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Peter Falk

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One of my favorites legendary “Columbo” star Peter Falk died yesterday at the age of 83.

Falk won four Emmys for his starring role in the television detective series, “Columbo.” He also received Academy Award nominations for movies in 1959 and 1960.

Falk portrayed “Columbo” on 69 episodes from 1968 to 2003, it seemed like more but I have seen them all.

Like many actors of his generation, Falk began his career on the stage, honing his craft in school, community theater and off Broadway. By the late 1950s he began to star in Broadway productions, and soon made his move to Hollywood.
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Falk’s breakout film role came with 1960’s “Murder, Inc.” in the supporting part of a killer among a gang of thugs, but it was his performance on the opposite side of the law — as police lieutenant Columbo — that earned Falk superstardom.

As a child, Falk’s right eye had been surgically removed due to a malignant tumor, and it was replaced with a glass eye. That handicap became, perhaps, the actor’s major asset and physical trademark as the star of “Columbo” because it only enhanced the detective’s image as a disheveled and oddball crime sleuth.

He also starred in “Princess Bride,” “Brigadoon” and “The Great Race.”
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Heart and Def Leppard in Atlanta…Electric…Literally!

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Last night the atmosphere at the Lakewood Amphitheater was electric…literally! I experienced one of the strongest displays of thunder, lightening and rain that I have ever seen just before the Def Leppard/Heart concert was to begin.

The venue lost power during Saturday’s viscous storm, which led to an hour of will-there-or-won’t-there-be-a-show guessing as fans waited for the gates to be opened. My friend Nick and I stuck it out! It wasn’t a pretty start, but most fans attending would likely agree that the concert was well worth the wait.

Eventually, with the storm passed, electricity restored and safety concerns cleared, the concert was a go, with Heart taking the stage at 9 p.m. for a condensed 40-minute set What a shame…they have some great hits, but anyone who has seen Ann and Nancy Wilson and the rest of Heart live before knows that the sisters put their all into everything they do.

Though Ann’s voice was lost in a poor mix of the opening “Cook With Fire,” the sound clarified for the sweetly sexy “Never,” re-dressed with an acoustic foundation and harmonica, and “What About Love.”

Ann, looking slimmed in black leggings and boots and the eternally cool Nancy, who came onstage wearing a top hat and still, at 57, managed to scissor kick her way through “Crazy on You,” navigated a powerful set high even if short on time.
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The ‘80s hits “These Dreams,” steered by Nancy’s wispier voice, and “Alone,” anchored by Ann’s husky pipes, have easily retained their singalong quality – a necessity at this show – even if they represent the poppier side of Heart.

No one should forget Heart’s roots, and I guess that is why they were a perfect match for Def Leppard last night, the sisters and the four members of the band, including the indispensible Debbie Shair on keyboards and percussion, tore through a trio of classic rock staples – the serrated guitar steamroller “Barracuda,” the prog-rockish “Magic Man” and, to end their set, a thunderous version of “Crazy on You.”

At 10:15, after the recorded strains of Def Leppard’s traditional pre-show song, AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You),” boomed through the nearly sold-out venue, a mirror ball dropped above the stage and the quintet appeared, banging out the new “Undefeated.” A four-on-the-floor fist pumper born to be played relentlessly at a stadium near you this fall, the song, from the just-released live “Mirrorball” CD, represented the only detour for a band that hasn’t much altered its playlist the past few tours.
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Performing on a spectacular tiered stage lined with panels of video screens and beneath a ridge of relentlessly spinning lights, the band had ample space to rock n’ roam. The light show was so well done it almost matched nature’s dazzling display before the show.

Singer Joe Elliott’s voice has always been a gruff instrument, and on this night, while it was sometimes swallowed by the huge sound of the band, it just as often soared on long-held notes in “Animal” and “Rocket.”

The front line of bassist Rick Savage and guitarists Vivian Campbell and (shirtless) Phil Collen infused the band’s songs with gorgeous harmonies – always a hallmark of Def Leppard’s sound – that are the perfect complement to their metallic guitar riffs and drummer Rick Allen’s steady electro-beats. I am still awestruck by the Allen’s expertise with one arm he is still one of Rock’s best.

“Foolin’,” in particular, sounded full and fresh, and the extended version of the beautifully complex “Rocket” included a dynamic interplay between Campbell and Collen.

Though it appeared that Elliott wasn’t going to talk to the crowd, instead to focus on fitting in the band’s full set, when he, Collen, Savage and Campbell sauntered down the catwalk extended about a dozen rows into the crowd for an acoustic segment, he indeed had something to say.

“We weren’t going to let a little proper rain spoil the party were we?” Elliott asked as the crowd roared. “But you should all get a pen and paper and write to your local electricity board and [tell them] that their generators suck!”

With that statement Elliott and the boys strummed through “Two Steps Behind” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” which kicked into its full electric grandeur midway through.

Savage pulled out his Union Jack bass for the zippy instrumental “Switch 625,” which segued into what is perhaps Def Leppard’s most epic song, the melodically layered “Hysteria,” which aped its recorded counterpart with technical proficiency and lyrical heart.

