Abbey_Road_zebra_crossing,_London_2007-03-31Amid all the depressing stories last week — the violence in the Middle East, the first Ebola case in the U.S., the bitter congressional races that have been unfolding — it was comforting to see one bit of upbeat nostalgia thrown into the mix. It’s the 45th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the postscript to the reign of pop music’s most celebrated band.

The record hit the music stores at a time no less turbulent than our own, and there was tension within the band to match. The miracle is that not only did Abbey Road get made, it was stocked with classic pop tunes that still get air time today.

It was originally going to be called Everest, after a brand of cigarettes their engineer smoked. Some reports say that the four had even discussed traveling to the Himalayas to shoot the photos for the album. But the lads weren’t getting along in those days, so somebody said let’s just get it over with and take the pictures outside the studio.

The BBC says a photographer took 15 minutes to do the crosswalk photo. “He stood up a stepladder while a policeman held up the traffic, the band walked back and forth a few times and that was that,”  Brian Southall, who wrote a history of Abbey Road Studios, told the British news agency in 2009.

Come Together, which kicks off the album, was originally written by John Lennon as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s run for governor against Ronald Reagan. But Leary had to confront legal problems instead of political issues. When he objected to the song’s inclusion on Abbey Road in a letter to Lennon, the singer wrote back that he was like a tailor who had made a suit for Leary, and Leary didn’t pick it up so he sold it to somebody else.

Lennon told Rolling Stone that the lyrics were “gobbledygook,” but fans have speculated over the years that each verse is based loosely on one of the The Beatles. “He one holy roller,” refers to George Harrison; “He wear no shoeshine,” to Ringo Starr; “He Bag Production” to Lennon himself; and “He roller-coaster” to Paul McCartney, a reference to his White Album rocker, Helter Skelter.

Interestingly, Abbey Road did not get universally great reviews. More than four decades later it’s viewed as a pop music classic, but a New York Times writer called it “an unmitigated disaster,” although he liked the medley on side two. He seemed to think that the group had become a bit too grandiose.

In the early days, “They didn’t attempt anything profound,” wrote Nik Cohn, who had said some unkind things about the White Album the year before. ” ‘She was just 17, you know what I mean’; it wasn’t great art, but on its own level, it worked just right. It was strong and it was evocative.

“That’s all changed now. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. Give me just five minutes in the privacy of your own home and I can make you a super-bard. Here the very sensitive Paul McCartney shows us how: ‘She came in through the bathroom window/ Protected by a silver spoon/ But now she sucks her thumb and wanders/
By the banks of her own lagoon.’

“Still, I shouldn’t grouse. Lyrics and all, the ‘Abbey Road‘ medley remains a triumph. Having said that I must also say that the rest of this album is unmitigated disaster.”

McCartney liked to reprise themes on albums, as he did on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band — and on side two of Abbey Road. Less mentioned is Lennon’s use of the same musical theme to introduce I Want You (She’s So Heavy) on side one and Because on side two, the latter of which was supposedly based on Beetoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

I was not a big fan of side one of Abbey Road, but Harrison’s song, Something, became the second-most covered Beatles song next to Yesterday.

Why has all this music survived? It’s because Beatles music tends to have a timeless quality (Nowhere Man; Hey Jude; Here Comes the Sun) that keeps it relevant. The band has been popular with each new generation, and some of the lyrics seem as fresh today as when they were first recorded almost 50 years ago.

For example, from Abbey Road’s You Never Give Me Your Money: Out of college, money spent/ See no future, pay no rent/ All the money’s gone nowhere to go.

That must echo for today’s youth.

Photo: The famous crossing outside Abbey Road Studios, London. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

July 6, 2014

I caught part of Back to the Future II the other day and was intrigued, because in the 1989 movie Doc and Marty are transported to the year 2015 with all of its super 21st century marvels. People are zipping around in flying cars, which seems to be a running theme in science fiction films since the 1950s. Everybody figured that by 2015, there’d be flying cars for sure.

But we’ve only got six months to go and if we’re going to be climbing into flying cars by January, the auto industry has been keeping it a pretty good secret.

