Monthly Archives: April 2012

Remember Mad Cow Disease?

I am going on holiday, so luckily for all of you there won’t be any new columns here next week.  The horror resumes May 10.

I hear that mad cow disease is back for the first time since 2006.  Ah, 2006.  The year the iPhone was released, putting millions of other cell phones out of work.  Cell phones that have long since run out of unemployment benefits and are now taking odd jobs such as cleaning gutters and producing reality television shows.

When I heard about mad cow disease in those days, I pictured cows sitting in their living rooms with scowls on their faces.  A bull comes in from the kitchen with a beer and newspaper.

“What’s wrong honey,” he asks his wife, who is sitting on the couch and looking upset.

“Oh, nothing,” she says, looking away.

“Really?  You’re not mad about anything?”

“No really.  I’m not.”

“I don’t know, honey.  Usually this means you’re mad about something.  Is it because I wore that wrinkled shirt to your parents’ last night?”


“I knew it.  Look, I told you, I was in a rush.  That old McDonald has been breathing down my neck about those reports, and I just didn’t have time.  Okay?”  He takes a sip of his beer.  “Well…I’m going back in the kitchen.”

But no, apparently the “mad” of the mad cow disease, aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is characterized more by a cow’s inability to stand.  In male humans, this symptom takes the form of an inability to mow the lawn or check that the garage door is locked, even though it was checked an hour ago and the male human is already in bed and half asleep.

A major concern with mad cow disease is controlling its spread.  This is accomplished by not feeding cattle meat to other cattle.  But a glitch in the system is that cattle meat may be fed to pigs, whose meat is in turn fed to other cattle.  And then those cattle are fed to humans at steak restaurants, many of which give a choice of two sides, or sometimes two helpings of the same side, but never any substitutions.

Of course, the most important question surrounding mad cow disease, more than the beef industry or whether the safety record of triple-decker cheeseburgers will be besmirched, is the name.  Wikipedia is entertaining input as to whether “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy” should be re-filed under “Mad-cow disease.”  I support the change.  As much as I like the way “spongiform encephalopathy” rolls off my tongue and bespatters the face of the person I’m talking to, I don’t think the scientific terminology would have captured the public’s attention the same way.

Because everyone knows what “mad” means.  Everyone has been mad at one point or another.  Maybe people are mad just reading this blog post.  And I’m sure that they would have classified a “mad human disease” a long, long time ago, had it not been apparent that the infection rate would be close to 100%, and that there would be no cure.



Filed under Current Events, Eating and Drinking

Remember Trapper Keepers?

Everyone had one and I wanted one too.  It was called a Trapper Keeper.  A plastic binder with sliding plastic rings and a flap that folded over the front, so that all the notes were “trapped” inside this latest assault on parents’ school budgets.

I remember when I sat my parents down and told them I wanted a Trapper Keeper.  “So it’s just a binder with sliding plastic rings and a Velcro flap?” they asked.

“No, it also has a picture on the front.  Jimmy has one with a Ferrari and I’d like to do something similar.  Not the same exact thing, of course.”

“Of course.”

I chose a Trapper Keeper with a Ferrari on the front.  I liked to sit in class and flip the switch that slid the plastic rings in and out of each other.  The Establishment didn’t understand what an innovation that was.  The metal rings in regular binders snapped together with a loud and irritating snap—if the rings snapped together at all!  After a few days the male and female parts of the metal rings would fail to line up, and you would have to use your finger to bend the metal and force the rings closed.

The Trapper Keeper closed with a whisper.  I would sit in class, opening and closing the plastic rings like a latter-day telegraph operator.  I also liked to work the Velcro.  Over and over again I would rip open the Velcro flap, open the front cover of the Trapper Keeper, open the plastic rings, close the plastic rings, close the front cover, and seal it with the Velcro flap.

“Mark, do you need to sit in the back of the room?” my teacher said, “Why don’t you choose one state for your folder and join the rest of the class?  We are listing all the different uses of manila paper.”

