Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dreaming of a white Christmas?

December 24, 2008
Dreaming of a white Christmas? Put it down to Dickens’s nostalgia for his lost childhood
Paul Simons and Will Pavia

Small flurries of Christmas cards are falling on doormats across the land today, bearing pictures that combine idyllic village scenes with the snow conditions of northern Greenland. The Met Office, which tends to be less romantic in its outlook, provided an entirely different forecast for Christmas Day in Britain yesterday: it will be cloudy, mostly dry and rather mild.

Some will blame climate change for the discrepancy, and imagine snow-bound Christmas Days from distant childhood — yet the truly snowy Christmas of Christmas cards has occurred only seven times since 1900. Before then, sparse records suggest that less than a score of 19th-century Christmases were white.

It now appears that the true culprit was Charles Dickens, whose childhood coincided with a decade of freakishly cold weather. The novelist persistently described a Britain smothered in snow on Christmas Day.

He wrote A Christmas Carol before the Christmas of 1843, while suffering from a cold, walking at night in a feverish state through the streets of London and drawing inspiration from all he saw.

Records suggest the weather was mild at the time, yet Dickens would describe Scrooge in the city on a Christmas morning, watching inhabitants “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was a mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snowstorms”.

Speaking from Lakehead University in Ontario, where real snow lies up to 2ft deep, Philip Allingham, a specialist in Dickens’s Christmas books, told The Times: “The whole of A Christmas Carol is really an invocation of his childhood Christmases with his family before his father fell into debt and was sent to the debtors’ prison.”

Those dearly remembered childhood Christmases coincided with the second decade of the 19th century, the coldest decade in Britain since the 1690s.

Some regard those winters as the last hurrah of a “little Ice Age” that had gripped Northern Europe for several centuries, though the immediate cause of the cold was a series of colossal volcanic eruptions that enveloped the globe in dust and shrouded the sun.

Six of Dickens’s first nine Christmases were white. One of these fell in the winter of 1813-14, when Britain’s last Frost Fair was held on a frozen River Thames and Dickens was nearly 2. The ice around Blackfriars Bridge was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant.

When, in 1843, Dickens came to raise the Ghost of Christmas Past, he did so with the spirit of those colder Christmases, with “quick wheels dashing the hoar frost and snow from the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray”.

The tale is now credited with establishing the Victorian genre of the Christmas story, and spurring a revival of the celebration of Christmas in early Victorian England.

“A Christmas Carol made Christmas respectable for the English bourgeoisie, who had come to regard it as somewhat antiquated,” Dr Allingham said.

Christmas trees, brought over to Britain by Prince Albert in 1840, were adopted too, after Dickens wrote a popular essay on the subject.

Other tales would later complement Dickens’s idealised snowy Christmas. From the mid-19th century a poem first published in America 20 years earlier gained currency. The Night Before Christmas put Santa Claus on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

It was also around this time that artists consistently drew Santa in red robes. But Dickens had done most of the groundwork, driven by an enduring obsession for the season. In The Pickwick Papers, published six years before A Christmas Carol, he had written: “Happy happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

Humbug: an extract from A Christmas Carol

“They stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses . . . The housefronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and wagons; furrows that crossed and recrossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist . . .”

Giant snowman rises again in Alaska - mysteriously

Giant snowman rises again in Alaska - mysteriously

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A giant snowman named Snowzilla has mysteriously appeared again this year — despite the city's cease-and-desist order.

Someone again built the giant snowman in Billy Powers' front yard in an east Anchorage neighborhood. Snowzilla reappeared before dawn Tuesday.

Powers is not taking credit. When questioned Tuesday afternoon, he insisted Snowzilla just somehow happened, again.

For the last three years, Snowzilla — to the delight of some and the chagrin of others — has been a very large feature in Powers' yard. In 2005, Snowzilla rose 16 feet. He had a corncob pipe and a carrot nose and two eyes made out of beer bottles.

This year, Snowzilla is estimated to be 25 feet tall. He's wearing a black stovepipe hat and scarf.

"Have you seen him?" Powers asked when reached by telephone at his home, the sound of excited children in the background. "He's handsome."

Snowzilla has consistently risen outside Powers' modest home. His children — he is the father of seven — collected snow from neighbors' yards to make the snowman big enough. Each year, Snowzilla got a bit bigger.

Not everybody in the neighborhood liked all the cars and visitors who came to see him.

City officials this year deemed Snowzilla a public nuisance and safety hazard. A cease-and-desist order was issued. The city tacked a public notice on Powers' door.

City officials said the structure increased traffic to the point of endangerment and that the snowman itself was unsafe.

The mayor's office on Tuesday issued a statement defending its move against Snowzilla.

"This property owner has repeatedly ignored city attempts to find ways to accommodate his desire to build a giant snowman without affecting the quiet, residential quality of the neighborhood," said the statement from Mayor Mark Begich's office. "This is a neighborhood of small homes on small lots connected by small streets. It can't support the volume of traffic and revelers that are interested in Snowzilla."

The mayor's office says Powers appears to run a large junk and salvage operation from his home. He has violated land use codes for 13 years, the city said. He owes the city more than $100,000 in fines and other assessments.

Powers said it is the city that has been difficult, not him.

"I have tried to jump through every goofy hoop they have sent to me. I have never been confrontational and it goes on and on and on and it is so goofy," he said. "Some of it is unfounded, some is just outrageous."

The city said it did not expect to take any further action until after Christmas.

On the Net:

Hundreds pack Bethlehem midnight Mass

Wed December 24, 2008

Hundreds pack Bethlehem midnight Mass
Story Highlights
Hundreds of Christians pack Church of the Nativity Thursday for midnight Mass
The church is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ
Large crowds gathered outside the church -- one of Christianity's most sacred places

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- Hundreds of Christians packed the Church of the Nativity on Thursday for a midnight Mass in what is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

A worshipper touches a star at the point where tradition says Jesus Christ was born in the Church of Nativity.

The standing-room-only service included singing and organ music.

There were also large crowds outside the church, one of the most sacred places in Christianity.

So many people had flocked to the area this Christmas season that there were no rooms left at the inns and hotels in Bethlehem.

Some took this as a sign that tourism in Bethlehem was on the upswing.

Christmas is the one time of year when the West Bank's small, shrinking Christian communities show everyone else that they are still there.

Before the midnight Mass, Palestinian scout groups representing Christians throughout the West Bank did as they always do on this day -- they marched, banging their drums loudly and, in a way, trying to make a point. Watch Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations »

The drumbeat has been heard by more and more people, locals say, as tourism has skyrocketed this year.

"This year, tourism is much better than last year -- we reached 1,250,000," said Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem. "All our hotels are full around Christmastime. We have 30,000 tourists coming in."

Tourists in record numbers were on hand this year, braving an unusually cold, gray and windy day to watch the parade of drums and holiday songs.

"It's kind of neat to see it in the Middle East, and they're playing Christmas carols and the songs we know," said one American tourist.

"I'm loving it, it's just been an incredible atmosphere and just a wonderful learning experience," said another.

The Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem also came to the birthplace of Jesus, as he does every Christmas Eve, allowed through normally tightly shut gates by Israeli troops.

The heavy security is a testament to ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

"My Christmas wish is that we will have real peace, based on justice and freedom," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian parliament member. "My Christmas wish is that the justice that Jesus Christ gave his life for will happen sometime in his birthplace in Palestine."

CNN's Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

NORAD Tracking Santa's Sleigh Ride,2933,472287,00.html

NORAD Tracking Santa's Sleigh Ride
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Who says Santa Claus doesn't exist?

The military personnel charged with being the eyes in the sky are certainly acting like he does — and they've been joined on the Internet by millions of believers.

Even doubters have reason to pause when they hear the North American Aerospace Defense Command — or NORAD, which monitors air and space threats against the U.S. and Canada — is in charge of the annual Christmas mission to keep children informed of Santa's worldwide journey to their homes.

"They challenge it, but only to a point," said Senior Master Sgt. Sharon Ryder-Platts, 49, who for five years has been a Santa tracker, taking calls from those wanting to know the location of jolly old St. Nick.

According to NORAD, Santa began his latest flight early Wednesday at the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. Historically, Santa visits the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. NORAD points out that only Santa knows his route.

Last year, NORAD's Santa tracking center answered 94,000 calls and responded to 10,000 e-mails. About 10.6 million visitors went to the Web site, which can be viewed in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese.

NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears, Roebuck & Co. ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number was one digit off, and the first child to get through reached the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.

Col. Harry W. Shoup answered.

Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, said her dad, now 91, was surprised to hear that the little voice on the other end thought he was Santa.

"Dad thought, `What the heck? This must be some kind of code,"' said Van Keuren, 59.

Shoup, described by his daughter as "just a nut about Christmas," didn't want to break the boy's heart, so he sounded a booming "Ho, ho, ho!" and pretended to be Santa Claus.

Enough calls followed that Shoup assigned an officer to answer them while the problem was fixed. But Shoup and the staff he was directing to "locate" Santa on radar ended up embracing the idea. NORAD picked up the tradition when it was formed 50 years ago.

"If we didn't do it, truly I don't know who else would track Santa," Maj. Stacia Reddish said.

