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Friday, August 20, 2004

Great Balls of Polypropylene!

It's a wide, wild world out there, and I'm constantly surprised by how little I know about it. We live in the information age, and information collects, so the desire to keep up with it all is a constant, losing struggle. Something always falls through the cracks.

Like Neuticles.

I've been doing some reading on dog rescue - no, I'm not getting a dog; at least not yet - and on a border collie site I read a question about Neuticles. Capitalized because Neuticles is the brand name, and the Neuticles people don't want to be in the same boat as Band-Aid and Kleenex.

I can't stop saying Neuticles.

Neuticles, as you may have guessed, are testicular implants for pets (US Patent #58-68140). According to the manufacturer, when Spot or Puff have their gonads axed, they suffer from post neutering trauma. Dr. Nicholas B. Carter, of the Border Collie Rescue site, makes the point that all surgery results in physical and emotional post-surgery trauma, for both animals and humans. You get cut open, you don't feel your freshest. The Neuticles folks say it's worse for pets who get neutered. They miss what they are missing, and as a result experience depression and, yes, lower self esteem. When you replace your pet's testicles with Neuticles, he is unaware he has been neutered because he "retains his natural look."

Neuticles are essentially, how do you say, rubber balls. Well not quite. They're actually a polypropylene homopolymer (or homopolymere, according to the website), which makes them plastic balls. It should come as no surprise that the company now offer eye implants for your pets as well. And the new Neuticles Ultra, or Neuticles Natural (they need to get their branding straight), are made of solid silicone, to "replicate pets' testes in firmness," adding a natural feel to that natural look, no doubt. The balls come in a range of sizes to fit your furry friend, from less than half an inch (XSmall in the Feline line, Petite in the Canine) to more than 2 inches (XLarge Canine), with prices ranging from $53 a pair to $179. Neuticles are available by the piece as well as by the pair, in case your pet has a mismatched set of luggage, I suppose. The Naturals are significantly more expensive - 129 bucks versus 53 for the Canine Petite Pair, $169 versus $67 for the Canine Large. I say screw Poochie and go with the plastic. If you're really close to your pet, you can have replacements custom sized, at $399 (Feline) and $499 (Canine), for a pair or (oddly) for each. And just to keep everybody happy, Neuticles are available for your horse or bull.

Note: Neuticles offers a 10% discount "To Licensed Veterinarians," which implies that a certain number of purchases are made by the end user - well, their master, at least - rather than doctors. I shudder. Especially since the site offers charts illustrating the procedure. Don't cut off your dog's balls at home. Save that for your husband.

Replacement testicles have been available for humans for some time now (Steve even flirted with getting one on Sex and the City), so I guess it was just a matter of time before someone made them for pets. According to the Neuticles site (I can't stop saying Neuticles), it's "common sense" that a dog would know he was neutered. "A dog knows when he's hungry, when he has a flea, when he misses his owner - why wouldn't he miss a familiar body part?" Granted, this common sense flies in the face of what most experts say, but what do experts know? The general opinion seems to be that Neuticles are more for the pet owners than for the pets. As more than one doctor says in the "What Veterinarians Are Saying" page of the official site, "If it convinces people to neuter their pet then I'm all for it." Considering that, according to the American Humane Association, nearly 10 million pets are put to sleep each year in the US, it's no wonder that vets are in favor of neutering. Pet owners, on the other hand, have a different approach to Neuticles. As Lane Hinderman of Metairie, LA says, "He's a guy and I wanted him to remain looking like one." Echoes Glenda Nelson of Spring, TX, "Neuticles were the absolute least I could do."

Whatever you or I may think, Gregg Miller, the inventor of Neuticles, is not your ordinary crackpot. Over the past eight years, more than 100,000 animals have been "Neuticled" (his word) around the world. Now Miller has written a book about his experience. Called "Going Nuts," the book chronicles two stories: the development of the first canine testicular implant and the death of his father due to Alzheimer's disease.

Now that takes balls.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Judge Not

The world can sleep easier, now that the O is dispensing justice.

As I'm sure you know, Oprah Winfrey received some press this week - like she needs it - not for renewing her contract through the next millennium, but for sitting on a jury. Word came out last week that the Giant Head had been called for jury duty. Well, despite her best efforts, she got into the box, where she and 11 cohorts found defendant Dion Coleman guilty of first degree murder in a trial that spanned all of three days.