Interestingly, Back to the Future writers didn’t envision cell phones or iPads — or the development of 3D printers that can whip up ready-to-eat meals with the push of a button.

That is apparently on the horizon for 2015, when the first Foodini printer will be ready to launch. The gadget is hooked up to the Internet, and you just find the recipe you want and it makes it with ingredients from food capsules. You put your own ingredients in, but the manufacturer, Natural Machines, hopes to have pre-made food capsules you can buy at the store and pop into the Foodini when you get ready to make your meal.

So instead of having all of these bulky packages of meat and vegetables you can just stack up the capsules and drop them into the Foodini when needed, like cartridges in an inkjet.

In the future this should also eliminate all the chopping, the pre-baking, the marinating, and the mixing. It will probably put food TV out of business, and when restaurants buy commercial-sized 3D food printers it will eliminate the need for chefs, short-order cooks, and sauciers.

This month’s issue of the AARP Bulletin says 3D food printing is just what the doctor ordered for the older generation, too. It says a Dutch company has developed a printer that uses pureed food which is fed into ink-jets. The printer squirts out the ingredients using a secret substance that reconstitutes them so that they smell and taste like the real thing.

But it has “a life-saving benefit,” Steve Mencher writes in the newsletter. “The food melts in the mouth, perfect for the estimated 20 percent of adults over age 50 who have difficulty swallowing. German nursing home residents are getting the first taste.”

Es ist angerichtet, Leute. Komme und nimm es!

So, really, when you think about it, which would you rather have — a 3D food printer or a flying car?

Well OK, yeah. I’d take the flying car, too.

* * *

Looking for a little mindless entertainment over the weekend, I plunked down some dough to see the season’s silliest summer movie — Tammy. Oscar material it is not, but I was drawn in by the cast, which includes potty-mouthed Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates and Dan Aykroyd. It was written by McCarthy and her hubby, Ben Falcone and produced by them along with Will Ferrell.

My mistake was hoping for something Farrelly-Brothers-like.

I can understand a swing and a miss, but I found parts of the movie annoying. For example at one point Tammy is getting ready to burn the car she used in a hold-up of a fast food restaurant. She starts dumping gas on it and looks up and says: “$4 a gallon … thanks, Obamacare!”

Sure, nice to have a newsy reference in a low-grade comedy, but what’s the connection?

Also, Dan Aykroyd is in the movie for like 30 seconds. Plunk the dough down at your own risk.

Is there anybody who is NOT sick of seeing drug commercials on TV? Can I see a show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Right. I didn’t think so.

Psychologists are trying to capitalize on that sentiment with an ad campaign launched last week that parodies these annoying TV spots and promotes a more drug-free approach to treating depression and anxiety — psychotherapy.

Antidepressants and anxiety drugs have become the most popular way to treat these problems over the last 10 years. True, many people shy away from talk therapy and find the idea of popping a pill more attractive. No muss no fuss. But it’s also cheaper for insurance companies to pay for an occasional visit to a primary care physician who will prescribe a medication for the problem rather than a course of talk therapy sessions that may go on weekly for months.

Psychiatrists don’t have time for psychotherapy and are more likely to pull out a prescription pad during a 15-minute visit than ask a patient to stretch out on an office couch and ask: “How does that make you feel?”

Lamenting the trend, a psychiatrist told The New York Times last year: “I miss the mystery and intrigue of psychotherapy. Now I feel like a good Volkswagen mechanic.”

So, the nuts and bolts of feeling better by discussing life’s problems have been left to psychologists, clinical social workers and professional counselors. They say that it actually does work, and there’s research to back them up.

“We get a lot of information about drug therapy from commercials and pop culture, but we hear much less about the alternatives,” said Katherine Nordal, director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. She noted that medication can be an appropriate part of treatment for mental disorders, but “people should know that psychotherapy works.”

Most studies have shown that talk therapy at least rivals drug therapy. In a 2004 survey published by Consumer Reports, respondents said treatment that was “mostly talk” had better outcomes than treatment that was mostly medication. The consensus seemed to be that drugs had led to quicker improvement, but psychotherapy resulted in more long-term improvement.

