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Friday, August 22, 2003

Boy Meets Bunk

I've made no secret of my deep-seated love for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the gay-based makeover show on Bravo. The question which naturally follows is how do I feel about Bravo's other gay oriented show of the summer, Boy Meets Boy?

Until recently, I felt nothing.

Boy Meets Boy, for those of you who have missed the show, the seemingly endless promos and the press surrounding it, is TV's first gay dating show. Following in the shoes of such shows as The Bachelor and, more to the point, Joe Millionaire, the show presents us with a young, reasonably successful gay man who's in the mood for love. He is matched up with 15 potential "mates," and eventually whittles them down to one winner. The twist - and this is where the show finds its affinity to Joe Millionaire - is that some of the mates are straight, unbeknownst to our hero. If he chooses a gay mate, they go on a fabulous trip to New Zealand; if he picks a straight mate, the mate wins $25,000 and our hero gets bupkiss.

The twist is a cause for some concern. Some feel the show supports the stereotype that all gay men want to sleep with straight men - although given that the straight men here are playing the role of the seducers, that turns the stereotype on its head. Of greater concern is that the show is a big practical joke on gays, since the twist is not revealed to the lead until he's down to the final three contestants, so that in essence he is playing a game without knowing the rules. James, the lead in question, says he felt betrayed. The creator of the show, Douglas Ross, who is himself gay, scoffs at that notion, asking, "Why do gay people need to be protected from participating in reality shows with twists?" The answer to his question, of course, is not that that gays need to be protected, but that it is telling that the first gay dating show should so obviously play to straights.

My problem with the show, at least until recently, isn't the twist, but that the show is so horribly boring. I must divulge that Joe Millionaire is the only mating show I've seen in any depth. I saw the first few episodes of Cupid, but that bore more in common with American Idol than The Bachelor. I've never seen The Bachelor, or The Bachelorette, or Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, or any of the slew of similar product. Nor have I seen The Amazing Race, The Mole, more than an episode or two of Survivor, or any of the non-dating reality shows with which we have been deluged over the past few years. So I don't have much to use for comparison.

I watch Boy Meets Boy because it's on before Queer Eye. One of the elements that makes Queer Eye successful is that they pack so much into every episode. BMB, on the other hand, is like watching lube dry. The reasons for this are plentiful. First, the men have all come from Central Casting. With the exception of the one or two who have distinctive physical attributes, you can't tell the boys apart without a scorecard. There's no Carson, no Tom, no Jai - there's not a distinctive personality in sight. In part, this is because the boys are so young. James in 32, but only five of the fifteen potential mates are 30 or over. Five others are younger than 25. There's nothing wrong with matching a 32 year old man with a 23 year old boy, but in most cases, it ain't gonna take. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that James and the mates have no time to get to know each other. In real time, the show takes place in less than a week. That time is so filled with group dates and one on ones and shopping trips and nature hikes that there's no time for anybody to simply interact. The entire experience is like a package tour of Europe in which you see ten cities in seven days.

Beyond that, the focus of the show is all wrong. James and his girlfriend/advisor Andra live in one house. The twelve mates (winnowed down from fifteen in the first episode) all live in another. So how do we spend our time? With James and Andra. It doesn't help than they are both prime dullards. James may have a thought in his head, but if so, he's keeping it warm and dark and safely squirreled away. On Joe Millionaire - another show in which the lead was leaden - we spent on-camera time with the women who were vying for his hand. This put us, the audience, with the competitors, rather than with the prize. We got a chance to get to know them, and perhaps find someone to root for. Since we knew Joe wasn't really a Millionaire, we watched their interactions with an understanding they didn't have. This is the definition of dramatic irony. Similarly, on Boy Meets Boy, we know that some of the mates are straight. The gay mates don't know there are straight men amongst them, and even the straight mates don't know who else is straight. It would be so much more interesting to spend time with them and make out own judgments about who is who. As it happens, one of the mates ended up falling for one of the others, who turned out to be straight. A brief scene of their flirtation is all we saw of their story. Watching BMB is like watching a football game lensed by a cameraman who doesn't know how the game is played. You see a lot of running around, but you miss all the action.

We are now down to the final episodes. James has three mates left. It has finally been revealed to him that one of the three is straight. One might think the producers are lucky that James hasn't axed all the straight contestants. One would be wrong. This is reality television, after all, and nothing is left to chance.

When the show premiered, I thought I had read that five of the fifteen mates were gay. Thus, when James eliminated five straight mates by the third episode, I thought he was in the clear. I was wrong. As it turns out, seven of the fifteen mates were straight. This is not a twist in which a few straight men are included in a pool of potential love matches; this is a test in which nearly half the questions have no correct answers. But they didn't stop there. A friend who pays closer attention to this sort of thing than I tipped me off that the producers stacked the deck to ensure that James had at least one straight mate left in the final three. They never gave James the opportunity to cut all of the straight mates. Here's how it happened.

In the first episode, James was presented with the fifteen mates and told, after a brief cocktail party, to cut three. He cut one straight mate and two gay. This left him with an equal pool of six gay and six straight mates. At this point, chance (and strategy) was eliminated. In each of the subsequent episodes, instead of allowing James to cut who he would, the producers - through the show's host - presented him with three groups of mates, forcing him to cut one from each group. In Episode 2, he faced three groups of four. One group consisted of all straight mates, guaranteeing that at least three would go on, and one consisted of four gay mates, guaranteeing that one would be cut. The third group had two gay mates and two straight, and from this group, the only one that presented a choice, James cut one of the straights. He was now left, unknown to him, of course, with five gay mates and four straight. In the next episode, he was presented with three groups of three. Once again, one group was all gay, forcing him to cut one gay mate. The other group were mixed, with two straight mates and one gay in each, assuring that at least two straight mates would go on, and providing the potential for four straight men to stay. James cut two straight mates - the most he could have in this round. This bring us up to the most recent episode, in which James was again presented with three groups, this time with two members in each. The two remaining straight mates were paired up, so that no matter what James did, the host could reveal that one of his remaining mates was straight. As it turns out, even if James had cut three of the seven straight mates in the first episode, this strategy would still have worked. The producers would simply have presented a group of four straight mates in the second episode, assuring that three moved on, and a group of three straight mates in the third episode, assuring that two moved on. Pair up those final two, and you're left with one straight mate in the final three.

Part of this scenario is speculation, since the sexual orientation of the contestants isn't revealed until they are cut. Thus, my friend and I are both guessing the identity of the remaining straight mate. But the guess seems reasonable. One of the mates, Wes, has been shown endlessly in a clip saying, "You just assumed I was gay. Why?" This assures that Wes is gay. Of the remaining two, Franklin refers to himself as a wine steward rather than a sommelier, thereby assuring that he is straight. In any case, only Wes and Brian, the final contestant, have spoken on camera of how they are falling for James. Franklin has complained of a dearth of face time and has said he doesn't know how James feels about him, but hasn't shown any evidence of attraction toward James. Nothing is certain until the final episode, but this is TV, not the lottery, and the producers' desire for a compelling finale trumps any need for fairness or honesty.

Now the twist becomes more than a plot element. It becomes a nasty trick. The game is fixed. No longer is this a show about putting a gay man in with a group of straight and gay men and allowing him to choose, it is indeed a show about gay humiliation. Joe Millionaire was a show about straight humiliation, but with three distinctive differences. One, it followed in the shoes of a dozen similar dating shows, all of which had been played, forgive the word, straight. Two, if the girl Joe chose accepted him in spite of the lie (which she did), they got to split a million bucks. If James picks the wrong guy, he's SOL. Finally, Joe Millionaire was on Fox, for God's sake, where one expects to see this sort of thing. James, in an article in Newsweek, put it in perspective, saying, "They told me they put the twist in there because they wanted straight people to watch. I said to them, 'Well, you've played gay people as entertainment for straight people. Of course they're going to watch'."

