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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 31, 2008

Our government today is slow, unfair, corrupt and peopled by politicians living on graft and sinecure. And, most troubling of all, it’s become notoriously resistant to reform. Election after election new candidates step up to the podium exhorting us to throw the bums out and let them, the reformers, in to clean house….and we watch as they take possession of their predecessors’ cushy jobs, take money from the glad-handing lobbyists and slowly but surely become overtaken by the seductive allure of incumbency.” — Arianna Huffington in How To Overthrow the Government (Harper Collins, 2000)

WRITING ABOUT the return of American companies to Cuba, if and when the Castros let go, Fortune points out that U.S. laws require all claims to be settled before trade can be normalized. Easier said than done. OfficeMax, for example, was never in Cuba but it theoretically owns the national electric company through a merger with the paper company Boise Cascade which in turn had bought a Florida company with a stake in Cuban Electric. Similarly, Starwood Hotels bought a piece of the ITT conglomerate which had owned a radio station on the island. And Chiquita Brands bought a firm that owned fruit orchards. Fortune says almost 6,000 companies have made claims currently value at $20 billion.

ANDY WARHOL’S WIGS along with his corsets, boots and pages from his diary were photographed at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and appears in the June issue of Interview, the magazine that he founded 39 years ago. It will celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of the charismatic artist and will carry commentaries from (among others) Giorgio Armani, Debbie Harry, Betsy Johnson, Calvin Klein, Paloma Picasso and Ed Ruscha, as well as Warhol interview by Glenn O’Brien.

THE BANANA YOU KNOW and love may soon be extinct according to a new book that blames the United Fruit Company for “practicing mono-culture” which pretty much guarantees that sooner or later it will become susceptible to pestilence, disease and crop failure. In Banana; The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, Dan Koeppel points out that there are 1,000 different breeds of the fruit, but via the UFC are offered only one — the Cavendish. In similar pattern, consumers were earlier offered only the Gros Michel, but this succumbed to a disease that wiped it out. Honduran scientists have developed another — supposedly disease-free — breed, the Goldfinger, but it looks and tastes different, “tart” and “less creamy”. But, asks Koeppel, “how can consumers accept any other kind of banana as a banana?”

HOPING THAT WORKERS will make a decent living from the latex trees on a small scale instead of destroying them, the Brazilian government is building a condom factory at Xapuri, in Acre state where Chico Mendes was martyred after his assassination 20 years ago for opposing the destruction of the Amazon forest. The factory will be able to produce 100 million condoms a year reducing Brazil’s dependence on imports from Asia.

THE ENGLISH PUB is disappearing fast with an average of four closing down every day and beer sales having dropped in half in the past 30 years. The smoking ban is partly to blame with so many people staying away from pubs that drink sales in Scotland fell more than 10% last year. And a phenomenon known as “pre-loading” — getting tanked at home on cheap store-bought booze before going to the pub to meet friends — has also played a part. “Why would you pay ($5.50) for a pint of Fosters when you can buy the equivalent amount on special offer at Tesco for ($1.50)? asks The Week.

POPE BENEDICT XVI’s recent visit to the U.S. is likely to have been a boon to the holy relic business according to Forbes. “Anything he touched will count — a business card, a rosary, a faucet” if and when he is beatified, the magazine says. Although the Vatican bars the actual sale of such items as bone fragments from saints, pieces of the Holy Cross, and even Mother Teresa’s tennis shoes, dealers get around it by selling reliquaries — containers containing the relics — with the latter thrown in for free. “Some first-class relics come with a red papal seal (meaning they’ve been vetted by the Vatican)…..(and) customers report relics with palpable heartbeats.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: On May 26 it will be exactly 100 years since British geologists discovered oil in what is today’s Iran…..Serious problems arising from more passengers carrying their bags aboard planes and finding nowhere to put them have already begun…. Author Sebastian Faulks has been hired to write the 36th Ian Fleming novel about James Bond, Devil May Care, to mark the centenary of Fleming’s birth, May 28…Guy Negre, a 67-year-old engineer, has invented a car that runs on compressed air but it has limited range: the tank that holds it weighs 200 lbs and has to be refilled constantly…. The Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole has devised a “dinner bell” with which sea bass can be trained to enter a steel cage for feeding and be trapped…..Katherine Ashenberg’s new book, Clean: An Unsanitized History of Washing writes that Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) bathed once a month declaring “whether I need it or not”…. San Francisco is about to designate a dozen parking meters as collectors for donations to the homeless. Other cities that have tried this, report disappointing results with donors opining they prefer the smile that meets their personal hand-out…. “Being a star,” mused the late Sammy Davis, “has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.” ….. Not everybody loves Sex and the City (which already opened in London) and which Times critic Michael Gove says “deserves to be remembered as an episode in emptiness.”… Consulting the conductor’s score and whatever other evidence was available, musicologist Timothy Brock reconstructed the original music from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times which will be played live when the movie screens at the Ojai Film Festival next month. …..“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)