The task that began with no computers and only a 60-by-80-foot glass map of North America now includes two big screens on a wall showing the world and information on each country Santa Claus visits. It took off with the Web site's 1997 launch, Reddish said.

Now, curious youngsters can follow Santa's path online with a Google two-dimensional map or in 3D using Google Earth, where he can be seen flying through different landscapes in his sleigh.

NORAD officials are hesitant to list all the potential sites Santa will visit with certainty.

"Historically, Santa has loved the Great Wall of China. He loves the (Space) Needle in Seattle. He of course loves the Eiffel Tower," Reddish said. "But his path is completely unpredictable, so we won't know."

Ryder-Platts, 49, who has a 17-year-old son, said taking calls from children helps her keep her Christmas spirit.

"For someone like myself, my son is older, you know it just keeps you in touch with the spirit of Santa Claus," she said. "I miss out on that at home so this keeps me close to Santa. I believe! It keeps me in touch with other believers."

Santa Claus,8599,1868264,00.html

Santa Claus
By Claire Suddath
Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008

Santa Claus doesn't talk about it very often, but he's actually Turkish. The world's most famous toymaker has had a diverse career — that's what happens when you stick around for over 1,700 years — and has dabbled in everything from raising the dead to working at the mall. A timeline of St. Nick's illustrious life:

circa 280 A.D.Nicholas is born in Patara, Lycia — part of modern day Turkey. Like others of the Emperor Constantine generation, he enters a life of religious servitude. He works his way up from abbot to the archbishop of Myra — a nearby town — and gets his first nickname: Nicholas of Myra.

325 A.D. Nicholas attends the First Council of Nicaea and helps create the Nicene Creed, which millions upon millions of Sunday School children will later memorize. Tip: children who mention this in their annual letter to Santa receive an average of 3 extra toys.

330 A.D. When a father doesn't have enough money for his three daughters' dowries, dooming them, apparently, to forced prostitution, Nicholas leaves three bags of gold outside the girls' home (or, according to a different version of the story, in their shoes) to keep them from having to pull an Ashley Alexander Dupre. This is one of the few stories based on some sort of historical record and it explains Nicholas' reputation as a gift-giver.

320-340 A.D. Nicholas becomes famous for performing great miracles. Once he saves a ship from a terrible storm by calming the waves. Another time, he flies through the air to return a kidnapped boy. And most impressive of all, he discovers a triple homicide and brings the victims — three children who had been chopped into bits and stored in pickle jars — back to life. Compared to this, making an Xbox by hand is probably child's play.

Dec. 6, 343 A.D. Nicholas dies and is buried in Myra.

6th Century A.D. Nicholas becomes a saint. The Catholic Church had not yet regulated its canonization procedure so it's hard to tell exactly when he is sainted. Nicholas is a very popular saint, especially in Europe. He becomes the patron of more objects and places than any other saint (except maybe Mary), although his primary role is as a guardian of children.

1087 Some Italian sailors steal Nicholas' remains and transfer them to Bari, Italy. Nicholas likes his new home — well, he doesn't complain — and his tomb becomes a major pilgrimage site.

The next several hundred years St. Nicholas's "name day," Dec. 6, coincides with the end of harvest and slaughter season in many European countries and becomes a favorite holiday to observe, especially in Holland, where he is known as "Sinterklaas." Kids leave their shoes out in the hopes that he will bring them a present. Nicholas has perfected his ability to tell naughty from nice by this time: Good children get a toy or candy; bad children receive a switch (with which they can be beaten).

16th & 17th centuries Puritanism sweeps England and America. Saints fall out of favor. Many countries stop observing St. Nicholas Day — excepting Holland. The Dutch are really into shoe gifts.

1659-1681 No-fun Puritans fire the first volley in the war on Christmas, making the holiday illegal in Massachusetts.

1809 New York Historical Society founder John Pintard declares St. Nicholas to be the patron saint of New York City. To back up his friend's claim, Historical Society member Washington Irving publishes a History of New York, which includes a story about Nicholas — something about the Dutch and "New Amsterdam" and the fact that they're still leaving gifts in children's shoes.

1810 No one really celebrates Saint Nicholas Day in New York, but they do celebrate Christmas. The New York Historical Society publishes a broadside that features a picture of the newly declared patron saint delivering gifts to children during the Christmas season. Nicholas still looks like a saint — he wears a priestly robe and has a halo around his bald head.

1821 Nicholas delivers presents on Christmas Eve for the very first time. An anonymous poem calls him "Santeclaus" and describes a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

1822 Clement Clark Moore writes a poem for his children, beginning with the iconic lines, "'Twas the night before Christmas." Within one reading, Nicholas shortens his name to Nick, gains weight, starts smoking and adopts seven more reindeer (probably to pull his excess weight). He embarks on his first breaking-and-entering spree.

1841 The nickname "Santa Claus" has been growing in popularity, so St. Nick adopts it when he greets thousands of children at a Philadelphia department store. He also appears in newspaper advertisements around this time, urging people to buy Christmas presents.

1863 Well-known Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast — who also popularized the Uncle Sam image — draws a red-coated, white-bearded Santa Claus for the very first time. Later Nast drawings will reveal Santa's workshop and home at the North Pole.

1889 Santa Claus gets married.

1897 New York Sun editor Francis Church answers a young reader's letter with the phrase, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

1924 Santa takes his first ride in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

1931 Artist Haddon Sundblom draws a round-faced, red-nosed Santa Claus for a Coca Cola ad.

1934 Santa makes a list and checks it twice.

1939 Santa adopts Rudolph — the creation of a Montgomery Ward store employee

1947 Santa Claus performs miracles on 34th Street

1952 Santa kisses Jimmy Boyd’s mother underneath the mistletoe.

1969 The Catholic Church overhauls its liturgical calendar by de-sainting over 200 people and making the celebration of 92 others, including St. Nicholas, optional.

1979 An elderly woman is run over by one of Santa's reindeer. No charges are filed.

1995 Santa Claus gets his own website. (

Oil prices near $35 on more dour economic news

Oil prices near $35 on more dour economic news

HOUSTON (AP) — Crude prices tumbled Wednesday following a raft of bad economic news and growing stockpiles of unused gasoline that suggested demand for energy has continued to erode.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell $3.63 to settle at $35.35 in a shortened day of trading. Prices fell as low as $35.13 just before the market closed for the holiday.

It was the ninth straight day that crude has fallen.

Investors expecting more evidence of slowing U.S. energy demand got a bit of a surprise as the Energy Department reported crude inventories dropped last week.

But Americans continue to cut back on driving amid the worst recession in a generation, leading to growing stockpiles of gasoline and eroding demand for motor fuel.

Gasoline futures plummeted below 80 cents a gallon.

"I don't see anything out of this report that's really going to change this downward move," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates. "Things are going to remain under downside pressure through the balance of this year and probably into the new year."

A steady stream of dismal U.S. economic and corporate data during the past few months has hammered investor confidence and sent oil prices reeling 74 percent since July.

More bad news emerged Wednesday with consumer spending falling for a fifth straight month in November, the longest weak stretch in a half century, while incomes declined under the weight of massive job layoffs.

Separately, new claims for unemployment benefits rose more than expected last week, as layoffs spread throughout the economy, more evidence the labor market is weakening as the recession deepens. The Labor Department reported initial requests for jobless benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 586,000 in the week ending Dec. 20, from an upwardly revised figure of 556,000 the previous week. That's much more than the 560,000 economists had expected.

Manufacturers are slashing energy use as well. Orders at U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods fell again in November, reflecting further setbacks in the battered auto industry and a big drop in demand for commercial aircraft.

For the week ended Dec. 19 crude inventories fell by 3.1 million barrels, or 1 percent, to 318.2 million barrels, which is 9.1 percent above year-ago levels, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report.

Analysts had expected a boost of 1.5 million barrels, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

Gasoline inventories rose by 3.3 million barrels, or 1.6 percent, to 207.3 million barrels, which is 2.4 percent below year-ago levels. Analysts expected stockpiles of the motor fuel to rise by 900,000 barrels.

Demand for gasoline over the four weeks ended Dec. 19 was 2.7 percent lower than a year earlier, averaging nearly 9 million barrels a day.

At the pump, retail gas prices fell less than a penny overnight to a new national average of $1.655 a gallon Wednesday, and remain well below the year-ago average of $2.972 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.

In a separate weekly report, the EIA said natural gas storage levels in the U.S. tumbled last week but remain 3.4 percent above the five-year average for this time of year. The EIA said natural gas inventories held in underground storage in the lower 48 states slipped by 147 billion cubic feet to about 3.02 trillion cubic feet. Analysts had expected a drop of between 142 billion and 147 billion cubic feet.

Oil traders so far have brushed off attempts by OPEC to boost prices through production cuts. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about 40 percent of global supply, said last week it would slash production by 2.2 million barrels a day, its largest single cutback ever. The most recent round of cuts would reduce OPEC production by more than 2 million barrels per day.

OPEC may meet in Kuwait City on Jan. 19 to discuss further production cuts. The group's next official meeting is March 15 in Vienna.

The fall of benchmark crude on the Nymex has been paralleled by steep declines in Brent futures traded on London's ICE exchange.

