Barry Gottlieb

Clock Cycles

One of the sad things about technology is that it always sinks to the lowest common denominator. Like poets, mimes, and failed presidential candidates, it starts with lofty intentions but before you can say "You've been Punk'd" it's wallowing in the gutter. Take television. In the beginning it was radio with pictures. Literally. They stuck a camera in front of entertainers doing their radio shows, meaning that instead of just listening to the program, people could now sit at home and comment about how no one looked the way they sounded. It took a while for people to start figuring out that television was a completely different medium and that they needed to make good use of this new technology by being innovative and creative, which led to shows such as The Simple Life, The Littlest Groom, and Family Affair, a program which was so innovative it had to be made a second time. See what I mean about gutters?

The same thing happened with the Internet. When it started out it was simply text on a screen because, well, that's all it was capable of displaying. Then the World Wide Web was invented and suddenly people could use graphics, create animations, and put cameras inside refrigerators so people with more time than ambition could watch mold growing on salsa left over from last year's Super Bowl. Then business discovered the technology, taking the innovative step of turning it into printed brochures viewed on a monitor. Now we've progressed to the point where we can read the newspaper, listen to music, order merchandise, and watch videos on the computer. Same junk, expensive new high-tech delivery system.

That's why it's nice to hear that there are people who are working to use the Internet in more innovative ways. Take the enterprising youths in Garland, TX who recently used the Internet to set up a gang fight. It began when they traded insults in a chat room, proving that not everyone is there to flirt with 65-year-old men masquerading as 16-year-old virgins named Briana. When they got bored with typing the same three curse words over and over without the benefit of a spellchecker, they decided to fight. They set the time and place online, almost calling it off when they realized they had to log off in order to go fight in person. Had they been truly innovative they would have had a virtual fight online at No one would have been hurt, 27 students wouldn't have to go through the rest of their lives with a police record hanging over their heads, and best of all, they'd be helping their hand-eye coordination.

Meanwhile in England it turns out a lot of people are using modern technology to perform tasks that are as old as mankind itself. You know, things like sending love letters, breaking up with a loved one, and quitting a job. Originally done face to face -- or face2face if you want to get modern about it -- these tasks became more virtual with the advent of paper, pencils, and BIC pens. As technology moved forward people became even less personal, breaking up by telephone, fax, and voicemail. Trust me, nothing says a relationship's over like getting a fax informing you that your erstwhile significant other has changed their phone number, the clothes you left in the closet are sitting on the sidewalk so you'd better hurry if you don't want to walk down the street and see a homeless person wearing your favorite shirt, and by the way, there's a restraining order taped to your toothbrush.

But this being the New Millennium, anyone who's even remotely hip knows that faxes and voicemail are oh-so-'90s. That's why people have turned to telephone text messaging. A recent survey in England found that 31 percent of adults have used text messaging to send a love letter, nine percent have used it to break off a relationship, and two percent have actually quit their jobs that way. It's a shame text messaging isn't more widely available in the U.S. or those Texas gangs could have used it, leaving the chat rooms to people who think they have better uses for it.

Luckily there are still some things that are sacred. You know, things that just don't lend themselves to text messaging. Like divorce. For that you still need to go online. That's right, you can now go online and file for divorce at sites like and And why not? If you can meet, fall in love, and break-up online, why not complete the cycle and divorce that way too? Just don't forget to retain joint custody of the family Web site.

Eventually someone will figure out uses for the Internet and text messaging that are completely revolutionary, but until then they'll remain virtual televisions, newspapers, telephones, and graffiti-covered walls. But you don't have to sit around and wait for that day. In the meantime you can go online and listen to the radio. Without pictures. Now that's progress.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:

The Carbs Made Me Do It

Last year companies unleashed more than 21,000 new food products on us. While this includes reformulations of existing products, I figure if they can in good conscience claim their items are New!, Improved!, and have a Great New Taste! without feeling bad because that means the old versions were obviously lacking, then I say they count.

Of these, 633 were low-carb. While that sounds like a lot, it's nothing compared to the 586 low-carb products that came out in the first quarter of this year alone. That translates into six new items a day, one for every person in this country who's not counting carbs, or a whopping 586 more chances for me to accidentally pick up the wrong thing in the supermarket. Right, like I need any more help.

It used to be that I could walk down the aisles of the grocery store and my main concern was trying to remember what was on the list I left at home while being careful to stay out of the way of women who are on a Shopping Mission From God. Then things got complicated. While at one time I only had to decide which brand and size I wanted, suddenly I had to pay very close attention, spending five minutes carefully examining each item before I buy it. It's not that I'm mesmerized by nutrition labeling which informs me that bottled water has no calories, no fat, no sodium, no carbohydrates, no dietary fiber, and no reason to have a nutritional label other than maybe the printer had a sale on zeros. No, the problem is I'm being confronted with way too many choices.