Oprah called the experience "an eye-opener" and "a huge reality check." It was life changing - as what is not for Oprah - to discover that "there's a whole other world going on out there."

What was the big surprise? That people are gunned down every day in Chicago, especially over drugs and money, which were at the root of this case? That trial lawyers are by and large working stiffs whose cases look nothing like those on "Law & Order"? That juror meals are so tiny?

As is her wont, Oprah is now planning a "jury reunion" show for next week. I expect all questions will be answered then.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Coleman, the mother of the defendant, had the final word: "I don't watch her show, anyway. I watch Montel. And Maury."


A concerned looking Greta von Susteren - have you noticed that she always looks concerned? Is this a result of her cosmetic surgery? - was distressed that a first degree murder trial took only three days. Of course, Greta and her brood have been following the Scott Peterson case, which is not exactly the model by which all criminal cases should be judged. Granted, I know almost nothing about the Scott Peterson case. The only Scott Peterson I'm familiar with is the lunch meat and sausage company. On the other hand, I'm one of a handful of Americans who never followed the O.J. case. Once again, to me an O.J. case is something that comes from the folks at Tropicana.

I am not surprised that a murder case should be resolved in three days. The vast majority of trials in our criminal courts are not high profile ratings grabbers. Most crimes are committed by stupid people acting as befits their nature. The perpetrators are shuffled through the system as quickly as possible by courts seeking to catch up on their caseload. I once sat in a courtroom as a witness to an assault that was resolved in less than an hour. As I waited for the case to be called, I watched a fistful of drug offenders pass through and have justice meted out to them, in varying degrees. The speed with which most capital crimes are decided is one reason that death penalty opponents are so adamant in their cause.

At the same time, Oprah's case is of more interest to me than O.J.'s or Peterson's. The defendant lives in Chicago and has a criminal background. Should he be guilty and yet be released, my well-being is in more immediate danger than if Scott Peterson runs free.

Monday, August 16, 2004

We Shall Overcome High Prices

It's a great time to be a protester! Mayor Michael Bloomberg is welcoming "peaceful political activists" to New York City with a barrel o' discounts, including reduced rates at hotels, museums and attractions. Peaceful activists will also receive discounts at restaurants, shows and shopping. All you have to do is pick up a Peaceful Protester welcome button at the Visitor Information Center, or should that task prove to be too onerous, print your own Peaceful Political Activists Savings Card. The card and button feature the Statue of Liberty holding a placard that reads Peaceful Political Activists, because even Lady Liberty needs to run a little crazy sometimes.

Cynics imply this represents a recognition on the part of the Bloomberg administration that demonstrators may outnumber delegates and other Convention visitors. I would not be so crass as to echo their claims.

Protesters will not be allowed to be peacefully politically active anywhere they like, however. A rally planned for Central Park has been nixed by the city, with the explanation that the gathering would damage the grass. This, despite the fact that the Park regularly hosts performances which draw large crowds, such as the estimated 750,000 that gathered for a Paul Simon concert. Perhaps the concern is that the Statue of Liberty will attend. Instead, the city wants protesters to rally along the West Side Highway. Granted, that would render many of those gathered incapable of hearing the actual political speeches. But think of the shopping!


Should peaceful political activists choose to visit the Statue, they will be confronted with the latest tool used to fight terrorism: biometrics. In order to rent a locker, instead of dropping a coin and getting a key, visitors now must use an electronic reader than scans their fingerprints. Increased security at the Statue requires visitors to check most packages, so the system is getting a workout. Since there are only three scanners for nearly 200 lockers, the wait is substantial. Problems include people forgetting their locker number or forgetting which finger they used to activate the scan.

Still, Brad Hill, whose family has run Liberty Island's concessions since the 30s, thinks biometrics is a wise choice. The biggest problem with the key-operated lockers was visitors losing the key, a problem expected to be exacerbated by the fact that guests now have to empty their pockets as they pass through metal detectors. As Hill notes, people don't lose their fingers, though with this crowd I'm not so sure. He also expects visitors will find the lockers easier to use once they get used to them. This argument would carry more weight in an office building then at a tourist attraction where guests, almost by definition, have never visited.