It was impossible for most in this generation-spanning crowd to refrain from playing air guitar or air drums at the first notes of “Armageddon It” and “Photograph.” I am sure by the last moments of the show the band had erased any trace of hindrances of earlier in the night. Electric.

The biggest bargain on the planet, the US Postal Service.

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After reading Devin Leonard’s Bloomberg article about the United States Postal Service I have a renewed respect for “my” mailman.

It is no secret that the postal service’s business model is so badly broken that its collapse is imminent. With the rise of e-mail and the decline of letters, mail volume is falling at a staggering rate, and the postal service’s survival plan isn’t reassuring. Elsewhere in the world, postal services are grappling with the same dilemma only most of them, in humbling contrast, are thriving.

The USPS is a wondrous American creation.
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My Post Office in Sandy Spring early 1800.

Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail — 40 percent of the entire world’s volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders.
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The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.
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It takes an enormous organization to carry out such a mission. The USPS has 571,566 full-time workers, making it the country’s second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart!

It has 31,871 post offices, more than the combined domestic retail outlets of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. Last year its revenues were $67 billion, and its expenses were even greater. Postal service executives proudly note that if it were a private company, it would be No. 29 on the Fortune 500.

The problems of the USPS are just as big as the USPS itself.

It relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining — in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.

During the real estate boom, a surge in junk mail papered over the unraveling of the postal service’s longtime business plan. Banks flooded mailboxes with subprime mortgage offers and credit-card come-ons. Then came the recession. Total mail volume plunged 20 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Since 2007 the USPS has been unable to cover its annual budget, 80 percent of which goes to salaries and benefits. In contrast, 43 percent of FedEx’s budget and 61 percent of United Parcel Service’s pay go to employee-related expenses. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the postal service’s two primary rivals are more nimble. According to SJ Consulting Group, the USPS has more than a 15 percent share of the American express and ground-shipping market. FedEx has 32 percent, UPS 53 percent.

This should be a moment for the country to ask some basic questions about its mail delivery system. Does it make sense for the postal service to charge the same amount to take a letter to Alaska that it does to carry it three city blocks?

Should the USPS operate the world’s largest network of post offices when 80 percent of them lose money? And is there a way for the country to have a mail system that addresses the needs of consumers who use the Internet to correspond?

Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) said last month, “If we do nothing, we face a future without the valuable services that the postal service provides.”

Many countries have figured out profitable ways to run a postal service. The U.S. could learn a lot from them. Last summer the USPS sent a small team of analysts to Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada. It is fascinating to learn what they discovered.

Three decades ago, most postal services around the developed world were government-run monopolies like the USPS. In the late ’80s, the European Union set out to create a single postal market. It prodded members to give up their monopolies and compete with one another. The effort roused an industry often thought to be sleepy and backward-looking.

Many countries closed as many of their brick-and-mortar post offices as possible, moving these services into gas stations and convenience stores, which then take them over…in Tokyo 7-11 was a great post office.

Today, Sweden’s Posten runs only 12 percent of its post offices. The rest are in the hands of third parties. Deutsche Post is now a private company and runs just 2 percent of the post offices in Germany. In contrast, the USPS operates all of its post offices.

Some of these newly energized mail services used the savings to pursue new business lines. Deutsche Post bought DHL, a package deliverer that competes with FedEx and UPS. “More than half of our workforce is outside of Germany,” says Markus Reckling, executive vice-president for corporate development at Deutsche Post. “It’s pretty much the same thing for our profits.”
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Many used their extra cash to create digital mail products that allow customers to send and receive letters from their computers. Itella, the Finnish postal service, keeps a digital archive of its users’ mail for seven years and helps them pay bills online securely. Swiss Post lets customers choose if they want their mail delivered at home in hard copy or scanned and sent to their preferred Internet-connected device. Customers can also tell Swiss Post if they would rather not receive items such as junk mail.

Sweden’s Posten has an app that lets customers turn digital photos on their mobile phones into postcards. It is unveiling a service that will allow cell-phone users to send letters without stamps. Posten will text them a numerical code that they can jot down on envelopes in place of a stamp for a yet-to-be-determined charge.

Anders Asberg, Posten’s head of marketing and development, says the service is experimenting with these initiatives, and he expects some will prove to be lucrative. “The customers are all on these digital interfaces now,” he says. “That’s where the growth is going to be in the future.”

Posten can afford to take chances. In 2009 the Swedish mail carrier merged with Post Danmark, the Danish postal service, creating PostNord, a company with $6.2 billion in net sales and $320 million in EBITDA. In 2010 the latter rose by 43 percent, to $490 million.
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It seems the European countries are on a reasonably viable course. The U.S. is not.

The USPS needs to close post offices, as many foreign postal services have done despite real opposition. The USPS also needs to create products for its wired customers if it wants to play a role in the future of communication.

But last but certainly not least, 44 cents is still the biggest bargain on the planet Raise the price…sure we will all complain but think of how inexpensive that is next time you send a note to your mom in Anchorage from Miami, door to door!

Have You Heard of the Five-Second Rule?

Have you ever heard of the five-second rule, where you can pick up food that has fallen on the floor within five seconds and eat it without risk of illness? Do you follow it?

