Friday, April 30, 2010

COLUMN: Who’s on First (Amendment)?

Last week, a new study revealed that only a quarter of Americans can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: There’s more than one?

And the answer is, yes there are, but the study said that twice as many people could name members of TV’s Simpson family than could name two or more of those freedoms. Which, granted, isn’t an especially fair comparison, given that “The Simpsons” has been on for so long now that it’s impossible not to know them; it’s rumored that Woodrow Wilson ended his 1912 debate by telling Taft to eat his shorts.

But it wasn’t just the venerable Simpsons that people were more familiar with; the study also said that more people could name three “American Idol” judges than name three First Amendment rights. (Which is ironic, considering that Simon is actually exercising at least one of those rights every time he tells a contestant that if she’d sung like that 2,000 years ago, people would have stoned her to death.)

So I figure it falls to me to fill you in on some First Amendment freedoms you may be unfamiliar with. And, contrary to what one-fifth of the study’s participants thought, one of them isn’t the right to own a pet — although I can see where they’d think that, given Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for his pet sheltie, Beauregard.

1) Speech: This is the right that guarantees you can say whatever you want, wherever you want, safe in the knowledge that your government can’t throw you in prison for it. No, what they’ll probably get you on is tax evasion. (It’s worth noting, however, that despite this freedom you can still not yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This was particularly important when the Bill of Rights was written, because theater tickets were much cheaper then.)

2) Religion: This is the right ensuring that if any public employee (teacher, librarian, DPW worker, etc.) even accidentally insinuates that there may be some kind of supreme being (for instance by screaming, “Oh my God, I’ve stabbed myself with my compass!”), it is legal for him or her to be immediately tackled by undercover Secret Service agents. It also keeps the government from telling you what religion to practice, even in the case of Tom Cruise.

3) Assembly: You remember when you were in school, and every so often they’d haul you all down to the gym for an assembly, and someone would talk to you about hygiene or the dangers of LSD? It’s sort of like that.

4) Press: Particularly important to the people in my profession, this is the right that declares we can print or broadcast whatever we want, as long as we don’t mind being firebombed. (It’s worth noting that the fledgling government almost immediately regretted this one when the Norwich Packet ran a story about “George and Martha’s Steamy Summer SEX ROMP.”)

5) Petition for the redress of grievances: According to historians, even the Founding Fathers didn’t really know what this one was about, but James Madison thought it sounded “wicked dramatic.” One thing we do know is that as originally written, the S’s looked like little F’s.

Speaking as someone who, in all seriousness, had a framed copy of the Bill of Rights on his wall until we took it down to paint recently and I accidentally stepped on it (which, believe me, made me feel really bad, like the ghost of John Hancock was going to visit me in the night and stick me with his quill), I found the study disturbing, to say the least. But on the plus side, I suppose it could jump-start some interest in the foundations of this great democracy, and finally get people to better appreciate our freedoms.

Although “The Simpsons” may need to go off the air first.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. This "Best of Chianca" column is from 2006. Follow him on Twitter at

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wind turbines: They're heeeeeeeeeere ....

Am I the only one who loves looking at wind turbines, like the ones approved yesterday off the coast of Massachusetts? They relax me -- it's like looking at a giant pinwheel. A giant, expensive, bird-annihilating pinwheel.

Now, we all know that Sen. Kennedy didn't want to look at them off in the distance from his Nantucket compound, but personally I'd love to look out on them from my compound because that would mean ... I'd have a compound. Right now all I see when I look out my window is the guy across the street looking back at me, and frankly, it's starting to creep me out.

Then there are the arguments that it will interfere with air and sea travel, but I would point out that, unlike icebergs, captains (and pilots) should have a reasonable idea of when they're coming up on one of these, and can simply head a few degrees port or starboard. Or aft, when appropriate.

Now, some say the energy we get from these babies will actually be too costly to justify the expense of building them, so I'm hoping they work those numbers out before they're already half-built, which sounds like something that would happen around here. Also, they should make sure they don't hire the people who did the Big Dig, unless they want them to take 10 years and then fall on people.

But the one argument I've heard that actually makes some sense (no, not the part about the birds -- they just need to look up, for crying out loud) is the following:
Members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard have vowed to sue to stop Cape Wind from being built, saying it would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate tribal burial sites.

Woah, Nellie -- nobody said anything about desecrating burial sites! We all remember the outcome last time that happened:

All I have to say is, the minute anybody spots Craig T. Nelson ... run!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This just in: Piano dropped on another piano!

So what, you may be asking, is exactly the news value of a piano being dropped off a tall building onto another piano? To which I respond that you, sir, would not last very long in the mainstream media, except perhaps at PBS, where piano droppings are limited to Victor Borge specials.