In the good old days, which is defined as any time before there were five kinds of Oreos to choose from, four of which are superfluous, if you needed mayonnaise you walked down the condiment aisle, found the brand you wanted, and went home safe in the knowledge that you could make tuna salad for the rest of your life because you couldn't resist the incredibly low cost per ounce of the institutional size jar. Little did you realize it was named that because you should be in an institution for buying that much mayonnaise.

Now you not only need to know what brand you want, you have to decide whether you want regular, low fat, fat-free, cholesterol-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free, unscented, extra-strength, colored, flavored, or now, lo-carb. And the packages all look alike. Okay, except for a very subtle color change or the tiny notice on the back which says "This product may not contain any substances you've ever heard of or are capable of pronouncing unless you have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry."

The problem is it's easy to overlook these things, especially when my mind is preoccupied with wondering whether I'll have enough money left over to buy a couple of gallons of gas without cashing in my 401(k). Right, like writers have 401(k)s. Our idea of planning for our retirement is to stand in front of the mirror and practice saying, "Would you like fries with that?" So between this and the brand proliferation, I invariably arrive home, unpack my groceries, and find that once again I've bought the Hi-Calcium Lo-fat Chunky Style Unsalted Reduced-Carb Saltines by accident. Where's Jolt Cola when you really need it?

According to Time, 26 million Americans are currently on a low-carb diet, which may explain why the publishers are feverishly working on a reduced-carb version of the magazine. Right, as if the high-fluffy feature, low-news version we get now isn't filling enough. That's also why restaurants, from the fastest to the foofiest, are adding low-carb items to their menu. Sure it can be such a culinary brainstorm as trashing the bun and making you eat a hamburger wrapped in a piece of lettuce, something only a marketing person or a rabbit would consider to be a good idea. And yes, many of the low-carb menu items were low-carb before low-carb became the sugar-free of the New Millennium. But hey, if you can toss the name Atkins around and bring customers in without having to play records by a country guitar player, more power to you.

It won't be long before carbs will be blamed for everything. After all, if there's one thing we can always use, it's a convenient scapegoat. So don't be surprised if President Bush announces that the War in Iraq was actually started because the CIA suspected Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling Carbs of Mass Destruction (CMDs). Hey, apparently pasta and bread can be dangerous. The skyrocketing price of gas will turn out to be because oil refineries shifted production while they worked overtime to create low-carb gasoline. Uma and Ethan will confirm our suspicions that they broke up because of irreconcilable carb differences. And in the end, no one will pitch to Barry Bonds because they hear he's loading up on all the carbs everyone else is avoiding. Hey, someone has to use them.

So dump the bread, forget the pasta, and blame everything on carbs. It won't be long before someone decides they're not so bad after all, so you might as well put them to good use while you can.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:

Drowning in a Sea of Popcorn

I'm a non-popcorn guy living in a popcorn world. Sounds like a bad '80s rock song, doesn't it? It's not that I hate the stuff, it's just that, well, I have very little use for it. I don't eat it often, have never had a craving for it, and I have no problem falling asleep in the middle of a movie without it. Trust me, I do that just fine without any outside help. It's like tofu -- on its own it has no taste. This doesn't mean I don't ever want it, it's just not something I get a sudden urge for, like, say, pizza or malted milk balls. Face it, if it wasn't for salt and butter they could hand you a jumbo bag of packing peanuts or rice cakes -- sorry, that's redundant -- and you wouldn't know the difference if you didn't look at it. Maybe that's why it's so popular in darkened theaters.

This puts me squarely in the minority, since Americans chow down 17 billion quarts of popcorn a year. That's a lot of kernels, Orville. In fact, that's 162 million barrels worth, which is enough to fill the gas tanks of 283 million cars, meaning everyone in Los Angeles could drive for a day were their cars able to run on popcorn. And they could get it through the hose and into the tank. Okay, maybe I've had better ideas in my life.

To break this down into something we can relate to on a more personal level, that's 59 quarts of popcorn a year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. And considering that I probably eat a quart or two at most, that leaves plenty for someone else. You know, someone like Crazy Legs Conti, the competitive eater -- yes, guidance counselors, there is such a career -- who the other day put on a diving mask and snorkel and was lowered into a telephone booth-size container filled with popcorn, vowing to eat his way out. The booth held 50 cubic feet of salted, buttered popcorn, which is 1,496 quarts. That's right, he planned on eating 25 Americans' annual allotment of popcorn in eight hours. Hey, we all need to have goals in life. And hopefully a good medical plan to go with them.

Lucky for him he didn't have to pay for it, since he was doing it to promote a documentary about his life as a window washer/competitive eater who, just for yucks, does things like sliding 168 raw oysters down his throat because, well, washing windows isn't very fulfilling. Or filling. It could be worse, he could have been like Oleg Zhornitskiy who ate four 32-ounce bowls of mayonnaise in eight minutes, or Donald Lerman who downed seven quarter-pound sticks of butter in five minutes. Come to think of it guidance counselors, maybe you should forget that this career exists.

