The queen of meanLeona Helmsley, the developer and hotel owner who became an icon of the greed-is-good '80s, died Monday, not as the result of having a house dropped on her by a tornado but of natural causes. She was 87.
Born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in a working-class family, she worked as a model in cigarette ads and married and divorced two husbands before beginning her real climb to the top by marrying Harry Helmsley, a New York hotel and condo king, in 1972.
At its peak, the Helmsley empire boasted real estate holdings including the Empire State Building, several hotels in New York City and hotels in Florida and other states. As a hotel manager, Leona became known as a bitch on wheels among her employees, who she'd chew out for the slightest shortcoming and fire at a moment's notice. Capitalizing on her rep as "The Queen of Mean," she appeared in a series of ads emphasizing her personal scrutiny of the most minute details to ensure the comfort of Helmsley hotel guests.
The queen's empire began to crumble in 1986, when authorities found out she and her husband had avoided paying some $40,000 worth of New York sales tax on items purchased from the snooty jewelry store Van Cleef & Arpels.
Much worse was to come. An investigative series by the New York Post discovered Leona and Harry had evaded about $4 million in state and federal income taxes by deducting items they bought for their 28-room mansion in Connecticut as business expenses. They also were indicted for looting their businesses to pay for personal extravagances that, according to the New York Times, included "a $1 million marble dance floor above a swimming pool, a $45,000 silver clock, a $210,000 mahogany card table, a $130,000 stereo system, and $500,000 worth of jade art objects."
Harry Helmsley, then 80, was found mentally unfit to stand trial. At Leona's trial, the Times reported, "a series of prosecution witnesses described a spiteful, extravagant, foul-mouthed woman who terrified her underlings and who could coldly fire an employee while being fitted for a dress. In the most celebrated line of testimony, a former Helmsley housekeeper testified that Mrs. Helmsley had once told her, 'Only the little people pay taxes.'"
The little people had the last laugh, at least temporarily: Leona spent 18 months in a federal prison.
Do It for the Motherland
Russia has a serious population problem - not the "over" kind, but the "under" kind. Already one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, its population actually has been shrinking since the 1990s because of a low birth rate and high death rate.
President Vladimir Putin considers the issue so serious that the government is offering cash incentives to couples that have more than one child.
But the region of Ulyanovsk, located about 500 miles east of Moscow, has come up with a different and, we think, more enjoyable approach: an official annual Day of Conception.
On the big day, Sept. 12, Ulyanovsk workers will be given the day off and encouraged to copulate energetically and often in the hope of breeding lots of little Russians. Couples who "give birth to a patriot" exactly nine months later - on June 12, Russia's National Day - will be rewarded with cars, appliances and other prizes. According to The Associated Press, last year's top winners, Irina and Andrei Kartuzov, "received a UAZ-Patriot, a sport utility vehicle. Other contestants won video cameras, TVs, refrigerators and washing machines."
Ulyanovsk celebrated (if that's the right word) its first Day of Conception in 2005, and participation reportedly has been increasing every year - although Upfront isn't exactly sure how they know who's participating.
It was inevitable that somebody with too much time on their hands would try to marry the current iPod obsession with newly fashionable "green" movement. (Apparently an iPod port in the Prius just wasn't quite good enough). The plucky inventor showed his head, or at least his product, at the recent Siggraph fashion exhibition in California. The item in question, a two piece bating suit covered in tiny solar panels with a USB outlet, reportedly capable of charging a tiny iPod shuffle in about two hours. At that rate, Upfront calculates that your 80 Gig videopod would be charged right about the time you're ready to catch the flight home. And, like most multipurpose things in life, it apparently works better in concept than in practice. The manufacturer warns that, while it can be worn in the water (Wow, a swimsuit that gets wet!) users/wearers need to be extra careful that they are fully dry before plugging in.
The inventor, Andrew McSchneider, is also reportedly working on another related invention that strikes Upfront as a bit more practical - a pair of solar shorts capable of generating enough power to chill a drink.
But Upfront can think of one way that might go terrible wrong. And while Han Solo survived the carbon freeze chamber, we'll wait until the design kinks are worked out before we put those babies on the Christmas list.
I Want To Believe
They're coming.A nation of would-be Fox Mulders got a nettlesome jolt of reality this week when a widely circulated video of purported UFO sightings in the Dominican Republic and Haiti were debunked by an LA Times columnist. The shaky images looked like the work of a typical home video recorder. The camerawoman lets out a gasp as she trains the viewfinder on the saucers which appear to light over her head.
The original posting of the 22-second Haiti clip recorded more than 2.5 million hits as of this week, not including the thousands of hits on the repostings.
The videos prompted a wide variety of responses, including some true believers like the user "The Great Revealing" who had this to say about the images: "It wobbles at the beginning because they ride the earths (sic) magnetic waves like a snowboarder rides powder."
There was also a fair share of skeptics, some of whom theorized the video was a viral marketing campaign from Microsoft to promote the release of Halo 3 - its popular space combat video game for the Xbox.