Other studies have shown that a combination of drug and talk therapy is a one-two punch that works best.

Back to the psychologists’ ad campaign: The APA is trying to draw attention to the issue with a series of wacky animated videos focusing on a fictional “miracle drug” called “Fixitol.” The videos are available on an APA website and on YouTube.

“Did you know that more and more Americans are stressed, anxious and depressed?” an announcer asks. “But now there’s a cure! Ask your doctor about Fixitol, the pill you take once that takes care of all these concerns.”

That’s followed by another voice-over that talks about the benefits of psychotherapy, although noting that it’s not really “a miracle cure.”

The campaign, called: Psychotherapy: More Than a Quick Fix, is detailed on the APA website Psychotherapy Works. It’s part of a continuing effort by mental health professionals to maintain their niche in a world where immediate success is preferred by payors in order to cut costs and increase profits. Such is the American health care system.

* * *

Following up on my post of Aug. 17 (Hazards here, there and everywhere), Consumer Reports just published an analysis of arsenic levels in rice products and found “worrisome levels” of the carcinogen in everything from baby food to cereal.

“In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms,” CR said. “We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.”

People who have eaten rice have an arsenic level 44 percent higher than those who have not eaten it.

The USA Rice Federation calls the article “incomplete and inaccurate” and contends that rice absorbs arsenic from the environment naturally. The organization produced a new website dedicated to the issue: http://www.arsenicfacts.usarice.com.

But the real culprit may be arsenic and other contaminants that are dumped into the environment by corporate agriculture, which feeds arsenic to chickens to control disease and give that delightful pinkish hue to the meat.

Agricultural interests may be right in asserting that levels of cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic are at levels too low to cause a problem after a nice big bowl of, let’s say, chicken-rice soup. But after years of exposure you have to wonder what it might be doing to our health over the long haul.

Graphic by Mike Licht, Notions Capital via Flickr.com

I tried to avoid watching much of the political conventions, as I usually do, because the drama was stripped away from them long ago. I’d say that they’re more like beauty pageants, but at least beauty pageants have an element of suspense.

Conventions can be more aptly described as carefully scripted coronations.

And since you know where each side stands on the issues anyway, there’s very little to be learned by these well-staged events.

My wife, who watched more of them than I did, pointed out that a few of the speakers looked like game show hosts, which reminded me of this song by Sting.

In this context, I’d have to put Joe Biden at the top of the stack. He would be a natural, standing on stage in front of the game board joking with the contestants and reading questions off cue cards. A peck on the cheek as he greets the female players, a la Richard Dawson.

A close second would be Mitt Romney, but I can’t quite put my finger on which show he’d be most appropriate for. Maybe he could revive Let’s Make A Deal, the 1960s-1970s hit where people showed up dressed as turnips, toothbrushes, or a can of fruit cocktail.

Or, you could make an argument for The Newlywed Game, because Mitt can banter with the best of them and he looks a little bit like Bob Eubanks.

Except that I don’t think Mitt could ever bring himself to ask: “Folks, where is the strangest place you ever made whoopee?”

I might go with Hollywood Squares though because then Mitt could question a panel of other politicians who would crack jokes about the deficit, tax rates and bank bailouts.

Sorry, but I don’t see the same game show host qualities in Barack Obama or Paul Ryan. All four candidates, however, are kind of like Bob Barker because don’t forget the title of his great show: Truth or Consequences.

* * *

The only real off-script event during the conventions was the appearance of Clint Eastwood at the GOP bash in Tampa. I was amazed to hear so much criticism of this Tinseltown Titan, who has put together some of the greatest movies of the past three decades.

Anyone who can produce, and star in, an outstanding film like Unforgiven (1992) automatically deserves respect.

Going out on stage and doing a mostly ad-lib bit with an empty chair took a lot of guts and Clint pulled it off like a pro. The nitpicking and sniping the next day, by members of both political parties, reminded me why politics is so uninspiring these days.