No, as anyone in the biz can tell you, something heavy crashing into something else heavy is always news. It's true of sumo wrestlers, and it's also true of pianos. Especially when the pianos are being dropped by students paying $38,000 a year to go to MIT. They have a lot of free time to drop stuff over there -- at those prices shouldn't they be working on cold fusion or something?

Regardless, here's the video:

Hmmm ... I was expecting something a little more, well, explosive for my $38,000. Watch and learn, you MIT pansies:

And on that note ... Play 'em off, Keyboard Cat!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AT LARGE Fake News Tuesday: Arizona Immigration Law Nabs Illegal Swedes, Poles, Etc.

PHOENIX (CAP) - A new law that requires police to question people about their immigration status if they suspect they are in the country illegally should help curb the flow of illegal Irish, Polish and Swedish immigrants through U.S. borders, say supporters.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose tough crackdowns have made him a hero in the anti-illegal immigration community, pointed out that the new law would not unfairly target Mexicans, as some of charged.

"The law gives police authority to question anyone they think is here illegally, not just people of Hispanic origin," he pointed out. "So if someone is very pale and blond, that might be cause to investigate as to whether they're here illegally from Sweden.

"Or they might be an albino, in which case they might be here illegally from Albania," he pointed out.

Besides skin shade and hair color, Arpaio said police will be trained to spot other characteristics that may denote whether someone might be in Arizona illegally. For instance:

  • Funny accent;
  • Sandals;
  • Eating croissants and/or strudel;
  • Spearing pigeons and putting them into a pillowcase for possible later consumption;
  • Saying "coffee" like "cawfee."

"That could mean they're from New York," said Arpaio. "I hate New Yorkers." He noted, however, that since the law doesn't technically make it illegal for New Yorkers to be in Arizona, officers would just "give them a hard time."

While the new law has drawn protests around the state and the country, it has some high-profile supporters, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the bill last week. Brewer said she doesn't like the term "racial profiling," preferring instead to describe the newly proscribed methods as "pro-American policing," or PAP.

"Just look around - these people could be from anywhere," said Gov. Brewer, gesturing to the angry crowds gathered in protest around the Arizona Capitol. "There are a lot of very swarthy people there, and I think police need the freedom to question them as to their status."

When pointed out that the people could just be tanned as a result of living in Arizona, Brewer responded, "Can I see your papers, please?"

[Read the rest at CAP News.]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Whitey, is that you?

Can someone tell me how Massachusetts' favorite most-wanted fugitive Whitey Bulger manages to travel all over the world without anyone batting an eye? Now he's in Canada, supposedly. If you or I tried to get into Canada, we'd probably wind up in a holding tank for having fruit in the car.

You would think somebody would have spotted Bulger and turned him in by now. I know I look for him whenever I'm traveling -- usually what I do is when I see an elderly man in sunglasses or a trenchcoat, I take his picture immediately. If the guy doesn't smash my camera and hit me in the side of the head with a crowbar, I figure it wasn't Whitey.

Anyway, I propose that it's time we just stop looking for the guy and redirect those efforts to looking for terrorists and people who are liable to do some actual damage. How many problems is an 80-year-old mobster actually going to cause? And if he really is living in Canada, that's punishment enough.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

COLUMN: Power to (and from) the pooches!

It’s school vacation week, and in my house that can only mean one thing: People go away and leave their dogs with us. Typically they do this in the middle of the night, hoping we won’t notice.

Ha ha! I kid our friends whose dogs are at this very moment lying in a pile on my couch, waiting for someone to come along and scratch their bellies. Actually, my wife loves taking them in to share space with our own three dogs, because as she says, once you have two dogs you might as well have 10. The most we’ve ever had at one time is six, but I’m more than willing to take her word for it.

Anyway, as people whose house is often full of dogs, we like to keep up with the latest dog-related news stories, and I can’t think of a more significant doggie development than the one this week out of Cambridge, Mass.: the plan to convert dog waste into electricity in public parks. Anyone who doesn’t think this is the best thing to come out of Cambridge since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck clearly hasn’t had to trek to a garbage can carrying the least fashionable handbag ever.

The plan is the brainchild of a Cambridge artist, because that’s the way things work in Cambridge: Even the artists are coming up with alternative energy sources. This is in direct contrast to the artists in places like, say, Rockport, Mass., who are still coming up primarily with paintings of shacks. (These provide very little energy unless you happen to burn them afterward. You know who you are.)

The artist, Matthew Mazzotta, says the energy would come via a special “methane digester,” which is apparently some sort of mechanical device and not your elderly uncle who supplements every meal with extra portions of broccoli and sauerkraut. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the dog poop could run a popcorn machine or a tea-maker, “with free samples for park-goers.” Er … When they say “free samples,” I’m going to assume they mean the tea and popcorn.

