Anneli Rufus

Did a Narcissist Steal Your Self-Esteem?

He watched his mother talk—about her hair, her friends, her car—for twenty minutes. When she paused for breath, he said: "I got promoted at work. They're sending me to—"

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I Completely Lost My Will to Write After a Long Career - Until I Discovered Graphic Novels

I've just e-published my first graphic novel. I'm not sure whether this is a radiant, birdsong-bright threshold or the cold end of the road. I'm proud of it, but also horribly ashamed.

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Why Changing My Name Was and Wasn't the Worst Thing I Ever Did

You might recognize my name—my byline, as we writers say, seizing this shard of shoptalk as our consolation prize for earning far less than we ever dreamed we would.

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Poop Is the Most Important Indicator of Your Health

In a dirty, crowded world where germs are outsmarting drugs by leaps and bounds and our health care options may or may not be mired in red tape for years, we're being forced to face feces. Which is kind of a good thing. They're the ID cards our bodies issue, charting with terrifying accuracy where we've been and what we've done. The bowel knows.

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Why the Breakfast Most Americans Will Eat Today Is a Corporate Scam

Breakfast in America is a corporate scam.

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10 Tricks That Con Artists Use to Scam the Elderly

The older we get, the more attractive we become -- to fraudsters. Preying on those breakdowns that come with age, from hearing loss to loneliness, criminals tailor special scams with seniors in mind. Financial crimes against the elderly are rampant. Bank accounts are being quietly wiped out. Afraid, betrayed, blaming themselves for being fooled -- believe me, I've seen it -- victims hesitate to call the cops. For most of us, these crimes are scroll-over territory because seniors and what happens to them aren't sexy. Members of the elderly crowd having their purses snatched by phony plumbers or being convinced to buy shares in companies that don't exist? We don't want to go there. Fraudsters do. Maybe one of them is ringing your mother's doorbell right now.

Here are ten common scams that target seniors.

1. "You've Already Won…."
Official-looking documents designed to trick recipients into thinking they've won money are worded carefully so as to stay legal. These documents hide crucial information (e.g., the fact that they're not really prize announcements) in tiny italic type -- because reading italics is much harder for people with low vision than reading upright fonts. Following "instructions," recipients send checks that they believe are processing fees to faraway post-office boxes. The amounts are small -- from $5 to $50 --but they add up, given that individual scammers typically operate several fake-sweepstakes scams simultaneously. Addresses of those who send checks are sold to other scammers; more sweepstakes letters pour in. "It plays on the emotions," says Melodye Kleinman of the National Telemarketing Victim Call Center. In one recent case NTVCC handled, an 88-year-old widow spent over $60,000 on fake sweepstakes in just two years.

2. Talk to Me
Seniors are prime targets for sleazy telemarketers "because they're usually home during the day when the calls come in," Kleinman says. "They're lonely, so they'll talk" to friendly-sounding strangers who call and ask them questions about themselves, then tell them they've won prizes or offer "great deals" on nonexistent merchandise, services, or financial plans. In order to claim these nonexistent prizes or deals -- and to cover alleged postage and handling or first-installment fees -- victims divulge their credit-card and bank-account numbers. "We want to convince people just to hang up" when strangers call, Kleinman says. "But there's a human tendency to share information about yourself if someone asks for it in a certain way."

3. Spectral Startups
This is telemarketing mixed with the long con, a sophisticated process that comprises half of NTVCC's cases. Calling seniors whom they suspect are fairly well-off -- especially seniors who were or are businesspeople --scammers proffer bogus investment opportunities. "The callers say, 'I've got a great deal for you; we can move on it really fast,'" Kleinman says. "They say, 'If you had invested in Microsoft, think how rich you'd be now. Well, this is a similar opportunity, so let's get started. Can I have your $50,000 right now?'" Some victims fork it over. Some ask for evidence -- and are sent authentic-looking materials detailing nonexistent projects and companies. Many involve films, Kleinman says: "They promise that you'll get to walk down the red carpet with big stars." In one recent case, a man with dementia "invested" in a nonexistent series of religious films for children. NTVCC called in the FBI; the scammer was arrested and convicted.

4. Engine Trouble
Pulling into a parking space, a senior exits his or her car and enters a store. The scammer, who has been waiting and watching specifically for elderly drivers, swiftly approaches the car after its owner is out of sight and disables it, typically by detaching a spark-plug wire. The scammer then waits -- nearby but not so nearby as to look suspicious -- for the senior to return. When the car doesn't start, the scammer poses as a helpful passerby, fixes it, then demands a large cash reward. "They literally get into the car and go to the bank with the elderly person," says economic-crime detective Joe Roubicek, who works with the Florida State Attorney's office and covers such scams at his website and in his book, Financial Abuse of the Elderly (Ruby House, 2008).