One might think Bravo would be peeved at such trickery. But no, they have revealed their own twist. According to Bravo president Jeff Gaspin, gays aren't the target audience for Boy Meets Boy and Queer Eye at all. Or at least not the primary target. At a press conference last month, Gaspin explained, "On the surface (the program block) might seem designed for gay audiences, but it's really not. When we discussed our advertising plans for how we are going to promote it, the first group of people we are going to promote it to are women 18-49." Vivi Zigler, Senior VP for Marketing and Advertising at NBC, which owns Bravo, elaborated, "Gay men are not measured by Nielsen. Women 18-49 is a more salable demo." Gays are a secondary target, but since apparently no one knows who they are or what they buy, there's no point in marketing to them. This explains all the DiSaronno ads on Queer Eye, at any rate.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Too Big

I am sick to death of this damned Sobig.F virus that's spreading around the Net. Reports say it is spreading faster than any computer virus ever seen. I believe it.

I went online Wednesday morning to find all my mailboxes overflowing with messages entitled "Your application" and "Wicked screensaver" and "That movie" and simply "Details." I opened one called "Your application" out of curiosity and because I have been sending out applications. The attachment read "Norton AntiVirus Deleted1.txt." Always bad news. I have the sense to not open attachments, especially such ominous sounding ones.

My response was to go to Google and enter the phrase, "Norton AntiVirus Deleted1.txt." I figured if something was spreading, someone would have something to say about it. Specific, yes, but what are you going to do? I got a handful of hits, mist of which were in foreign languages and a some of which were message board postings which, it appeared, were devoted to actually spreading the virus.

The messages in my RCN mailbox were all 1kb in size. When I opened my Excite mail, however, I found the mailbox had been shut down by excessive messages, all of which were 900kb in size. This was also the case with my Yahoo mailbox. I maintain so many mailboxes for this very reason. When I troll the Net, I use my Excite or Yahoo edress to sign up for various sites, with the understanding that those boxes can collect my spam and I can kill them whenever I want, leaving my RCN and mailboxes relatively clean. Both webmail boxes were now groaning under a load of infected messages. What became apparent was that Norton Antivirus, bless its little heart, had stripped the offending attachments from the messages and left its calling card, "Norton AntiVirus Deleted1.txt," in their stead. Norton has quarantined email viruses for me in the past, but I didn't/don't recall the substitute attachment. What else was abundantly clear is that despite any advertising, Excite and Yahoo do nothing to scan for viruses.

My next step was to open my Norton Antivirus Quarantine, and there they were, all bright and shiny, a half dozen new viruses called W32.Sobig.F@mm. I returned to Google and entered the phrase "Sobig.F." This time I got … even fewer hits. About two or three. I limited the search to "sobig" and received many more hits, for Sobig.A and Sobig.C and even Sobig.E, I believe. But no Sobig.F.

No matter. I emptied all my mailboxes, dumped the trash and deleted the viruses from quarantine, along with a handful of others that I didn't even know were there. Thanks, Norton!

Thursday, of course, Sobig.F was all over the news. According to MessageLabs Inc., a company that filters corporate email, one in every 17 messages bore the virus. My rate was a bit higher. By comparison, the previous champ, Klez, accounted for only one in every 125 messages at its peak. I continued to receive the occasional infected message until yesterday morning, when it pretty much stopped. One reason this virus spread so quickly is that it's the sixth variation of the Sobig virus, and a bug in previous versions has been repaired. Ironic, ain't it?

If you've been infected, or think you have, Symantec, the manufacturer of Norton Antivirus, has posted a Sobig.F Removal Tool on their website along with instructions for use. If you're clean, it'll let you know; if you're infected, it'll take care of the problem.

By the way, this virus de-activates spreading on September 10, prompting experts to expect the next Sobig variant on or near September 11. Just so ya know.


It strikes me that many of you may not receive today's Reader because of my liberal use of the word "Sobig." So it goes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

In Related News...

Hormel Foods, the maker of SPAM, has filed two legal challenges with the US Patent and Trademark Office to stop SpamArrest from using the name Spam, for which Hormel holds the trademark, in their product name. In answer to your first question, yes, they still sell SPAM. In answer to your second question, yes, they're serious. Hormel argues that the company has carefully protected and invested in the brand name, and that the public could confuse the meat product with the technology company. Go figure.

In their defense, Hormel did hit SpamArrest with a cease and desist letter earlier this year, when SpamArrest first filed papers to trademark their name. And to give them their props, Hormel does recognize that spam is used as a slang name for "unsolicited commercial email." They have gone so far as to spell out exactly what they consider the proper and improper use of the word "spam" on their website. They say, for example, "We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE (unsolicited commercial email), although we do object to the use of the word 'spam' as a trademark and to the use of our product image in association with that term. Also, if the term is to be used, it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all uppercase letters." They compare the use of "spam" to denote UCE with the use of "Star Wars" to refer to the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Mickey Mouse" to mean "unsophisticated:" a slang phrase for every day usage. Hormel seeks to keep another company from appropriating its name for business purposes. Procter and Gamble, after all, makes Puffs Facial Tissues, not Puffs Kleenex. One can understand Hormel's desire "to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, 'Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?'"

Unfortunately, this blows my plan to name my new cigar line "Li'l Smokies" all to hell.


In Other Related News...

Al Franken's new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, hits bookstores today, the same day lawyers for Fox News Channel offer arguments against the book in court. To be fair and balanced, Fox's arguments aren't against Franken's book, but against its title, which they say uses the phrase "fair and balanced" in violation of Fox News' trademark. Fox asserts that using the phrase beneath a picture of Bill O'Reilly is an attempt to confuse consumers, who will think the book is a legitimate product of Fox News.

They will if they're idiots.

The cover actually features Al Franken standing in front of a block of four video screens, which depict, clockwise from top left, Ann Coulter, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Bill O'Reilly. Plastered across all four screens in large, red, block letters is the word LIES. Underneath the screens - directly underneath O'Reilly and Cheney, in fact - is the phrase "And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." Only at the bottom of the cover is the subtitle, "A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." If Fox truly believes their audience will be confused by this image, they don't hold their audience in very high regard.

Word on the street is that the entire purpose of the lawsuit is to appease Bill O'Reilly, who has never been a fan of Franken, and who has been chafing since a confrontation with him at a book convention in Los Angeles at the end of May, during which Franken accused O'Reilly of lying about his credentials and O'Reilly called Franken an idiot. The spat was televised live on C-SPAN2 and rerun by the channel the following weekend. As a result, traffic to the Book TV website, the companion to the C-SPAN program, tripled, bringing the most visits in the site's five year history. O'Reilly weighed in on the fracas in an editorial in Monday's New York Daily News, in which he wrote that his show and Fox News are successful because "We don't do drive-by character assassinations, and we don't denigrate opposing points of view by launching gratuitous personal attacks." For anyone who's ever watched the Fox News Channel, this is funnier than anything in Franken's book.

The result of all this hoohah has been incredible publicity for Franken's book, which shot to the top of Amazon's nonfiction charts. This is one reason why the book is being released today, rather than September 22, as originally planned. (That the lawsuit seeks to stop distribution of the book is another reason.) Dutton, the publisher, is printing an additional 50,000 copies, to supplement the 240,000 already in print. The controversy has helped Franken's other books as well. Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot is currently at 170 on the Amazon list, and the non-political Oh, the Things I Know! is at 540. O'Reilly's new book, Who's Looking Out for You, which is scheduled to be released the day after Franken's original publication date, comes in at 6,140.