Trader and analyst Stephen Schork noted that Brent crude has dropped "in 79 of the last 123 sessions ... by a total of $108.05 a barrel" — a 73 percentage point loss.

On Wednesday, February Brent crude slumped $3.75 to settle at $36.61 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures tumbled by 6.3 cents to settle at 79.27 cents a gallon. Heating oil plunged 12.8 cents to settle at $1.1983 a gallon while natural gas for January rose 17.3 cents to settle at $5.91 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Austria, and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

Depression Hits Detroit

Depression Hits Detroit: Average home price $18,513 - Unemployment rate 21%

Tribble Ad Agency
Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008

The Great Depression has reached Detroit. The average price of a home is now $18,513 and unemployment has reached 21%, and it’s expected to get worse. Detroit is facing a crisis of epic proportions that officially puts Detroit statistically (and real term) on par with the great depression. Many readers of Tribble Ad Agency are advertising centric.. and due to the rash of layoffs within all Detroit Advertising firms has put the city on the map for the wrong reasons.

It has become the center of all that is wrong with America… and nothing of what is right.

For example, the crime rate has fallen…. because of lack of targets within the city. Meaning there is nothing left to steal. In fact, even the criminals don’t want to leave jail.

Heard confirmed that some offenders, notably those without homes of their own, were now expressing reluctance to leave jail when their sentences were done.

Home values have plummeted to levels not seen in 1/2 a century… and the 21% unemployment has in some cases been projected to double within 12 months if the auto industry totally collapses.

To make matters even worse, Detroit has superseded New Orleans as the “worst city” in America…. but New Orleans had a Hurricane they could assign blame to… Detroit has no such natural disaster crutch.

“It’s a depression — not a recession,” McDuell said, with the authority of someone who has lived through both. “It will get worse before it gets better.”

It’s a man-made disaster.

Regarding a local food bank in Detroit that has seen record numbers of individuals entering the system:

“Many people are first-timers — they have no idea how to navigate the system, how to qualify for food stamps,” Wells said. “Last year, some were donors — now they’re clients.”

In short, last year they donated money into the system… now they are feeding from it because they themselves are in hard financial times.

Detroit needs a miracle, the chances of it showing a resurgence is slim to none in the current economic outlook.

Housing Prices Collapse at Near-Depression Pace

U.S. Economy: Housing Prices Collapse at Near-Depression Pace
By Bob Willis and Shobhana Chandra

Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Sales of single-family houses in the U.S. dropped in November by the most in two decades and resale prices collapsed at a pace reminiscent of the Great Depression, dashing speculation the market was close to a bottom.

Purchases of both new and existing houses dropped 7.6 percent, the biggest decline since January 1989, to an annual rate of 4.43 million, government and industry figures showed today. A 13 percent drop in the median resale price was the most since records began in 1968 and was likely the largest since the 1930s, the National Association of Realtors said.

“Housing is still in a freefall,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.

The figures were worse than economists had forecast and signal that the battered housing market that led the economy into a recession may be taking another lurch down. Sliding property values mean more Americans will be under water on their mortgages, destroying household wealth and undermining consumers’ purchasing power.

President-elect Barack Obama plans an unprecedented economic stimulus to restore growth, and pledged on Dec. 13 to limit foreclosures. One tenth of U.S. families who own a home are in financial distress, Obama said.

“We need desperately to get this economy moving,” Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, who is leading the incoming administration’s initiative to bolster the middle class, told reporters before a meeting with Obama’s economic advisers today. Transition officials are “getting very close” to an agreement with lawmakers on the size of the stimulus, Biden said.

Below Estimates

The Realtors’ figures showed home resales, including condos, fell 8.6 percent to an annual rate of 4.49 million, below all but one estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 63 economists. The median resale price dropped to $181,300.

Separately, the Commerce Department reported that new- home sales fell 2.9 percent last month to a 17-year low of 407,000. The median sales price declined 11.5 percent from a year earlier to $220,400.

The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Homebuilding Index of stocks fell 2.2 percent to 204.97 as of 12:53 p.m. in New York, the fourth straight day of declines. The index is down a third so far this year. The S&P 500 Stock Index, which fell as much as 22 percent in November, was down 0.5 percent today.

Buyers Scared Off

Last month’s stock market collapse combined with rising unemployment to scare off home buyers, Lawrence Yun, the Realtors’ chief economist, said at a press conference.

“The economy was really starting to feel the smack-in-the- face blow from the financial crisis” during November, said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities International Inc. in New York.

U.S. household wealth already fell in the third quarter by the most on record, Federal Reserve figures showed earlier this month. Net worth for households and non-profit groups decreased by $2.81 trillion, the most since the Fed’s data began in 1952.

The number of previously-owned unsold homes on the market at the end of November represented 11.2 months’ worth at the current sales pace, up from 10.3 months’ at the end of the prior month.

Foreclosures and short sales accounted for 45 percent of last month’s home purchases, Yun said.

Regional Breakdown

Purchases declined in all regions of the country, led by drops of 12 percent in the Northeast and 10.9 percent in the South. Prices also fell throughout the country, led by a decline of 25.5 percent in the West.

Resales account for about 90 percent of the housing market. Sales of existing homes are compiled from contract closings and may reflect contracts signed one or two months earlier. New-home sales, recorded when a contract is signed, are considered by economists to be a more timely barometer.

The housing report showed builders succeeded in trimming inventories even faster than new-home sales dropped. The number of new homes for sale fell a record 7 percent to a seasonally adjusted 374,000, the fewest since February 2004.

The supply of new homes at the current sales rate dropped to 11.5 months’ worth from 11.8 months the prior month.

Resler said today’s figures show the housing market has “not yet seen any of the impact from the drop in mortgage rates.”

The Fed on Dec. 16 cut its benchmark interest rate target to a range of zero to 0.25 percent and reiterated it stands ready to expand purchases of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Federal Home Loan Bank debt under a program aimed at reducing mortgage costs. That program has helped drive mortgage rates lower.

Mortgage Rate

The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate loan fell to 5.18 percent in the week ended Dec. 12, the lowest in more than five years, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Ara Hovnanian, chief executive officer of Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., New Jersey’s biggest homebuilder, called on the government to provide an economic stimulus for the housing industry.

“If government wants to get to the root of the problem they need to fix housing first,” Hovnanian said in a conference call on Dec. 17. Hovnanian, whose company reported a fiscal fourth quarter loss, didn’t specify what type of government intervention he wants in the housing market.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Bob Willis in Washington
Shobhana Chandra in Washington at

Head of Fund Invested in Madoff Is Found Dead

Head of Fund Invested in Madoff Is Found Dead
December 23, 2008

Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, a founder of the hedge fund Access International Advisors, was found dead Tuesday in his office in Manhattan. His fund reportedly lost as much as $1.4 billion that had been invested with Bernard L. Madoff, the money manager accused of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

A spokeswoman for the New York City Medical Examiner confirmed to Reuters that Mr. de la Villehuchet was pronounced dead Tuesday morning at a Madison Avenue building.

Authorities told DealBook that Mr. de la Villehuchet was found in his office with injuries to his arms, having apparently slit his wrists.

Mr. de la Villehuchet, 65, had been trying to recover the money that Access International raised in Europe and invested through Mr. Madoff’s business, according to La Tribune, which first reported the news, citing an unnamed source.

Luxalpha, a $1.4 billion Luxembourg-based fund sold across Europe, invested in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. Access International last week called Mr. Madoff’s arrest “a shocking development” in a note to investors. Investors in the fund included a unit of Rothschild and several clients of the Swiss bank UBS.

UBS had been the custodian and administrator of the fund until this year when Access International took over. No one answered the phone at Access International’s New York office. No one responded to a phone call to Mr. de la Villehuchet’s home.

UBS has stated that Mr. Madoff was not on the bank’s wealth management recommended list as a direct investment option but it produced and sold funds containing the investment manager’s products. UBS would establish fund of funds structures at clients’ requests.

By early afternoon, a small scrum of reporters and photographers had gathered in front of the narrow entrance to Access International’s office on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan, only a few blocks away from Rockefeller Center.

–Zachery Kouwe, Michael Wilson and Michael J. de la Merced

VHS era is winding down,0,5852342.story

VHS era is winding down
The last big supplier of the tapes is ditching the format, ending the long fade-out of a product that ushered in the home theater.
By Geoff Boucher
December 22, 2008

Pop culture is finally hitting the eject button on the VHS tape, the once-ubiquitous home-video format that will finish this month as a creaky ghost of Christmas past.

After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home-entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.

"It's dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt," said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. "I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I'm done. Anything left in warehouse we'll just give away or throw away."

Dumped in a humid Florida landfill? It's an ignominious end for the innovative product that redefined film-watching in America and spawned an entire sector led by new household names like Blockbuster and West Coast Video. Those chains gave up on VHS a few years ago but not Kugler, who casually describes himself as "a bottom feeder" with a specialization in "distressed inventory."

Kugler is president and co-owner of Distribution Video Audio Inc., a company that pulls in annual revenue of $20 million with a proud nickel-and-dime approach to fading and faded pop culture. Whether it's unwanted "Speed Racer" ball caps, unsold Danielle Steel novels or unappreciated David Hasselhoff albums, Kugler's company pays pennies and sells for dimes. If the firm had a motto, it would be "Buy low, sell low."