5. I.O.U.
Seniors are easily persuaded to loan money to relatives, employees, neighbors, and "friends" who will never pay them back. Seniors loan money because they're lonely and believe the loan will buy companionship. They do it because they're afraid of what the loanee will do if they refuse. They do it because they tell themselves: It's not so much. I'm not using it for anything else. I won't even notice its absence. So-and-so needs it more than I do right now. They do it because they're afraid of seeming selfish or cheap if they don't. They do it because they believe the loanee's (usually false) reason for requesting it. But receiving such loans often counts as a crime, Roubicek says. "Lack of capacity" -- physical and/or mental --"is assumed to be lack of consent in criminal law, whether it be personal loans, sweepstakes fraud, or selling a $1,200 refrigerator to a 96-year-old man."

6. Doom on the Doorstep
A common gambit finds scammers cruising neighborhoods in small groups. Targeting seniors who live alone, they ring doorbells. Greeting the senior, Roubicek says, "they claim they've been sent by the local gas or water company to check or fix something." To aid the scam, scammers often wear ersatz uniforms. Invited in by the credulous senior, two scammers pretend to do the checkup or repair while another distracts the senior with friendly conversation or a fake questionnaire as a fourth cruises the home stealing valuables. Sometimes these scammers also unlock back doors or windows to facilitate future burglaries. Some of these scammers "accidentally" spill liquids such as cleaning fluids on seniors' hands, slipping off the seniors' jewelry while "gallantly" wiping their hands clean, Roubicek says.

7. Readymade Repairs
Yet another doorstep scam entails "gardeners" or "handymen" offering to do "necessary" repair work --on cracked driveways, say, or dangling half-broken tree limbs. (As part of this scam, they have often secretly perpetrated this damage themselves.) Claiming that these conditions, if unrepaired, will damage the homes or violate city codes, these scammers scare seniors into hiring them on the spot. Some demand to be paid in advance for labor plus materials: Once paid, they drive off -- allegedly to buy those materials -- but never return. Some actually do the work but without specifying a fee beforehand. Once finished, they demand exorbitant fees, threatening to call the cops if the victim doesn't pay. These scams too often end with lucrative trips to ATMs.

8. In the House
Granted unlimited access to seniors' bodies and homes, "caregivers top the list" of those who exploit the elderly, Roubicek says. Although caregiver agencies are required by law to do background checks on all potential employees, many don't bother. Roubicek says this kind of perp often has no criminal record, but simply can't resist the temptation to snatch unattended cash, clothes, credit cards, medications, checkbooks, jewelry, electronics, and personal information. "Once caught, these culprits rationalize their crimes, saying, 'The old lady wanted me to have this; she loves me,'" Roubicek says. Forgetful seniors face yet another scam when employees who have been paid claim that they haven't. Forgetting that they wrote the previous checks, the seniors write more.

9. For a Good Cause
Anyone can start a nonprofit organization, Roubicek says. The process requires merely a declaration that "it's for a cause -- any cause." Scammers often choose names for their fake nonprofits that can easily be mistaken for the names of well-known real nonprofits. Choosing "causes" such as health and children's welfare that appeal to seniors, they solicit "donations" via mass mailings and telemarketing. Roubicek cites one such scammer whose telemarketing teams target seniors in areas where police officers have recently been killed in the line of duty. These seniors' are told that their "donations" will help the dead cops' kids. "And while the law says that a nonprofit has to put some money toward the cause every year, it doesn't say how much." Kleinman has seen a large influx lately of fake green nonprofits: "They say they're doing alternative energy, building windmill farms and solar farms in the desert." They're not.

10. And You Are … ?
Personal information can be stolen from all of us in a distressingly wide variety of ways: via our mailboxes, wallets, purchases, Internet activities, medical records, and trash and recycling bins. In terms of identification theft, seniors are easy prey, whether it's because they're forgetful, because they're incapacitated, because they're not Internet-savvy, because they're trusting, and/or because their belongings are often within prowling-range of employees, relatives and even strangers. To their horror and often too late, they learn that their names and Social Security Numbers have been used to start credit accounts and facilitate shopping sprees, vacations, educations and addictions. Savvy scammers "can clean out their victims' bank accounts online," Roubicek laments, "although these days the banks are becoming a little more restrictive.

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Why the Eyewear Industry Is An Incredible Rip-Off

Those of us who need prescription eyewear need prescription eyewear. Are you wearing yours to read this? Imagine if you weren't. Imagine life without your glasses for a year, a week, an hour. Yet many health insurance plans, especially for the unemployed or self-employed, don't cover them.

Mine doesn't.

I recently went shopping for no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames. Name brands mean nothing to me. Price does. My high astigmatism and need for bifocals disqualify me from those buy-one-get-one-free deals, which almost always involve only single-vision specs.

In store after store, megachains and optical boutiques alike, small oval metal frames fitted with lenses matching my prescription started at $300. One popular shop quoted me $582 for the lenses alone.

I bought a pair of no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames for $44 online. I'm wearing them right now.