So how did popcorn go from being an Indian curiosity to a movie theater profit center? You can blame Samuel Rubin, who died recently at age 85. Fifty years ago he introduced popcorn to movie theaters in New York City and, as you know, anything they do the rest of the country will soon adopt. Okay, except having a grating accent, pushing old ladies out of the way so you can have the cab when it's raining, and keeping a shrine to Woody Allen in the living room. At first Rubin made the popcorn and delivered it to the theaters because they thought it smelled too much, but later they figured out that was part of its allure. It's like a dog sniffing another dog's butt -- we think it smells gross while they probably think popcorn smells gross. I know I do.

I'm not sure what the attraction is to the smell of popcorn, unless it triggers an urge deep within our collective unconscious to throw away a ridiculous amount of money on something that has no nutritional value other than fiber. Hey, wood pulp supplies fiber too but you don't go salivating every time you smell a 2x4 being sawed in half, do you? Okay, that was rhetorical. The worst offender is microwave popcorn, which has a smell that travels farther than an astronaut, sticks better than Superglue, and is more obnoxious than Ashton Kutcher if you can imagine such a thing. Worse, it may actually be harmful.

It's true. The Environmental Protection Agency (motto: "Is it getting warmer in here or is it me?") is studying whether vapors from the butter flavoring causes a rare lung disease. Wouldn't it just suck if something that doesn't taste remotely like real butter turned out to be bad for you? Apparently workers who mix popcorn flavorings get this respiratory illness. It's bad enough their family can smell them as soon as they're two blocks from home, they don't need this too.

Conti didn't have to worry about this, since he didn't stay in the popcorn for but eight hours. And apparently only ate his way down to his shoulders before calling it quits. He said the popcorn wasn't so bad, it was the "butter" -- and I'm required by law and personal ethics to put that in quotes -- that did him in. He ended up eating about eight cubic feet of popcorn, which is 239 quarts, or the annual average consumption of four people. Good, now I don't have to feel bad about not eating my allotment.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:

Caution Writing Poetry May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Most people don't take life expectancy into consideration when thinking about a career. Rare is the high school student who sits down with a guidance counselor and discusses the job availability, pay scale, potential for advancement, and average lifespan of investment brokers, doctors, and cowboys. After all, you know that if you choose to become a police officer, Navy SEAL, or elementary school teacher you're taking your life in your hands, but who would think that if you become a writer, what you write can have an effect on how long you'll be doing it?

Well, it does. At least according to an article in the Journal of Death Studies (motto: "People are dying to get published in our magazine"). James Kaufman, a researcher from California State University who wrote the article, studied nearly 2,000 dead writers from the United States, China, Turkey and Eastern Europe and found that poets die younger than novelists, playwrights, and nonfiction writers. They're also poorer, get beat up more often, and are really tired of seeing people roll their eyes when told how they earn their meager living. And you wonder why they write such depressing stuff.

Kaufman's not sure exactly why it is that poets die younger, but he has two theories. The first is that since they have a higher rate of mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction there are more suicides. I know, I was shocked too. The second is that poets start writing young, churning out twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as do novelists, so if they die at an early age they may already be known as a poet, while if a novelist dies young he or she may not have written anything of note yet. Is it any wonder Zen priests have adopted the new koan "If a great novelist dies before writing his masterpiece, will he make a sound?"

In spite of their propensity to die at a younger age, poets aren't anywhere to be found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of the 10 Most Dangerous Jobs. Lumberjacks are at the top, followed by fishermen, pilots, and structural metal workers. Keep this in mind the next time you think about grabbing your rod and reel and hitting the Bassmasters circuit. Neither is poet on the list of the most stressful jobs, though prison guard, police officer, social worker, and teacher are. Hell, even dentists made that list and what do they have to be stressed about other than being careful not to let the occasional "Whoops!" slip out while they have a drill in your mouth?

As writing goes, there are definitely more dangerous jobs than being a poet. Being a foreign journalist in Iraq immediately comes to mind, as does being an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. It's true. According to a study a few years ago by some Canadian researchers who had more time on their hands than government oversight, screenwriters who win an Oscar live an average of 3.6 years less than those who are merely nominated. Winning additional awards cuts their life expectancy by another 22 percent. Go home with four statuettes and chances are you'll die while being handed your next one. Talk about too much of a good thing.

This is one of those instances when winning makes you a loser, much like taking first place in the International Mime Competition. The interesting thing is that it's just the opposite with actors. In a previous study, the same researchers found that when an actor wins an Academy Award he or she tends to live 3.9 years longer than those who were merely nominated and had to smile when their name wasn't announced, trying desperately to imitate someone who actually believes that being nominated is the honor. Now that's good acting, especially since inside they're crying because the jerk who won will not only get paid more for their next film, but will outlive them. Of course they shouldn't be upset. After all, it's not as if having stalkers, not being able to have a quiet dinner out without being hounded for autographs, and seeing photographs of yourself at your sloppy early morning worst in People week after week isn't enough of a reward.

If you're looking for a job that's easier on you than lumberjack, fisherman, poet, or Academy Award-winning screenwriter, you might consider the list of the least stressful jobs as ranked by the Jobs Rated Almanac. At the top of the list are medical records technician, janitor, forklift operator, musical instrument repairer, and florist. You'll notice writing jobs are nowhere in sight. I can only hope my insurance company's actuary doesn't notice this.

