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Born today in 1891: Actress and producer Katherine MacDonald


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The four thousand of us are dying

What’s happening to all of our celebrities? Sometimes it seems like anyone owning either a pair of shoes or a bottle of scotch that predate Justin Bieber is either outta here or at least teetering on the brink. Boy, the world was once so darned interesting.

But take heart. Who expected Conrad Bain to survive both Dana Plato and Gary Coleman? (Well, OK, but still.) Or Abe Vigoda to outlive spurious news of his demise by twenty-going-on-thirty years? Way to go, you two.

Here’s a list of people who are — in many cases quite enrichingly — still with us as of this writing. They range in age from 43 to 107. Some of these are obvious; others, pleasantly surprising.

Richard Anderson (Oscar in Six Million Dollar Man)
William Asher (Bewitched producer)
Ed Asner
Conrad Bain
Bob Barker
Mrs Beal, my first grade teacher
Tony Bennett
James Best (Twilight Zone, Dukes of Hazard)
Frank Cady (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction)
Joseph Campanella
Sid Caesar
Elliott Carter (composer, b. 1908)
Jimmy Carter (second longest ex-presidency so far)
Carol Channing
Charo (cuchi-cuchi flamenco guitarist)
Ramsey Clark (US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson)
Rose Cliver (1906 San Francisco earthquake survivor)
Mike Connors (Mannix)
Michael Constantine
“Professor” Irwin Corey
Louise Currie (Citizen Kane)
Bill Daily (Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie)
William Daniels (The Graduate, peevish voice of Knight Rider car)
Olivia de Havilland
Kirk Douglas
Hugh Downs
Chad Everett (Medical Center)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass...”)
Joan Fontaine
Joe Franklin
Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space)
Joe Garagiola
John Gilchrist (“Mikey” for Quaker Life, didn’t die from Pop Rocks)
Florence Green (World War I veteran)
Barbara Hale
Monty Hall (Door number one, number 2, or number 3?)
Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion animator)
Johannes Heesters (film and TV actor, b. 1903)
Gloria Henry (Alice in original Dennis the Menace series)
Mrs Huyler, my second grade teacher
Lee Iacocca
Al Jaffee (Mad cartoonist)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (shade-wearing Polish president ousted by Solidarity)
George Clayton Johnson (original Twilight Zone writer)
Dean Jones (frequent Disney actor)
Mikhail Kalashnikov (rifle inventor)
Nicholas Katzenbach (succeeded Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General)
Bil Keane (Family Circus)
Margaret Keane (Wide Eyed Moppets)
Don Keefer (got turned into a jack-in-the-box in Twilight Zone)
George Kennedy
Barbara Kent (silent movie actress, b. 1906)
Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog)
Madeleine LeBeau (last surviving Casablanca cast member, b. 1923)
Carla Laemmle (silent movie actress, b. 1909)
June Lockhart
Norman Lloyd (fell off Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur)
George Maharis (Route 66)
Jerry Maren (Lollipop Guild munchkin in The Wizard of Oz)
Rose Marie
Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares)
George McGovern
Rod McKuen
Martin Milner (Route 66, Sex Kittens Go To College)
Sir Patrick Moore (seemingly immortal astronomy popularizer)
Harry Morgan
Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)
LeRoy Neiman
Don Pardo
Christopher Plummer
Frederik Pohl (Golden Era science fiction author/editor)
Douglas Rain (voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey)
Rex Reason (This Island Earth)
Andy Rooney
Mickey Rooney
Lalo Schifrin
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Paolo Soleri (utopic architect and bell maker)
Rip Taylor (confetti thrower)
Roy Thinnes
Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential)
Abe Vigoda
Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey)
Mike Wallace
Eli Wallach (Baby Doll)
Betty White
Andy Williams
Jonathan Winters
Cal Worthington (used car tycoon)
Alan Young (The Time Machine, Mister Ed)

Title refers to the old Twilight Zone episode “The Four of Us Are Dying” about a face-changing con artist, played by four different actors. Who dies.

Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker

The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.

It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.

ivory-billed woodpecker
Ivory-billed woodpecker by Theodore Jasper (1888)
Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.

As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.

The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.

This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.

Trailer from Treasure of Sierra Madre
“Screw the gold. Let’s just go find us some o’ them gaudy woodpeckers.”
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.

Cereal rescuers and hardcopy acres

Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time to time.