Fox would do well to think of Spike Lee, whose challenge to Spike TV recently went down in flames. They should also remember that the courts traditionally hold a wide berth for satire. Finally, they should recall that there is a long precedent for authors using product names or corporate slogans in titles. A few examples, presented by the Authors Guild in support of Franken, are Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Somehow they overlooked Tom Stoppard's play, The Real Thing.

Friday, August 15, 2003

True Romance

Some time ago - August 2nd, 2002, to be exact - I wrote about Fever Dolls. Available only over the Internet, Fever Dolls are life-sized mannequins modeled on teenage Japanese girls. They have realistic muscle tone and skin which feels lifelike, and though they are not made for penetration, they are equipped with realistic nipples and pubic hair. A spokesman for the manufacturer says, "Our concept is to make a doll that resembles the type of girl you'd find anywhere. They haven't got big breasts and their waists aren't particularly thin, either. What's more, they've all got fat asses."

The Fever Dolls have nothing on RealDolls.

RealDolls (or Realdolls, or REALDOLLs) are made for penetration. Introduced in 1996, RealDolls employ "Hollywood special effects technology" to produce fully articulated, anatomically correct, custom made sex toys. They have skeletons of PVC pipe with steel joints, which are coated with urethane foam and vinyl components, all covered with high grade silicone rubber flesh. Are you getting hot yet? They are pretty impressive looking, especially if you've used to seeing the standard vinyl sex dolls, which look like some Halloween costume experiment gone horribly awry. RealDolls, on the hand, look like really impressive soft mannequins. They've been featured on HBO's Real Sex, but then again, what hasn't?

RealDolls are also only available on the Net, and when you go to their home page ( - whoda thunkit), you're greeted by a trio of their models. They look like a porn version of Charlie's Angels (is that redundant?), if Charlie's Angels were shot up with Thorazine and left out in the sun to roast. One bears a passing resemblance to Renee Zellweger, which brings home all the things I dislike about that particular doll. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the star was created out of foam and high grade rubber.

When you enter the RealDoll site, you are greeted by what seems to be an R. Crumb fever dream made flesh. Not only does the girl have bodacious ta-tas with prominent nipples, not only is she wearing knee high leather boots and a short short leather mini-skirt which she is hiking up suggestively, she is leaning forward in a way that suggests an enormous trunk to match her aggressive rack. The only things she lacks to make her a true Crumb girl is a personality and a sense of fun.

One reason the Doll is so posed is that they can't really stand up. Despite the oft-trumpeted steel joints, the doll's skeleton is too flexible to support her weight. (Yes, I just used "her," as if the doll is real, and get used to it. It's easier than constantly writing "the doll" and kinder than "it.") According to the web site, "The doll has the poise and relaxed state of a sleeping girl." Or roofie victim, I suppose. The big news is that the feet on the dolls have been upgraded with a "larger foot plate," which will disperse her weight more efficiently. The manufacturers still advise against putting the full hundred pound weight of the doll on its feet for too long, though, and there's no word about standing her up.

The foot plate is the lead story in this week's news (when this story was originally posted in March 2003), and the first story posted since last October. Apparently there's been a lot of activity in the RealDoll birthing zone. The hands have received upgrades in both the wrist/hand linkage and in the armature wire. Whatever those are. However, "The current hands are the next best thing to the fully articulated version that is so cost prohibitive."

In addition - and again I quote from the site, just 'cause it's so amusing on its own - "The Body 7 dolls are now truly seamless, as we have finally designed a way to eliminate the breast seam formerly required for the gel implants. We hope to make all body types seamless this year. However, retrofitting the older body types in this fashion will take several months."

These last lines hint at the variety available to make your RealDoll truly personal. A glance at the Order Form reveals that there are 7 body types, ranging in height from 5"1' to 5"7', and in style from "petite" (34A breasts) to "voluptuous" (34E). For guys who want a real workout, there's Body 3, the "dancer type," which is 5"10' and has 38DD size breasts, but that body has the fewest compatible heads. The sex toy industry parallels real life so closely.

The three heads that fit Body 3 are Melissa (Olson twin gone bad), Tami (Julia Roberts gone bad), and one simply called C07 (Joan Collins gone good). For any other body, there are 8 heads to choose from, with names that range from kicky (Steph) to religious (Leah) to exotic (Mai). Since the heads are all made to be - how to put this delicately - penetrable, they all have a common expression, which ranges from slack-jawed confusion to shock. Some have maws that would put Amanda Bearse in Fright Night to shame. One looks drunk enough to ralph, which I'm sure some men find exciting.

But picking the head and body is just the start. You also get to choose skin tone (from fair to Asian to African), eye color (six shades) and hair color. Although there are eight shades of hair color available, pubic hair only comes in three - plus shaved. You can beautify your RealDoll with choices of eye shadow, eye liner, finger and toe nail polish and lip color (from apricot to cinnamon). Finally, you have your choice of 10 different hairstyles, with additional wigs available at 100 bucks a pop. If all of this mixing and matching and choosing and sorting is too much for you to bear, you can simply send the folks at Abyss, the appropriately-named manufacturer, a photo of your designated stalkee, and they'll do the rest.

To keep up with demand, Abyss has now introduced a male RealDoll: Charlie. Charlie has the same split chest and sculpted abs I remember from my G.I. Joes growing up. Unlike that doll, he comes with a penis, which comes in 6", 7" or 8", with custom sizing available. Charlie has the same slack-jawed quality of the females, but with a distracted look, as if he's lost his car keys or is about to pass gas. Apart from his head and pubic patch, he is creepily hairless. Even admirers of shaved men may be discomfitted by his unnaturally smooth arms and legs. Also, I note that while his oral entry is standard, as it is with all RealDolls, the optional anal entry will make him heavier. This seems counter-intuitive. But adding an anal entry doesn't mean just scooping out some foam; it involves adding, shall we say, "machinery." Still, since Charlie is 5"11' and weighs in at only 110 lbs., some added weight wouldn't hurt. The females all come with three entries standard, by the way, with no added weight. For those of you looking for a little extra kink, Abyss will add a penis to any RealDoll model for $500. The penis can replace or augment the vagina, depending on your needs.

So if a penis costs $500, how much do the dolls run? I hope you're sitting down. The standard Female RealDoll will set you back $5999, and the Male RealDoll 1000 bucks more. Shipping is $450 within the continental United States, and $800 overseas. The shipping is worth it, though, as the doll arrives in a secure shipping crate which doubles as a storage locker. Inside its padded crate, the doll is safely strapped into a padded seat - this in addition to the doll's own padded seat, which is standard issue. Photos show the doll bound by thick padded cords which may provide some additional inspiration for the bondage fetishists out there.

Not that fetishists buy the doll. According to the site, customers include artists, art collectors, film-makers, scientists, health professionals, housewives - and futurists. Futurists! It's a sign of my own outmoded lifestyle that I'm not sure what this word means. I assume they're not referring to Italian artists of the early 20th century. They no doubt mean people interested the future, forward seeing individuals - in other words, folks who like cool toys. In addition to single men and couples seeking to enhance their sex lives, RealDoll customers are people looking for exotic decorative art, adult retailers who want the ultimate display mannequin, and those who desire to possess the world's most realistic love doll "for whatever reason." One of those reasons is expressed by a customer who asks, "Can I use my RealDoll as a pool toy?" Answer: yes, though prolonged exposure to sunlight and/or chlorine may bleach the doll's pigmentation.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Part II, "Okay, I have my RealDoll, now what?" will have to wait for a later installment. If I don't tie this up now (so to speak), I'll never get it out (so to speak). And this way, you have something to look forward to!