On the other hand, chances increase every day that visitors may have some experience with biometrics readers. As it turns out, such systems are now in place in Chicago's Union Station, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks in Florida.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Friday the 13th Falls on a Friday This Month

Today is Friday the 13th. It puts me in mind of Pogo and Walt Kelly. I don't know if it's any worse when Friday the 13th falls on a Friday (rather than say, a Tuesday), but it seems worth investigating.

Friday the 13th is probably the best known superstition in the US. Those who will gleefully spill salt or step on cracks are still taken aback when that date turns up on the calendar. There was a Friday the 13th last February, but there won't be another until next May, the only one in 2005. (There was only one in 2003 as well, in June.) The fear of Friday the 13th is common enough to have its own term: paraskevidekatriaphobia. (Unlike triskaidekaphobia, which is simply fear of the number 13.) There is reason enough to fear: the US loses $800 to $900 million in business each Friday the 13th because people don't travel or go to work.

So how did all this nonsense get started?

It's hard to say. Both Friday and the number 13 have bad reputations, difficult as it is to imagine anyone having a bad thing to say about Friday. Chaucer may have been the first to write of it in English, in the Canterbury Tales. That he considers Friday a cursed day in the 14th century presumes the belief is already common. By the 19th century, superstitions regarding the day abound: it is a bad day to harvest, start a journey, get married or give birth, or begin or end needlework. (It's also a bad day to start a new job - "Servants who go into their situations on Friday, never go to stay" - though anyone who would start a job on a Friday is a fool, I tells ya.) One reason for this Friday phobia is religious: not only did the crucifixion happen on a Friday, but so (according to some sources) did Eve's sharing of the apple, the Great Flood and the babble at the Tower of Babel. Apparently Friday was Execution Day in Rome (following Prince spaghetti day on Wednesday), while in other pagan cultures it was a day of worship. No surprise, then, that it was demonized by the early Christian Church. "Friday" is, of course, named for the Norse goddess Freya (or Frigg), patron of marriage (or at least sex) and fertility. Once the Christians came along, Freya (with her sacred cat) was cast as a witch, and Friday became the Witches' Sabbath. In one story, Freya appeared to a group of a dozen witches meeting on a Friday night and gave them one of her cats, making 13 the traditional number for a coven.

13 is also the number of guests at the Last Supper, with Judas the last to arrive and the first to leave, giving rise to the belief that 1) it's unlucky to have 13 at a dinner party (and by extension, any gathering), and 2) that the first to leave such a gathering will die within the year. Here's another point where Christian and pagan tradition overlap. Norse mythology includes a tale of a dinner for 12 at Valhalla. Loki, the trickster god, crashed the party, bringing the number to 13. He subsequently convinced Hod, the blind god of winter (and darkness, and what have you) to hurl a spear of mistletoe (Merry Christmas!) at Baldur, the god of joy and goodness (and what have you). Baldur was invulnerable to everything BUT mistletoe (always a loophole, eh Achilles?), and so he was slain, plunging the earth into mourning and darkness. The Norse saw this as a reason why you shouldn't have 13 at a party, rather than, say, why you shouldn't throw things at people if you're blind. (The Hindus also believed that it is unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place, such as dinner, so there may be something to this.)

For the feminists out there, there's another reason why 13 is said to be unlucky. The number was revered by goddess-worshipping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar, and menstrual, cycles in a year. The "Earth Mother of Laussel," a 27,000 year old carving found near the Lascaux caves in France (where the paintings come from), depicts a female figure holding a crescent-shaped horn bearing 13 notches. According to this view, as the patriarchy replaced the matriarchy and the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number 13 became considered evil.

So you've got your Friday, you've got your 13; how did these two great tastes start tasting great together? One theory links it to the destruction of the Knights Templar in 1307. The Knights were an order of religious warriors sent to guard Jerusalem following the Crusades, early in the 12th century. Remember the old guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? He's one. After a couple of centuries, the Knights had amassed enough power to make kings and popes pause. So on Friday, the 13th of October, 1307, Philip the Fair (Philip IV) of France rounded up their Grand Master and thousands of his followers, charging them with heresy, blasphemy, and yes, what have you. They were "questioned" by the Inquisition (everyone had an Inquisition in the Middle Ages), which is to say tortured. In the grand tradition of Christian justice, those who didn't die during questioning were executed once they confessed.