Turns out it was neither Aliens nor Microsoft (at least we think Bill Gates is human). As the Times reported this week in its Web Scout column, which looks at Internet phenomena, the video was the work of a professional digital animator using an Apple computer and some over-the-counter animating software. The creator, who refused to reveal his real name, told the Times that the videos were research for an upcoming film project about a UFO hoax that takes on a life of its own.
Which goes to show, sometimes truth is really stranger than fiction - well at least on YouTube.
Big Blue Rolls Into Town
it's big. it's mean. it's blue. and it talks trash. Last week, most Bend residents got a present from their friendly neighborhood garbage disposal company: a gigantic blue rolling bin to be used for carting out recyclables every two weeks.
"Gigantic" isn't any exaggeration - these big blue bad boys have a capacity of 95 gallons, stand 40 inches high and are almost two and a half feet wide.
Upfront is not ungrateful for the gift and we will do our best to fill up the bin every two weeks, even if that means we have to subscribe to a dozen more magazines and eight or 10 additional newspapers.
The problem, though, is where are we supposed to keep this damn thing? Our garage is full, we're obviously not going to wheel it into the house, and frankly it looks too crappy to leave standing on the front porch.
So how about a little help, friendly neighborhood garbage disposal company? For instance, how about a dozen yards or so of camouflage netting?
Save the Earth - Starve a Cow
damned if you moo, damned if you don't.Want to do something for the Earth? Well, don't just sit there - get up off your butt, get in your car and drive, don't walk, to the grocery store.
That's the conclusion of Chris Goodall, who is a candidate for the British Parliament and, believe it or not, an ardent environmentalist.
Goodall calculates that driving a typical British car three miles produces about two pounds of carbon dioxide, the gas principally responsible for global warming. But walking the same distance uses about 180 calories, and to get those calories you'd need to eat almost a quarter-pound of beef, and producing that beef would generate almost eight pounds of carbon dioxide.
Getting your calories from milk instead of beef would be a little better, Goodall says, but not much: You'd need to drink three-quarters of a pint to get 180 calories, and producing that milk would generate about 25% more carbon dioxide than a three-mile drive would.
Actually Goodall isn't trying to encourage people to become couch potatoes; he's trying to make the point that industrial-style agriculture - especially beef production - is as bad as, if not worse than, cars when it comes to generating greenhouse gases.
"We need to become accustomed to the idea that our food production systems are equally damaging," he told The Times of London. "Of course, this doesn't mean we should always choose to use air or car travel instead of walking. It means we need gently to work out how to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs."
Bend's Graffiti Obsession
Nobody - well, nobody except the people who write it - likes graffiti. It's often unsightly, it's sometimes obscene, and it can be hard as hell to get rid of.
The graffiti situation here isn't anywhere close to that of Portland, where the city council is considering a measure that would make merchants lock up cans of spray paint or put them behind the counter, but as Bend has become more urban, graffiti has inevitably increased - and the City of Bend has gotten more and more distressed over it.
The city already has a program, administered by the police department, through which property owners can have graffiti painted over at no expense to them. (Work crews from the county juvenile detention center provide the muscle and the city pays for the paint.) The city council is contemplating an ordinance that would go further, giving the police authority to force people to let the city remove graffiti from their property, on pain of a $250 fine if they don't. The ordinance had its first reading last Wednesday and is expected to come up for a vote on Aug. 22.
The graffiti eradication program is, generally speaking, a good idea. If not removed graffiti tends to multiply, so it's important to get the graffiti off of conspicuous public places - for example, the street facades of shops, highway overpasses and roundabout art - before the whole town starts to like an old New York City subway train.
On the other hand, the proposed compulsory graffiti removal ordinance seems like a hysterical over-reaction to a problem that just isn't that major.
To begin with, kids with cans of spray paint are not a threat to society in the same league with, say, drug pushers, arsonists or drunk drivers. Graffiti is, at worst, a minor irritant of urban life. And we have to think there are better uses of the Bend PD's resources than chasing after graffiti scofflaws.
In the second place, we can think of a lot of things that are far more serious blights on our fair community than a little spray paint on a back-alley wall.
Beat-up cars with "FOR SALE" signs in the windows parked in vacant lots or on the street for weeks at a time, for instance. Or properties overgrown with weeds or decorated with defunct household appliances and rusted-out trucks up on cinder blocks. Maybe because such eyesores aren't located downtown the city doesn't think they're a high priority, but they create a general impression of squalor for visitors who drive around and see them.
We hope the council will reject the compulsory removal ordinance when it comes up for a vote, though we strongly suspect it won't - too many people in Bend have their panties in a bunch over the perceived graffiti threat. But in the hope (maybe forlorn) of restoring some rationality and sense of proportion to the public dialogue over the issue, we hereby administer THE BOOT to Bend's graffiti obsession.
Department of Corrections
A story about BendFilm's ongoing fundraising campaign contained incorrect information about the organization's negotiations with the city over use of the downtown parking garage. BendFilm sought and received preliminary approval last year from the city council to use the top floor of the garage for a party. The organization opted not to exercise the option because of logistical issues with the space. We regret the error and have since mended our ways.