Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Italian Job

It’s close to election time, and that means it’s time to complain about the US Congress.

These days, everybody is bitching and moaning about our elected representatives. Either they are doing too little—like avoiding any meaningful action on true national priorities—or doing too much, like when it comes to underage Hill pages.

But I’m going to buck the trend and instead address some other country’s legislature. And that country, dear readers, is Italy.

We thought we had big problems in Washington. We were wrong.

According to Reuters, the Italian parliament is abuzz over a question that, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to afflict our Congress: Where exactly do “transgendered” politicians go when they need to use the restroom?.

Here’s the story. Vladimir Luxuria, who was born male 40 years ago, is a transvestite, preferring life as a female. But born-feminine lawmaker Elisabetha Gardini didn’t appreciate seeing Vlad in the women’s room on Friday, and the ruckus that ensued has involved the parliament’s speaker.

The center-right members of the august body are requesting the construction of a third bathroom for transgendered representatives—which, right now, is a club with only one member.

So to speak.

So what’s the answer? Should he/she use the men’s room or the women’s room? Perhaps a practical solution would be to do what most of us have always done when we really need to use the facilities but our “own” room isn’t available: we ask someone to post watch.

Guarding the door is simple. It’s efficient. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper for Italian taxpayers than building a new third bathroom.

And it sets a good precedent for when Ru Paul runs for Congress.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

It’s Elemental

I don’t often take requests.

Although I receive one or two e-mails almost every week with suggestions to write posts about, my topics usually come to me in bursts of revelation. Like seeing something on the news … or glimpsing something online that just screams to be mocked. My mood drives my choice.

But not today.

I opened my inbox a few days ago and found a link to this story about the creation of a new chemical element. Apparently, Russian and American scientists recently smashed together atoms of calcium and californium—yes, that’s really an element—to create a new atom with 118 protons in its nucleus.

What’s notable about this? Well, for one, it’s the heaviest element ever made. And it would be the first manmade inert gas—joining natural elements like helium, argon, neon, and radon.

Only one problem. It’s as unstable as a Willem Dafoe character.

Even under the ideal laboratory conditions for its creation, the new element lasted for just one millisecond. That’s even shorter than the amount of time 2005’s Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo lasted in theaters.

But, if confirmed, the discovery will enable the element’s creators to name it. They can add another barely pronounceable member to the heavy-element club, joining existing winners like Seaborgium, Meitnerium, and Darmstadtium.

Yes, those really are elements.

As you might expect, I have a few suggestions for what they should call Element 118:

Malawium. If the country is good enough for Madonna to adopt a baby from, it’s good enough for the periodic table.

Harrypotterium. The best-selling book series of all time hasn’t had a planet named after it; the least we can do is throw the boy wizard an element.

Halloweenium. With the best holiday of the year coming up, it would be a ghoulishly appropriate tribute.

Deucebigelowium. Let’s make this Rob Schneider’s contribution to future generations. The movies themselves sure don’t count.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mongolian Idol

National heroes can be a hassle.

On one hand, they are revered symbols of national pride, which should be propagated and celebrated widely. On the other hand, they are revered symbols of national pride, which should be controlled and guarded tightly.

It’s a dilemma at the very top of the political agenda … at least in Mongolia.

That’s because Genghis Khan—who conquered most of Asia almost 800 years ago—is a nearly universally respected hero there for his unification of the Mongol people, his strategic genius, and his righteous beard. But his name and image are being used these days on a wide variety of products unbecoming of an icon, including multiple brands of beer and vodka.

So last week, the legislature began debating a proposal that would allow the government to regulate the employment of the “Genghis Khan” name and likeness to prevent any “degrading or insulting” use.

If the bill becomes law, certain things could get you in serious predicament in Ulaanbaatar (or any other Mongolian city, although Ulaanbaatar looks the coolest in print).

For example, the country’s filmmakers would be unable to make a Mongolian version of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In the classic original movie, the protagonists bring Genghis Khan forward in time to modern-day California. The “very excellent barbarian” chomps on Twinkies for the sugar rush, ravages a sporting goods store with a baseball bat, and uses a toilet brush to comb his hair.

Not exactly how modern Mongolians want to see their national hero portrayed.