"It's true, one man's trash is another man's gold," Kugler said. "But we are not the graveyard. I'm like a heart surgeon -- we keep things alive longer. Or maybe we're more like the convalescence home right before the graveyard."

The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006. By that point major retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart were already well on their way to evicting all the VHS tapes from their shelves so the valuable real estate could go to the sleeker and smaller DVDs and, in more recent seasons, the latest upstart, Blu-ray discs. Kugler ended up buying back as much VHS inventory as he could from retailers, distributors and studios; he then sold more than 4 million VHS videotapes over the last two years.

Those tapes went to bargain-basement chains such as Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar, and Kugler's network of mom-and-pop clients and regional outlets, such as the Gabriel Bros. Stores in West Virginia or the Five Below chain in Pennsylvania. If you bought a Clint Eastwood movie at the Flying J Truck Stop in Saginaw, Mich., or a "Care Bears" tape at one of the H.E. Butts Grocery stores in Texas, Kugler's company probably put it there. He also sells to public libraries, military bases and cruise ships, although those clients now all pretty much want DVDs.

Kugler estimates that 2 million tapes are still sitting on shelves of his clients' stores across the country, but they are the last analog soldiers in the lost battle against the digital invasion. "I'm not sure a lot of people are going to miss VHS," he said, "but it's been good to us."

If you rewind back to the 1980s, VHS represented a remarkable turning point for the American consumer. For the first time, Hollywood's classics and its recent hits could be rented and watched at home.

"It was a sea change," says Leonard Maltin, the film critic and author who has written stacks of books to meet the consumer need for video recommendations. "Hollywood thought it would hurt movie ticket sales, but it didn't deter people from going to movies; in fact, it only increased their appetite for entertainment. Hollywood also thought it would just be a rental market, but then when someone had the idea of lowering the prices, the people wanted to own movies. They wanted libraries at home, and suddenly VHS was a huge part of our lives."

The format was easy to use (although fast-forwarding and rewinding to any particular spot was the worst new-tech irritant since the telephone busy signal) and, of course, the videocassette recorder and blank VHS tapes made it possible to catch up on any missed must-see TV, whether it was "Days of Our Lives" or "Monday Night Football." Hollywood found that movies also enjoyed a second opening weekend, as viewers throughout the country made Friday night trips to the rental store for new releases.

"I think in some ways it even pulled families together, if that doesn't sound too corny, because renting movies became such a part of the weekend," says Jim Henderson, one of the owners of Amoeba Music, the 45,000-square-foot merchant in Hollywood that sells pop culture in just about every format imaginable, including VHS. "It was also a great thing for film fans. You could educate yourself and go back to the well again and again. We're used to choice now, but that was the first time fans could watch what they wanted when they wanted."

Amoeba no longer buys VHS from distributors such as Distribution Video Audio. But customers bring in tapes every day to trade and sell. "We actually sell maybe 200 a day, almost all of them between $1 to $3," Henderson said. "Almost the same amount comes in as goes out."

A lot of those are the classic or foreign films that are not available on DVD, such as "The Magnificent Ambersons" or Gregory Nava's "El Norte," or vintage music videos by punk bands or new wave pioneers such as Black Flag or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Some older customers simply don't want to switch to DVD, others just like the bargain-basement price of the tapes.

But, Henderson said, unlike with vinyl records, no one seems to cling to VHS for romantic reasons.

"DVDs replaced VHS really fast compared to other format changes through the years," Henderson said. "VHS took too long to rewind, they were boxy and cumbersome, the picture was kind of flawed. The tape inside was delicate and just didn't hold up. DVD just blew it away."

It's true, the VHS tape never really had a chance once the DVD arrived in the late 1990s with all its shiny allure -- higher quality image, nimble navigation and all that extra content. After a robust run at the center of pop culture, VHS rentals were eclipsed by DVD in 2003. By the end of 2005, DVD sales were more than $22 billion and VHS was slumping badly but still viable enough to pull in $1.5 billion. Next year, that won't be the case.

Just before Halloween, JVC, the company that introduced the Video Home System format in 1977 in the United States, announced that it would no longer make stand-alone videocassette recorders. The electronic manufacturer still produces hybrid VHS-DVD players, but it's not clear how long that will last.

For a format that made Hollywood so much money, VHS leaves behind a shallow footprint in the movies themselves. There was "The Ring," a 2002 horror movie and its 2005 sequel, about a mysterious VHS tape that brings death to whoever watches it, but that's a sad valentine. This year Jack Black and Mos Def starred in "Be Kind Rewind," a loopy comedy that finds its center at a VHS rental store that is holding out against the DVD era, but the rebellion didn't go beyond the script -- the movie is available for rent or purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, but it was never released on VHS.

The format was also name-checked in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the 2005 hit film that stars an unloved salesman at an electronics store; and even he has no room in his heart for the underdog format. "It's a dead technology," he explains to a customer. "It's like buying an eight-track player."

Kugler is one of the rare people who can stir up some nostalgia for the black, boxy tapes. His father bought Distribution Video Audio in 1988 and carved out a niche as an inventory supplier for the video rental stores that were popping up everywhere. His young son was interested in a different end of the entertainment business; the younger Kugler spent many afternoons in his teen years sneaking onto the Paramount Pictures studio lot and soaking it all in. While watching the cast at work on "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker; soon, the kid who was always underfoot on the "Cheers" set even coaxed Ted Danson to appear in a two-minute film he made.

But life took Kugler on a less glamorous path. He started working at Distribution Video Audio in 1991 and in short order took the company to new heights by negotiating directly with studios to buy their overrun inventory.

The approach led the company beyond VHS, and soon Kugler's warehouses were filling up with CDs, books and merchandise like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" wristwatches and "America's Next Top Model" T-shirts.

A casual observer might wonder how much shelf life those sorts of products could possibly have, but Kugler has moved hard to the Internet and says the "scavenger culture" mentality and sites such as, Amazon Marketplace and EBay have made it easier than ever to match narrow-niche and oddball customers with the products they want -- especially when it's priced to go at $2 or $3.

With some things, though, even Kugler the great salvager can't find a buyer no matter how low he goes. He took a loss on 50,000 copies of "Yo-Yo Man," a Smothers Brothers instructional video for the stringed toy. ("I'm not sure what I was thinking on that one," Kugler said.) And then there is that stash of VHS tapes that couldn't even earn a spot on the last shipment out of his warehouse: a few thousand copies of "The Man With the Screaming Brain," a 2005 horror movie about a mad scientist, a Bulgarian tycoon, a cab driver and some cranial misadventures. ("That one," Kugler said, "will be buried with us.")

The majority of his firm's business today is with big box retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Sears, where the company sets up displays of its discounted DVDs, such as "Superman Returns" and "Proof of Life," which are often priced at $10 or less. Plenty of customers see that price as an invitation to build up their DVD collections.

But Kugler, with a sly smile, offered a warning to consumers thinking of putting up shelving to handle their burgeoning libraries.

"The DVD will be obsolete in three or four years, no doubt about it. Everything will be Blu-ray," Kugler said, anticipating the next resident at his pop culture retirement home. "The days of the DVD are numbered. And that is good news for me."

Harold Pinter: A master of the sound of silence

Harold Pinter: A master of the sound of silence

NEW YORK (AP) — No one made the sound of silence more ominously theatrical than Harold Pinter.

The influential British playwright, who died Christmas Eve after a long battle with cancer, created unforgettable moments of quiet, often filled with terror, outrage or the blackest of humor.

The "Pinter pause," as those silences were known, could send a shiver through an audience, jolting it into an unease that permeated many of his best plays, particularly such classics as "The Caretaker" and "The Homecoming."

"Pinter-esque" became an adjective bandied about in all the best drama schools and playwriting classes.

Yet Pinter knew how to make words count. As he grew older, his plays became leaner, more succinct in their language and frequently ferociously political.

There was an economy to his writing, a paring away that suggested an affinity with another Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Samuel Beckett, who often examined the human condition in the most terse and terrifying way possible.

It took a while for theatergoers, especially American audiences, to get used to Pinter. He made his Broadway debut in 1961 with "The Caretaker," which starred Alan Bates, Robert Shaw and Donald Pleasence.

The play, a bleak treatise on identity and possessiveness set in a squalid London attic, puzzled theatergoers who were unnerved by its menace and bewildered by its seemingly inconclusive tale of cat-and-mouse games.

No such problem greeted "The Homecoming," usually considered Pinter's masterwork. A best-play Tony winner in 1967, it has had several New York revivals since then, including a critically acclaimed Broadway production last year.

This distinctly atypical family drama of a tyrannical father, his dysfunctional sons and an obliging, sexually provocative daughter-in-law has become a contemporary masterwork.

In Pinter, linguistic clarity is all. From such early works as "The Room" and "The Birthday Party" right up through more recent efforts such as "Moonlight" and "Ashes to Ashes," his preciseness of language is imperative even if an exact meaning can't always be discerned.