Perhaps because prescription glasses are where medicine meets fashion, they're among the world's most overpriced merchandise. Imperfect eyesight isn't your fault: You can't make yourself nearsighted by eating too much fudge. Yet if your health plan excludes vision care, you've spent years at the mercy of a $64 billion industry characterized by 500-percent markups.

This has begun to change over the last few years. A knowledge-is-power, power-to-the-people, Web-driven DIY wave is rocking the optical industry's very foundations. Dozens of companies now sell prescription glasses online, frames and lenses included, for as little as $7.95.

It works like this: Google "cheap glasses" to find a frame you like at a price you like at a site you like. (Among the most popular are 39DollarGlasses, ZenniOptical — where I bought mine — and Goggles4U.) Use the virtual fitting mechanism to "try it on." Type in your prescription (obtained from an actual eye doctor), pupillary distance (aka PD, derived by measuring the space between your pupils with a ruler), address and payment information. Send.

It's a virtual myopian/hyperopian/presbyopian Tea Party, led largely by Minnesota software engineer Ira Mitchell, who launched his revolutionary GlassyEyes blog (its motto is "Saving the World from Overpriced Glasses!") in 2006. Packed with forums, product reviews, discount deals, and tips for buying specs online, it's the vision-impaired version of Yelp.

"There is no appreciable functional or material difference" between prescription eyewear bought online and bought in brick-and-mortar stores, Mitchell tells me, but in stores "the cost to the consumer is anywhere from four to ten times more. It turns out that they’re making ridiculous margins on the frames, the lenses and the coatings."

Complete with antiscratch coatings and other pluses, his own glasses cost between $30 and $60 per pair online. Over the last three years, he’s bought around 40 pairs — because, at that price, he can.

Mitchell was appalled when he first began researching wholesale prices for optical merchandise and realized that opticians acquire lenses for as little as $3 each. "I've easily paid twenty times that when I didn't know any better," he says.

Granted, these glass, plastic, polycarbonate or polymer blanks must be ground to fit frames and prescriptions, and this takes work, but it's not rocket science. Typically, lens grinding is done by optical laboratory technicians. According to, OLTs in the United States earn between $9.73 and $14.40 per hour. Most learn on the job, and have only a high-school diploma or a GED. No specific certification is required.

The fleecing, Mitchell says, is just as bad on frames.

"A consumer-level frame costs significantly less than $10 to manufacture. The rest is operations, licensing and profit. Think about that the next time you pick up an average $150 frame. These aren't markedly different or superior to the $30 glasses available from reputable online dealers — and those include lenses, probably the same ones you were just about to pay $200 for in the store."

A key to the industry-standard overpricing is the fact that a single corporation — Luxottica, the world's largest eyewear firm — owns many retail eyewear chains and many popular eyewear brands. Based in Milan, Italy, Luxottica owns and operates LensCrafters, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Ilori, and other chains in the United States, along with yet more chains throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, India, the Antipodes and the Middle East.

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There Is No Biological Reason to Eat Three Meals a Day - So Why Do We Do It?

We grew up believing in three meals a day.

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'Spontaneous' Combustion: Can Bodies Burn From the Inside Out?

Can bodies burn from the inside out? When human beings are discovered burned to a crisp alone in their otherwise unscathed homes amidst no evidence of mayhem -- no telltale blowtorches, cigarettes or Butane -- rumors swirl: of mysteries and miracles in which bodies inexplicably burst into flames. It might be an urban legend, sheer magic or divine wrath (hey, it happens in Leviticus), but it is one of the most hotly debated (and hot) causes of death.

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Does Chocolate Go with Everything? America's Haute Cuisine Crowd Seems to Think So

We have reached a point in history at which chefs and chocolatiers will stick almost any damn thing into or onto chocolate and stand back smilingly awaiting our applause. Not just nuts or caramel anymore but -- you know. Durian, beer and meat.

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How a Loan Between Friends Can Destroy the Relationship

At this point in history, money holds such massive emotional baggage that asking Can I have some of yours for a while? or Will I ever get it back? are some of life's weightier questions.

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Better Than Sugar? The Truth About 6 Alternative Natural Sweeteners

It's been a wild week in the sugar wars. Disney just announced that it will ban ads for candy, sweet cereals and other sugary foods on all child-focused broadcasting. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on the sale of large sugary drinks. On the heels of a brand-new UCLA study linking high-fructose corn-syrup consumption with memory loss, the USDA rejected a petition last Thursday from the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar."

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Why Your Race or Gender May Affect How Much Pain You Feel

Pain isn't gender-neutral.

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So What Does it Mean that Studies Reveal that Moderate Drinkers Are Healthier than Teetotalers ?

We know too much drinking can be hazardous to our health. But new research suggests that drinking too little might be hazardous, too.

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Why the Breakfast Most Americans Will Eat Today Is a Corporate Scam

Breakfast in America is a corporate scam.

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Did Ex-Cons Bake Your Birthday Cake?