I thought I could give her one pretty good use of manila paper that was not on the list, but then I remembered something Oscar the Grouch once said on Sesame Street: “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

I rejoiced in the feeling that my notes on the Civil War—also known as the War Between the States and the War to End Mutton Chops—were secure in style.  The Trapper Keeper even accelerated my transition from carrying all my books in a backpack to the far more efficient method of carrying all my books in my arms, as I wanted all the world to behold my glorious plastic portfolio emblazoned with a red Ferrari.  And as I traveled throughout my little school, I imagined that I too was that Ferrari, fast and sleek, until I was yelled at for running in the halls and had to appear in traffic court.

At home my infatuation with my Trapper Keeper was no more subdued.  I would sit on the couch with the pretense of working on my thesis on the influence of Casio watches on youth culture.  But all I did was open and close the Trapper Keeper, open and close its silent plastic rings, remove and inspect and reorder and replace its folders with the pockets on the sides, and sit and look at the way its plastic cover captured the glint of the twilight sun coming through our bay window.

And then one day the unthinkable happened.  One of the plastic rings did not line up.  I quickly realigned the ring-halves, but it was only the beginning.  The other two rings started having their problems, too, and I noticed that the beautiful folders with the side pockets were getting mushy at the corners.  Even the plastic cover had started to tear, and the Velcro on the front flap had a coat of orange cat hair.  Father Time had not forgotten my Trapper Keeper.

I looked to my classmates for support, but they had all moved on to ever more efficient ways of keeping their notes together, such as folding them up into little squares and shoving the little squares into pocket books or duffel bags.

It was time to say goodbye to my Trapper Keeper.  I opened and closed the plastic rings one last time, gently using my fingers to help them lock with dignity, folded the flap over, the Velcro fibers barely catching anymore, ran my hand over the Ferrari as a final salute, and laid the Trapper Keeper to rest in my parent’s basement where it could spend eternity next to Candy Land.


Filed under School

Remember When Sugar Wasn’t the New Cocaine?

Last week Sixty Minutes aired a segment titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” that reported scientific evidence that the added sugar in various foods causes a variety of ailments such as heart disease, cancer, and looking like a whale.  One neuroscientist, Eric Stice, stated that his studies show that the effects of sugar on the brain are similar to the effects of cocaine.  I pictured frenzied people tapping out Domino packets onto pocket mirrors and snorting lines with plastic coffee stirrers.

When did sugar get to be so dangerous?  Was it really that bad?  I remembered summer camp when a fellow camper put 19 packets of sugar into her tea and spent the rest of the day in a spin-art machine.

Years ago, when I was a young and impressionable smart-aleck, Nancy Reagan told me to “Just Say No” to drugs.  “It stands to reason,” I said to myself after the Sixty Minutes segment ended and segued into a commercial for Keebler fudge cookies, “that if they were still printing those green t-shirts with the ‘Just Say No’ printed with the line across it, sugar would be included in the campaign.”  I decided that I was going to clean myself up for good, and eliminate sugar from my diet.

That night I created a “Quitting Sugar” event on Facebook and announced to my friends and family that I was quitting sugar, and that under no circumstances were they to give me any, even if I asked them pretty please with sugar on top.  I had one last sugar blow out in my kitchen, feasting on Kit-Kats and Pixie Stix and the candy corn left my basement by the previous owners of the house.

The next morning I grabbed a giant garbage bag and went around collecting oatmeal creme pies and Yodels and pretty much anything that came individually enclosed in a little clear plastic wrapper.  I took the giant bag out to the garage, recited a farewell sonnet to Little Debbie, and then spent the next hour trying to figure out if the products should be placed in a landfill.

The first few days without sugar were not that bad.  I have an armchair that is really good for gripping, and there is a clinic nearby that dispenses free doses of Equal, no questions asked.  But the addict does not die so quickly.