And as much as you might prefer your tea not be associated with anything that comes out a dog (either end), you have to admit it’s a revolutionary idea. “As long as people are walking dogs and throwing away dog poo, a flame can burn,” says Mazzotta on his website, I believe quoting FDR.

But I’m presuming that the effort doesn’t have to end with popcorn poppers and park lampposts. Given the amount of raw material we have here in America (by which I mean, my front lawn), we might eventually turn this into some serious energy — not to mention the program’s contributions to world peace. Turn all that waste into electricity and suddenly all those annoying people whining about dog mess will be skipping hand in hand with the dog lovers down the sidewalk, not even looking down.

It sounds fanciful, I know, but it isn’t all just pie in the sky — according to Mazzotta’s website, this is already happening. For instance, one of his links is labeled, “This family turns pony manure into gas for their kitchen stove,” which I’m sure would be very informative if I could bring myself to click on it.

Regardless, the project has my support, and I’ll do my best to promote it. Even if it hasn’t turned up yet in an Al Gore documentary (suggested title: “An Inconvenient Woof!”), you can take it from someone who knows — this is an idea that smells like success.

By which I mean, my front lawn.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

AT LARGE Fake News Tuesday: Records Show Larry King Thought Wife Was Suzanne Somers

LOS ANGELES (CAP) - Divorce court records show that CNN host Larry King's marriage to his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick, finally fell apart when Southwick discovered that King thought he'd actually been married to Three's Company star Suzanne Somers.

"My client was horrified to discover that her husband had mistaken her for Ms. Somers," said attorney Sol Rothstein, who successfully represented Mel Gibson's former wife Robyn in their divorce proceedings. "He blamed his researchers, but we suspect he just wasn't paying attention."

Southwick says she got suspicious when, over breakfast one day, "Larry looked up from his blintzes and asked me, So, what was John Ritter really like? I told him I'd never met John Ritter.

"Then he said, Here's a question from the Twitter: Suzanne, I'm 45 and overweight, would biodenticals work for me? I said, 'Larry, my name is Shawn!' And he just said, Really? Well waddaya know about that? We'll be right back! Then he asked for more blintzes."

Records indicate that at various other times during their 13-year marriage, King, 76, may have also mistaken Southwick for Sharon Stone, Kathy Griffin, Liza Minnelli and Bill Maher.

"Often during sex," noted Rothstein.

King would also occasionally tell Southwick that she reminded him of his wife. When she would respond that she in fact was his wife, King would allegedly say, "Seattle, you're on with Nancy Sinatra!" and disappear from the room.

Rumors have linked King to an extramarital relationship with Southwick's sister, Shannon Engemann, but both Engemann and King have denied the affair.

"He may have schtupped the sister once or twice, but only because his researchers told him that she was his wife," said King's attorney, Alan Schwartzbaum, who recently won a $3.1 million settlement for John Mayer's penis. "Have you seen the two of them? I know I can't tell them apart."

[Read the rest at CAP News.]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

COLUMN: Something to fall back on

I recently discovered the only thing more humiliating than throwing your back out while candlepin bowling; namely, throwing your back out while taking off your candlepin bowling shoes. I managed to do this despite the fact that billions of people manage to remove shoes every day without serious injury, many of them more than once. Just ask Mr. Rogers.

The day was going so well, too — I had even bowled a personal best, coming close to breaking 100 thanks to resourceful use of the bumpers. Then I leaned over to take off the shoes and I felt it — the muscles in my lower back giving way like failing cantilevers on an uninspected bridge.

I tried to put a good face on it for my kids and our companions until I managed to hobble back out to the car, but it wasn’t easy, given that my upper body was suddenly at a 90 degree angle from my legs — I looked like I’d just stopped in to bowl a quick string on the way to my bell tower.

Unfortunately, situations like these aren’t especially unusual for me; a couple times a year my back decides I’m getting a little too cocky and decides to show me who’s boss. And never when I’m doing something manly like moving furniture or lifting floor joists into place — although in my defense, who knew I should have made it a point to always bend my knees when I sneezed?

Given that, you’d think I’d be prepared for the occasional bout with back pain. Yet somehow I’ve never gotten around to buying a cold pack or a heating pad — and trust me, there are few things more pathetic than a grown man sprawled on the couch with frozen vegetables down the back of his pants. (Most doctors recommend 20 minutes corn, 20 minutes peas.)

However, I won’t deny that there are certain mitigating factors that make back problems more bearable. For instance:

1.) The drugs. These are a miracle of modern science, but I should point out that I in no way advocate the regular use of painkillers. Unless you have access to the really good stuff, like the ones Matthew Perry had.

2.) Guilt-free TV watching. For instance, when my back went out this last time I finally got to sit and watch “Superman Returns,” which I thought was actually pretty good. Of course, given the drugs I had taken, who knows if it was actually the movie I thought it was; I’m lucky I didn’t wind up wandering the streets like Margot Kidder.

