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things that just are

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Do as We Say, Not as We Do
Nearly 7,000 cars have been stolen in Denver this year, and about a quarter of every car stolen is what's called a "puffer," a car left unattended with the engine running, with the intention of warming up the engine. Denver police have for weeks urged residents not to leave their cars "puffing," but somebody on the force didn't get the message -- an unmarked car belonging to a Denver police detective was stolen while puffing Monday morning, according to a report by KUSA-TV, the local NBC affiliate. The 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo had a laptop, a traffic vest and a pair of handcuffs, but no weapons. "I have questions," Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman said in a press conference yesterday.

From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Miracle on eBay
An eBay auction of a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich embossed with what could be the image of the Virgin Mary was back in business today. Ebay had at one point removed the auction from its site, believing it to be a hoax. But the item's seller, Diana Duyser, a 52-year-old jewelry maker from Hollywood, Florida, insisted the auction was legitimate, and eBay reactivated it. Ms. Duyser claims to have kept the sandwich, packed in cotton balls in a plastic container, for the past decade, without a hint of molding. "It is like a miracle," she wrote in her expressive posting on eBay. "I made this sandwich 10 years ago, [and] when I took a bite out of it, I saw a face looking up at me," she wrote. "It was Virgin Mary starring back at me." She claims that the sandwich has brought her good luck, helping her win some $70,000 in local casinos, but she told the Miami Herald that she now wanted to "share it with the world."

Other eBay participants haven't taken the auction quite so seriously, however. Bids of nearly $100 million and $33 million have been made on the sandwich -- bids eBay quickly removed, having found them not to be legitimate -- and a cottage industry of miracle-sandwich-related items has sprung up overnight. An eBay search for "Virgin Mary cheese" turned up Virgin Mary cheese-sandwich t-shirts, a sandwich bearing the ghostly images of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, a watercolor painting of the Virgin Mary sandwich and a Gumby doll wearing a Virgin Mary sandwich mask, among other items. With little more than five days left to bid, the current high bid for the real sandwich -- legitimate or not -- was $69,107.69.

The ebay auction

From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Man Behind the FedEx Logo and hidden arrow!

Who knew??

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Watch Your Back, Martha
The prospect of a prison stay for homemaking guru Martha Stewart inspired much speculation, rarely serious, that Ms. Stewart would soon be cranking out domesticity tips for the penal environment. But a group of inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla have beaten her to the punch, producing "The Convict Cookbook," including recipes for such dishes as Cell Block Fudge, Jail Mix or the Dope Fiend Sandwich, many of which can be cooked using nothing more than a radiator -- a critical consideration, since most prison cells lack cooking appliances. Some dishes, such as Blue Mountain Crabbies, don't require heat at all: simply throw the ingredients, including canned crab, crushed crackers, cream cheese and mayonnaise, into a plastic bag and hang the bag outside to chill (don't try this in the summer.) And Jailhouse Pizza, consisting of uncooked Top Ramen noodles smeared with pizza sauce, cheese spread, pepperoni and corn chips, probably wouldn't taste any better heated than cold.

The authors of "The Convict Cookbook," all of whom are near release, met in a community college class on adjusting to post-prison life and combined their talents for writing, illustration and culinary ingenuity. The book was paid for by private donations and will sell for $17 a copy at bookstores throughout Washington. The proceeds will go to the Children's Museum of Walla Walla, and some of the inmates' kids will get free passes to the museum. "We all agree that it would be 'a good thing' to provide other worthwhile activities for children [when visiting Walla Walla] besides seeing Dad," author/inmate Ricky Webb told the Associated Press. In case you missed the joke, "a good thing" is one of Ms. Stewart's catch-phrases.

From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Water's Fine, but Is It Kosher?

Published: November 7, 2004
NY Times

When rabbis in Brooklyn spotted a tiny crustacean swimming in New York City's tap water last spring, the ensuing debate about whether it rendered the city's water unkosher seemed like an amusing, but esoteric dispute in a particularly exacting Jewish enclave.

But in the months since, the discovery has changed the daily lives of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews across the city. Plumbers in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens have been summoned to install water filters - some costing more than $1,000 - and dozens of restaurants have posted signs in their windows trumpeting that they filter their water. As a result, an entirely new standard is being set for what constitutes a kosher kitchen.

"I don't want people in the community to be uncomfortable in my home," said Laurie Tobias Cohen, executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy, explaining why she put a filter on the faucet of her Washington Heights apartment.

The issue has created the perfect conditions for a Talmudic tempest, allowing rabbis here and in Israel to render sometimes conflicting and paradoxical rulings on whether New York City water is drinkable if it is not filtered. As with the original Talmudic debates, the distinctions rendered for various situations have been super-fine, with clashing judgments on whether unfiltered water can be used to cook, wash dishes, or brush teeth, and whether filtering water on the Sabbath violates an obscure prohibition.