[Update, 8.15.03: I'm disappointed to announce that the R. Crumb doll has disappeared from the index page, to be replaced by Charlie's Angels. The home page is now graced by a Farrah wannabe, who just doesn't do it for me. Apparently the new site was launched just this week, and is soon to feature a RealDoll configurator, which will enable you to "build your dream doll in the virtual world."

The other news is the introduction of the Face X System, which will allow you to change your Doll's face whenever you please. Faces are available for only $500, and include the new "Realdoll Expressions" facetypes, for those of you who prefer a less drugged-up looking model. Users will also be happy to know that now "eyes can be easily changed from the inside, without disturbing the eyelashes." If I'm tearing off my doll's face, the lashes are the last thing I'm afraid of being disturbed.]

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

I wrote several weeks back of the strange goings-on at Strange, that is, if the notion of paying 6000 smackers for a Stepford Wife who doesn't even make dinner is strange to you. I fear I barely scratched the surface.

RealDoll, you see, is not just a sex toy. Oh my no. RealDoll is a community.

If you were of a cynical turn of mind, you might assume that the reason one would invest several thousand dollars in a polyurethane playmate is lack of community. And there you would be wrong. After all, as RealDoll assures us, its clients are more than well-heeled perverts, they are art collectors and futurists. And the dolls are more than sex toys. They are water resistant, stain resistant ("nothing sticks to silicone flesh") and heat resistant, with the ability to withstand temperatures over 300 degrees. So when you find yourself in Hell, the doll will make a lovely companion. The "flesh" is designed to be elastic, and can be stretched over 300%. This may seem impressive, but it's nothing compared to some of the guys I saw down at IML last year. To illustrate the elasticity of the flesh, the RealDoll Studio page bears an animated gif of a pair of man's hands kneading and kneading and kneading and KNEADING a set of RealBreasts. It is positively hypnotic. That is, until you notice the coarseness of the hands and the homemade tattoo on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand. Then it looks like something out of Cape Fear. The effect is heightened by the fact that the scene is watched over by a Doll modeled on Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Comes complete with boiled bunny! This is not something I want in my house, even in the safety of its own sarcophagus.

The one sponsor of the RealDoll site (as a commercial site it doesn't really require sponsorship, but there you have it) is Renee's Realdolls, Rubber, & Robots, a site that offers XXX Pictures, Videos, and Stories of all of the above. A visit to the site reveals a slideshow of images of men posing with RealDolls, women posing with RealDolls, and RealDolls posing with RealDolls. Although no faces are visible, some of the RealDolls are interacting with real penises, which is more than a little disconcerting. Membership to the site is $10/month, and although it is regularly updated with more than 10,000 pics, HUNDREDS of clips and live video! featuring DOZENS of Dolls in Action for you, I'm not forking it over.

Not that it's necessary. RealDoll has a links page, with connections to about a dozen sites selling lingerie, sex toys and THE best in fetish gear. Among the links is CharlieJoanne, the home of RealDoll Charlie Joanne and her RealDoll friends Taffy and Zoe.

This is where things start to get creepy.

A visit to CharlieJoanne lands you on the News page, where you receive a first glimpse of the photo shoots that have been added to the site over the past month. The shoots revolve around Charlie Joanne, or CJ, as she likes to be called, and Charlie Luanne, Vianne and Roxanne, who are all Charlie Joanne in different wigs. It's a little Sybilesque. Charlie's latest incarnation is as her own mother, Mrs. J, or MJ. Also in the crowd are Taffeta Charlene, aka Taffy, and Zoe Jae. Taffy and Zoe seem to be different Dolls from CJ and each other. The Dolls are all featured posed provocatively in a series of photo shoots with names like Spring Fling, Try It Once and Chez Doll. Excerpts from the shoots are available for free at Taffy's Doll Doll Club, but for the hardcore, unexpurgated shots you need to subscribe to CharlieJoanne. On one hand, I can see the fetish value of these dolls, and on the other, I can appreciate pornography as much as the next guy. But not only can I not see the attraction of looking at pictures of mannequins posed in sexual positions, no matter how well-built those mannequins are, I can't imagine a world in which I would pay for the privilege.

Which puts me in the distinct minority in the RealDoll world. CJ links to her friends, family and admirers, with names such as Sidore (of Kitten with a Whip!), Anjie (of The Synthetiks) and of course, Darcy Fabricca. Each of these sites links to others, and most are chock full of photos. These are not photos of people having sex with their Dolls, as at Renee's Realdolls, but Dolls alone, Dolls with other Dolls, and some Dolls going about their daily existence: cutting their hair, dressing up or hanging in the closet. It all culminates at CoverDoll, the online magazine for RealDolls and their fanciers. CoverDoll has recently gone private, after the URL was posted on a public forum, causing the site's bandwidth to exceed its owners' ability to pay.

Certainly the ultimate site is Slade's World. Slade is the Dr. Frankenstein of RealDolls. Slade worked on developing the first male RealDoll, and has posted on his site some rather horrific images of a dismembered MaleDoll suspended on his framework. Slade is now an accomplished Doll surgeon. He collects Dolls that have gone through the mill and returns them to the best condition he can. If you want to see shots of Dolls with their joints laid bare or faces torn off, this is the place for it. He writes casually of his work, such as "Fixed jaw hinges and neck bolts" or "She did have some sagging of her breasts and one knee that came unscrewed." Then he goes to work, and like a 19th century physician, records all of his operations for the edification of his followers. "Her skull broke at the bottom tab where the bolt attaches to the neck. Tawny's repair will be of great help for those people who have the same neck problem." Occasionally, even Slade will let his pride show, as when he says of one Doll, "She had major neck damage and I had to do extensive head work. A lot of patching and fixing seams but all in all she came out looking Great!" Even though you know these are just Dolls, seeing their flesh pulled away from their skulls or their leg joints cut clean through is a bit unnerving.

Slade has an extensive selection of Dolls in tableaux vivant throughout his site. The Dolls are clustered in such sections as The Den, The Library and The Living Room, making the site part fetish, part Clue. He has devoted an entire page to the adventures of his MaleDoll, Adam, "and his penis in action with some of the other female dolls I have had in the house." And yes, he has plenty of female dolls in the house. He gets right to the point when he writes, "you have no idea how hard it is to move two hundred and fifty pounds of sticky silicone around to get these kind of pictures." But whereas he says the photos "are intended for just that, fun," there are enough folks involved in this sort of RealDoll pornography that one must wonder if one is seeing a nascent fetish a-borning.

[Update: Slade's new site is The site is organized according to doll type and surgery type. Gone are The Den, The Library and The Living Room. Although Slade makes promises on the "Misc. Dolls" page, there are no shots of the MaleDoll in creation, nor of Adam. Still, there are plenty of shots of his other dolls, and the surgery pix are larger and better organized, and that's what we're all here for anyway.]


After spending all this time at the RealDoll site, I had occasion to do some shopping at the American Girl store. It scared me.

Like the RealDolls, the American Girl dolls come in a variety of skin tones, eye colors and hair shades. The basic brand features dolls from a series of times and places, such as Addy, the little black girl (and Oprah favorite) who escapes from slavery with her mother in 1864, or Molly, the pigtailed World War II era lesbian. New additions to the line include non-American Girls, such as French Cécile, Indian Neela and Cantonese Spring Pearl. The American Girls are big and lifelike and come with a plethora of clothes and accessories; the non-American Girls are 9 inches tall and come on a stand with your choice of display case or shelf.

Then there's the American Girl Today. These GirlDolls are 18 inches tall and are meant to mimic their owner's appearance. Thus, you have your choice of light skin, medium skin, dark skin; blue eyes, green eyes, light brown eyes, dark brown eyes; blond hair, light brown hair, dark brown hair, black hair or textured black hair. At this point there are 21 dolls to choose from, and looking at them spread out across the page like a palette, I was forcibly reminded of the collection of heads and bodies at RealDoll. Do I want sassy Stephanie or sultry Amanda? Exotic Mai or sophisticated Celine? Passionate Neela or inscrutable Spring Pearl? Light skin, curly honey-blond hair, hazel eyes or dark skin, textured black hair, light brown eyes? After a while, it all blends together. Now, both the American Girls and RealDolls have display stands available.

