A New Years Stew: Buildings, Books, and Booms; Music, Medicine, and Mattel

Observation StewIt’s the first weekend of the new year, and as is traditional, it’s time to clear out the accumulated news chum from the week — the chum that couldn’t be used to create a coherent themed chum post of 3 or more articles. So let’s see what is in this week’s stew:

  • Saved! The first news chum item was to be about where I live now, but that became its own article. So let’s talk about where I used to live: North Hills.  At the corner of Devonshire and Sepulveda is a shopping center we used to frequent (especially when Hughes was still there). Today, the Hughes Ralphs has closed, and so has Mission Hills Bowl, and rumors are circulating about redevelopment of the center. This week, some good news came out of this: the bulk of the center appears to be saved, and the Mission Hills Bowl building will remain.  The Googie designed Bowling Alley by LA architect Martin Stern Jr. will be saved as part of a new commercial development that will include a mix of retail, restaurants, medical office, gym, warehouse, and bank uses spread over one and two story buildings.
  • Booking It. When Borders and Barnes and Noble took off, the prediction was that they would kill the small bookstore. They almost did, but the bookstores hung on. Now Borders is gone, and B&N is on the ropes, being killed by Amazon. What is still surviving? The small independent used bookstore. In fact, used bookstores are making a comeback. The reason isn’t surprising, when you think about it. It costs more to ship used books than to just sell them locally. Here’s the quote that BoingBoing used from the original article: “Used bookstores, with their quintessential quirkiness, eclectic inventory and cheap prices, find themselves in the catbird seat as the pendulum eases back toward print. In many cities, that’s a de facto position: They’re the only book outlets left… And it’s a business with good economics. Used bookstores can beat Amazon and other online booksellers on price, offering shoppers both a browsing experience and a money-saving one. Also, profit margins on used books are better than new ones — so good that many indies are adding used sections.”
  • Travelling? Good News and Bad News. Traveling in the new year? You need to watch out if you live in Alaska, California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, Washington, Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, Minnesota or American Samoa. Your state is bumping into (or has gone past) the RealID deadline, and your state IDs may not be acceptable to TSA or the DOD. About the only good news here is that California got granted an exemption. I have no idea what this means: in particular, it could mean that everyone in the state needs to be issued a new ID. Ouch!
  • New Album from Paul Stookey. As you have likely figured out, I love folk music… and my first love was Peter, Paul, and Mary. Thank’s to Noel Paul’s Facebook account, I just learned that Noel Paul Stookey issued a new album in September 2015. I’ve already grabbed my copy, it is it like one of his recent concerts (i.e., very good).
  • Going Boom. Here’s a fun article: The history of the Toy Chemistry Set. What started out as a kit for the academic world became something to encourage men to become scientists (why would women care about chemistry), and then got neutered as society became worried about safety and homemade bombs.
  • More Problems from Inflammation. The inflamatory response is turning out to be the culprit is more and more problems. We’ve seen articles in the past linking it to arthritis and migraines. Here’s an article showing the link between depression and inflammation. Quite an interesting read, and it shows why we might not need to monkey with brain chemicals to address depression.
  • Deaths of Note. We’ve had a number of notable deaths at the end of the year, such as Wayne Rodgers and Natalie Cole. Here’s one you may have missed: Ruby Cavanaugh, namesake of Ruby’s Diners.
  • Sign of the Times? Mattel, owners of the American Girl line of dolls, has introduced a diabetic kit for their dolls, allowing girls with diabetes to have a doll that is just like them. While I applaud the production of the kit, what does it say about the prevalence of diabetes in our society that this needs to be a thing?



