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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: October 6, 2007


ANYBODY SPENDING TIME in England quickly becomes aware of the wide range and appeal of the take-home meals dispensed by what used to be — and to some extent remains — the clothing retailer, Marks & Spencer’s (to the Brits, Marks & Sparks). Despite having 760 stores in 30 countries (none in the U.S. and a failed Canadian venture) M&S’ reputation has slumped badly in recent years, but everybody praises the food.

And when the British supermarket chain Tesco — Britain’s biggest supermarket chain — moves into the western states next month this concept of ‘ready meals’ will be a major feature. “American supermarkets have not been innovative with prepared foods,” says Harvard Business School’s Rajiv Lal. “You can’t eat them more than three days a week without eating the same stuff. But I suspect there are people in Britain who live off prepared meals from Marks & Spencer for three weeks on end.”

Only Wal-Mart and France’s Carrefour in the entire world rack up more supermarket sales than Tesco so the British company can well afford to bet half a billion dollars on its gamble in the U.S. where it plans to open hundreds of its Free and Easy outlets, relatively small and local but combining convenience and quality food together. Prawn curry and organic beef in wine for anyone?

DECLINING CIRCULATIONS and revenue is forcing many newspapers to examine their printing costs, and for some group publications the answer is to coordinate production at one plant instead of each paper having its own presses. “Capital investment in the newspaper industry is very expensive so the last thing you want is a press that sits idle and can’t handle a variety of jobs,” says Gannett’s vp for production Austin Ryan.

With state of the art printing presses costing as much as $150 million, it makes sense to print several centrally-owned papers — such as half a dozen papers owned by Gannet in Wisconsin — at one or two plants instead of six. “Having production under one roof saves us a lot of money,” Greg Florito told the trade magazine Presstime.

TOURISTS MAY VISIT Cuba once but they don’t go back says the Economist because poor food, indifferent service, and the expense of having to change money into worthless pesos makes it expensive. “Castro seemed to see tourism as nothing more than a necessary evil,” the mag says, but his brother Raul seems to disagree and millions of dollars have been set aside to improve marinas and golf courses and build boutique hotels.

BY THE TIME primary school students are being taught about healthy eating, it might already be too late according to Dr. Neil Strickland. Writing in the British Journal of Nutrition, he reported that the offspring of rats fed on such junk foods such as donuts and potato chips showed a marked preference for high fat, sugary food and were up to 27% heavier. Research by London’s Royal Veterinary College suggested the findings might also apply to humans.

“When I started, I looked around and saw Paul McCartney, John Lennon and the Beach Boys with their happy, three-minute songs. I thought, they’re the heroes, the Peter Pans. I want to be Captain Hook,”
heavy metal star Alice Cooper — his stage persona said to be “a carefully constructed fantasy,” — explaining himself to the Daily Telegraph.

THE TRAFFIC ‘ROUNDABOUT’, so commonplace in Europe is gradually infiltrating American highways, reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) which estimates there are now about 1,000 throughout the country (compared with England’s 10,000 and France’s 20,000.) Almost half of U.S. traffic accidents occur at crossroads, so roundabouts, which eliminate traffic lights and the need to stop, reduce crashes, 80% fewer than at ordinary intersections in one recent year according to the IIHS.

THE BRITISH FILM INDUSTRY is to blame for the world seeing Brits incorrectly as “repressed and stiff upper-lipped,” explains Marcus Berkmann in the Independent. Actors are chosen for their ability to look good in period costume and to “portray a certain type of clenched Britishness that we all remember from films of the past but have never actually encountered in real life.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: Match-making still organizes most of the marriages in South Korea, but now the matches are made online via agencies run by  “middle-aged matriarchs”…. A British clothing firm, Trutex, is ready to implant GPS tracking devices into school uniforms so parents will always know where their kids are…. Geraldo Rivera came in second in a 1997 poll to name TV’s most frightening character. (Cryptkeeper was number 1)…. More than three quarters of employers now track the Internet use of their employees according to a survey by the American Management Association…. The sun is so hot, explained the English astronomer James Jean, that a pin-sized portion of it placed on earth would kill people 100 miles away…. Insanity is hereditary said Ronald Reagan. “You catch it from your kids”… Fraser’s, a London autograph dealer, offers Madonna’s autograph for $400; Laurel & Hardy’s for $4000… Bild, Germany’s biggest circulation daily (3.8 million) — and Europe’s third-largest — is about to publish a French edition…. Ginster’s, a bakery in Cornwall, already sponsors the Plymouth Argyle soccer club so it made sense to promote the autobiography of the club’s manager, Ian Holloway, on the wrapper of 3 million of its Cornish pasties…. More than half the world’s lakes are in Canada…. Origo Guide Pro is a watch that uses temperature and pressure sensors to predict when the fish are most likely to be biting…. “I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty,” reminisced George Burns…. The October issue of Bicycling magazine carries 24 pages of ads for cars…. One Horse Open Sleigh was copyrighted by church organist James Pierpont 150 years ago this month. In 1859, it was retitled Jingle Bells…. More than 3,000 of North America’s 40,000 cinema screens have already converted to digital — enabling them to be downloaded via satellite — and the big chains are expected to follow suit next year…“Victory goes to the player who makes the next to last mistake.” — Savielly Grigorievitch