I started inventing reasons so that I could just “so happen” to have to put sugar in my food.  “Isn’t tilapia supposed to be eaten with maple syrup?” I asked my wife over dinner.  “I’m pretty sure I saw that on Rachel Ray.  I don’t make the rules.”  I would suggest an office ice cream party as a team-building exercise, and then resign myself to eating ice cream since there is no “diet” in team.  I said that I just ate sugar at parties, and then crashed the birthday party that my neighbors were throwing for their 4-year-old son, attacking the cake in the kitchen while he was opening his presents.

Yesterday I came home to an intervention.  My family members each read pieces they had written about how my sugar addiction had torn me away from them and made it hard to fit my entire body in the viewfinder of their cameras.  There was a professional counseler in the room, who patted me down for sucking candies and then explained how my family was sending me to rehab where I could get the help I needed.

And that is where I am right now.  I just finished picking at the plate of broccoli they slid under the door, and in a few minutes I’m going to a group session where I and the other residents will talk about the nightmares and shakes and disgusting taste of plain water.  I know I can’t expect instant results.  But as long I never enter a supermarket or restaurant again, I know my future’s looking bright.


Filed under Current Events, Eating and Drinking, Health and Fitness

Remember When We Were Slaves in Egypt?

When I was a kid we didn’t have television or hand-held devices.  We had to make bricks from bitumen and pitch.  My friends and I liked to say “bitumen” over and over until our mothers yelled at us for being obscene.  She said we didn’t even know what it was.  But we found out soon enough.

I remember what it was like having to build the pyramids.  Talk about a fat-burning exercise.  There wasn’t even any Snapple.  If we were lucky our Egyptian taskmasters would give us water, and sometimes Gatorade when the Pharaoh and Players’ Association were able to work out a contract.

The work was horrible.  We had to mix straw with this sticky black stuff by stomping on it all day long for days and days.  At first it was kind of fun, and I would sing songs to go along with the stomping.  Then a taskmaster whipped me and told me to sing something in a lower key.

Then they had me moving these giant blocks on rollers.  On the third day I developed a persistent ache in my left calf and asked the nearest taskmaster where I could find some cortisone.

“You Hebrews are always complaining,” he said.  “Get back to work or I will whip you to death and then make a note in your file.”

“But why do these blocks have to be so big?” I asked.  “Couldn’t you build pyramids with small bricks?  Or maybe wood planks or vinyl siding?  I hear vinyl siding does very well in the desert.”

The taskmaster raised his whip again and I made the sound of it cracking and threw myself back violently, leaving the taskmaster looking confused.

In the evenings I would hang out with my friends.  It was always a big debate about where we would go.

“How about your place?” I would ask my friend Yaakov.  “What’s going on there?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying for the deliverance that is supposed to be coming.”

“What about you, Naftali?  Anything cool going on at your hut?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying—”

“Okay, okay.  Hmm.  Let’s see who’s at the Dairy Queen.”

It wasn’t easy coming of age during this time.  Everyone was depressed because we were slaves, and the rumor that we were going to be saved by divine intervention was starting to sound like one of those stories parents tell their children when they won’t go to bed.  I myself was pretty skeptical and suggested that we Hebrews all go on strike until we were released from the house of bondage and given a lower co-pay on our health insurance.

“We could do it during the holidays,” I said.  “All the last-minute shoppers will be screwed.  The store owners will lose millions!”  But then the elders cited a law that said any striking Hebrew would be tossed into the Nile and then barred from attending the annual picnic.

And then one day we were told to pack everything up because we were leaving.  Apparently this guy Moses and his brother Aaron had performed some dog and pony show for the Pharaoh and gotten him to agree to let us go.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the Promised Land.  The land of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“Well my father’s name is Steven,” I said, “and his land is right over there behind that pile of animal dung.”

But it was true—we were leaving Egypt and I had to spend the whole day going through all the boxes filled with all my notebooks and artwork from school.

“Mom, look,” I said to my mother who was racing around the kitchen shoving food in cloth bags.  “Here’s a story I wrote in second grade.  Didn’t I have fantastic penmanship?”  Then she shoved a piece of unleavened bread in my mouth and told me to hurry up.