Cruise snoozer

This would be a loosely fitting shroud made of a black gauze that would allow you to see out but prevent others from seeing in. When you’re on a plane, train, or bus you would drape this over your head when you want to doze off. Of course since it renders your face invisible you could also use it to pretend to sleep when you want to, say, catch up on some surreptitious ogling or gracefully terminate that tedious and largely one-sided discourse with that stranger next to you. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Cereal rescuer

No one enjoys finishing out a cereal box and having to pour all those powdery dregs into their bowl along with the good stuff. Add milk, and... yuck. But at the same time it would be a shame to give up and throw that entire remainder away. Working much like a pasta colander, the cereal rescuer would consist of a round screened hoop about ten inches wide with a single handle and a mild spout-like dip 90 degrees clockwise from that handle. The screen would be coarse enough to retain only those flakes larger than some acceptable threshold — three-eights of an inch, maybe. You’d just give it a few gentle shakes over the sink or a wastebasket and then tilt what’s left into your bowl.

Who can keep track of all the world’s despots as they rise and fall, play shell games with their ill-gotten lucre among various no-tell foreign banks, revise and re-revise their constitutions to perpetuate their terms, issue their ever loonier decrees, and jail more and more of their opponents? Not I. would be all dictators, all the time. (Note: as of this writing both and are parked, so I suppose you could make their owners an offer.)

New unit: The hardcopy acre or HCA

If you print out data in text form, a standard typing paper-sized page (93.5 square inches) will hold about 44 kilobytes. If we assume an acre measures 43,560 square feet or 6,560,640 square inches, this means that hardcopy plastered across an acre of land would display about 3 gigabytes. If your machine has about 300 gigabytes of hard disc storage available, for example, that would amount to 100 HCAs. All the material* in the Library of Congress? About a million HCAs.

* Assuming 3 petabytes (3 x 1015 bytes) for all its printed text, photographs, maps, movies, and sound recordings. Since that estimate was published a decade ago, you could probably add a bit more.

Newt Gingrich’s secular delights

I have a feeling this entry will be lucky to enjoy the shelf life of a banana, but here goes.

LATE UPDATE (July 18): I stand corrected.

As a bit of background for our non-US visitors and others disinclined to pay much heed to Sunday morning talk shows or political scuttlebutt in general, the following has recently been disclosed: Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, whose career nowadays mainly consists of promoting himself and periodically threatening to run for president, has at one time or another carried an approximate $500,000 balance on his revolving account with the swank jewelry retailer Tiffany & Company. Not to mention, at times, up to $50,000 on his American Express card.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in principle with living large if one is fortunate enough to aspire to such things. Heck, we’d all like to. But the embarrassment for Gingrich in particular is how remarkably these sybaritic hankerings contradict his longstanding diatribes against “the elites” and against all things secular, his general sanctimony about out-of-control spending, and his professed 24/7 dedication to the common workaday folk.

Now if the Gingriches should eventually tire of Tiffany’s offerings — or barring that, should we spontaneously warp into a parallel though still similarly Gingrich-bedeviled universe — here are some attractive alternatives for their half-million-dollar discretionary budget:

Gingrich Champagne
For one thing, maybe he and Callista could use some Champagne. Let’s suggest a Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 1990, Millennium 2000. At roughly $18,000 for a 6-liter Methuselah bottle, $500,000 would buy* 28 of those.

Gingrich Krugerrands
A South African Krugerrand holds one troy ounce of gold. But let’s not settle for those ordinary, scratchy old Krugerrands. The proof editions are individually struck with impeccable mirror-like surfaces and reeding (that set of closely spaced notches around the edge) that’s twice as fine, scrutinized for flaws, and handled only with gloved hands. Darn, they practically glow in the dark. As of this writing, his for around $2000 each; half a million gets him 250.

Gingrich Coffee
As a third choice, no late-night strategy sessions with Ralph Reed and Randy Evans would be complete without the very best coffee. That would be have to be Kopi Luwak — famous for its intimate but most essential pre-roast association with the Asian Palm Civet.

I understand the University of Florida has invented a way to cut the furry helpers out of the process, but nothing can be as good as the real thing. At about $320 per pound for one of the more interestingly named brands of Kopi Luwak, Newt’s $500,000 would stock his pantry with about 1500 of them.

* At least theoretically, since in reality they’re only auctioned off one at a time.