I do after living in Bangkok and eating at every street vendor in the city I guess either I have a death wish or I am immune to almost any bacteria…after all consider eating an M&M after hitting my floor in Atlanta versus eating fried grasshoppers on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok…which would have the higher health risk?
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In 2003, a then science intern at the University of Illinois, Jillian Clarke, conducted a survey and found that slightly more than half of adult men and 70 percent of adult women knew about the five-second rule and many said they followed it. Clarke then conducted an experiment to find out if various food became contaminated with bacteria after just five seconds on the floor.

For performing this first test of the five-second rule, Clarke was awarded the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in public health by the Annals of Improbable Research. Why didn’t I perform that test?

Clarke’s study inspired another research group at Clemson University to investigate several questions regarding the five-second rule: Does the type of contaminated surface affect the numbers of bacteria collected? How many bacteria does a food item collect in just five seconds? Does it collect more if it sits on the contaminated surface longer? Does it collect enough to make you sick?

To answer these questions, a Clemson team conducted several experiments of floor-to-food contamination. I won’t bore you with the details but they found that the type of contaminated surface affected the number of bacteria that the food slices took up, and the length of time that the food remained on the contaminated surface did affect the numbers of bacteria they absorbed.

Apparently, this amount of bacteria is potentially enough to cause illness in people; the infectious dose — the smallest number of bacteria that can actually cause illness — is as few as 10 for some Salmonellas.

But consider that Clarke, the original investigator, found that bacterial contamination was so low on the floor at the University of Illinois that it couldn’t be measured, unlike the levels of contamination that the Clemson group were using for their studies not to mention my living experiments in Bangkok.

So the likelihood that a cookie, quickly picked off the floor and consumed, can make you ill, is somewhat remote, but it is a factor worth considering if you are in an area where there could be significant levels of bacteria present like Soi 12 in Bangkok.

iPhone tracking function…is our privacy all but gone?

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When I first saw the MacIntosh 1984 Super Bowl spot I had really no idea that big brother would be placing a tracking device right in the palm of my hand…well it is 2011 and by now you have probably all heard the stories about the iPhone tracking function.

If you’re worried about privacy, you can turn off the function on your smartphone that tracks where you go. But that means giving up the services that probably made you want a smartphone in the first place. After all, how smart is an iPhone or an Android if you can’t use it to map your car trip or scan reviews of nearby restaurants?

The debate over digital privacy flamed higher this week with news that Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads store users’ GPS coordinates for a year or more. Phones that run Google’s Android software also store users’ location data. And not only is the data stored — allowing anyone who can get their hands on the device to piece together a chillingly accurate profile of where you’ve been — but it’s also transmitted back to the companies to use for their own research.

Now, cellphone service providers have had customers’ location data for almost as long as there have been cellphones. That’s how they make sure to route calls and Internet traffic to the right place. Law enforcement analyzes location data on iPhones for criminal evidence — a practice that Alex Levinson, technical lead for firm Katana Forensics, said has helped lead to convictions. And both Apple and Google have said that the location data that they collect from the phones is anonymous and not able to be tied back to specific users. But hey remember that movie Eagle Eye? I don’t trust anyone these days…do you?
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But lawmakers and many users say storing the data creates an opportunity for one’s private information to be misused. Levinson, who raised the iPhone tracking issue last year, agrees that people should start thinking about location data as just as valuable and worth protecting as a wallet or bank account number.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with that information,” said Dawn Anderson, a creative director and Web developer in Glen Mills, Pa., who turned off the GPS feature on her Android-based phone even before the latest debate about location data. She said she doesn’t miss any of the location-based services in the phone. She uses the GPS unit in her car instead.

“With any technology, there are security risks and breaches,” she added. “How do we know that it can’t be compromised in some way and used for criminal things?”

Privacy watchdogs note that location data opens a big window into very private details of a person’s life, including the doctors they see, the friends they have and the places where they like to spend their time. Besides hackers, databases filled with such information could become inviting targets for stalkers, even divorce lawyers.

Do you sync your iPhone to your computer? Well, all it would take to find out where you’ve been is simple, free software that pulls information from the computer. Carumba! Your comings and goings, clandestine or otherwise, helpfully pinpointed on a map.

One could make the case that privacy isn’t all that prized these days. People knowingly trade it away each day, checking in to restaurants and stores via social media sites like Foursquare, uploading party photos to Facebook to be seen by friends of friends of friends, and freely tweeting the minutiae of their lives on Twitter.
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More than 500 million people have shared their personal information with Facebook to connect with friends on the social networking service. Billions of people search Google and Yahoo each month, accepting their tracking “cookies” in exchange for access to the world’s digital information. And with about 5 billion people now using cellphones, a person’s location has become just another data point to be used for marketing, the same way that advertisers now use records of Web searches to show you online ads tailored to your interest in the Red Sox, or dancing, or certain stores.

The very fact that your location is a moving target makes it that much more alluring for advertisers. Every new place you go represents a new selling opportunity. In that sense, smartphone technology is the ultimate matchmaker for marketers looking to assemble profiles on prospective customers.

What do you guys think?