A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Observation StewIt’s the last Sunday of the year, and so I think you deserve some Saturday news chum stew, a day late. That’s what prompted the title to this post. However, looking at the articles, they all seem to relate to that notion: they are either past their time, or they are situations where there might not be enough cash, or both:

  • Lick It and Stick It. If you aren’t already aware, postage rates are going up, “temporarily” (yeah, right), to 49c for the first ounce, and 21c for each additional ounce (forever stamps are still whatever the current rate is, so buy them now). Postcards will go to 34c. A number of other rates will also increase. The rates will supposedly go back down in 24 months, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
  • Bookstores Gone But Not Forgotten. Kevin over at LA Observed has posted his list of bookstores that have closed in Southern California. We lost some biggies this year, including Cliff’s in Pasadena (which I thought would be around forever). I regret not getting over to Cliff’s before it closed.
  • Breaking Away. A bunch of Northern California counties want to secede from California because they have no say in the legislature. Actually, they do have the same say as every other voter in the state; it just happens that most of the other voters live in the big urban areas. They seem to believe that their votes will make it so. What they forget is that it has to be approved by both the state legislature and congress.  Further, they will need to pay for their share of the state-owned infrastructure and assume their share of the state’s debt… and being rural, they won’t generate enough taxes to pay for all of that plus the additional bureaucracy they will need for a new state’s government. Since the United States has been created, a state split has occurred only once, and that was during the Civil War (the Carolinas split before the revolution).
  • Double-Chined Barbie. There is a meme going around Facebook encouraging production of a stereotypically obese Barbie with a double chin. While I certainly agree that having a Barbie with realistic proportions would be a good idea, and that having Barbies that look like real people (including skin colors and facial characteristics, as opposed to a colored-skin white Barbie), this mock-up is not the answer.



Getting in the Action

A few days ago, I wrote a news chum post about toys being a reflection of ourselves.  This article is perhaps an extension of that post–if you’ve ever envisioned yourself as an action figure. What prompted this was two articles I saw earlier today. The first was about a new Steve Jobs action figure that is (perhaps) too realistic: it includes all the Jobs trademarks: the New Balance kicks, the blue jeans, the black mock turtleneck, the silver-framed eye-glasses, the beard, the all-knowing stare. You can see a picture of it here, along with a lot more details. If you’re interested, the doll costs $99, and comes with plenty of accessories too, such as extra glasses and two apples, including one with a chomp taken out of it.

The other article covered other action toys as well. It included action figures based on advertising characters such as the New Spice Guy, the Dos XX guy, and the Mayhem guy from Allstate, as well as the Crazy Cat Lady (although they didn’t mention the Librarian), your favorite political candidates (including Sarah Palin), or college faculty action figures.

Of course, for those who prefer the other direction: You might appreciate this article asking how Barbie would look if she were life-sized.

Music: What’d I Say (Ray Charles): What’d I Say Part I/Part II


Our Toys are a Reflection of Us

Taking a few minutes while getting ready for our New Years Eve Boardgaming Party. While reading the news over lunch, a number of articles screamed out at me:

  • Dolls Exposing Racism. An interesting video has been circulating in Mexico of late. It shows schoolchildren in a taped social experiment on race.The kids are seated at a table before a white doll and a black doll, and are asked to pick the “good doll” or the doll that most resembled them. The children, mostly brown-skinned, almost uniformly say the white doll was better or most resembled them. People are wondering if this shows inherent racism in Mexican culture. [*] Does this reflect Mexican society? Do peopleDoes this group in Mexican society, for whatever reason, trust lighter-skinned people more? Or, to bring the question back to the subject of the post: Does our choice of skin color in the toys for our children influence how they view people as trustworthy?
    [ETA: The question was clarified to be less broad and to tie to the post better, based on a discussion on LJ]
  • Should Toys Be Genderless? That’s the question posited by an op-ed piece in the NY Times. It talks about a store in England that  recently dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft Toys) and interests (Outdoor).  So the question is: is that store taking the right approach, or should toys be categorized by target gender? Does this reflect society: no matter how much we try to be gender-neutral and inclusive, we are regularly reminded that men and women are different, and often think different and approach problems differently.
  • Reading Too Much Into Things. A number of parents are complaining about a new toy from Toys R Us. They believe this doll, which babbles nonsense words, is really saying “OK, crazy bitch”. Toys R US is stating they won’t pull the doll; they wouldn’t market a doll that says profanity. I think this illustrates our society well: we’re often willing to see malice or bad intentions, especially when the party potentially responsible has deep pockets.
  • Is It Human? Now, I’m not a comic book person, but I do know that X-Men are supposedly mutant humans. But, according to their creators, Marvel, they aren’t humans… at least for tax purposes.  You see, X-Men toys are made overseas, and dolls (i.e., human representations) that are imported have a higher tariff than toys (non-human). So X-Men action figures aren’t dolls, they are toys.  Again, a reflection of society: we do what is convention, irrespective of whether it is wrong or makes sense, to make profit. Greed is good and all that.