Attending a launch party for the third annual Tasty Awards in San Francisco last Sunday, I met some local vintners and chocolatiers and sampled napoleons, clafoutis, creampuffs, cheesepuffs and cinnamon crispies that might very well have been baked by felons.

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Why Prescription Ecstasy or LSD Could Happen Much Sooner Than You Think

Let's say an abuse-ridden childhood has left you with PTSD that sparks panic whenever you hear shouts, even on TV. Or let's say a bad accident has saddled you with crippling anxiety and chronic pain. Now let's say that you could ease -- or even cure -- these woes with prescription psiloscybin. Prescription ecstasy. Prescription LSD.

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The Strange History of Ramen Noodles

Ramen is racist.

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Why Are People Willing to Fork Out a Fortune for Shoes That Cost Little to Make?

Shoes are fashion's version of drugs.

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Bed Bug Infestation Is Scaring Millions Of Americans

Peter Krask stepped out of his New York City apartment one day last year, shut the door, and walked away forever, leaving behind almost everything he owned.

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Cash-Crunched Resorts and Hotels Find That Going Green Is a Good Way to Scrimp on Money

When breakfast-buffet diners pile more bacon, biscuits, homefries and pancakes than they can eat onto their plates at the Embassy Suites Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, California, it goes uneaten, abandoned in jagged, stickily gleaming heaps. But it doesn't go to waste. Tipped into bin-bags, tons of leftovers are toted about 10 miles to Full Circle Compost. Full Circle sells its compost to nearby Hungry Mother Organics, which uses it to grow lettuce and heirloom tomatoes. Full Circle also sells soil to the Embassy Suites: It's the only soil used in the hotel's leafy atrium, a skylight-illuminated indoor forest stocked with $500,000 worth of ficus, ferns and palms.

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Do We Really Have a 5th Taste? What Is the Umami Fad All About?

You know a food fad has permeated the mainstream when it has been covered on NPR, when restaurants all over the country are named after it, and the American Idol runner-up loves it. Well, that's where we are with umami, the Japanese-derived so-called "fifth taste" (after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that's somewhere between richness and savoriness and has generated so much buzz these last few years as to no longer merit italics. Asked to name her favorite Idol-season meal in Los Angeles, Joplinesque second-placer Crystal Bowersox praised Umami Burger, which now has four locations. And so it spreads like Marmite, which allegedly purveys it: the notion that umami is cool, that umami is real, and that umami has always been here.  

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Why Caffeine Is the Perfect Addiction for a Worker Bee Society

According to a new study released this week, caffeine turns human beings into efficient worker bees. Led by Katharine Ker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the study found that caffeine "significantly reduced the number of errors" made by workers in a series of 13 trials. "One trial comparing the effects of caffeine with a nap found that there were significantly less errors made in the caffeine group," reads the official report.

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Poop Is the Most Important Indicator of Your Health

According to a lawsuit filed this month, Ron and Sarah Bowers bought their son a Subway sandwich in Lombard, Illinois on February 27. After eating it, he had agonizing cramps and diarrhea. According to the suit, what the couple really bought was a shit sandwich.

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Is Eating Sugar Really That Bad for Us?

Want to gross yourself out? Imagine eating eight teaspoons of sugar straight out of the bag. Yeek, right? That's how much sugar is in a can of Coke. A Grande Vanilla Starbucks Frappuccino has 11. A McDonald's Strawberry Triple Thick Shake has 27.

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Is Child Kidnapper Philip Garrido More Evil Than Jeffrey Dahmer? Expert Offers Handy 22-Point Ranking Guide

Leonard Lake didn't seem evil to my husband when the pair worked side by side. Annoying, a pain in the ass, but not evil.

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Apocalypse in the Oceans

In pictures, on CSI Miami, and to the naked eye the sea looks the same today as it ever did: blue, green or blue-green, rolling in glassy crashing curls, tormented then serene. It will look this way tomorrow, next year, arguably for eternity. No matter what freaks us out on earth, our species takes great comfort in knowing that the sea always looks exactly the same.

From up here.

But not down there. Not underneath. Under the swells and the sparkles and the froth, fathoms down, the globe's oceans have transformed over the last several decades, transforming even as we sit here into wastelands, ghost worlds, desolate deathscapes that could be filmed in situ for sci-fi films about the post-apocalypse. You won't find this out from a day at the beach. The smiling sea captain depicted on the fish-sticks box is keeping mum. But Canadian food journalist Taras Grescoe tells all in his important new book, Bottomfeeder (Bloomsbury, 2008).

"Rather quickly, the oceans are becoming environments unlike any we have ever known," Grescoe agonizes, giving as his first example the North Atlantic, where he watches Nova Scotian fishermen exulting over a new lobster boom while apparently neither knowing nor caring about its probable cause: human greed.

Yes, climate change plays a part but it's marginal compared to the massive overfishing required to supply restaurants and stores in a world that stuffs itself on tuna sandwiches, salmon steaks, shrimp cocktail and sashimi.