This is a fine explanation, and would be more convincing were knowledge of the history of the Knights Templar more widespread. In truth, references pairing Friday and 13 don't appear until the 20th century. It was already an accepted superstition by that time, but its origins - when Friday became the unluckiest 13th of them all - remain lost.

On a side note, British scientists conducted a study some ten years ago that demonstrated that while traffic was lighter on a Friday the 13th than a common Friday, accidents increased significantly. According to this study, your chances of being admitted to a hospital as a result of an auto accident were up more than 50%. The conclusion? "Staying at home is recommended." Psychologists at the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, NC, on the other hand, suggest that the heightened state of anxiety people feel about the 13th are responsible for some people having accidents or falling ill on that day.

Stay away from ladders and mirrors anyway. Just to be safe.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Signs of the Coming Apocalypse

FOX, the official network of the apocalypse, has begun airing a new reality TV program called, somewhat cumbersomely, "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy." As the title suggests, the conceit of the show is that two families exchange one spouse, in this case the mother. Mom imposes her will on her new family, even if that imposition is sometimes clearly prompted by the producers ("Today you're supposed to do everything I say"). The exchange lasts for a week - well, a TV week, actually, which turns out to be 5 days - and at the end of that time each family receives $50,000. The cash is the carrot that keeps the family from running roughshod over the new parental unit. The twist - "twist" being the current keyword for reality programming - is that the "new mommy" decides how her substitute family gets to spend their $50,000. No one has yet committed that amount to anger management and family therapy, but I imagine it's right around the corner.

From what I've seen, the show takes most of its cues from City Mouse and Country Mouse. The first swap involved a middle class (or what used to be considered middle class but now might be lower middle class) black family and a wealthy mixed race (Japanese/Blonde) family in Texas. Despite initial misgivings, Almela Biggins fit in almost immediately with her new family, and bonded especially with Nana, the grandmother of the clan, who is equal parts respected ancestor and live-in help. Tammy Nakamura (I'm not making these names up), on the other hand, was horrified to learn that she was expected to get out of bed before noon and perform such onerous tasks as making dinner ("Can't ch'all just go out to eat?"). The show is an equal opportunity Mouse basher, however, so in the second swap, the lower class mom was the boor and the upper class was helpful. Next week, two families trade dads.

"Trading Spouses" is the slowest show on broadcast television, next to "Big Brother." Like that program, it believes in the mantra of public speaking: Tell them what you're going to say, Say it, and then Tell them what you said. The director not only recaps what happened last week, he frequently recaps what happened before the commercial break. It runs two hour-long episodes for each swap, and the total amount of new material accounts for maybe 20 minutes. The show is based on/stolen from "Wife Swap," a British show scheduled to air in an American incarnation on ABC this fall. The biggest disappointment is that it is not a true wife swap, in the fullest meaning of the word. This is not a televised key party; no one's making whoopee with another man's wife. It's like hosting a really pushy guest who could leave you a tidy sum of money; the equivalent of putting up your in-laws, perhaps.

Not to be outdone, Bravo - which is becoming the new FOX - is presenting its own spousal abuse show, "Things I Hate About You." In this program, the two members of a couple compete to prove that their spouse is more annoying than they are. If the best you can say for yourself is that you're not as hateful as the person you're married to, best of luck. In order to prove how hateful their spouse is, each half presents "evidence," consisting of video clips of their other half at their worst. Sometimes the clips come naturally: My husband cleans up after the cleaning lady, and here he is doing it. In most cases, though, the evidence is staged: one spouse will set up a situation designed to make the other go crazy. The evidence is gathered by providing each spouse with a camcorder, in addition to rigging their home with audio-visual equipment and apparently having a cameraman follow them around for a week. Each piece of evidence is judged and scored on a scale of 1 to 10 by a panel composed of a failed actor, a failed comic and a failed therapist.