Not that I necessarily agree with Clint’s political ideas, mind you, but talent is talent. A rare highlight of the otherwise stodgy, money-soaked, rotton-egg-tossing 2012 political season.

Photo: Let’s Make A Deal via Wikimedia Commons

We’re bombarded with books and programs about how to live healthy. And if you do get sick, the idea is that you probably caused it yourself, as a result of your lifestyle.

There certainly are bad habits that trigger diseases. But the 21st century environment is filled with so many toxic booby traps that missteps are practically guaranteed. People who develop illnesses tend to wonder if it was something they did. The answer is that yes, it was something they did: Lead a relatively normal 21st century lifestyle.

I was reminded about this reading an article by David Zinczenko, author of the book, Eat This, Not That! Zinczenko identified eight food additives you should avoid, and I’m sure he’s right that they cause all sorts of havoc with the nation’s health.

The problem is, who is willing to take the time in a supermarket aisle to study the ingredients on a box of prepared foods after a 10-12-hour day and a minimal amount of time to get home and prepare a meal? The real question is why the federal government allows carcinogens in commercially sold foods in the first place, but that’s a subject for another day.

Zinczenko says the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has OK’d 3,000 food additives. For most people, the days when you raised a chicken, grew some potatoes and carrots in a garden and popped them all into a pot for a homecooked meal have melted into the haze of history.

Chances are if you ask your grandmother about cooking in the old days, she’ll start talking about when TV dinners came in aluminum trays and you had to bake them in the oven.

The eight additives Zinczenko points to, which include BHA and sodium nitrite, are everywhere. How many times have you picked up a package with an inch-long list of ingredients, and at the bottom there’s a note that says: “BHA added to preserve freshness.”

It was added to preserve freshness, for Pete’s sake, so what’s wrong with that? Well, it causes cancer in rats, and a Japanese research magazine concluded that BHA was “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.”

A little more surprising was his take on carmel coloring, used in many of your favorite soft drinks. Carmel is made by cooking down sugar and water, and that’s fine. But soda companies make it by treating sugar with ammonia, and the resulting carcinogen may be responsible for 15,000 cancer cases in the U.S. every year.

So, go ahead and live healthy and eat healthy. But good luck negotiating all of the environmental landmines that have been created in the interest of producing cheap, convenient products that have long shelf lives. Step carefully.

* * *

And another thing, as my uncle used to say. These new twisty-turny compact flourescent lightbulbs are exposing people to ultraviolet rays, potentially damaging the skin.

A team of researchers at Stony Brook University found that tiny cracks in the bulbs’ coatings are the culprit.

“Our study revealed that the response of healthy skin cells to UV emitted from CFL bulbs is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation,” said Miriam Rafailovich, an engineering professor at Stony Brook. “Skin cell damage was further enhanced when low dosages of TiO2 nanoparticles were introduced to the skin cells prior to exposure.” Regular incandescent light of the same intensity had no effect.

My uncle would have interpreted it this way: “I knew things derned things weren’t no good the minute I saw ‘em.”

Save a couple of bucks on your power bill, turn around and spend it — and more — at your dermatologist’s office.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stop_the_clocks/1892862320/

Your chances of getting injured or killed in a car crash may approach zero in the not-too-distant future thanks to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have installed a robot in vehicles as kind of the ultimate backseat driver.

When it looks like you may be heading for trouble the robot will assume control like that guy who taught driver’s ed in high school and had his own brake pedal installed on the passenger side. Except that the robot will make the adjustment without you having to go through the embarrassment of hearing him scribble a nasty note on your evaluation form.

Here’s an MIT video that explains the whole thing, starring the PhD student who calls it the “intelligent co-pilot” concept.

“The real innovation is enabling the car to share [control] with you,” says Anderson, who’s been testing the system since September. “If you want to drive, it’ll just … make sure you don’t hit anything.”

The robot only takes control away “when the driver is about to exit a safe zone,” according to a press release.

Apparently Ford has come up with a self-driving car but it’s too expensive because it’s loaded down with high-priced sensors and high-tech gadgetry. Besides, most people prefer to control their own vehicle.