Keep all this in mind the next time you get discouraged with work and romanticize about dropping out and becoming a poet. Consider a career as a novelist or playwright or nonfiction writer. Anything but a poet. And whatever you do, don't aspire to be a poet who wins an Academy Award. Life is too short. Or it would be anyway.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:

When Your Looks Have Gone to the Dogs

It's nice when science verifies something we instinctively know. This not only makes us feel smart because we knew all along that exercise is good, smoking is bad, and E=mc2, but it keeps researchers employed, and if there's one thing you don't want it's a scientist standing behind you in the unemployment line asking probing questions like, "Does being an expert on nanotechnology make me a nanny?" Thus, it was nice to read that a professor at UC San Diego (motto: "Research rocks, dude!") has proven that when people choose a dog as a pet they look for one that resembles them. There, don't you feel validated?

Now before you run around eyeing every person who's walking a dog and saying, "Ah-ha, I see the resemblance!", it's important to understand that this only holds true for purebred pooches. That's because when you pick out a purebred puppy you already know what it's going to look like when it grows up. Rare is the boxer puppy that winds up having a long English sheepdog-like coat or the Pekinese that won't end up looking like it ran face first into the wall one too many times. Okay, ten too many times. Mutts, on the other hand, are a crapshoot. Choose the wrong one and it could grow up to look like, oh say, John Kerry, though come to think of it so would a purebred bloodhound. While the purebred would cost more, either one would be more fun and exciting to watch during a presidential debate than the real thing.

I suspect this isn't a recent development. Ever since the first wolves latched onto humans hoping for a dog biscuit, a scratch behind the ears and, well, another dog biscuit nearly 100,000 years ago they've looked like their owners, though in the early days it was mostly because both were covered with hair. Over the years we've lost most of our hair -- okay, some of us have lost just about all of it -- but haven't changed our physical appearance but so much, Lady Clairol, Botox, and tattoos notwithstanding. Yet, somehow dogs have come to show more diversity of size, shape and physical attributes than any other mammal in the world. This is pretty amazing since scientists claim that every dog alive today evolved from just six gray wolves that roamed East Asia. Very prolific wolves, apparently. Thanks to evolution, or Extreme Makeover if you don't believe in the existence of Charles Darwin, some of the wolves metamorphosed into Great Danes while others went the Chihuahua route. Obviously, they didn't have a choice in the matter. Some breeds, such as the Miniature Pinscher, didn't evolve at all, instead being artificially bred by humans who make a convincing argument for legalizing retroactive abortion.

This look-alike phenomenon is confined to dogs, it doesn't occur between other pets and their owners. Face it, it's not often you see people who resemble their fish, hamsters, and birds. Luckily. Even cats, the second most popular pet in this country, and their owners don't look alike. Of course some of that's because all cats look pretty much the same, with the exception of Siamese which look like Ed Begley, Jr. staring at a fly on the end of his nose. Okay, and Persians which look like they ran face first into the wall ten too many times along with their Pekinese canine counterparts.

Now before you cat lovers get your litter boxes in an uproar, stop and think about this. Cats come in four colors, three fur lengths, and two tail styles, normal and Manx. That allows for less variety than anything except a Wonder Bread sampler pack. Face it, you just don't see many cats running around with an ungodly amount of excess wrinkly skin hanging off them, a long sausage-like body that drags on the ground, or a head the size of Utah with a mouth that leaks gallons of drool per hour. Go ahead, take a moment to think about the people who own those dogs and what they must look like. Let me know when your stomach stops churning.

Of course dog owners will deny to the death that they look like their pet, just as married couples deny that they grow to look like each other, this in spite of the fact that they carry interchangeable driver's licenses. After all, each of us wants to think we're different, that we're an individual, that we're unique. Even if we believe we have a doppelganger running around, we don't want it to be a Shar-Pei, poodle or schnauzer. George Clooney, Charlize Theron, or Brad Pitt okay, but not Benji, Lassie, or The Taco Bell dog. Then again, how do you think the dogs feel?

At Least Pinocchio Had An Indicator

It's hard to know what to believe these days. Once upon a time you could rely on anything your mother, teacher, or priest told you. Then came bleary-eyed Baby Boomers telling their kids they never used drugs, teachers having babies with their students, and Catholic priests taking the first part of Boys Town's name way too seriously. Now we have President Bush telling 3 million recently unemployed people that the economy's getting better, prospective jurors in the Scott Peterson trial claiming they haven't made up their minds yet, and a 5-day weather forecast that has all the accuracy of a blind knife thrower. Is it any wonder we've become a world full of skeptics?

Turn on the news, it's all "he said, she said" all of the time. Bush and Kerry are this close to degenerating into "Did too!", "Did not!", "Nanny, nanny, boo-boo!" The Senate investigation into the World Trade Center bombing looks like an old Saturday Night Live version of Point/Counterpoint, which is why it might be smart for Condoleezza Rice to stay away lest someone call her an ignorant slut. And every day brings reports about the health benefits of certain foods, followed the next day by a report of how the same food can kill you. What's a person to believe?