Music: Standard Time (Sam Harris): Blame It on My Youth



Wednesday News Chum: Children and Education, Barbie and Teen Driving

Ah, Wednesday lunch. Time for some chum to chew upon. I’m not sure if there’s a theme in these items yet — perhaps you can find it.

  • From the “Government Intrusion” Department: The New York Times has an interesting article on the National Children’s Study. This is a multi-billion dollar study authorized by Congress whereby the National Institutes of Heath will be following newborn children from before birth to age 21. The study’s goal is to examine how environment, genes and other factors affect children’s health, tackling questions subject to heated debate and misinformation. To do this all sorts of data will be collected. For exampel, quoting from the article, for one pregnant woman… “Researchers would collect and analyze her vaginal fluid, toenail clippings, breast milk and other things, and ask about everything from possible drug use to depression. At the birth, specimen collectors would scoop up her placenta and even her baby’s first feces for scientific posterity.” Here’s another quote, regarding the specimens collected: “Specimens include blood, urine, hair and saliva from pregnant women, babies and fathers; dust from women’s bedsheets; tap water; and particles on carpets and baseboards. They are sent to laboratories (placentas to Rochester, N.Y., for example), prepared for long-term storage, and analyzed for chemicals, metals, genes and infections.” It sounds like quite an effort, and for some, quite an intrusion. So, the real question: to what level are intrusions appropriate (with informed consent, of course) in the name of science?
  • From the “Pick a Career” Department: You know that flighty-blond Barbie. She can never seem to settle on a career, be it Astronaut or Doctor. So what is she doing this year? Voters have made her a news anchor and a computer engineer (the latter, the article notes, was designed with the help of the wonderful organization SWE). An interesting article in CurbedLA notes what careers were not chosen: in particular, they declined to allow her to pursue a career in environmentalism, surgery, or architecture. With respect to the latter, the Mattel spokeswoman stated that Barbie’s target audience (girls aged three to eleven) could not understand the complexities of an architect’s career. (Oh, SWE, did you hear that? Perhaps we need Civil Engineer Barbie). The article also mentions a professor at University of Buffalo, who put together an “Architect Barbie” exhibition at the University of Michigan as a response, with students and faculty creating their own archiBarbies (including a pregnant Glass Ceiling Barbie).
  • From the “I Picked The Wrong Day To Become a Woman” Department: More bad news for the girls out there. According to the Chicago Tribune, Allstate Foundation’s “Shifting Teen Attitudes: The State of Teen Driving 2009” report indicates that 27% of girls admit to speeding at least 10 miles over the speed limit, vs. 19% of boys. Also, 16% of girls report that they are very aggressive while driving, up from 9% in 2005. Meanwhile, 13% of teen boys admitted to being very aggressive while driving, vs. 20% in 2005.
  • From the “School Days, School Days” Department: A trio of interesting articles related to high school…

    In Arizona, school officials in a Tucson suburb took notice of the long bus rides… and decided to do something about it. According to the NY Times, they outfitted the bus with free WiFi. Surprise, surprise. The bus has become rolling study hall. Although some students do play games, many use the time to get a jump on homework assignments, do research, and yes, socialize on Facebook.

    In Utah, the school districts are facing a significant budget shortfall. One legislator’s solution: Make 12th Grade Optional. Basically, the proposal would offer incentives to encourage students to graduate early. The thought behind this is that most seniors take their senior year off. Hmmm, perhaps in Utah.