It's that ambiguity which has posed a special challenge to actors, a challenge readily accepted by many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pinter's plays have provided memorable stage performances by a diverse parade of mesmerizing actors such as John Gielgud, Jason Robards, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Eve Best, Ralph Richardson, Raul Esparza and Vivien Merchant, among others.

Pinter's best writing wasn't limited to theater. He wrote several elegant screenplays, particularly "The Go-Between" (1970), the tale of an illicit romance which starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates, and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (1981).

In recent years, he found a renewed vigor and moral passion as politics bubbled to the surface of many of his later plays. A vociferous critic of the American and British involvement in Iraq, he often wrote of political violence, particularly in such works as "One for the Road."

In 2005, when Pinter won the Nobel Prize, he was too frail to travel to Sweden to accept the award. But in a recorded lecture presented at the Swedish Academy, he said: "The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law." He castigated both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.

Right to the end, Pinter's outrage remained undiminished.

Singer, actress Eartha Kitt dies at 81

Thu December 25, 2008
Singer, actress Eartha Kitt dies at 81

Story Highlights
Kitt died in New York, where she was being treated for colon cancer
Her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, was by her side
Her recording of saucy Christmas song "Santa Baby" was certified gold last week
Kitt made a name for herself in as Catwoman in "Batman" TV series

(CNN) -- Singer and actress Eartha Kitt has died, her publicist, Patty Freedman, told CNN on Thursday.

Kitt, 81, died in New York, where she was being treated for colon cancer, Freedman said. Her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, was by her side.

She was performing almost until the end, taping a PBS special six weeks ago in Chicago, Illinois. The show is set to air in February.

Her recording of the saucy Christmas song "Santa Baby" was certified gold last week.

Kitt was well known for her distinctive voice and made a name for herself in her portrayal of Catwoman in the television series "Batman." That role produced Kitt's recognizable sultry cat growl.

She worked in film, theater, cabaret, music and on television during her lengthy career. According to Kitt's official Web site, she was nominated for a Tony three times, a Grammy and Emmy twice.

According to the biography on that site, Kitt lived in Connecticut near her daughter and four grandchildren.

Kitt was ostracized at an early age because of her mixed-race heritage, the biography says. At age 8, she was sent from the cotton fields of South Carolina by her mother to live with her aunt in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, the site said.

As a teen, she auditioned for the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, was hired as a featured dancer and vocalist, and toured worldwide with the company.

This launched Kitt into a life of roles in the entertainment field.

According to the book "Contemporary Black Biography," she was adored in Europe in the 1950s as a cabaret singer.

In the United States, her dance career led to a critically acclaimed stint on Broadway, including the play "New Faces of 1952," which was later made into a movie.

Broadway stardom landed Kitt a recording deal that led to a string of best-selling records, including "Love for Sale," "I Want to Be Evil," "Santa Baby" and "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa." She recorded more than 20 albums, worked in hundreds of television and movie roles, and was invited as a guest to the White House several times.

Secret of the Lusitania

Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship
By Sam Greenhill
20th December 2008

Her sinking with the loss of almost 1,200 lives caused such outrage that it propelled the U.S. into the First World War.

But now divers have revealed a dark secret about the cargo carried by the Lusitania on its final journey in May 1915.

Munitions they found in the hold suggest that the Germans had been right all along in claiming the ship was carrying war materials and was a legitimate military target.

The Cunard vessel, steaming from New York to Liverpool, was sunk eight miles off the Irish coast by a U-boat.

Maintaining that the Lusitania was solely a passenger vessel, the British quickly accused the 'Pirate Hun' of slaughtering civilians.

The disaster was used to whip up anti-German anger, especially in the U.S., where 128 of the 1,198 victims came from.

A hundred of the dead were children, many of them under two.

Robert Lansing, the U.S. secretary of state, later wrote that the sinking gave him the 'conviction we would ultimately become the ally of Britain'.

Americans were even told, falsely, that German children were given a day off school to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania.

The disaster inspired a multitude of recruitment posters demanding vengeance for the victims.

One, famously showing a young mother slipping below the waves with her baby, carried the simple slogan 'Enlist'.

Two years later, the Americans joined the Allies as an associated power - a decision that turned the war decisively against Germany.

The diving team estimates that around four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets lie in the Lusitania's hold at a depth of 300ft.

The Germans had insisted the Lusitania - the fastest liner in the North Atlantic - was being used as a weapons ship to break the blockade Berlin had been trying to impose around Britain since the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914.

Winston Churchill, who was first Lord of the Admiralty and has long been suspected of knowing more about the circumstances of the attack than he let on in public, wrote in a confidential letter shortly before the sinking that some German submarine attacks were to be welcomed.

He said: 'It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the U.S. with Germany.

'For our part we want the traffic - the more the better and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.'

Hampton Sides, a writer with Men's Vogue in the U.S., witnessed the divers' discovery.

He said: 'They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I - bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.'

The discovery may help explain why the 787ft Lusitania sank within 18 minutes of a single German torpedo slamming into its hull.

Some of the 764 survivors reported a second explosion which might have been munitions going off.

Gregg Bemis, an American businessman who owns the rights to the wreck and is funding its exploration, said: 'Those four million rounds of .303s were not just some private hunter's stash.

'Now that we've found it, the British can't deny any more that there was ammunition on board. That raises the question of what else was on board.

'There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters.

'I've always felt there were some significant high explosives in the holds - shells, powder, gun cotton - that were set off by the torpedo and the inflow of water. That's what sank the ship.'

Mr Bemis is planning to commission further dives next year in a full-scale forensic examination of the wreck off County Cork.

Blagojevich's Lawyers Seek Subpoenaes

Blagojevich's Lawyers Seek Subpoenaes for Emanuel, Jackson Jr.
In an effort to prove the Illinois governor's innocence, his lawyers ask the Illinois House panel to subpoena two of Obama's top aides and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lawyers for embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich want two key aides to President-elect Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. subpoenaed, according to Chicago media reports.

Blagojevich's legal team has asked the Illinois House panel that members of Obama's incoming administration testify before the House impeachment committee, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, WBBM-TV and the Chicago Sun-Times reported late Wednesday.

Ed Genson, Blagojevich's chief lawyer, said testimony from the aides will prove the governor's insistence that he did nothing illegal to fill Obama's now vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The news comes days after Obama's team released an internal review that confirmed no "inappropriate" discussions had taken place in the Blagojevich probe.

The report said Emanuel was the only adviser to talk to Blagojevich and his top aide John Harris on the subject of the Senate seat. The incoming chief of staff was authorized to pass on the names of four people he considered qualified to take over his seat: Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, Illinois Veterans' Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Jackson Jr.

Federal prosecutors asked the Illinois House impeachment committee not to delve into the criminal charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday, a request that could hasten a decision on whether to boot Blagojevich from office.

In a letter, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald warned the committee that interviewing witnesses and discussing documents related to the charges against Blagojevich could undermine his criminal investigation. He declined to give the committee documents and other information about his probe, but left open the possibility of giving the committee copies of Blagojevich conversations captured by federal wiretaps.

"Any inquiry into these topics, as well as the taking of testimony from present and former members of the governor's staff, could significantly compromise the ongoing criminal investigation," Fitzgerald wrote.

Committee members had promised to abide prosecutors' recommendations about what should be off limits, so Fitzgerald's request means the panel won't conduct its own investigation of possible criminal activity. They have said that if they can't pursue the criminal charges, then their fact-gathering work is largely done.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the committee chairwoman, said a decision on whether to recommend an impeachment vote by the full House could come the week of Jan. 5.

Blagojevich is accused of trying to use his authority as governor to appoint Obama's Senate replacement to get cash or a lucrative job for himself, starting days before Obama's Nov. 4 election through Dec. 5. The governor has denied any criminal wrongdoing and has resisted multiple calls for his resignation, including from Obama.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

40th anniversary of seeing the dark side of the moon

40th anniversary of seeing the dark side of the moon
By Matt Ford
December 24, 2008

Humans have been going into space ever since the Russian Aviation and Space Agency launched Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit about Earth on April 21, 1961 aboard Vostok 1. In the intervening 47 years, there have been 292 manned space flights; 182 by NASA, 105 by Russia, two by China, and three by private company Scaled Composites. Out of all of those missions, the majority—in fact a full 283—never really did anything more than go around the block, so to speak. Only nine manned missions have ever truly left Earth and entered the gravitational influence of any other celestial body.

The first time this happened was the Apollo 8 mission, during which Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders put their Apollo command module into lunar orbit 40 years ago today, December 24th, 1968. 1968 is considered one of America's most tumultuous years in the 20th century. Beginning with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which saw heavy American casualties, it was followed up by Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis and ensuing riots across the nation, then saw Robert Kennedy get assassinated two months later. Finally, the battle between police and protesters in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention left a black mark on 1968. However, on December 21st, Apollo 8 launched three humans on the first-ever voyage to the moon.

The crew of Apollo 8 spent Christmas Eve orbiting the moon, becoming the first humans to ever see the dark side of the moon—due to the synchronous rotation, we only ever see the same lunar face from Earth—and the first ever people to witness the Earth rise. William Anders' famous photo was named one of the 100 photos of the century by Life magazine.