Luckily, I'm here to help you cut through this. Here are a few guidelines to help you sort it out:

Don't believe everything you read.

While it's easy to say you know the difference between the New York Times and the National Enquirer, you'd better hope that's true. After all, the National Enquirer sells twice as many copies of an issue as does the Times. And the Internet? You need to be extremely cautious there. Just because you see it on a Web site doesn't mean it's true. Unless it's mine, of course. So yes, this means you might as well stop taking those pills that promise to make all your body parts larger, but trust me, it's for your own good. Besides, size doesn't matter. Much.

This tip would have saved the city of Aliso Viejo, CA, a lot of grief. Not the one about size, the one about the Internet. City Council was set to vote on a proposed law banning the use of foam containers at city-sponsored events because they're manufactured using a substance that could "threaten human health and safety." The substance is dihydrogen monoxide. They pulled the proposal after someone realized that the caustic, destructive substance they thought was deadly if inhaled is better known as H20, or water. Apparently someone found the information on a Web site and, well, the rest is dihydrogen monoxide under the bridge.

Truth is relative.

Take the near-miss we had with an asteroid this past week. At least that's what scientists were calling it when a 100-ft wide hunk of rock had the closest brush with Earth of any asteroid that's been tracked. Okay, so what if it was still 26,500 miles away, that's practically tailgating in astronomical terms. And just our luck, there wasn't anyone in the space shuttle to give it a ticket. The point is, a near miss to one person isn't necessarily a near miss to you. Unless you're talking about a guy who hasn't had his final sex change operation. That's pretty universal.

Examine the source.

They say a leopard can't change its spots. Of course that was before Photoshop. Recently a photograph circulated the Internet showing John Kerry and Jane Fonda on the podium at a 1970 anti-war rally. It made it into newspapers and on TV news broadcasts before someone figured out it was a composite of two different photos. Even though it was a good fake, it should have been easy to figure out. After all, Fonda appears to be singing and Kerry is wondering whose chin is larger, his or Jay Leno's. Think people! This was supposed to be 1970, long before American Idol was a glint in Simon Cowell's eye and back when Johnny Carson was still in charge of the Tonight Show. See how easy it can be if you think it through?

Take a look at the track record.

Like the boy who cried wolf, if you're caught not telling the truth no one will believe you again. Worse, they might make you go from room to room with gum on your nose, something which was bad enough in school but is really tough in the workplace. Trust me on this.

A good example is Jayson Blair. He's the former New York Times reporter who was fired for making up stories, quotes, and concert reviews for performances he hadn't bothered going to. Hard to imagine why that would be a problem at a newspaper, isn't it? Anyway, his new book, Burning Down My Master's House, just came out and it's not selling well. Okay, it's bombing. And why wouldn't it? What would lead anyone to believe that a book written by a liar about his lying would have any more truth to it than his newspaper articles did? Maybe if they classified the book as fiction it would do better.

So to sum it up, keep your eyes open, question everything, and always look both ways before crossing the street. At least that way even if you get sucked in by some cockamamie story you won't get hit by an asteroid.

What Would Jesus Buy?

There's been a lot of talk about Mel Gibson's new movie, The Passion of the Christ. The last thing it needs at this point is more free press, but let's get serious, I have a personal eternity to protect so I'd better get my two cents in, hope it helps sell a few tickets, and pray that Someone in Power remembers that I could have written about kids who are getting too fat, California legislators who want to incorporate feng shui into the state building code, or how I watched the video of Justin Timberlake tearing Janet Jackson's dress over and over and was disgusted every time, but I won't. I need all the help I can get.

I have to say right off the bat that I haven't seen the movie and don't plan to. Heck, I read the book, I already know how it ends. It's the same reason I didn't see Titanic -- did anyone really think they were going to ditch the iceberg and have the ship sail into New York City with the King of the World hanging over the bow? That's not to suggest that there probably wasn't at least one studio executive who thought about meddling with The Passion. I'm sure after it was screened for a test audience someone pulled Gibson aside and said, "Look, everyone thinks the ending's too downbeat. It's a bummer for, well, for goodness sake. Is there any chance you can re-shoot the ending so he gets the girl, she gives up her wayward life, and they settle down in a cute little two-room manger on a kibbutz in Israel? And how do you feel about moving the location to New York or L.A. so it's a little more accessible? I mean, Israel's such a downer these days."

The movie's gotten off to a roaring start at the box office, thanks in part to churches which have bought blocks of seats and sent busloads of parishioners who are shocked when they're let out at the cineplex and not the casino as they expected. But ticket sales aren't the only thing getting a boost, there's going to be an economic ripple effect. First, the movie's bound to boost book sales, especially when they release a new edition of the Bible with big letters across the cover trumpeting, "Now a major motion picture by Mel Gibson!" and a special pull-out section featuring photographs from the movie. And then there's the merchandising.