    But eight states are going even further: they are permitting students to enter community college after 10th grade. These states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont) are introducing a program allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college. Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years. Students who fail the 10th grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but other subjects like science and history. The new system of high school coursework with the accompanying board examinations is modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore. It’s a pilot program. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but then I’m a traditionalist.

Hmmm, I guess this post did have a theme after all.


Once Upon a Time There Was A Tavern, Where We Used to Raise a Chum or Two….

It’s amazing how some days a theme just seems to assert itself…

  • From the “Be Kind, Rewind” Department: It looks like the VHS Cassette is going the way of other media: Polaroid Film, Cassette Tapes, Floppies and 9-Track tape, Punched Cards. Specifically, the last major supplier of the tapes, Distribution Video Audio, has shipped their last VHS shipment. Anything left in their warehouse will be given away or thrown away. I still have a large box of videotapes, either ones that I recorded or bought. Haven’t watched them in years. But then again, I think I still have a 9-track tape from my college days, written on the IBM 360/91.
  • From the “Today, Sunny. Tomorrow, Sunny.” Department: The LA Times has a nice piece on the whereabouts of Dr. George Fishbeck, former meterologist of KABC 7. I thought he would have retired to Porterville, as he was always sending toys there… but no, he’s in Woodland Hills, volunteering with VST, the LAPD’s Volunteer Surveillance Team. I’m familiar with VST, as my MIL has worked with them. Anyway, back to Dr. George… he was from “my” era in weathercasters — the 1980s — and I don’t think we have had one with a meterology background (who uses it) since then.

    ETA: The LA Times also has a nice column on Cal Worthington.

  • From the “Chatty Cathy” Department: This time of year, mothers everywhere are buying baby dolls for their daughter. But be careful, because your purchase might raise a stink. Literally. The Washington Post is reporting about a new doll called Baby Alive. This doll not only wets… it (ahem) deficates as well. She’s more life-like than ever! They even provide a demo. Quoting the Post: the doll “comes with special “green beans” and “bananas” that, once fed to the doll, actually, well, come out the other end. “Be careful,” reads the doll’s promotional literature, “just like real life, sometimes she can hold it until she gets to the ‘potty’ and sometimes she can’t!” (A warning on the back of the box reads: “May stain some surfaces.”)”. Mattel, not to be outdone by Hasbro, has the Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Gotta Go Doll. What does this doll do? According to the Post, “Once she is placed on her little toilet, a magnet triggers a presto, change-o in the plastic bowl: “The ‘water’ in the toilet disappears, with the expected ‘potty waste’ appearing in its place. Your child can then flush the toilet. The ‘water’ will reappear, while the toilet makes a very realistic flushing sound!” And then comes the applause.” These are expected to be big sellers.

So why am I posting this? I’m just helping you. You see, according to the LA Times, nostalgia is viewed as theraputic, especially in these hard times:

“Nostalgia has had a very bad name among psychologists and psychiatrists,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and a leading researcher on the emotion. “The feeling was that if you were nostalgic, you were trapped in the past.”

In the past decade or so, however, research has revealed nostalgia as a bittersweet emotion with some benefits. Batcho’s research shows that it helps people maintain their sense of identity. “Nostalgia is like looking in a rearview mirror,” she says. “Do I still have the values and priorities I had before? It gives us stability when we live in a time of constant change.”

Nostalgia also helps people feel connected socially, she says.

“The argument in [Gao’s] paper is that nostalgia works therapeutically,” she says. “You are reliving your social connectedness. It’s better than nothing. If you can’t be home for Christmas, at least you have your dreams.”

I think I’ll go live in my dreamworld now. Oh, never mind. Lunch is over.


Elmo is Coming to get YOU (Bwahahaha)

C’mon, you knew it would happen one day. Elmo is threatening to kill:

A Florida family says a cuddly, programmable Elmo doll revealed its dark side this week when fresh batteries were inserted.

Instead of singing songs or reciting the favorite color of its 2-year-old owner, James Bowman, the doll started making death threats.

With a squeeze of its fuzzy belly, the Sesame Street character now says: “Kill James.”