"The shallow waters off Nova Scotia used to be full of swordfish and bluefin tuna, as well as untold numbers of hake, halibut, and haddock. Cod in particular were the apex predators in these parts," Grescoe writes. (Later in the book, he quotes early observers describing "cod mountains" off a once-rich Newfoundland coast where the fifteenth-century navigator John Cabot reported cod populations so thick that they actually blocked his ships' passage.) Cod, Grescoe writes, once "prowled the gullies offshore in dense shoals, using their powerful mouths to suck up free-swimming larvae, sea urchins, and even full-grown crustaceans. But the cod were fished to collapse in the early 1990s. With the cod gone, stocks of lobsters and other low-in-the-food-chain species exploded." By wiping out predator species, the fishing industry screws up ecosystems. As sea creatures high on the food chain disappear, their populations more than decimated in the last half-century, a lobster boom "may just be a tiny blip on a slippery slope to oceans filled with jellyfish, bacteria, and slime."

Meanwhile, overfishing has created some 150 "dead zones" -- oxygen-free patches of ocean that can sustain no life -- around the world: Some of these patches, Grescoe tells us forebodingly, "are now as large as Ireland." In search of seafloor-dwelling species such as the trendy monkfish -- long ignored, then popularized singlehandedly by Julia Child in 1979 -- bottom-trawls weighing more than 26,000 pounds each rake and flatten wildlife-rich undersea peaks, leaving a paved-looking flatness in their wake. Oh, and a large percentage of coral reefs worldwide are dying or already dead. Oh, and those bluefin tuna and halibut steaks you like? Say it with me: Mercury. Those jumbo fried shrimp battened on pesticides and antibiotics in bacteria-riddled Chinese farms, their decomposing flesh treated with borax? How's your health insurance?

It is happening right this minute but not quite right before our eyes. This is exactly the sort of thing our species prefers not to think about. What kind of catastrophe is it? Take your pick. Ecological. Medical.

And ethical: Grescoe started this project as a diner, "a fish lover, but … no fish hugger" who has caught and eaten seafood eagerly all his life. But knowing as he does "that ours might be among the last generations in history able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught wild fish," his fantasies of sampling Japanese pufferfish and Chinese "drunken shrimp" slam hard against reality:

"I draw the line," he resolves, "where the pursuit or cultivation of my dinner obviously damages the environment, where cruelty is involved, where pollution or adulterants make it unsafe to eat. I would get no pleasure from eating a nearly extinct songbird, wine made from tiger bones, or the last few grams of beluga caviar from the Caspian. For me, a pleasure that diminishes the experience of everybody else on earth is no pleasure at all."

Fair enough. So in this spirit of sad apprehension he set out around the world to report on the state of some of humanity's most celebrated seafoods and the communities surrounding their consumption: from Chesapeake Bay oysters to Japanese sushi to English fish and chips and beyond. Part detective, part adventurer, part whistleblower, he reveals underhanded practices, such as Japan's "scientific" whale fishing, and outright crime, such as tons of cod harvested illegally, exceeding official quotas, during their spawning season by Russian ships that offload their catch to other ships at sea in order to evade detection. (Greenpeace calls this "pirate fishing.") The results end up in myriad English "chippies," doused with salt and vinegar.

And we learn about "finning," the practice of slicing off just-caught sharks' pectoral and dorsal fins -- destined for soup -- with hot metal blades. "Kicked back into the ocean, alive and bleeding," it can take the sharks days to die. Nearly forty million are killed this way annually. Seventeen countries, including the US and Canada, now ban finning, but China and the EU are among the world's remaining avid finners; Grescoe identifies Spain as the most avid of all. Although shark hunting is technically forbidden in Galpagos National Park, a vast marine reserve, some 300,000 sharks are caught there every year. Until the 1960s, whitetip sharks were "the most abundant large animals on earth," Grescoe writes. "Forty years later they have all but disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico," where they once thrived. "Up the length of the Atlantic coast, the story is the same: since 1972, bull, dusky, smooth, and hammerhead shark populations have all been fished to one percent of their former levels." Who cares? Well, it's all about the ecosystems. Sharks eat skates and rays. Sans sharks, skyrocketing skate and ray populations are eating scallops and clams into extinction.

This book is a veritable eulogy. For ecosystems. For the toxic, dead water. For sea creatures. And for many of our fellow human beings, although honestly it's hard to care much at this point about anyone who would eat sharkfins or whale: "Every year, twenty thousand tons of heavy metals and eight hundred tons of cyanide end up in Chinese waters," Grescoe reveals. Unsurprisingly, two years ago cancer has been the leading cause of death in China. Massive quantities of cheap seafood from pesticide-suffused Chinese fish farms is exported worldwide; only a fraction is tested or inspected. Much is infected with salmonella and listeria. Most has lived its life in water thick with fecal bacteria, human and animal: "The fish, in other words, were bathing in shit."