That's right, all you have to do is walk into your favorite religious book store and you can buy The Passion pendants, which are crude nails just like those used in the movie hanging from a leather cord. In two sizes, no less. You can also buy The Passion crucifixes, lapel pins, key chains, coffee mugs (microwaveable and dishwasher-safe, thank god), and of course the official soundtrack CD and $24.99 coffee-table book. I suspect the only reason you won't find Jesus and Pontius Pilate action figures in your Happy Meal is that someone was smart enough to realize that most parents don't want to watch their children make a crucifix out of two french fries while urging Pontius to hang a ketchup-covered Jesus on it. Not to mention that in order to keep the theme going they'd insist on serving your hamburger bloody and raw.

These merchandise sales will help Gibson earn what Forbes magazine estimates will be $300 million from the movie. They say you can't buy salvation, but if it turns out they're wrong at least he won't have to worry about not having enough cash for the cover charge at the pearly gates. But before we, uh, crucify him for this, we need to give him a little credit. After all, he showed a lot of restraint by not having any paid product placement in the movie. Come on, you don't think they drink Cokes on American Idol and wore Ray-Bans in Men in Black by accident, do you?

Gibson could have picked up a nice chunk of cash from corporate sponsors who would love to have their products affiliated with the son of God. Okay, so it's not as effective as having Shaquille O'Neal as your spokesperson, I'm sure Jesus' agent wouldn't hold out for nearly as much money. Think about it, the hammers and nails in the movie could have been made by Craftsman. The crown of thorns could have been fashioned from the new 2004 Jackson & Perkins rose bushes. The whips could have been supplied by Stormy Leather in San Francisco, Jesus' loincloth could have been Fruit of the Loom, and the Roman soldiers could have been running around in Birkenstocks or Tevas. Hopefully not while wearing white socks.

He also could have extended the merchandising. The movie could sponsor a NASCAR race called The Passion Holy Grail Cup. Cross pens could put out a limited edition that writes with red ink. And by simply putting one word in front of Elizabeth Taylor's perfume they'd have The Passion, "Smell good for eternity." Of course there would be the inevitable TV commercial for Visa that says, "A Passion pendant, $12.99. A seat at Rosh Hashanah services, $300. Eternal salvation, priceless."

So many choices, so little money. That's why you have to ask yourself, "What would Jesus buy?"

What Hath God Wrought Dot Com

It turns out your mother was right when she spent the better part of your formative years drumming it into your head that you can bring technology to the Luddite, but you can't make him use it. Okay, so that's not really what she said, she might have had she owned the computer you gave her two years ago that she still can't manage to turn on no matter how many times you draw her an illustration showing that the power switch is the huge button on the front.

This comes to mind because, contrary to his wonk image, it turns out that Bill Clinton was a closet Luddite. Sure, he presided over the flowering of the Internet Age. And yes, his vice president claimed to have invented the Internet, at least until he explained that in his mind "inventing" and "voting to fund" meant the same thing . But the truth is, Clinton didn't make use of the technology. While he was in the White House he sent only two e-mails -- count 'em, two! -- and they were a joke about a rabbi, a priest and Bob Dole, which he forwarded to Hilary and Elizabeth Dole. Just kidding. Actually, the first one was a test e-mail to see if he knew how to do it ("Wow, this is almost as much fun as lurking in the sex -- I mean, sax -- chat room") while the second was a note to John Glenn who was orbiting Earth at the time. I'm sure Clinton would have preferred to send Glenn a postcard but you know how hard it can be to find one that says "Having a great time, wish Newt Gingrich was there."

Contrast that with how his staff used e-mail. According to a spokesperson at the Clinton Presidential Foundation (motto: "Thongs are considered a foundation, aren't they?"), the former president's staff churned out nearly 40 million e-mails. That's about 14,000 a day, 570 an hour, and an awful lot of time taken away from important tasks like searching online for naked photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Every one of those e-mails will be archived in the presidential library, including Clinton's two, which you'll be able to find in a dusty corner of a rarely used hard drive along with Hilary's plan to fix the health care system.

The foundation's spokesperson says the reason there are so few e-mails from Clinton is that he's more of a personal note and telephone guy. He's probably like the people I run into who, when you e-mail them, reply with, "Call me." Or the editor I worked with a couple of years ago who told me he only checked e-mail every few days, so if I sent one I should call and let him know so he could go online and look for it. Uh, are we missing a major concept here?

It's high time everyone caught on to using e-mail. After all, if Morse code can come kicking and screaming into the 21st century, so can you. That's right, last December the International Telecommunications Union (motto: "Listen for the union label") voted to add a new character to the Morse code arsenal, the first time they've done that since before World War II. It's the "@" symbol. You know, the one used in your e-mail address. Go ahead, stop for a second and think about sending an e-mail address using Morse code. I'll wait.