The creature, a crustacean known as a copepod that comes in several species, is found in water all over the world and is perfectly harmless. But it is a distant cousin of the dreaded shrimp and lobster, shellfish whose consumption violates the biblical prohibition against eating water-borne creatures that lack fins and scales.

The prohibition refers only to species that can be seen with the unaided eye - not, say, an amoeba - and the question of whether the copepod is indeed visible is central to the dispute. Some are so small as to be invisible, while others can grow to a millimeter and a half in length, large enough to be seen in water as small white specks.

The tumult is confined largely to New York because it is one of the few cities that is exempt from federal filtering requirements. Boston and Seattle are also exempt, but they have nothing like the city's numbers of Orthodox. In New York City, there are 331,200 Orthodox Jews, a third of the Jewish population, according to a 2002 study done for UJA-Federation of New York.

The sure winners in this theological tizzy are plumbers and water filter entrepreneurs.

"We've had a 500 percent increase in sales," said Houston Tomasz, vice president of Sun Water Systems of Fort Worth, Tex., which manufacturers the Aquasana filter, whose full-house version can cost more than $1,500 installed. "Not everyone was a kosher Jew. When you start talking about visible bugs in water, Jews aren't the only people who care."

In Brooklyn, a landlord started a firm overnight that he called Eshel Filters. In September just before the Sukkot holidays, when many Jews invite neighbors over, the company installed 30 filters a day ranging in cost from $99 to $1,150. Its motto: "The bug stops here."

The controversy is indicative of deepening religious conservatism in the American Orthodox world. William B. Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said that "in a society where people feel via the Internet and television their very values are under constant attack, there's a need for people to reassert their level of religiosity, and one way this is done is by discovering new restrictions which give people the opportunity to demonstrate their adherence to their faith."

For generations, the most pious Jews - even revered rabbis like Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Moses Feinstein - drank unfiltered New York water with no evident concern. But six months ago, a group of Brooklyn rabbis were examining some lettuce imported from Israel that was supposed to be bug-free, but which appeared to have insects on its leaves. After an investigation, they determined that the "bugs" had arrived after the lettuce was washed in New York City water, and said that in the right light they could see the telltale specks with their own eyes.

At some point, a delegation of rabbis took a field trip to the city's reservoirs and asked officials some detailed questions about the origins of the water and the copepods. (Of the three reservoir systems, only one - the Croton - is in the process of introducing filtering, with a plant that will cost an estimated $1 billion but will not be completed before 2010.)

The question lingered unresolved by a major communal authority until the Orthodox Union, which certifies as kosher 275,000 products in 68 countries, weighed in last August after checking some water samples.

"When they saw the first sample they didn't feel it reached the threshold of being visible," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator for the Orthodox Union. "What changed people's minds is when they saw a sample taken from a pond and saw them scooting around. Those are beyond the threshold."

The Orthodox Union recommended that restaurants and caterers under its supervision filter their water before using it in drinking and cooking, a policy that quickly was adopted by many homes as well. The policy considered different practical possibilities. Dishes may be washed by hand in unfiltered water, it said, if the dishes are towel dried or left to drip-dry without puddles of water in them.

But it also said water should not be filtered on the Sabbath because one of the 39 varieties of work forbidden by the sages includes "selection," or sifting of food, like separating wheat from the chaff or raisins from a noodle pudding.

The organization issued the policy to make sure even the most stringent consumers would be satisfied that what they were eating was kosher to the highest standards. But a debate continues within its own rabbinical ranks about how the filtering policy should be applied in ordinary homes, and some rabbis have suggested the filtering frenzy may have gone too far.

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, one of the leaders of Torah Vodaath rabbinical seminary in Brooklyn and an important voice on Orthodox Union kosher matters, said in an interview that there was no requirement to check for things that were impossible to see in the years before microscopes.

"If everybody goes around thinking that whoever doesn't filter water is actually eating things that are treyf," he said, using a Hebrew word for unkosher, "there will probably be all kinds of disputes between individuals and marriage problems that can cause a cleavage."

Many Jews have been left confused. Fran B., a marketing manager for a software firm who asked that her last name be withheld, said she did not want to tear up the granite countertops in her Manhattan apartment to install a filter under the sink, so she lugged bottled water from the supermarket.

"On the one hand, I'm drinking bottled water, but on the other hand I'm eating at friends' houses who have never even heard of this," she said.

Others are perplexed about whether to filter at all, filter on Sabbath, or filter for purposes of cooking, washing dishes or brushing teeth.

"The difference in opinions is driving a lot of people crazy," said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program in Manhattan, who hauls bottled water to his apartment so he will not have to filter on Sabbath. "You can't imagine what a turmoil it is."