Moderating the exploitation of important historical figures makes sense even here in the United States. Look at what we’ve done to the father of our country, George Washington: Where I live, in the national capital area, you simply can’t avoid this guy.

Strolling down the streets of Washington, D.C., I walk through the campus of the George Washington University. Both the $1 bill and the quarter in my pocket bear George Washington’s visage. I look across the Potomac at the George Washington Parkway; I turn back and see the Washington Monument.

And yet, try as I might, I just can’t find George Washington’s face on a bottle of vodka.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Political Culture

Different cultures develop different ways to protest public policy. Northern Greece has the market cornered on one mode of political expression: yogurt tossing.

The city of Salonika played host last week to a 60-year-old man who threw a pot of yogurt at regional politician Panayotis Psomiadis during a statue-inauguration ceremony.

Nobody is really sure why this man did it. One theory, which seems like a long shot, focuses on a local investigation into a dairy manager’s corruption. Psomiadis’ opponents have hurled charges that he’s connected to the manager, but I can’t how this compels someone to hurl yogurt at him.

Now I’m a worldy man. And I understand that various countries and regions have different modes of political protest.

Italians go on strike when they need to make their views known. Canada is rife with dissent and rebellion—albeit in the form of polite requests. And some Iraqis enjoy using the IED to say their piece.

But only in Greece does this aspect of political culture involve … well, active cultures.

Psomiadis, the target of the yogurt toss, is running for re-election. It’s unclear if he will attempt to use the incident to his advantage in the election next Sunday.

Me? I’d milk it for all it’s worth.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Musical Notes

I have good news, and I have bad news.

The good news is that I have taken on several additional writing and consulting assignments, and my time has filled up very nicely with paying gigs.

The bad news is that I’m unlikely to maintain the two-to-three-essays-per-week schedule that I’ve kept to very well for several months now.

Here’s my plan: one of my typical essays each Monday, with occasional bursts of manic musings at other times. So check in at the start of the week for the post and then a few times during the week for intermittent supplements and the comment train (which, after all, you usually make more entertaining than the story itself).

One of my recent client assignments was to write about the origins of rock band names, which prompted last Wednesday’s quiz on a related subject. My research led me to some interesting factoids that I didn’t include in my assignment—or in that quiz—so I’ll share them with you today.

I was disappointed that some of my favorite rock bands (including Rush, Genesis, and The Police) did not have wicked cool stories behind their names. But some of these you might not know:

  • Collective Soul. Singer and guitarist Ed Roland apparently read the phrase in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and ran with it.

    We should be thankful that he didn’t use another quote from the book, like “You were not born to be a second-hander.” I think you’ll agree: “Second-Handers” would be, quite simply, a crappy band name.

  • Wang Chung. The band originally went by “Huang Chung,” which is a transliteration of “yellow bell,” the term given to ancient Chinese music’s foundation tone; it also was the name of a rationalistic naturalist Chinese thinker 2,000 years ago.

    On the group’s Website, singer Jack Hues says, “It originally came from looking for a name that would wrong-foot everybody, which it did.” And it created the most bizarre verb in the English language through the lyric “Everybody wang chung tonight.”

  • Anthrax. No good story about the origin; “anthrax” was just a cool sounding word from biology class.

    But after the anthrax attacks in the United States, the band issued a press release in October 2001 joking that the group would change its name to “Basket Full of Puppies.” Here’s an excerpt:

    “In light of current events, we are changing the name of the band to something more friendly, "Basket Full Of Puppies". Actually, just the fact that we are making jokes about our name sucks…. Before the tragedy of September 11th the only thing scary about Anthrax was our bad hair in the 80’s and the “Fistful Of Metal” album cover. Most people associated the name Anthrax with the band, not the germ. Now in the wake of those events, our name symbolizes fear, paranoia and death. Suddenly our name is not so cool. To be associated with these things we are against is a strange and stressful situation. To us, and to millions of people, it is just a name. We don't want to change the name of the band, not because it would be a pain in the ass, but because we hope that no further negative events will happen and it won't be necessary. We hope and pray that this problem goes away quietly and we all grow old and fat together.”

    Well said.

  • Old and Fat Together. Now THAT would be a great band name.