It's also a eulogy for lifestyles, for old-fashioned fisherfolk in those seafaring communities that spent centuries supporting themselves by catching, processing, selling and eating species in the wild: scallops in North Carolina, oysters in Chesapeake, hake in Namibia, shrimp in Tamil Nadu, India. On one hand, you could say, Hey, they did it to themselves: got too greedy, maintained certain tactics that became unsustainable. On the other hand, you could say it's sad -- that these communities fell victim to intrusive large-scale foreign operations, as fishing has gone from local to global: As an example, Grescoe visited a huge Nova Scotia processing plant that used to handle cod from Canadian waters but now gets its cod from Russia, its salmon from Chile, its catfish from Vietnam. The factory outsources labor-intensive tasks, such as skewering salmon, to China. The finished product is labeled "Product of Canada."

You could say too that the residents of these communities are relatively powerless over such government-controlled decisions as the 1.5 billion gallons of urban sewage that pour into Chesapeake Bay every day. Grescoe sympathizes with the Tamil Nadu fisherfolk who, put out of business by industrial shrimp farms, tell him: "Our village is going to die." But an encounter with a Yorkshireman who blusters angrily after being arrested for catching more than his legal share -- and who blames declining salmon and cod populations on "horrible, sliming, stinking, eye-watering bloody seals" -- leaves Grescoe cold:

"This kind of attitude lies at the heart of the problems facing the oceans," he seethes. "It is the ongoing plunder of the seas, done in the name of keeping a boat afloat for another season, and multiplied a hundred thousand times in all the ports of the world .... If this were still the age of inexhaustible cod mountains and endless salmon rivers, such a display of spirit might be admirable. It is the essence of the indomitable, short-sighted, buck-passing Atlantic fisherman: an independent, almost lordly working-class hero, romanticized to death in our culture. As long as there is a single jellyfish left in the ocean, he will be ready to go out and catch it." And jellyfish, down at the foot of the food chain, will be the last edible species out there in a not-too-distant future when our great-grandchildren, Grescoe half-jokes, will eat "peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches" and "jellyfish and chips."

He agrees with the scientists and activists who now advocate a "slow-fish" movement. It would entail banning destructive fishing methods such as bottom-trawling; "revalorizing" earlier techniques such as hook-and-line; protecting overfished species; and drastically reducing aquaculture -- that is, fish farming -- as well as government subsidies to fishing fleets. And while Grescoe doesn't suggest never eating any seafood again, he now chooses his intelligently: avoiding the farmed, the faraway, the overfished, and those large, long-lived, high-on-the-food-chain species such as halibut, tuna, shark and swordfish whose meat is infused with mercury and other chemicals known to cause eventual nerve damage. Instead, he suggests sardines, sea urchins and squid: In other words: Become a Bottomfeeder -- at least until, and if, the seas stop dying.

Berkeley Protesters Battle Over Generals and Genitalia

In that seductively hot mid-February sunshine that is peculiar to Berkeley, phalanxes of teens from nearby Berkeley High School wearing bright-orange World Can't Wait bandannas faced off yesterday against supporters of the US military. On January 29, the Berkeley City Council passed a now-famous resolution declaring the Marine Corps "uninvited and unwelcome intruders" for establishing a downtown officer-recruiting center. Anticipating last night's subsequent council meeting, at which that issue was to be revisited (and where the resolution was, by night's end, rescinded), a crowd that the Berkeley Police Department estimates at 2,000 roiled in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park across from City Hall, on whose front lawn Code Pink had pitched a tent city.

The homophobic Kansas-based Reverend Fred Phelps was expected to arrive, but did not show.

Tempers flared as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and other tunes boomed from a powerful sound system controlled by the pro-Marines side, whose placards included "Freedom Isn't Free: Never Was and Never Will Be" and "Keep Your Burka, I'll Keep My Clitoris." Now and then someone from the antiwar side - whose placards included "Stop Bush's Death Pimps" and "War Isn't Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" - would pull the plug on the sound system and the music would halt abruptly, so that all you could hear were the chants and the shouts. Antiwar protesters sang "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine," while some of the youngest among them engaged in screaming matches with military supporters.

At one point, for example, a high-school girl asked an elderly vet, "Why don't you take your old ass over there and fight?"

Thou Shalt Find It Impossible to Live Like the Bible Tells You to

He didn't want to stone adulterers. But that was part of the deal. That's what A.J. Jacobs was being paid for.

"The Hebrew scriptures prescribe a tremendous amount of capital punishment," Jacobs writes in The Year of Living Biblically (Simon & Schuster, 2007), his account of an experiment in which the lifelong agnostic spent 12 months obeying the Old Testament as literally as possible -- while living in an Upper West Side apartment and working for Esquire.

"Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that. It wasn't just for murder. You could also be executed for adultery, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, incest, bestiality, and witchcraft, among others. A rebellious son could be sentenced to death. As could a son who is a persistent drunkard and glutton.

"The most commonly mentioned punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone. But how?"