The difference is, RealDolls don't come with a book telling their story. That's for their Master to decide.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Six Degrees of You

Welcome to Your Delayed Weekly Reader. Its tardiness is almost as much a surprise to me as it is to you.

All started well with this issue. I knew what I wanted to write about (no small miracle) and got an early start. By yesterday afternoon, it was half written. I needed to do some research and make some notes for the second article, but I felt confident that I would get it out in time. So confident, in fact, that I decided to repair to the watering hole across the street to do my reading. This is something I've done before, and after working at the computer all morning, I figured a break was in order.

Then the gin started to flow.

I woke up this morning with a spike in my skull and feeling, to quote W.C. Fields, like the Russian army had been walking over my tongue in their stocking feet. I ate some Walbuprofen, drank a gallon of water and took to my bed. Several hours later I arose, repaired the damage a night of debauchery had created, and sought to complete the Reader.

Have you ever noticed that when you're running behind on a project, everything takes longer than you expect? This was my experience today. One short piece, which should have taken an hour or two to complete, turned out to be a long piece which took closer to five. So maybe you'll see this tonight, or maybe tomorrow, or maybe Monday.



In the kismet that often leads to Your Weekly Reader, this past week I stumbled not once but twice across I discovered that two friends of mine, who were both present at my birthday party in March, have met and started hanging out through common connections on Friendster. The next day, Excite featured a news story on the site. Intrigued, I decided to check it out.

Friendster is an online networking site. It owes its name to Napster, but instead of file sharing, its users engage in people sharing. You can join by being invited by a friend, or you can simply join and invite your friends to follow. When you sign up, you create a profile, similar to one you might create on a dating service, listing such information as your location, interests and favorite books, movies and music. If you know people who are already on the service, as I did, you can add them to your list of friends - pending their approval, of course. As your friends join and invite their friends in turn, your circle of associates expands. It's very much a case of, "And they told two friends, and so on, and so on…" Your pool only extends to four degrees of separation, but you'd be astonished at how quickly that grows. For example, through the one contact so far who has accepted my friendship, I am connected to 2338 others. That friend, by the way, has only 11 friends besides me in his inner circle, so you can see the rate at which the group expands.

Indeed, the site has expanded geometrically in popularity since it first went live, just last year. It boasts 1.3 million users, overseen by a staff of just seven. Most of the members are in their twenties or early thirties, with an average age of 27. For now, membership is free, but the owners plan to turn it into a pay site sometime in the next few months. As in dating, you will be able to look for free, but will have to pay in order to touch.

Using the site can be addictive. There are three ways to search through your Personal Network: by name, by interests and through The Gallery. The name search is useful if you already know the full name or email address of a friend you believe is on the site. This is how I found the friend(s) I've added to my list. (Users are identified only by first names, which are sometimes pseudonymous, so the email address option can really come in handy.) The interest search allows you to look for others who have similar interests (duh), such as Cooking or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The Gallery is the function most like a traditional dating site. Here you can specify what you're looking for: men or women, dating or just friends, age, location and marital status. Friendster returns hundreds of matches, with photos if they've posted them, for you to browse at your leisure. Salient information, such as age, location and status, also appear. When you click on a particular target, you're told how you are connected: through how many degrees and which variations. In this way, you can get an idea of the circle of friends that brought you together, which may be enough to determine if you want to go any further.

In this way and others, Friendster hearkens back to the 18th century, when friends introduced each other at staged events and matches were made within social circles. One can all but see Jane Austen writing the code. It emphasizes how isolated we are that the only way friends introduce each other today is online, where everyone can maintain a safe distance. I have relatives who have taken up square dancing as a way to remain active, to stay in contact with friends and to meet new people. Need I mention that they are members of an older generation? Such a pastime is beneath the cosmopolitans and metrosexuals who swarm our cities' streets. I am a member of a Friday night salon with several like-minded friends. In recent years we have thrown open the doors of our intimate group, offering a standing invitation to a number of our fellows. Unfortunately, it is well-nigh impossible to get people to leave their homes to attend a gathering that promises nothing more than good friends and spirited conversation. On the other hand, one sees the rebirth of knitting circles and quilting bees, which have recently sprung up as a way for people to reconnect. In some ways, that 19th century seems awfully attractive.

The value of a sewing circle or square dance club is that a good time is not dependent on technology. This is where Friendster is falling short. The biggest problem with the site is that it can be deadly slow, especially in the middle of the day. The status bar consistently reads "Waiting for" as the servers do their best to keep up. You can almost hear the grinding of gears and smell the burning capacitors as the photos sluggishly load. Or not. As I write this, on Thursday afternoon, my personal photo is not loading at all, although it did yesterday. The five people Friendster is encouraging me to meet are all offering up large blue-gray question marks in place of pictures. My Gallery resembles something The Riddler would affect, rather than a page of photographs.

The interest search function is similarly unpredictable. A search for "Simpsons" is likely to return fans of the animated series, but "Friday Night Salon" returns everything from "Poker Night" to "Hanging out with friends and of course the 'occational' (sic) night out at the bars." Even a search as simple as "sound design" can return matches as varied as "web design" and "do i sound like a whore yet?" Although the profile page specifically asks that you separate items with commas, the search engine doesn't group those items discretely, so "True Grit" matches with "True Romance."

But no one's in it for the science, and after all, mismatches are often more interesting that correct ones. In any case, I encourage you to check out the site while it's still free. As an experiment, I invited a half dozen friends to join me, and so far only one has responded. So if you want to link to me, feel free. You'll have to run a user search, since I'm not using my johnbliss or email address on the site. Just search for John Bliss. I'll be the guy who looks like a blue question mark.

New Media

I have become inundated with magazines. At present, I have subscriptions to more than fifteen periodicals. I pay for about a third. A couple came as gifts, but the rest are a result of free offers I've received online. Of those, the majority have come from

As its name indicates, freebizmag provides free subscriptions to business magazines. And indeed, some of the subscriptions I've received from freebizmag have been business publications: Entrepreneur, Direct (the magazine of direct marketing) and Potentials (the magazine of corporate swag). But then there are the subscriptions to Interview, Wine Enthusiast and Better Homes and Gardens, not to mention the ones I passed up, such as Biography and Outdoor Photographer.

One reason I've received this plethora of offers is that I haven't been completely straightforward about what I do for a living. This is not completely my fault. When you sign up at, you are presented with a simple questionnaire of drop down menus. The two basic questions are "Select Your Industry" and "Select Your Job Function / Title." Easy enough. Listed industries run the gamut from Agricultural to Retail. As a writer, my two best choices are Business Service / Financial or Media / Marketing / Entertainment, both of which offer Advertising / Marketing as a secondary choice. Other possibilities are Communication / Utility, Computers / Internet or Education. But let's keep it simple for now, and choose Marketing. When you go to Job Function, you are presented with everything from General Management and Legal to Health / Medical / Fire / Safety. So if you're a fire inspector at an advertising agency, I suppose they've got you covered. Let us follow the path we are on, though, and choose Advertising / Marketing / Sales. Once again, another drop down menu appears, offering the three choices of Advertising, Marketing or Sales. The menus which follow Advertising and Marketing are similar, but Advertising leans a bit more to the creative side, offering Designer, Graphic Artist, and finally, Copy Chief / Copywriter.