In an article in The Jewish Press, David Berger, a professor of history at the City University Graduate Center and a rabbi, said, "The notion that God would have forbidden something that no one could know about for thousands of years, thus causing wholesale, unavoidable violation of the Torah, offends our deepest instincts about the character of both the Law and its Author."

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, who is a professor of biology and of Talmudic law at Yeshiva University, said he spotted the telltale specks only after first looking at copepods through a 60-power dissecting microscope.

But having seen them, he said he thought they should be filtered out. Nevertheless, he does not believe the filters should be turned off on Sabbath - Jewish law already allows people to pick algae or other vegetation out of water. And he certainly does not worry about whether pious Jews who drank unfiltered tap water in the past sinned.

"The hidden things belong to God," he said. "We are responsible for what we see. If you don't know about it and don't see it, then it doesn't exist. So those who drank the water before were drinking kosher water."

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Future Bank Robbers, Take Note
Pulling off a successful bank robbery is a tall order, but the world's repository of bank-robbery knowledge is expanding almost daily, and one man in Kennesaw, Ga., allegedly made a significant contribution to it this week: Namely, don't rob a bank while it's still being built. Police said Michael Donald Marshall, 39, walked into a Bank of America branch on Wednesday, went to one of the teller windows, said he had a gun and demanded money. Police said that employees explained to Mr. Marshall that the bank was still under construction and had no money. The police said they arrived as Mr. Marshall was leaving the bank, and they arrested him and charged him with armed robbery.
From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Passengers Weighing Down Airlines
As if airlines didn't have enough problems, a new study finds they've also got to worry about pudgy passengers. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that U.S. airlines were forced to burn some 350 million extra gallons of fuel in 2000 than in 1990, costing them some $275 million extra dollars, just to account for the net 10-pound gain in the average American's weight during the decade. Burning all that extra fuel also meant that an extra 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air.

The study, published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, hasn't been confirmed by the Air Transport Association of America, but "does not sound out of the realm of reality," ATAA spokesman Jack Evans told the Associated Press. With jet-fuel costs soaring, airlines have been figuring out ways to shed weight, including dumping magazines and switching from metal utensils to plastic. But most airlines probably won't try to penalize heavy passengers. "Passengers gain weight, but airlines are the ones that go on a diet," Mr. Evans said. "It's part of the conundrum we face right now."

From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Great Moments in Crime-Fighting

Some say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and one man did his best to prove that theory on Sunday, according to a report by the Macomb Daily of Mount Clemens, Michigan. When Michael Lonsway, 43 years old, saw an armed robbery in progress at a Shell station near Warren, Mich., he drove his Pontiac Grand Prix to the entrance of the store, hoping to keep the felon from fleeing. Instead, the robber began to climb over the hood of the Grand Prix. Mr. Lonsway floored the accelerator, knocking one shoe and a fake gun loose from the robber, but also ramming through the store's plate-glass window and into displays of windshield-washer fluid and soda bottles.

Undaunted, Mr. Lonsway chased the robber and thought he saw him fleeing in a gold Cadillac. At that juncture, he got on his cell phone and asked police for some backup. They found the gold Cadillac, but the driver turned out not to be the robber, who is still on the loose. Warren Police Detective Sgt. Darcy Leutzinger told the Macomb Register that Mr. Lonsway may have bitten off more than he could chew in this case. "The best thing to do if [a citizen sees] something in progress is to call us." But Mr. Lonsway said he'd do it all again. If citizens didn't do their part to stop crime, he said, "We'd have anarchy in our system.

From the WSJ Afternoon Report

Monday, November 01, 2004

Good Friend Jack
By Peter Gammons

Kevin Millar is forever enthusiastic, ever honest.

"But this time," the Red Sox first baseman said, "I wish I'd never opened my mouth."

During an appearance on Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" on Friday, Millar said that Red Sox players did shots of Jack Daniel's before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. And because it worked, Millar said, they did it before every game through the World Series.

Millar made similar comments on Boston's Channel 4 with Dan Roche.

"It was one of those group team things, like shaving our heads last year," Millar said. "What we had was one small Gatorade cup, with a little Jack Daniel's in it. We passed it around and everyone symbolically drank out of the same cup, because we are a team. It wasn't as if guys were drunk. Can you imagine Trot Nixon or Jason Varitek or Mike Timlin actually sipping alcohol before a game? No way."

One thing Millar wants to make very clear was that manager Terry Francona was not part of the ritual.

"First, he never would," Millar said. "Second, this was just between the players. It's not a story about 25 shot glasses, it's one small Gatorade cup that we shared as a symbol. And once we won Game 6, we had to do it before Game 7, just like the lucky coin I had in my pocket every game."

Trailing in the ALCS three games to none, the Red Sox won four games in a row over the Yankees to move into the World Series, where they swept the Cardinals for the franchise's first championship since 1918.