I’ll spare you the boring details of the days that followed.  It’s all written down somewhere anyway.  We left Egypt and wandered around the desert for years and years, and I was surrounded by all these smarmy teenagers who knew nothing of the Pharaoh or what had been like to be slaves.  I tried to tell them about it, about the history of our people and what it meant to be free.

But all they cared about was their rock music and who was going to the Dairy Queen.


Filed under Holidays

Remember When the Police Couldn’t Track You With Your Cellphone?

Note:  A brief glossary follows this post, Mom and Dad.  MK

I just read an article about how a number of local police officials are tracking cellphones, often without warrants or Hollywood scripts.

I wonder what the police would think if they tracked my cellphone.  “Okay, he’s in the embroidered washcloth section of Target.  Let’s move!”  Would they have to fill out a separate report for every call I made?

Tuesday, 5:39 p.m.  Call to “wife” from supermarket.  Asks whether they already have enough “potatoes” and if he needs to pick up a vegetable.  Subject reports that he does not care for “peas” and would rather have another starch.  “Wife” states that subject needs to learn to like vegetables.

I wonder if what the police mean by “tracking.”  Is it just phone calls and traveling?  Or does it include other uses of the cell phone?  Right now I bet there is a prosecutor somewhere putting together a case where the principal evidence is going to be the defendant’s time playing Angry Birds.  “And so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, did the defendant,” he says, pointing to the defendant—who in turn points at himself with a “who, me?” expression and then looks around the courtroom as if the prosecutor meant someone else—“did this defendant just happen to toss multiple giant birds at the deceased’s head until her skull caved in like flimsy two-dimensional shelters?

“Or was this a premeditated crime, performed in cold blood, immediately after the undisputed nine hours the defendant spent playing Angry Birds on his Android, known as a ‘Droid in street lingo?  I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that the facts speak for themselves.”

Perhaps new crimes will have to be invented.  Like second-degree lying to your friends about prior engagements.  One day soon we’ll open the paper and read that, “Ms. Smith, of Sycamore Terrace, was arrested early yesterday morning when it was discovered, according to filed court documents, that she had told her “friends” on her Facebook app that she was too sick to attend a birthday dinner, but in fact was really watching an episode from the first season of “Game of Thrones” on an HBO app.  Ms. Smith’s attorney could not be reached for comment.”

Most likely, however, this is more about local police trying to protect the good citizens than about an invasion of privacy.  If there is an intruder in your home, brandishing a kitchen knife and wearing that ghost mask from “Scream,” of course the first thing you are going to do is text your best friend about it.  Murderer in my home. TTYL 🙂

Just think of the possibilities.  With cellphone tracking, cops will be able to go undercover, offering iPhone users free downloads of jailbroken apps—that is, apps not available at the Apple iPhone app store—and then arresting them as soon as they enter their passwords and start the download.  Even Miranda rights could be transmitted via push notifications to save time.

Of course, it will only be a matter of time before the cellphone users and app-designers wise up and figure out ways to block the police tracking.  There will be apps that will make the police think the user is in one place when in fact the user is in another place.  A text will go out, “Big shipment at the docks!  Bring ca$$$$$$h!” and the police will run to the docks, sirens blaring, while the user is at home downloading pirated movies.

But maybe the user won’t matter by that point.  Maybe we’ll just put the cellphone on trial.  It will sit at the defense, with its lawyer, and a pitcher of water in case it gets thirsty.  And if convicted it will go to cellphone jail, where it will download court cases to work on its appeal…and wait for its user to jailbreak it.


App:  Short for “application,” a software program loaded onto a smartphone.

Smartphone:  Those cellphones that people keep taking out and dragging their fingers across while you are trying to talk to them.

Angry Birds:  An app for a smartphone; a video game where the user must calibrate a slingshot’s speed and angle to launch large irate birds at comatose pigs in stacked hut-like structures.  Points are earned by smashing the structures and annihilating the pigs.

Push notifications:  Oy.  Don’t worry about it.  Just one step at a time.



Filed under Technology