At the time, Jacobs was in month two of his venture, still throbbing with a neophyte's enthusiasm: "I want to smash idols," he surprised himself by musing. Gathering a pocketful of tiny white pebbles in Central Park, he strolled until he met an irascible old man who mocked Jacobs' walking stick. When this man -- having been asked -- declared himself an adulterer, Jacobs lobbed a pebble at his chest. It bounced off.

He had grown up in a resolutely secular Jewish home -- sans bar mitzvah, sans Sabbath candles; he was even named after his still-living father, such an Ashkenazic rarity that an El Al security officer, eyeing the "Jr." on his passport six months into the experiment, doubted that Jacobs was even Jewish at all. "I'm Jewish," he writes, "in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant."

All through school, even at a university "where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition" and where the Bible was viewed "as a fusty, ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene," he'd been taught that the Bible inspired "many of humankind's greatest achievements: the civil rights movement, charitable giving, the abolition of slavery." And also, of course, that "it's been used to justify our worst: war, genocide and the subjugation of others."

By his late 30s, he'd long since decided "that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high."

Then he became a father. And he couldn't reconcile raising a child without religion without learning more about religion. Firsthand.

As an Esquire reporter, Jacobs was into total-immersion journalism. His previous book, The Know-It-All (Simon & Schuster, 2004), detailed a year spent reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica from A through Z. Now, eyeing his small son, he mused: "If my lack of religion is a flaw, I don't want to pass it on to him."

And lo.

After poring over various versions of the Old and New Testaments and consulting with numerous clergy and academics over myriad interpretations, it began: a year in which he prayed several times daily (although, at first, merely saying the word "God" made him break out in sweats). He blew a ram's horn monthly. He stopped saying the word "Thursday" because its name derives from that of a pagan god, Thor. He refrained from turning doorknobs on Saturdays and from touching his wife for seven days after her periods. He visited Samaritans in Israel and snake handlers in Tennessee. He grew a chest-length beard that had strangers calling him ZZ Top and Gandalf; and he limited his fruit consumption to cherries -- you know, because Leviticus 19:23-25 forbids eating fruit from trees less than five years old. Peach trees start bearing at only two: "Too dangerous," Jacobs notes. "Pear trees in four. Again, too risky. But cherry trees, those are slowpokes. They take at lease five to seven from planting to produce."

From the outset, he felt overwhelmed: not just by the ten familiar commandments about lust and coveting and parents and so on, but also by the 600-plus other rules he discovered in those translucent, densely packed pages: the prohibition against wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, for instance, and "the command to break a cow's neck at the site of an unsolved murder."

That one's in Deuteronomy.

The more rules he discovered, the more alarmed he became that millions of Americans today claim to adhere literally to the Bible's word. Or, as they would say, its Word. Gallup polls put that number at 28 percent last year: almost a third of the country's population. The Pew Research Center put it slightly higher, at 36 percent, disaggregating the data in one report to note that more women than men take the Bible literally, "but race and education are bigger factors. A solid majority of African-Americans (61 percent) take the Bible as the actual word of God, compared to just 34 percent of whites. Half of those who have not completed high school and nearly as many high school graduates (44 percent) adhere to the Bible's literal interpretation, compared to just 18 percent of college graduates," the Pew report reads.

Jacobs reminds us: "A literal interpretation of the Bible -- both Jewish and Christian -- shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion -- right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday." Like a sinister refrain in a movie soundtrack, that brooding truth lurks behind everything that happens in this book. It ping-ping-pings as we read of Jacobs' visit to a Kentucky creationist museum with robotic dinosaurs and to the vast Virginia megachurch where he watched Jerry Falwell preach. (Although he spent his year adhering to the Old Testament, to deepen his understanding Jacobs spent the last few months interacting with New Testament believers.) Strangers at the megachurch were "disorientingly friendly," clasping Jacobs' hands and maintaining intense eye contact. But Falwell's sermon itself was "kind of ... bland. There was no fire, no brimstone," Jacobs marvels. "That's the big secret: The radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring" than the rest of us would ever guess.

He confronted evangelicals about the biblical take on homosexuality, was unsatisfied with their explanations -- and then, back in New York, he discovered Evangelicals Concerned, a prayer group whose zealous, fundamentalist members are all openly, proudly gay:

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High Adventure Is Hard to Find in This Explored-Already World

Seizing a tubful of dishes from a busboy, Pete Jordan hefted it back into the dishpit. Stacking plates into the huge Hobart washer, he "struck pay dirt: some garlic bread and remnants of crème brûlée. I smeared the crème brûlée onto the garlic bread and scarfed it down. Scrumptious, said my taste buds."

What he called the Bus Tub Buffet sometimes yielded strudel, sometimes schnitzel, because this was a Vermont ski chalet. Around closing time -- "wine o'clock" -- Jordan and the waitstaff swilled cooking sherry together from jars.

Gross grunge-wallow, or what? Was this the nadir in the life-so-far of Jordan, a twentysomething Catholic-school grad from San Francisco?