Unfortunately, if you follow that path, you receive this message: "Based on the business profile you've provided, we are unable to locate any applicable free, business magazine(s)." So one feels compelled to fudge a little bit. And because freebizmag doesn't offer any path that leads to Writer or Content Provider, one doesn't feel so bad. In general, I've stayed within fields that are related to my work, not choosing Automotive / Aviation / Transportation or Medical / Dental / Science as an Industry, for example. One problem is that no matter what you select as your Industry, your choices of Job Function / Title remain the same. Eventually I hit on a combination that worked, and freebizmag offered me a free business magazine (I think EWeek, not to be confused with E Weekly, was the first). Since then, they've continued to send me offers for more. And since I never recall how I answered their questions last time, I work in an ever-changing series of fields.

In addition to sending me magazines I want, freebizmag has introduced me to others with which I was not familiar. Thus, it is through freebizmag that I discovered The Week, Stuff and Radar.

The Week is the USA Today of news magazines. Their motto is "All you need to know about everything that matters." All you need to know to sound informed at the water cooler might be more appropriate. The magazine is a news digest. Its writers and editors scan newspapers and magazines from around the country and, to a lesser degree, across the globe, and cull the results into short, snappy newsbites. It is the CliffsNotes for the news of the world.

By any definition of the word, The Week is slight. At a scant 40 pages, it is about half the size of Time. Its articles are correspondingly brief. The magazine does manage to spare about three-quarters of a page for one or two major stories per week, such as the search for Saddam or the recall election in California. In contrast, stories on North Korea and Liberia rate about a third of a page. News of the world is covered in three pages - one for the Americas, one for Europe and one for Africa, Asia and Australia - and maps account for much of the space. Stories on such issues as the 9/11 report and gay marriage are covered in a half page dossier called "Talking Points." Indeed, Talking Points would be a fine name for the entire magazine, as it rarely covers much more.

The writing style is a cross between journalism and plagiarism, a rich vein recently mined by Jayson Blair and his ilk. Articles reflect what has been written in such journals as The New York Times and The Nation, but rarely more than one line per paper. Sources are cited, which helps the magazine maintain some level of credibility, but direct quotes are never more than a few words. The bulk of the articles are paraphrase, with information attributed to various journals. Thus, a line which starts with an idea from The Wall Street Journal may end with a conclusion from the San Jose Mercury News. This works most successfully the main stories, which cover What Happened, What the Editorials Said, What the Columnists Said and What Next. In shorter stories, the style can be somewhat psychotic, as if written by Sybil Dorsett in full flower.

The Week manages to find room in its pages for sections on Arts, Business and Leisure. The mag covers the arts with its Review of Reviews, which would be better named Revue of Reviews, since the reviews aren't critiqued so much as trotted out together on the same stage. Where else can you find five movie reviews on one page, composed completely of comments from other reviewers, and authored, such as they are, by someone who may not have seen the films in question? The other sections offer similarly in-depth coverage.

Still, if one hour per week is all you can devote to current events, The Week is the magazine for you.

The Week comes to us courtesy of Dennis Publications, which also publishes Stuff, and may explain why a subscription to the former led to one for the latter. Stuff would be better named Stuffed Bikini. This is a magazine which runs such banners on its cover as "Around the World in 80 Babes" and "Now With 98% Fewer Clothes!" I didn't know exactly what I was getting into when I ordered the magazine, but I'm not completely disappointed.

Stuff aims to be a younger, straighter Details. Each issue is composed of big pictures and short articles. In publishing lingo, the short pieces that open a magazine are referred to as the front of the book. Stuff is all the front of the book. 300 words is a long article. The magazine is packed full of stuff - cars, fashion, electronics - but mostly boobs. Features follow celebs and sports figures, leaning heavily on chesty actressmodels. For example, the current issue runs pieces on Daisy Fuentes, Univision star Sissi and Marieh Delfino of Jeepers Creepers 2, along with a special section on Latina lovelies. All of their outfits combined would make a nice shawl for Oprah.

Stuff tries to be clever, but with lines like "Four whores and seven beers ago," it at best succeeds in being smarmy. Nothing in the magazine would seem out of place on The Man Show. This is the sort of stuff that gives straight men a bad name. Even the ads are creepy, such as the one for fcuk fragrance, whose brands are called fcuk him and fcuk her. It's difficult to imagine anyone over the age of 21 buying this rag, when they could pick up Penthouse or Juggs for the same price. But Stuff claims a paid circulation of 1.2 million, so someone must be buying it.

For me, the most interesting thing about Stuff is the number of women on its staff. The Senior Editor is Dawn Yanek and the Managing Editor is Patty Gloeckner. Three out of four photo editors are women, which may be how they get all those chicks out of their clothes. I don't know if they are pandering to their audience or if it is all a colossal joke. I can't recommend a subscription, but the magazine does offer a fascinating look into a culture with which I am totally unfamiliar: children with no taste.

Everything that Stuff would like to be, Radar is. Smart and funny, with a distinct point of view. Sure, its Summer issue features a skinsome photo of Paris and Nicky Hilton, but it serves as an illustration for article on third-tier stars, B-List Nation. Despite its masthead which proclaims Pop > Politics > Scandal > Style, Radar has something to say and cares who knows it.

Radar has just recently debuted. Its premiere issue came out in April. I never received that issue, but I do have the second one. The next issue comes out in September. Quarterly publication seems odd for a magazine that is so celebrity driven, but I'd prefer that they take their time and get it right than rush to press and go to hell.

Radar's point of view is illustrated by their article on B-List stars, which they define as "Ambitious extroverts who in a less shameful epoch would live out their lives in obscurity." Stuff, on the other hand, celebrates those very stars. (Marieh Delfino anyone?) The story not only examines the B-List phenomenon, but charts stars by categories such as "A but B at heart" (Justin Timberlake, Broadway), "A about to be B" (Angelina Jolie, Botox), "B on their way to A" (John C. Reilly, Chest Hair) and "Will never be A" (Dennis Hastert, Lords of the Dance). Radar opens an article on Bill Clinton by calling him "just another lonely middle-aged millionaire with an absentee wife and a bad commute." Stuff wouldn't 1) know the word "absentee," 2) think to contrast "just another" with "millionaire" and 3) use so many words in a row. A story about Joe Francis, creator of the Girls Gone Wild series, focuses on him and his shady business practices, rather than the wild girls. It cleanses the palate after a diet of Stuff.

If Stuff is the straight Details, Radar may be the new Spy. I hate to even suggest it, recognizing what a big pair of loafers those are to fill. But it has the sense and it has the sensibility. It wisely keeps the front of the book at the front of the book. An article on fashion explores minimum wage chic, with Dunkin Donuts and Mister Softee uniforms reimagined by the like of Prada, Donna Karan and Gucci, and UPS brown dubbed the new black. Their "Ask America" poll finds Carrot Top's hair 8% more appealing than Scott Peterson's, Justin Guarini 12% gayer than Ricky Martin, and J. Lo's ego twice as big as her ass. Most telling, the mag offers a dissection of Donald Trump's enormous hair, with advice from celebrity croppers.

When I started getting my free magazines, I was interested in two things. First, I was looking for tips to help grow my business. Thus, Entrepreneur and Direct. Second, I was looking for new markets. Radar comes closest to filling that niche, though with competition from Camille Paglia and Jake Tapper, it's gonna be a hard sell. Now that I'm on the magazine whirlwind, though, I simply enjoy having new media coming into my house regularly. And much like the best things in life, they're free.


Quote of the Week

"He never seizes to amaze me."
From an user review.

Is that anything like She Stoops to Conquer?

Friday, August 01, 2003

Hope: Not Eternal

Bob Hope died this week at the absurd age of 100. His passing comes fast on the heels of a disagreement I had this past week with a friend who claimed Hope was dead. That I argued that Hope was alive may come as a surprise to regular readers of this space, but in this case I had seen a lack of evidence to support the reverse.