The new sign will be dot-dash-dash-dot-dash-dot, which is the letter "A" followed by "C." They're calling it the "commat," which as far as I can tell they made up because the word "at" is way too difficult to pronounce. This change of symbol name reminds me of a few years ago when some Internet start-up people thought it would be cute to pronounce "www" as dub-dub-dub, so they walked around telling people their Web site address sounding like drowning fish. If you want to know why it didn't catch on, just go to your local Burger King and ask them. But wait until they've finished asking, "Would you like fries with that?"

It's interesting that Morse code now has the "@" sign yet it still doesn't have an exclamation point. That's right, when communicating in Morse code you can use a simple declarative sentence and ask a question but you can't emphasize anything. No wonder it never caught on with the masses, it's too monotonous. Another symbol they don't have is the "#", which we call the pound sign in the U.S. while most other countries call it the "hash mark," particularly in England where they don't want it to be confused with their hold-out against the euro. In some geeky circles it's called the octothorpe, which -- True Fact Alert! -- was made up by a guy at Bell Labs during the 1960's [insert hippie drug culture joke here] and hasn't been used since by anyone who doesn't spend his spare time bemoaning the demise of pocket protectors, slide rules, and lab coats as a fashion statement.

I now have this image stuck in my head of sailors on a battleship blinking huge lights, or using semaphore flags, to send a message to someone on another ship: "Email me at, and hurry." There's a better chance of that happening than there is of someone emailing a message using Morse code. Unless, of course, it's from Bill Clinton.

Putting That Shrimp Ken on the Barbie

It's been quite a time for weddings lately, and it's not even close to June. First Britney Spears got all excited and set the land speed record for a marriage -- single to married to single in a zippy 48 hours. Since she had it annulled, technically, it never happened, which I guess means we all dreamed it. Pretty scary to think that we can all wake up screaming from the same nightmare at the same time and we didn't have to eat half a Domino's pizza right before bed to do it.

Then in San Francisco, the mayor decided that his and her marriage licenses were oh so very '90s and decreed that gay couples could get married, which led to lines around the block, lawsuits in the courts, and Britney taking that kiss seriously and proposing to Madonna. Just kidding. Actually, Madonna's already married. To a film director who's helping ruin her already disastrous movie career.

We watched Ryan and Trista give pink a bad name while spending more money than anyone would lavish on a wedding that wasn't being paid for by a TV network. We waited breathlessly for every on-again-off-again announcement from Ben and J-Lo hoping, well, hoping they'd do something already. Anything. And now we have to deal with the biggest marriage disappointment of the year -- after 43 years of dating, Barbie and Ken have called it quits. That's right, you can dress Barbie in all the wedding gowns you like, she's not walking down the aisle with Ken.

According to a spokesman at Mattel, the company that owns the pair but insists that doesn't make it slavery, the happy, physically disproportionate couple is going their separate ways. It turns out that poor Ken is being dumped for a new upstart doll named Blaine. I have to say, if I was being dumped for a guy named Blaine I'm not sure if I'd drink heavily for a long time or feel relieved that I didn't waste another minute with someone who would actually want a Blaine.

It's a common story. Barbara Millicent Roberts, which is Barbie's full name, recently came out as Cali Girl Barbie -- not to be mistaken for Call Girl Barbie -- and took on all the trappings that come with it, including board shorts, hoop earrings, a deep tan, and skin cancer. Along with the change, she decided that Ken the boring old boyfriend is out and Blaine the Australian boogie boarder is in. Hey, I'm not making this up; a vice-president of Mattel is being paid big bucks to spout this stuff to the press. With a straight face, no less.

Apparently, Barbie's not taking on all of the Cali Girl attributes. She won't say "dude" all the time, will be found outside malls as well as inside, and won't be getting breast enhancement surgery, which is a good thing because if she had anymore added up top she wouldn't be able to walk without falling on her face. Not that she can walk on her own anyway, but still.

I'm sure this came as a shock to Ken. The break-up, not Barbie being top heavy. After all, they first started dating way back in 1961 when she was only two. For some reason no one seemed to bat an eyelash about that and, unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, the age problem didn't ruin her career. Of course, career may be part of the problem, since Ken wasn't exactly the most ambitious doll in the dollhouse. While Barbie spent time as a rock star, NASCAR racer, black woman and President of the United States, Ken was a cowboy, cop, astronaut and doctor. Kind of a one-doll Village People without the hit record. Not exactly prime husband material.

It's difficult to say how much this entered into Barbie's decision to dump him. After 43 years she may just have gotten tired of waiting for him to pop the question. Then again, he might have been messing around with her sister Skipper. I hear some strange things can happen in the privacy of a young girl's bedroom at night. It's also possible that Barbie is going through a mid-life crisis. After all, she's at the right age and has already done most of the mid-life crisis things, like tool around in a red convertible and go for Sunday rides on her Harley-Davidson, so what else could she do but dump Ken for a young hot Aussie surf stud? After all, Ashton Kutcher is taken.