Well -- no. It was high adventure, or what amounts to that in a paved-over, explored-already world. We can't load pack mules with mosquito nets and pemmican anymore and strike out across the Yangtze (factory emissions, poisoned meat), the Fertile Crescent (abductions, IEDs), or the Ozarks (country-music theme parks, meth labs).

We can hunt MIA soldiers' bones in Burma with Earl Swift in Where They Lay (Mariner, $14). We can build the world's biggest and highest-tech yacht -- as long as a football field, its masts and fifteen massive sails computer-operated -- with David Kaplan in Mine's Bigger (William Morrow, $25.95). We can pop Valium and distribute humanitarian aid in Sadr City with Ray Lemoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster in Babylon by Bus (Penguin, $15).

For thousands of years -- like, since Herodotus -- explorers' exploits jazzed our ancestors, reassuring them that somewhere far beyond the chickenpox and gruel lay wondrous lands whose residents wore funny hats and didn't know what thermometers were. Such tales fueled hopes and dreams, even for readers who knew that they would never leave Springfield.

But that vicarious buzz dulled with every new highway, every hotel chain. Frontier is a word we use mainly now about technology. And the fact that one must be ever more careful when describing cultures other than one's own is great for sensitivity -- but it screwed the adventure-book genre.

Yet whatever inspired explorers before still inspires them. Which is why Jordan, whose loathing for authority kept him from the sorts of jobs society expected him to hold, took up dishwashing. It was foul, but it was important. Kitchens depended on him. And as his coworkers traded tales about past gigs, the mention of Ypsilanti, Michigan, sparked an idea. He'd always loved poring over maps.

Twainishly irreverent, Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, $13.95) trawls the dishpits of an Alaskan salmon-fishing station, an Oregon Oktoberfest, a Mississippi Chinese restaurant. Jordan's descriptions of cigarette-butt-studded pasta and of roach-streams that resemble roiling brown leather are indeed gross and reveal what unseen workers face as we unfold napkins onto our laps and raise our forks in restaurants. But that's only part of the point. Mainly this is a new version of an age-old mission: "Traveling the country, seeking out intriguing workplaces in exotic locales, enjoying the freedom of living a life consciously devoted to a lack of responsibility."

If Jordan's quest was to stack, slack, and skip, then Chad Pregracke's was the virtual opposite. And still is, because while Jordan's quest lasted from 1989 to 2001, Pregracke's continues. Armed with barges, chains, and hazmat suits, he aims to clean up every river in America.

Halfway through college, Pregracke was camping on the shores of the Mississippi, where he had worked and played all his life. "I became disgusted with the garbage," he remembers, via his coauthor Jeff Barrow, in From the Bottom Up (National Geographic, $26). "Everywhere I went was littered with trash."

A commercial fisherman, he saw water and shore "carpeted with bright plastic bottles -- the yellow of oil containers, the red of antifreeze jugs, and a rainbow of brightly colored laundry bottles." Huge steel barrels clogged passageways. Cars and large appliances, sunk as a way to avoid junk-hauling fees, rusted on the river floor. At an Illinois campsite, Pregracke woke one morning to see the ground strewn with countless washed-up lightbulbs.

"That was the moment I knew what I had to do." But he didn't know how, so he contacted state agencies. All responded the same way, asking: What garbage?

With a twenty-foot motorboat, Pregracke launched his mission bottle by bottle, hauling "Mount Trashmores" to dumps and recycling centers. Word spread. Helpers arrived. He formed a nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters, and cleaned the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Illinois, and the Potomac. Boating terminology bogs down the narrative sometimes, but Pregracke's passion and big American vistas jolt you back into adventure mode.

With McDonald's thriving in Valparaiso and Tianjin, the nature of adventure has changed forever. Pregracke and Jordan set out not to marvel at humankind's handiwork but to scrub its effluent, its spew. Observing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal from his boat, Pregracke "renamed it the Chicago Sanitary and Shit Canal."

By virtue of being crowded and careless, we are cruel. That's what postmodern Marco Polos see. That's why Daniel Kalder, a Scotsman living in the former Soviet Union, undertook the industrial-badland forays described in Lost Cosmonaut (Scribner, $13) according to his own antitourist code, a self-imposed obstacle course: "The antitourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable. ... The antitourist prefers dead things to living ones. ... The antitourist values disorientation over enlightenment."

Prowling deserted museums, assailed by toothless alcoholics in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia, Kalder sought remnants of vanquished kingdoms and ethnic minorities "condemned to a long twilight" that is "the ultimate colonization" in a society determined to erase them. Grimly hilarious, Kalder recommends that four years be spent reading his book, "which is not so ridiculous when you consider that four years is approximately how much of our lives we spend shitting."

Effluent, again. Because the Seven Wonders were scoped out so long ago, and reshuffled and written about so many million times, that these are hard, strange times, for sure, for finding marvels.

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