It is interesting to me that the only people who seem to live to their centenary are the very rich or the very poor. These are the classes who have access to either the finest medical care or none at all. They are kept alive on one hand by the greatest advances in drugs and technology and on the other by herbs and yogurt. The rest of us are slaughtered off by run of the mill medical professionals at a more appropriate age.

Even among the super rich, 100 used to be more of a milestone. When George Burns lived to be 100, it was a remarkable achievement. Now, if you don't make it into your 90s, you're considered a slacker. Buddy Ebsen died earlier this month at 95; Katherine Hepburn a few weeks earlier at 96. Milton Berle died last year at 93. Gregory Peck was a comparative spring chicken, making it only to 87. By comparison, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope's contemporary and longtime foil, has been dead for 25 years.

Hope and Hepburn will be jockeying for position at next year's Oscarcast salute to the dead. Hepburn was the greater star, but Hope was the greater Oscar star, hosting or cohosting the show 18 times over a span of 40 years, including its first television broadcast in 1953. In addition, he received five special Oscars, which is one more than Hepburn's four legitimate wins. I expect they'll open with Hope and close with Hepburn, since on the average Oscarcast Hope would be the first person you'd see. Or they may just give him his own tribute. God knows they've got the clips for it.

I always like Bob Hope, though I'm not particularly moved at his passing. It's hard to imagine anyone disliking Bob Hope. He reminds me of my childhood. Outside of a few cameo roles, his movie career was pretty much over by the time I was 10, so I only saw his movies on TV. They were goofy enough for me to enjoy, and I was young enough to not want anything more out of them. I'd see him on the Oscars or on one of his zillions of TV appearances with Jack Benny or George Burns, and all was well with the world. He occupies a similar place in my heart and mind as John Wayne: an avuncular star I could count on. I might not have liked his politics - once I was old enough to know what his politics were, as well as what my own were - but he came from a time when performers didn't shove their politics down your throat. But since he'd dropped off my radar about 20 years, and since he was definitely not getting any younger, I was ready for him to go.

It's been a tough summer for celebs. Things got off to a bad start in May, when Robert Stack and June Carter Cash died back to back mid-month. But the rush to the cemetery started on June 6th, when David Brinkley followed his one-time co-anchor Chet Huntley into the great beyond. Many folks date the dying season from the next day, when Gregory Peck passed. Three days later it was Hume Cronyn (91 years young), a week later Leon Uris. Then the tag team exit of Lester Maddox and Strom Thurmond. June closed out with Katherine Hepburn and Buddy Hackett, and July opened up with Barry White (who got enough of your love, babe) and Buddy Ebsen. This week brought both Hope and John Schlesinger. And that's not counting music producer Sam Phillips, children's book author Robert McCloskey, theater director Joseph Chaikin or singer Celia Cruz.

Nor does it include former Representative Bob Stump. Stump is known for having announced the death of Bob Hope on the House floor on June 5, 1998, a full five years before Bob was ready to go. The Associated Press had accidentally posted Hope's obit on their website. Stump picked up the item and passed it on to the assembled House. It wasn't until a reporter called Hope's house for a comment that the gaffe was caught. Stump died on June 20th, so Hope had the last laugh.

The people most interested in Hope's death are the participants in The Lee Atwater Invitational Dead Pool at The Atwater is a competition, now in its eighth year, in which players bet on which celebrities will die that year. Players pick ten names, and whoever gets the most right wins the kitty. The tournament is a year-long event, so if you want to play you have to wait until 2004. Bob Hope was on 600 lists, more than half of the nearly 1100 entered, so his death was a relief to a lot of players. Warren Zevon tops the charts, with his name on 614 entries. Zevon has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, so it seems a safe bet. Still, that announcement came out nearly a year ago, so you never can tell.

In addition to the Dead Pool, stiffs runs snarky obits for the dearly departed. For example, when Denis Thatcher and Strom Thurmond died on the same day, this is how stiffs presented it: "Denis Thatcher (06/26) Close, but no cigar." "Strom Thurmond (06/26) Cigar." For Carol Shields, they wrote, "The Pulitzer-Prize winning Canadian novelist is survived and mourned by long-time mime partner Yarnell." For Nell Carter it was simply, "Ain't respiratin'." If mocking the dead is not your cup of tea, stiffs is not for you. If it is, drink heartily.

Kiss Me, Stupid

After the last two Readers, I vowed not to write about anything gay or political this week. Then George Bush held a press conference and left me no choice.

Given his druthers, I’m sure the president would avoid the issue of gay marriage altogether. That was his tack last month when asked about a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit same sex marriages. At that time he said, in essence, that an amendment might not be necessary. But reporters will be reporters, and one brought up the issue again during a press conference this Wednesday. Mindful of the criticism he received from conservatives when he dodged the issue last time, this time he took the bait. He was reserved, but said, “I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.” In short, the president is suggesting a preemptive strike, but for him that’s nothing unusual.

The issue of gay marriage has reared its ugly head in wake of the Supreme Court decision to strike down sodomy laws. It was Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, who suggested that legalizing one would lead to legalizing the other. Right now, cases considering the issue are before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial and a New Jersey Superior Court. When you add in the recent decision by the Canadian government to recognize gay marriages, you’ve got a swelling of homosexual panic.

One problem with this issue is that it’s impossible to approach as anything other than a religious concern. President Bush highlighted that when he commented that “I am mindful that we’re all sinners,” and went on to paraphrase the Gospel of St. Matthew, saying, “I caution those who may try to take the speck out of the neighbor's eye when they've got a log in their own.” One is reminded of Jimmy Carter’s admission of looking at women with lust and committing adultery in his heart. Bush’s intention was to be inclusive, but quite a few gays understandably prickled at the notion of being considered sinners for wanting to get married, especially since in a quarter of the states they have just stopped being criminals. Mr. Bush received support from Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, who praised him for taking a courageous stand “when the courts are conspiring with anti-family extremists to undermine our nation's most vital institution.” Get your homosexual agendas while they’re hot.

Personally, I think conservatives should be all in favor of gay marriage. What could be a better way to show support for traditional family values than by legally coupling up as many people as possible, regardless of sex? In a strictly moral sense, promiscuity, rather than homosexuality, is the greatest threat. Rather than enjoying endless bouts of indiscriminate sex, wouldn’t it be better to encourage gay couples to practice monogamy by offering them the opportunity to marry? It’s one thing for churches to debate which unions they recognize, and quite another for governments to do the same. The criteria for such decisions should be radically different.

I also find it odd that the Republican Party, which claims to stand for smaller government, should consider marriage and morality their special provenance. If there is any place to cut government, it is in its intrusion into private life. It seems to me to make sense legally, as well as morally, to endorse all marriage. Rather than suffering a slew of laws regulating both marriage and domestic partnership, wouldn’t it make sense to lump them all together and cut the red tape? It would remove the problem of domestic partnership altogether. Married couples would enjoy the benefits of their relationship, and domestic partners, whether gay or straight, would have an added incentive to marry.

No matter what laws are passed, eventually gay marriage will be legal. I’m willing to stick my neck out on this. Remember that less than 50 years ago, 16 states carried laws that made it illegal for mixed-race couples. Many of the same arguments were applied to miscegenation that are now used against homosexual unions: it was immoral, it flew in the face of natural law, it defied God’s will. Not until 1967 did the Supreme Court strike down those laws. By then, much of “reasonable” society recognized that even if it found mixed marriages distasteful, it could no longer find them illegal. (In light of this, that year’s release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner comes across as a bit more prescient.)