The funny thing is, she could have had any doll she wanted all along but she stuck with Ken. G.I. Joe would have given his right revolver for her. The Power Rangers would have mightily morphed into anything they had to in order to win her hand. Chuckie would have, well, maybe we shouldn't think about the things Chuckie might have done to Barbie. And The Powerpuff Girls? Lets just say they would have had her at City Hall in San Francisco faster than you can say "Lipstick Lesbian Barbie." But she stuck with Ken. And dumped him right before Valentine's Day. The bitch.

I'm sure Ken will come out of this just fine. He's a good looking, buff guy and Barbie isn't the only doll in the toy store. But he might want to stay away from the Britney doll. After all, he's obviously into long-term relationships. I wonder if Dora the Explorer is available.

Weighing In On Obesity

Americans are too fat. There, I've said it. You can use all the polite terms you want -- plump, hefty, overweight, body mass challenged, over-gravitized -- but it boils down to the same thing. If you're a guy and you look like you're pregnant, you're too fat. If you're a woman who looks like she's pregnant and you're not, you're too fat. If you think I'm starting to sound like Jeff Foxworthy, please, stop me now. One is enough.

Should you be thin and reading this, feel free to move on to the in-depth analysis in People of why Ashton and Demi are the new J-Lo and Ben and how this will affect all of their chances at this year's Academy Awards. Hell, it certainly can't hurt their chances. At least not unless mathematicians have rescinded the rule against negative probabilities, which would be good news for me since it would go a long way towards explaining how I do as, uh, well as I do in the lottery. Then again, if you're thin you might just want to stick around. After all, fat people were thin once, so it could happen to you too. Think about that the next time you go to Cinnabon and ask them to supersize it.

The United States is the world's fattest nation. It's true. Government statistics -- and if you can't believe the government who can you believe? -- show that 65 percent of Americans are overweight. Yes, 65 percent! That's more than pretend they didn't reply to a spam email offering a copy of the "Par!s H!lton v!deo" yet wonder why their mailbox is now filled with offers for things they never dreamed were possible, even though we have a space program that's constantly developing incredible things like Tang, ball point pens that write upside down, and foam mattresses which are hawked on infomercials.

Think about it. This means two out of every three of us are toting around excess weight, and no, I'm not talking about that backpack filled with Krispy Kremes, potato chips, and 3-gallon Big Gulps. No, this excess weight is much more attached to us than that. It also means two-thirds of Americans are putting an unnecessary strain on their hearts, lungs, feet, and the good nature of those people who have to sit next to them on an airplane. And don't blame that on the airlines, they supply seats which are perfectly suited to fit, oh, maybe a 4-year-old. A small one.

Now before you go getting your elastic waist slacks in an uproar, it's okay for me to talk like this. After all, when I was a kid my mother dragged me kicking and screaming into the husky department at Euphemism's Department Store to buy my clothes. Calling them husky may have helped my mother feel better, but it didn't do a thing for me. They might as well have called them tubbies. Or blimpies. Actually, they probably would have called them that were they not so afraid of being sued by the sub sandwich company. But I managed to lose those excess pounds, which proves that physical baggage can be easier to shed than emotional. It also proves that stopping eating can be an effective diet plan, and had I not named my book The Biafran Diet I'm sure it would have been as big a seller as the Adkins, South Beach, or Lose Weight While Eating Everything You Want Because Your Wallet Will Be Lighter Thanks To Having Bought This Book diets.

Trust me, I understand it's easier to put on weight than lose it. Well, unless you're Lucica Bunghez, the Romanian woman who recently lost 175 pounds in 10 hours. It's true. Unfortunately her excess weight was in the form of a tumor which the doctors removed. A tumor, mind you, which weighed almost twice as much as the rest of her body. The operation went well and, according to the head of Plastic Surgery and Understatement at the hospital in Bucharest, "The lack of the tumor really suits her." I'm sure if she didn't feel better after the operation she definitely felt better after hearing this. Face it, nothing can bring you down as much as knowing you looked better with a tumor the size of New Hampshire on your back. Okay, maybe hearing Howard Dean scream with joy at the news could bring you down more. Sue me.

It's not surprising we're a nation of fat adults since we're also a nation of fat children. A recent issue of Time stated that on the average, a child in this country eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the time they graduate high school. Well, assuming they complete school in 12 years, but that's another problem to be discussed at another time. A few weeks later the magazine featured a 10-year-old girl who weighed 220 lbs and developed diabetes. The family was shocked. Uh, exactly what were you thinking when you kept feeding her and she continued to grow out more than up? Hey, if you aim your car at a brick wall and stomp on the gas pedal, don't be shocked when you smash into the wall and get hurt.

To be fair, there are a lot of people who are trying to lose weight. Unfortunately most of them are anorexic and don't need to. But not all. In Nevada County, CA (motto: "Confused? So are we.") 800 residents have joined a communal weight loss program called the Nevada County Meltdown. Lets hope no one in the Three Mile Island area picks up on this idea. The members of the Meltdown hope to lose 4 tons of fat in two months. That's 133 pounds a day, which is 532 Quarter Pounders with cheese, $240.84 at the current exchange rate, or nearly one Romanian tumor. That may be a drop of fat in the oversized bucket, but hey, it's a start.


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