The intervention concept simply relies on a camera and laser to identify hazards and react to them.

The system is so subtle the driver may not even be aware of it, according to Anderson. This puts it a giant step above, say, your mother-in-law or the cop parked in the Stop-N-Go lot when you’re whizzing by at 15 miles over the speed limit at 1 a.m.

Anderson says: “You would likely just think you’re a talented driver. You’d say, ‘Hey, I pulled this off,’ and you wouldn’t know that the car is changing things behind the scenes to make sure the vehicle remains safe, even if your inputs are not.”

* * *

People in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. have been suffering through one of the worst heat waves in recent memory. it’s been so hot and dry in Wisconsin, my relatives tell me, stressed trees are shedding their leaves.

Growing seasons are short enough in that neck of the woods — you don’t see leaves on the trees until early May — and now 10 weeks later they’re on their way out. Well, there won’t be as much to rake in September, you could argue.

Yesterday my brother-in-law, who must have gotten hold of some old Johnny Carson DVDs, sent me an email message saying that it’s so hot in Wisconsin that the trees are whistling for the dogs. “The potatoes cook underground, so all you have to do is pull one out and add butter,” he said. And so on.

The problem is, a lot of people who live around the Great Lakes haven’t bothered with air conditioning. Because historically living near Lake Michigan or Lake Superior is like standing next to a giant Slurpee. The slightest lake breeze and the temperature drops into the 60s. But not this year.

So folks rely a lot on fans. But fans may not be the answer, according to this report: “Study finds no reliable evidence on effectiveness of electric fans in heat waves.”

Saurabh Gupta, a public health consultant in Britain, says a fan may contribute to heat gain when the temperature is above 95 degrees. That makes sense because the closer you get to body temperature, the less heat the air can take away when it’s blowing over you.

So that means people without air conditioning must fall back on the old standbys, one of course being the mall. Personally, I prefer the other option.

Right! On to the bowling alley then!

Photo via Flickr.com: “Of course you can drive, Will, but Major West suggests I tag along just to make sure everything’s OK.”

Longtime readers of Headline Health know that I like to keep up with the latest news on pizza, a staple of good nutrition and one of the main structural foundations upon which western civilization was built.

Although it has its humble origins in Italy, pizza has gone though many different incarnations and has been a vehicle for innovation that never ceases to amaze. Imagine being among the first to order a delivery pizza by phone, for example, from the local shop.

Pizza producers spent much of their time over the last 10-15 years trying to figure out how to put more cheese in the product. Hence the stuffed crust. Recently, one of the chains began trying out a hot-dog-stuffed crust, which I believe is dangerously close to the edge of culinary indecency.

Which brings us to the vending machine pizza, now on its way to the U.S. The brainchild of a European company called Let’s Pizza, it will bake a pizza from scratch in three minutes. The machine takes coins, bills and credit cards.

After depositing your money, the machine prepares the dough, squirts sauce on it, puts on the cheese, and adds other items you may have selected before baking it in a 380-degree infrared oven. It then drops it into a box and delivers it through a pickup slot.

A 10-inch pizza will cost $5.95, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Expect to see the machines at malls, gas stations, bus stations, convenience stores and wherever fine foods are sold.

The Let’s Pizza people make a point out of cleanliness and one company video boasts that their pizzas are “untouched by human hands” and are in fact made in “a human-free environment.” Even the guy who replaces the packages of ingredients in the machine wears a pair of latex gloves, like a dental hygienist.

That’s one thing nice about ordering a product made by a robot — you don’t have to worry about whether it’s washed its hands. The worst that can happen is that it might have a little WD-40 on it.

Here’s a link to another company video that’s been Americanized with hip, jazzy background music and a male announcer who sounds eerily like actor Troy McClure of the Simpsons.

(“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such nature films as Earwigs: Eww! and Man vs. Nature: The Road to Victory.”)

The video clip ends with a picture of a laptop and concludes: “Retailers can manage and operate the machines remotely from any location in the world.”

It’s part of the new era of (human-free) retail. Let the good times be dispensed.

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