On their ninth of ten orbits of the moon, NASA did a live television broadcast from the crew in lunar orbit. During this broadcast, the crew read passages from the Book of Genesis, specifically the story of creation, and ended with Frank Borman's historic phrase, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth." The mission ended safely with splash down in the pacific ocean, where the crew—now the first humans to ever travel to another heavenly body—was picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. My father was serving on board that day as part of the honor guard when they picked the three up and welcomed them back to Earth.

Seven months later, on July 20th, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would finally land on the moon, which became—at least in my opinion—one of the most important events in human history. It brought the entire world together, even if just for a moment. While the achievement of Apollo 11 gets the lion's share of the credit, it is important that the first time we truly left Earth not go unrecognized.

Filed under: Spaceflight, Apollo, History, Science

Tina Fey voted AP Entertainer of the Year

Tina Fey voted AP Entertainer of the Year

NEW YORK (AP) — Tina Fey is the entertainer of the year? You betcha. Fey was voted The Associated Press' Entertainer of the Year, an annual honor chosen by newspaper editors and broadcast producers across the country.

Fey was selected by AP members as the performer who had the greatest impact on culture and entertainment in 2008.

The 38-year-old comedian bested runner-up Robert Downey Jr., whose comeback was capped with the blockbuster smash "Iron Man," and the third-place vote-getter, Heath Ledger, who posthumously wowed audiences as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."

But it was Fey who most impressed voters largely with her indelible impression of Gov. Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live." Her cameos on her old show (where she had been a head writer until 2006) helped drive the show to record ratings and eventually drew an appearance from Palin herself.

"Tina Fey is such an obvious choice," said Sharon Eberson, entertainment editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "She gave us funny when we really needed it and, in a year when women in politics were making huge strides, Fey stood out in the world of entertainment."

Fey's 2008 was a full year, though.

She also starred for the first time on the big screen in "Baby Mama" (which grossed $60 million at the box office) and won three Emmys for her critically lauded NBC sitcom "30 Rock," which she created, stars in and writes. In the comedy series category, she won for best lead actress and best writing, and shared in the award for best comedy series.

"She simultaneously entertained us with her wit and put a mirror up to the nation during the election and made us think about what was going on," said Scott Shive, assistant features editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader. "She is the epitome of the smart kid coming out on top for once."

As soon as Palin was chosen as Sen. John McCain's running mate, conjecture mounted that the similar-looking Fey would have to return to "SNL" to play her.

In an interview earlier this fall, Fey recalled watching early TV coverage of Palin: "That was the first time I thought, `Well, I kinda do look like her. I'd better really listen to how this lady talks.'"

Fey debuted the impression on the "SNL" season premiere and a sensation quickly followed. She made four more pre-election appearances as Palin on the late-night satire.

"From the winks to the nods to the accent, she nailed it," said Marc Bona, assistant entertainment editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "And she did so at a time when it seemed the whole country was tuned in — both to the presidential race as well as 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Her Palin impression has benefited "30 Rock," too. The show premiered its fourth season to 8.5 million viewers, a million more than last year's opener.

Recently, she was also nominated for a Golden Globe (for best performance by an actress in a TV series, comedy or musical), as well as a Screen Actors Guild award.

"The `SNL' stuff has certainly changed things for me," Fey said in October. "A lot more people seem to know who I am."

Last year's AP Entertainer of the Year also went to a comedian whose satire blended in with politics: Stephen Colbert.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

One ISP says RIAA must pay for piracy protection

December 22, 2008
One ISP says RIAA must pay for piracy protection
Greg Sandoval

Jerry Scroggin, owner-operator of Bayou Internet and Communications, wants the music and film industries to know that he's not a cop and he doesn't work for free.

Scroggin, who sells Internet access to between 10,000 and 12,000 customers in Louisiana, heard the news on Friday that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has opted out of suing individuals for pirating music. Instead, the group representing the four largest music labels is forging partnerships with Internet service providers and asking them to crack down on suspected file sharers.

According to Scroggin, if RIAA representatives ask the help of his ISP, they had better bring their checkbook--and leave the legal threats at home. (CNET News obtained a copy of the RIAA's new notice to ISPs here). Scroggin said that he receives several notices each month with requests that he remove suspected file sharers from his network. Each time, he gets such a notice from an entertainment company, he sends the same reply.

"I ask for their billing address," Scroggin said. "Usually, I never hear back."

Scroggin's case underscores a potential obstacle for the RIAA's plan to enlist the help of ISPs. Small companies like his are innocent bystanders in the music industry's war on copyright infringement. Nonetheless, they are asked to help enforce copyright law free of charge. Many of them can't afford it, he said. Significant resources must be devoted to chasing down suspected file sharers and there's a real cost to that. After talking to Scroggin, it sounds as if the entertainment sector might also have taken a heavy-handed approach to dealing with ISPs in the past and there might be some bad blood built up.

"They have the right to protect their songs or music or pictures," Scroggin said. "But they don't have the right to tell me I have to be the one protecting it. I don't want anyone doing anything illegal on my network, but we don't work for free."

Reached late Sunday night, an RIAA spokesman declined to comment.

Scroggin wants to be reasonable. He tells me he doesn't want to come across as a "hard ass." He just wants someone in big media to understand his position as the operator of a small business.

Incorporated in 1995, Bayou Internet and Communications, based in Monroe, La., typically sells Internet access to small businesses, residences, and municipal services. His customers include parish court houses, homeowners, district attorneys, and rural hospitals. The company is probably similar to lots of small ISPs around the country that operate on tight budgets and must compete against much larger players, such as Comcast or AT&T.

Scroggin is no radical. He respects the law and said he has a long history of cooperating with authorities to protect people from harm.

"If it was life threatening, I'm the first to jump," he said. "We've been contacted by police over Denial of Service and bot attacks. We'll have Secret Service and FBI conversations. We help if police are on perv watch."

But protecting against copyright violations just doesn't have the same urgency, not enough that that ISPs should be asked to work without compensation, Scroggin said. Here are the realities of being "HBO's free police," he said.

First, when a media company demands he kick a customer off the network, there is very little in the way of proof offered that the person in question has committed a crime, according to Scroggin. Yet, entertainment companies want Scroggin to simply wave goodbye to a customer who might have signed up for a three-year plan. At $40 per month, that customer is potentially worth $1,440 to Scroggin over the life of the plan. That, says the ISP owner, is unreasonable.

Next, it's expensive and time consuming to ask highly paid technicians to chase down IP logs and customer IDs, Scroggin said, noting that it's especially difficult nowadays because it's extremely easy to spoof IP addresses.

And then there are the letters Scroggin receives from Hollywood that demand he act or else.

"I'm not doing anything to damage their business," Scroggin said. "But somehow this 99-cent song is my fault."

Scroggin warns that the film and music industries must try a new tack if they want cooperation from ISPs. They can start by helping to cover some of the costs for helping to enforce copyright.

"There's got to be a better way than HBO sending me threatening e-mail," he said. "What I'm saying is, let's sit at the table and come up with a way that works for everyone, including the customers."

Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. He is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Steve Jobs, tech's last celebrity CEO

Steve Jobs, tech's last celebrity CEO
With the Apple chief's decision to step out of the spotlight at next month's Macworld Expo, an era comes to an end.
By Jon Fortt, writer
December 19, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Where have all the high-flying tech CEOs gone?

This week the tech world lost another headliner when Apple CEO Steve Jobs made it known that he'll no longer deliver his signature keynote speech at next month's Macworld Expo trade show.

Since the announcement comes the same year that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates gave up his traditional keynote at another high-tech extravaganza, the Consumer Electronics Show, it underscores the fact that there aren't many superstars left who can rally big crowds and carry the banner for tech.

It had to happen eventually. The sun is setting on the first generation of rebellious whiz kids who invented the PC, commercialized the Internet and grew their companies into powerhouses.

In bygone days, Gates regularly talked up his plans for world domination. Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, led a defiant rebellion against Gates and his Redmond, Wash., juggernaut. Craig Barrett, the outspoken former CEO of Intel, ushered the chipmaker's glorious entrance into the age of mobile and wireless computer.

Today, all three have stepped back from operational roles, and are more likely to champion education policy than to unveil the next must-have gadget or service. Even the sole remaining old-school tech CEO, Oracle's Larry Ellison, is keeping a lower profile these days; he's in the news for his yachts and planes as much as anything else.

Help Wanted: A few geeky CEOs

The rest of today's crop of CEOs is a different breed. As innovators like Intel and Microsoft have grown into corporate giants, they haven't looked for clones of their iconoclastic founders to take over; instead, they've looked to manager/salesmen like Intel's Paul Otellini, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Hewlett-Packard's Mark Hurd and IBM's Sam Palmisano.

These guys are uber managers, not tech visionaries. They may be business-school rock stars, but engineers don't line up for their autographs.

Given the way companies mature, perhaps it's only natural that the current crop of CEOs looks different from the last. It takes one set of skills to think up a brilliant new idea, motivate starry-eyed recruits and inspire investors. It takes an entirely different set to manage thousands of employees, glad-hand customers and placate Wall Street; and it's rare to find all those skills in one person.