What I hate most about the show is its host, Mo Rocca. Rocca, despite the spelling of the first name, is a man. He first crossed my radar as a regular on VH1's "I Love the ..." (70s, 80s, 90s) series. [Dave Navarro, of Jane's Addiction and "Celebrity Poker Showdown," observed of a young female popster featured on "I Love the 90s," "Hasn't she only been around for about 5 years?" Nostalgia indeed is not what it used to be.] Rocca comes across as a baritone Andy Rooney, if Rooney had a sibilant speech disorder, with all the attendant wit and perception. He offered floor commentary during CNN's coverage of the Democratic National Convention, and the worst thing I can say about him is Larry King thinks he's a stitch. He honed his somewhat indistinguishable political chops on the "Daily Show," apparently during a period when I wasn't watching. That, or he was the reason I stopped watching. Compared to the current lineup of Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Rob Corddry, Rocca is a bush leaguer, one of those comics whose desire to be loved is much greater than his desire to be funny. In my home, he is neither funny nor loved.

In other reality news, I have all but abandoned "Big Brother." This will come as a shock to those who know that BB has always been my reality cup of tea. My complaints with the show have become legion, from its glacial pace to its needy personality. It airs three nights a week, and for most of that time nothing happens. The best way to watch the show is to tape it, so you can fast-forward through the boring and annoying parts (i.e. most of the show). This season is particularly dreadful because they've stocked the house with alpha males, like some corporate trout pond. These aggressive, entitled straight white men keep talking about making "good TV," by which they mean, "me me me." It's not surprising that the producers of the show chose these guys, because they haven't learned what the rest of us know: alpha males are boring. Not just these alpha males; all alpha males. Their sense of humor has not progressed beyond the 6th grade; their sense of fun does not go beyond organized sports and perhaps alcoholism; their sense of reality does not extend beyond whatever ideas they've clung to since high school. Most of the time I don't mind them running corporations and politics, in the same way I don't envy sanitation and hospice workers - I'm happy not to have the responsibility. But that doesn't mean I want to socialize with them, or worse, watch them on television.

By the time you read this, the two primary alpha males will probably have been jettisoned by the other housemates. In both cases, they will experience ejection as a complete surprise. And having been driven out of the house myself, I see no reason to return. There are only two characters left who I care to spend any time with, and no one worth watching three hours per week.

This season's "twist" on "Big Brother" is called Project DNA. Two of the hamsters, unknown to them, shared a common father. They figured it out within the first week (wow, the two stump-jumpin' westerners are related!), and since then it's had no impact. Three of the houseguests have twins, and one pair of twins was playing the game simultaneously, unknown to the other roomies. This was a bit more interesting, but not worth staying home for. If BB returns next summer, as I imagine it will, they should take a hint from "Trading Spouses" and "Things I Hate," and wall up 6 couples instead of 12 individuals. Nobody hates you more than the person you're closest to, a lesson learned from "The Amazing Race," so locking up a handful of marrieds should produce some real bloodshed.


You've already missed auditions for "American Idol" in Cleveland and St. Louis, two cities known for their burgeoning pop music scenes. The audition tour opened in Ohio August 4, with some 15,000 hopefuls showing up, and continued on to Missouri August 8, for another 10,000. Police in St. Louis complimented the crowd on both their talent and their good behavior. I hear you get time off for that. AI hopefuls auditioned for judges not much more qualified than the cops: a passel of associate producers and production assistants. Those who pass the first screening - either because they are good enough or, more likely, because they are so bad - go on to meet the "celebrity" judges a week or so later.

The tour picks up in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, but the age limit is 28, so John Ashcroft is ineligible to compete. It continues on to such resort spots as Orlando, Las Vegas and ... Anchorage, at the end of September. There's a joke here about hell freezing over, but I'm not sure what it is.


Immigrant rights groups have their knickers in a twist about "Gana la Verde" ("Win the Green"), a "Fear Factor" style reality show aimed at Spanish immigrants. (Well, actually Mexican, though I imagine there may be some Central Americans in the mix.) Contestants dodge 18 wheelers, fend off attack dogs and swallow tequila worms in pursuit of a green card. Were they not on TV, the suggestion is that the contestants would engage on such activities on their own time. Winners receive a year's worth of legal counsel in pursuit of a green card.

Immigrant advocates complain that the show doesn't actually guarantee anyone a green card, though anyone who's ever worked with an immigration lawyer could have told them that. No one seems particularly upset that the contestants are being humiliated and exploited, as that is expected from reality programming. Or, indeed, whatever job their green card could land them. There is some concern, though, that the show is doing the INS's work for them, since agents merely need to turn on their television sets to have illegals identified for them by name and address.

Is anyone surprised to learn that this show is the second highest-rated Spanish language program in Southern California and Texas?