Similarly, American society is running out of reasons to oppose gay unions. Children born today will have been so exposed to homosexuality by the time they come of age that the idea of outlawing gay marriage will strike them as absurd. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, 55 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage and 40 percent support it. That support is much higher than it was just ten years ago. This week, an informal survey conducted by asked the question, “Should marriage be legally defined as only a union between a man and a woman?” In that poll, only 32% voted yes, while 68% voted no. This was an unscientific sampling, and as such allowed multiple votes, and only reflects the views of users of the CNN online site. But it indicates what I believe is a common thread in American thought: most people don’t care what you do, as long as you keep up your lawn. I think most people are opposed to the idea of gay marriage, but they are just as opposed to the government defining what constitutes a marriage. In 20 years, many of the folks opposed to gay marriage will have died off, and many of the rest won’t understand what the fuss was all about.

At the same time, there’s no politician today who has the guts to come out in favor of gay unions. Gay marriage may be inevitable, but I can’t blame any pol who doesn’t want it to happen on his watch. While actively opposing it may be politically expedient in the short run, it all but guarantees you a place in history alongside such folks as Lester Maddox. Bush tried to straddle the issue by saying, “I think it's very important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country. On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage.” I have no problem with anyone opposing gay marriage as an individual. George Bush needs to remember he is the president.

A Boy Named Sue

The Social Security Administration, having nothing better to do with their time and money, has become the nation’s foremost registry of baby names. In 1998, the SSA published a study on the distribution of given names in the US. Since then, they have updated their data regularly, so you can now search for the most popular names over the past 12 years, or how a given name has risen or fallen in popularity over that period. You can also view tables of the top ten given names going back to 1880.

And they accuse the government of wasting taxpayers’ money!

This is a valuable service to parents-to-be. Say you’re expecting a boy and you’ve just fallen in love with the name Ethan. Your inspiration could be Hawke or Allen. A quick search of the registry reveals that while Ethan has been in the top 100 for the past 10 years, in 2002 it zipped up to #5. Perhaps you want to reconsider your choice.

Or perhaps you’re expecting a baby girl. You like the name Sam, but Samantha seems so common. It’s easy to discover how right you are, thanks to the SSA! Though its popularity has dropped somewhat in recent years, Samantha remains in the top ten, where it has nestled since 1988. You discover the variation Samara, and find that name didn’t crack the top 1000 until 1999, and remains safely in the 900 range. Score! As an additional helpful tip, the database offers up Amara, Mara and Sam as variations you might want to consider.

A look at the most popular given names from 1960 to 1997, sorted by sex, reveals some insight into our nature.

Among the boys, Michael, David, John, James and Robert were the five most popular names from 1960 to 1971. They shuffled about in position to some degree, but remained surprisingly consistent. Mark, William and Richard filled out the bottom five, with a rotation of a handful of other names. In fact, throughout the entire period of 1960 to 1997, the list varies far less than you would expect. From 1964 to 1998, Michael is the most popular given name. This prompts a friend who has that name to remark that “Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Michael.”

Christopher first breaks into the top ten in 1967, and quickly moves up the ladder. By 1972, Christopher has become the second most popular name for baby boys. In fact, from 1972 to 1993, except for a brief spell in the late 70s, Michael and Christopher are at the top of the list. This reflects the popularity of porn star Michael Christopher during that period, but I doubt one has anything to do with the other.

Christopher was supplanted from 1976 to 1980 by Jason, who took over the #2 spot for those years. In fact, Jason could be found in the top ten from 1971 until 1983, after which he dropped from the list. By 1984, Jason was replaced by Joshua, who first appeared in the top ten on 1979, and in 1995 Joshua is joined by Jacob. Thus are the ancient Greeks replaced by the ancient Israelites. In 1994, Zachary appears in the top ten for the first and last time, spurred on no doubt by the success of Home Improvement. He is replaced for a few years by the unassuming Tyler, who also quickly fades. Joshua and Jacob remain in the top ten, and in 1999 Jacob takes the top spot, where he remains to this day. In fact, the list continues to remain fairly constant, with Jacob, Michael, Matthew, Joshua and Christopher ruling the top five spots from 1995 to present.

The list of girls’ names, on the other hand, is far more erratic. Perhaps parents feel free to be more creative when naming their girls, perhaps mothers have more input into their daughters’ names, or perhaps there is less of a drive with girls than boys to give them a traditional family name. In any case, unlike the male list, which demonstrates an 11 year period of the five most popular names, among the girls, Mary, Susan, Maria, Karen and Lisa head the list only from 1960 to 1964. Up to this point, Mary was by far the most popular girl’s name, holding the number 1 spot from 1880 until1961, except for a brief period from 1947 to 1952 when it ceded that position to Linda. Since Mary and Maria are essentially the same name, it holds two spots in the top five. In 1965, Kimberly moves into the top ten, replacing Susan, and the following year Michelle boots Karen from #3 to #8.

From here, all bets are off as Jennifer, Angela and Amy swiftly muscle their way into the top ten. By 1973, the order is Jennifer, Michelle, Amy, Lisa and Kimberly, with Lisa the sole survivor from 1960. By 1972, the venerable Mary is completely gone from the top ten. Maria lasts a few more years, but is gone by 77.

Anyone familiar with girls’ names knows what happens next. It’s a virtual free-for-all, as Heather joins the top ten in 1972, prompting the film of that name 17 years later. Melissa and Stephanie move into the top ten the following year, joined in 1976 by Jessica and 1977 by Sarah and Amanda. That Sarah Jessica Parker was born in 1965 shows how ahead of the curve her parents were. That Sarah and Joshua join the list at roughly the same time says something, but I’m not sure what. In 1980, Nicole, who had put in a brief appearance in 1972, returns for good, followed two years later by the oh-so-retro Elizabeth. Also in 1982, Crystal briefly breaks into the top ten, due I would imagine to the popularity of Dynasty. The next year, Ashley comes from nowhere to land the #3 spot, and she remains at #3 or higher until 1997, capturing the top spot in 1991. 1986 sees the addition of Brittany, while the late 80s ushers in Samantha, Lauren and Megan. Recent years have introduced Taylor, Madison, Hannah and Alexis.

The amazing thing about the girls’ names is not simply that the list is so volatile, but that names literally appear out of nowhere and rise to the top. Granted, a name could easily lurk for years in the top 100 and not be revealed by this database. But unlike the boys’ list, which shows the steady progression of a mutual fund, the girls’ list appears to be the result of wildcatting. Names are added and discarded as capriciously as last year’s fashion. Does Pregnant Mother magazine present a regular update on the hot new trends in names? Is there an underground of would-be Ashleys and Madisons leading the charge for the new names? Is there some sort of Jungian group mind at work, linking all gestating women in a web of Hannah worship? I may never know.

In any case, I urge you to discover the database for yourself . It will answer such mysteries as, "Why are all my friends named Kevin?" (It’s in the top 30!) The design is simple but the results are addictive. For example, Zachary remains popular throughout the 90s, in 16th place, with nearly 10,000 names out of just under a million (a 5% sampling of Social Security card applications with dates of birth from January 1990 through August 1999). But Zachery comes in at 206, with 668 names, Zackary is 256th, with 512, Zackery comes next at 362, with 308 names, and Zakary is at 736th place, with 92 names. And that’s not counting the 366 Zachariahs. There are 2000 male Dakotas and 360 female Dakotas, with and additional 69 male Dakotahs for good measure. The 548 female Guadalupes are balanced by 125 male Guadalupes, and both Peyton and Payton are given to boys and girls. It’s like being a boy named Sue. Speaking of which, Josue is the 244th most popular name for boys. Fans of The Producers will be happy to know there are 262 Rodolphos in the sampling, and yes, Matrix fans, there are 74 Keanus.

The more you know, the more you want to know.