Are there any leaders left with geek cred? Sure - Web 2.0 celebrities like Google's Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg have plenty - but none of them could be mistaken for inspirational speakers. Likewise, Adobe's Shantanu Narayen and AMD's Dirk Meyer have impressive engineering chops, but they seem more comfortable in the lab than on the stage.

In the end, the guy best suited to draw a crowd and speak for tech is probably Michael Dell - but Dell Inc. is in such rough shape that he won't have much time for speeches.

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs. So as long as he remains at the helm of Apple and its products stay popular, we're not likely to miss his Macworld keynote too much - when he has something to say, he'll figure out ways to draw a crowd. The question is what happens when His Steveness steps away from the company, or when its products are no longer the toast of the town.

When that happens - and it's a matter of when, not if - we may all get wistful about the good old days of the Macworld keynote, when the techies of the world huddled like kids on Christmas, and expected to be blown away.

FDA Approves Stevia

FDA Approves Stevia, Ends the Era of Oppression of this Herbal Sweetener
by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, December 19, 2008
Key concepts: Stevia, Truvia and FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted GRAS approval for a natural, zero-calorie sweetener it once sought to wipe out from the U.S. marketplace. Following political pressure from powerful consumer product corporations (Coca-Cola and Pepsi, primarily), the FDA has once again fallen in step with the interests of Big Business and legalized a food and beverage ingredient that it once aggressively oppressed.

In this case, however, the approval of this ingredient happens to be in the best interests of consumers. Why? Because it will largely replace aspartame, an artificial sweetener chemical linked to numerous neurological disorders, including headaches, eye disorders and other problems.

It will also unleash a wave of stevia-sweetened products for consumers, and that's good news for diabetics or anyone seeking healthier products sweetened with an herbal extract rather than a synthetic chemical.

I publicly predicted this FDA decision just two weeks ago an article containing thirty-one predictions for 2009 ( The FDA's approval of stevia is prediction #8, for those keeping track. (Interestingly, at least two of the top 13 predictions for 2009 have already come true in the last month of 2008!)

The circumstances surrounding this FDA approval of stevia reveal yet again the true loyalties of the agency. When stevia threatened the profits of aspartame, it was routinely suppressed by the agency. FDA thugs seized imports of stevia at the border, destroyed millions of dollars in stevia products, threatened companies with fines for daring to sell stevia, and even ordered one company to destroy its recipe books that mentioned stevia in dessert recipes. But now, when Coca-Cola and Pepsi want stevia approved, the FDA suddenly reverses its oppression and decides to legalize the herb.

Again, this is a rare case where the FDA's decision benefits consumers, but the circumstances behind the decision were in no way motivated by consumer interest. They were motivated by corporate profits.

Betty Martini's victory

What's so profitable about stevia? Well, thanks to the efforts of Betty Martini and others who have been warning about the dangers of aspartame, word has spread across the 'net to the point where informed consumers no longer want to consume aspartame at all. In other words, the aspartame opponents succeeded in destroying the consumer acceptability of aspartame! And that led the big players (Coke, Pepsi, etc.) to look for something that would be more acceptable to consumers.

That search led them to stevia. And once Big Business got behind the herb, it was only a matter of time before the FDA caved in to commercial interests and legalized the herb.

Realize this crucial point: The FDA's decisions these days are based entirely on corporate profits and have absolutely nothing to do with science, safety or consumer interests. Remember, it was just a few days ago that the FDA declared infants, children and even pregnant women could now eat essentially unlimited quantities of mercury in fish, without any negative health consequences whatsoever! This is the same agency that says children can "safely" eat melamine, bisphenol-A, MSG, sodium nitrite and all sorts of other dangerous, toxic substances that harm human health.

So don't be fooled for a minute into thinking that the FDA's approval of stevia has anything to do with serving the People.

Stevia victory!

Nevertheless, this approval of stevia stands as a major consumer victory. And I want to take a minute to applaud three people who deserve big-time credit for spreading the word about aspartame, thereby creating demand for stevia that has finally led to its approval:

• Dr. Betty Martini (
• Jeff Rense (
• Dr. Russell Blaylock (

There are many others, of course, and even NaturalNews may deserve some credit (I've been promoting stevia for ten years now), but the main credit goes to Dr. Betty Martini who has fought aspartame for well over a decade.

In fact, the approval of stevia is paving the way for the banning of aspartame! And I predict aspartame will eventually be banned or removed from the GRAS list, but that would have never happened unless an alternative were available. Stevia is that alternative.

Is Cargill's stevia really safe?

There is some speculation that the patented stevia being used by Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other big businesses is in some way less natural than the traditional stevia we've been buying at health food stores for years. Some have wondered how their patented stevia (Truvia) could actually be patented unless there were some synthetic molecules in it.

It's a reasonable question, but at the moment, I'm not aware of any evidence of Truvia being adulterated or synthesized in any way at all. In fact, I personally welcome the ingredient and applaud Cargill for pressuring the FDA into getting this GRAS approved. There is no evidence I'm aware of that their stevia is genetically modified or altered in any way. Of course, if such evidence emerges, I'll make it available here on NaturalNews, but at the moment I'm supporting this Truvia ingredient and would even consume it myself. That's always subject to change if new information emerges, of course.

Sherry Weiss Poall, who works for the RF Binder public relations agency that serves Cargill, has been distributing safety research data about Truvia since July, 2008, but since those studies were paid for by Cargill, many people might dismiss their objectivity.

In any case, I believe that the natural health community should cautiously embrace this ingredient for the time being. It is, after all, a hugely positive move for the food and beverage industry to be able to ditch aspartame and shift to an herbal sweetener. If anything, this is a monumental victory for natural health over synthetic chemicals. It's a victory that took over a decade to become a reality, but it has finally arrived in the United States thanks to this late decision by a reluctant FDA.

Watch for stevia-sweetened products to appear on store shelves everywhere. You'll also see lots of formulations that will combine stevia with other sweeteners to provide higher sweetness with fewer overall calories (and a lower glycemic index).

Herpes May be Reversed with Natural Medicine

Genital Herpes May be Reversed with Natural Medicine
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Sheryl Walters, citizen journalist

Key concepts: Herpes, Outbreak and Herbs

(NaturalNews) Many doctors claim that 1 in 10 people are carrying the virus for genital herpes. Yet genital herpes is rarely discussed in society and often leaves those infected feeling isolated and doomed. Fortunately, hope exists. With the right combination of herbs and nutrition at the right dose, genital herpes can be reversible.

Genital herpes is transmitted through sexual intercourse and sometimes oral sex. The first outbreak of herpes is called the Primary infection. It lasts for 10-14 days and symptoms may include general flu complaints, small groups of painful blisters that appear around the genitals or anus, and vaginal discharge in women. After the first outbreak, some people have regular reoccurences, while others may never have another symptom, although the virus still lies dormant. The problem is that approximately 4 out 5 people who have the herpes virus have no idea that they have it because the symptoms are so mild, therefore spreading it unknowingly. Even if there are no symptoms at all, the virus may still be in the area, and there is a 1 in 10 chance of passing it on.

Because doctors claim there is no cure, it seems like a life sentence. Those who are infected may feel unclean, tainted, and have lowered self- esteem. Sexual contact including kissing should be avoided during an outbreak. That the virus may be active even without symptoms means that unprotected sex with future partners will always be risky. Often people feel that their sex life is ruined and relationships tarnished by this "permanent" virus.

Unlike other chronic illnesses including HIV, there is no support group for people with genital herpes. Those infected often feel alone and burdened. Because so little is known about the disease, they may feel embarrassed to tell friends, family, and certainly sexual partners.

Whilst the medical profession views genital herpes as incurable, it has been discovered that with natural medicine, it can be reversed. Herbs such as galangal, lapacho, astragalus, una de gato (also known as Cat's Claw), myrrh, ligustrum and pansy are antiviral. Thyme, licorice, and cayenne are all herbs that specifically fight the herpes virus.

Reishi, which is a mushroom, boosts the immune system and is also antiviral. Lysine is an amino acid which is known to control and aid in the prevention of Herpes.

Thuja cream and propolis can be put directly onto the skin to soothe the irritation caused by the blisters, as well as combat herpes itself.

To reverse herpes, as well as defend against its return, a healthy immune system is vital. Echinacea, vitamin c, and zinc are some of the nutrients that help build healthy immunity.

In order to get the right dose and combination of nutrition, it is important to see a practitioner who can ensure that the treatment is tailored for each individual. While two people can have exactly the same symptoms, they may need entirely different treatments. If you are suffering from this virus, find a practitioner who is experienced with treating genital herpes.

The most important thing to remember is that with natural medicine there is a lot of hope. Genital herpes is reversable and many people who once suffered tremendously from continual outbreaks are now enjoying healthy, active sex lives.

Jeff Milner's Backmasking Page

Website of the Week: Jeff Milner's Backmasking Page

Does Robert Plant sing "Oh here's to my great Satan" backwards in "Stairway to Heaven"? Does Freddie Mercury declare "It's fun to smoke marijuana" on "Another One Bites the Dust"? And does Britney Spears proclaim "Sleep with me, I'm not too young" on "Baby One More Time"? Check out this site and listen yourself...

