIT scientists have developed a revolutionary lithium iron phosphate battery that reportedly will be able to charge cell phones in 10 seconds… Miami’s Fox affiliate WSVN-TV is suing the Nielsen organization for what it alleges is “flawed data”  that caused a drop in ratings….So many folk are living beyond 100 in Japan (currently, 36,000 of them) that the government is down-sizing the silver cups it gives centenarians…. Sketching classes featuring nude models will be part of a new series on  Britain’s Channel Four next month…. Deft definition: Reintarnation — “Coming back to life as a hillbilly..Salicornia, aka sea asparagus, which can be grown in saltwater flooded deserts, is being touted as the new wonder weed which can be processed into food or biofuels. Those expensive, spiral-shaped, energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs cost 99c for a package of two at 99 Cent stores…..And for another 99c you can download James Joyce’s vintage Ulysses on Kindle….Now there’s an electronic Rubik’s Cube ($150) that lights up the squares….“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” — Roland Barthes (1915-1980)