The New Cult Canon: Reservoir Dogs

The New Cult Canon: Reservoir Dogs
By Scott Tobias
December 18th, 2008

"I'm hungry. Let's get a taco." —Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs

Earlier this year, I started The New Cult Canon with Donnie Darko, arguably this generation's only genuine midnight-movie phenomenon, so it seemed appropriate to end the year with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, without question a major touchstone in today's cult cinema. Before Reservoir Dogs premièred at Sundance in 1992, the festival—and the arthouse scene in general—had seen very little of its kind. The independent world was supposed to be cordoned off from the violent, profane genre fare that littered the multiplex. While the great unwashed were off watching Steven Seagal shatter forearms like twigs, Joe Bordeaux-Sippers could flee for safety in tucked-away cinematic oases, where they found the comfort of earnest, socially progressive, values-affirming indie films, stuffy Merchant-Ivory costume dramas, or a host of middlebrow French imports. (Rumor has it that Reservoir Dogs' mysterious title comes from a mispronunciation of one of those middlebrow imports, Au Revoir Les Enfants, while Tarantino was working at a video store.)

Granted, that may be stating things a little broadly. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to call independent film pre-1992 toothless, or mainstream movies vulgar, or to claim that Tarantino was somehow the savior of an ineffectual, irrelevant arthouse scene. But Reservoir Dogs was nonetheless a defining moment, because it lent artistic legitimacy to what would have otherwise been dismissed as genre trash. It didn't make much money in its theatrical run—old viewing habits die hard—but along with Pulp Fiction two years later, it legitimately transformed the scene. Even now, low-budget genre films still have a tough time getting the support they need, but Reservoir Dogs did an awful lot to make them viable by finding a previously nonexistent audience that craved unvarnished visceral excitement without the attendant Hollywood stupidity.

Sixteen years and five films later (not counting Four Rooms, and counting Kill Bill as one), Tarantino has become a polarizing figure, swept along uneasily by the undulating waves of "cool" he helped create. Too often, he's looked upon less as a filmmaker than as a cultural phenomenon, subject to the "hot or not"/"in or out" fickleness of trend-spotters, who don't always consider the merits of his work. Detractors don't like his acting. (Okay, they have a point.) They don't like his obnoxious public persona. They don't like the drooling fanboys who congregate on Ain't It Cool News, or the legions of imitators who've clogged screens and video-store shelves in his wake. But all these things are just a distraction, because they're mostly in response to Tarantino the phenomenon, and not to what happens in the narrow hours when the lights are down and his formidable skills as a writer and director are on display.

Reservoir Dogs opens with what would become a Tarantino signature: The idea that bad guys, in the time between jobs, blab about the same banal shit the rest of us do, albeit in a much more colorful way. Sitting over breakfast with a table full of gangsters, there's Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown, theorizing (convincingly) that the Madonna hit "Like A Virgin" is not about "a sensitive girl who meets a nice fella" (that's "True Blue"), but about a John Holmes-type making a promiscuous girl feel the sweet pain of virginity all over again. That segues into an argument over tipping, prompted by the sniveling Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who refuses to throw in a buck like everyone else, because he doesn't believe waitresses deserve extra money just for doing their jobs. Mr. Pink is obstinate in the face of reason until bossman Lawrence Tierney, with his gravelly voice and hulking frame, brings him in line: "C'mon, you. Cough up a buck, you cheap bastard."

Nothing said in the opening scene figures in later, not even in some obscure metaphorical way. Tarantino does make the most of an opportunity to introduce his characters, who have convened on a day leading up to a jewelry heist, and won't be seen together again until they meet at a warehouse rendezvous after the botched robbery. But the film would still make sense without the scene, which is just as much about Tarantino delivering a statement of intent that's carried him through to this day. Having these gangsters riff on Madonna and tipping establishes his characters and films as products of popular culture, reflections more of a movie-addled brain than of the far-less-exciting world outside of it. Some tag him as a rip-off artist, but he's really a collagist, cutting and pasting phrases, references, and styles from the past into something new, infused with his own distinct sensibility and unmistakable voice.

Made for just over $1 million, Reservoir Dogs is a classic example of turning budgetary liabilities into creative assets. A heist movie without the heist, the film takes place mostly in one location, the warehouse, and deals alternately with the lead-up and the aftermath. The limited space gives it the intensity of theater, and the interweaving of flashbacks and present-day confrontations make the robbery itself come together in the imagination better than it might have had Tarantino splurged on a Michael Mann setpiece. As with much of Tarantino's work, the heist-without-the-heist conceit isn't unprecedented, nor is the structure—Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, also a model of low-budget resourcefulness, was his acknowledged influence—but he always manages to stay on the right side of the line between homage and rip-off.

Here's what we know right away about the robbery: It didn't go well. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) are the first back to the warehouse, with the older White desperately trying to keep the gutshot Orange from bleeding to death. Mr. Pink comes in next, declaring his certainty that they were set up; with their daytime smash-and-grab job, they knew they only had minutes after the alarms went off, but the cops seemed to be waiting for them, and a bloody mêlée ensued. The question then becomes, "Who's the rat?" Could be Mr. Brown, who died in the frantic escape, or Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), who never materializes, or maybe Michael Madsen's sadistic Mr. Blonde, who just started shooting bystanders at will once the job went sour. Tarantino takes his time with that and other revelations, and fills in the blanks by giving the key players—Mr. White, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Blonde, specifically—the introductions they deserve. And while everyone's in limbo, he also gives us Blonde torturing a uniformed cop in this career-making NSFW sequence, which forever repurposes the Stealers Wheel bubblegum-Dylan hit "Stuck In The Middle With You".

Tarantino tends to get singled out first for his stylized dialogue (with good reason), and second for his achronological, novelistic approach to storytelling (also with good reason). But he's always been underrated as a director, and the torture scene wouldn't be nearly as effective in more pedestrian hands. It's hard to believe the Madsen of Reservoir Dogs would balloon into the corpulent softie of the Free Willy movies, but in his black-suit-and-sunglasses getup, Tarantino frames him like the second coming of Robert Mitchum, a lean, charismatic figure with the black heart of Mitchum's preacher in The Night Of The Hunter. Having "K-Billy's super sounds of the '70s" in the background sets up the perfect ironic ambience (and gives Madsen the right beat for his famous shuffle), but what Tarantino does with the camera is key. The scene is considered hideously violent, but the most gruesome moments happen offscreen, whether the camera positions itself to miss the cuts of Mr. Blonde's razor, or pans away altogether as he severs the cop's right ear. (The latter shot is a nod to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which also has the camera dolly out in the film's most painful moment, when Robert De Niro gets turned down while talking on a payphone.) There's plenty of blood in Reservoir Dogs, but little gratuitousness, and perhaps less violence than the average action thriller; it's a trick of a great director, one who knows how to play with viewers' imaginations, and realizes that less violence can have more impact. On Charlie Rose in 1994, Tarantino quoted Brian De Palma, who once talked about filmmakers getting "penalized" for doing violence well, and he goes on later to explain:

"Violence was like another character in the room [in Reservoir Dogs]. It hung over the proceedings. You kept waiting for every conversation to break out into it. So even if it was funny, the audience might have laughed, but when they get out of the theater, they don't remember laughing."

Thematically, Reservoir Dogs sticks to the tried-and-true "honor among thieves" premise common to most heist movies, and its strong masculine bonds put the film firmly in line with the two-fisted entertainments Tarantino has always championed. At the center of it all is this idea of "professionalism": These guys were hired to do a job, and as professionals, they have a code that dictates how it should be carried out. Mr. Blonde may be loyal, but cutting up a room when the robbery starts to fall apart is unprofessional, as is his extracurricular abduction and torture of a cop.

And though the dynamic between Mr. White and Mr. Orange is surprisingly tender, almost like a bear nursing a cub, all professionalism went out the window the moment Mr. White trusted Mr. Orange enough to tell him his first name, and reveal his incriminating love of the Brewers. Ironically, Buscemi's Mr. Pink comes away as the lone professional: In the chaos following the robbery, he could have (and given the circumstances, probably should have) driven away with the diamonds rather than come back to the rendezvous point, but he didn't. He also tries to break up the Mexican standoff between the other men ("We're supposed to be fucking professionals!"), but he fails and winds up the last man standing, fully entitled to the stash. There's no doubt Tarantino feels more affection for Mr. White, who reveals a kind of tragic decency in taking the younger Mr. Orange under his wing, but the job is the job, and his inability to live by a criminal code hastens his demise.

Above all, though, Reservoir Dogs is about the sheer pleasure of a good story told right, and few people can do it as well as Tarantino. There's a great meta-scene halfway into the movie in which Mr. Orange, an undercover cop preparing to infiltrate this criminal operation, goes over a five-page script called "The Commode Story." The script is a piece of fiction about Mr. Orange's run-in with four cops and a German shepherd while he was carrying a bag of hash, intended to ingratiate him with the other crooks. He's told he needs to be a good actor, "like Brando," but it's really about how stories come alive in the details, and how the storyteller's command of the little things spells the difference between a convincing and an unconvincing tale-or, in this case, between life and death. He may be a savant genius, a semi-literate with little but a pop-cultural education, but when he's really cooking-as in the following scene, when Tierney is handing out aliases-there's no one better.