3.) No one can blame you for not washing dishes. Not that I wash many dishes to begin with, but the chance of it is always hanging out there for the able bodied.

As for the negatives, let’s see … ah yes, that would be the excruciating pain.

This last bout was bad enough to land me at the chiropractor, where he determined that my body was so out of whack that one leg was actually measuring quite a bit shorter than the other one. This might have come as a shock had he not presented it to me so professionally; for instance, not once did he call me “stumpy.” But the great thing about going to the chiropractor is that one minute you have terrible back pain, and he works his magic, and voila! — it’s gone just a few short months later.

But what’s behind my bouts with backaches? Part of it is genetic — catch us at the right moment and some of my family reunions look like a convention of Tim Conway impersonators.

But a lack of regular back exercise probably doesn’t help, along with an expanding midsection that might be throwing off my alignment, like one of those action figures that you can’t get to stand up because its head is too big. So it may be time for a change: A better diet, and maybe some regular exercises to strengthen my back muscles.

I’ll get on those as soon as I finish giving up sneezing.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. He’s away from his desk right now; this column is from 2007. Follow him on Twitter at

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AT LARGE Fake News Tuesday - Creationists: Ancient Skeletons Show God Has 'Sense Of Humor'

SOUTH AFRICA (CAP) - The discovery of two apparently 1.9 million-year-old fossils by paleontologists in South Africa is just the latest example of God's creativity in placing skeletons of creatures that didn't exist into the Earth's crust when he created it about 6,000 years ago, say creationists.

"It really is something," said Bob Henderson of the Institute for Creation Research. "This is how much care God took in creating the Earth - He included an amazing diversity of fossils representing ancient humans and other creatures that never existed, just to keep us guessing.

"Oh, that wacky deity," said Henderson.

Creationists, who believe the planet's species were each designed specifically by God rather than having developed gradually over millions of years through evolution, have different explanations as to the existence of the fossil record.

"The most obvious explanation is that He placed them there to test our faith, and that those who believe them to be evidence that humans descended from apes will burn in eternal hellfire," said Henderson. "But it also shows how He had a sense of humor. I mean have you seen some of those old skeletons? They're hilarious."

Asked about scientists' assertions that the newly discovered skeletons represent a link between apes and early humans, Henderson just shook his head and said, "Scientists! We haven't agreed with them on anything since the last Ice Age movie came out."

Asked about the fossils' discovery while at a Tea Party rally in Sheboygan, Wisc., Republican luminary Sarah Palin pooh-poohed scientists' attempt to insist that they "you know, mean something."

"Hey scientists - how's that naturally-selectiony thing workin' out for ya?" she asked. "Personally I don't know how anyone can believe in the theory that human beings like myself could have come from a creature with such a small brain," she added, apparently without irony.

[Read the rest at CAP News.]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

COLUMN: Stop the presses! And the robots

Whenever people ask me why I don’t quit journalism, with newspapers going under left and right and so much upheaval in the industry, I always have the same response: “What, and leave show business?”

But the real reason is, I feel like what we’re doing here in journalism — especially at the local level — is actually pretty important. Unfortunately, people may not realize this until we go out of business and the only person left to cover their towns is Perez Hilton, whose reports will consist of a picture of the school committee chairman with “SHUT UP!” written over him with a white marker.

So you can imagine my concern at the latest disturbing development in the world of journalism: The Singularity Hub blog is reporting that there are several plans afoot to introduce actual, working robot journalists. I have some concerns about this idea, not the least of which is that it’s just another group of robots that could wind up subjugating mankind. The only reason the human journalists haven’t done that yet is because we don’t have lasers.

The blog offers several examples of how the robot journalist will gather information; for example, it “detects changes in its surroundings, decides if they are relevant, and then takes pictures with its on-board camera.” This is a definitive advantage over human reporters, who primarily tend to detect changes to the selection in the newsroom vending machine. (“Flash! The Combos have been replaced by Cheez-Its,” etc.)

On the other hand, the robot also “uses Internet searches to further round out its understanding.” So it doesn’t have anything over us in the relying-on-Wikipedia department.

Personally, I don’t see how anyone can call something that doesn’t complain, procrastinate or stay up ’til all hours consuming unhealthy food a real journalist. But the blog points out that since the robot gathers primary source information from people in the field, “that’s real journalism,” as unsophisticated as it may be. (Which is actually exactly what I tell all the people who call me to complain about our selectmen coverage. This means you, Mrs. Henderson!)

But those robots are still mostly information collectors and not writers, per se. The same blog reports that a company called Statsheet has apparently taken the process further and is planning to launch a robot sports reporter that will write college basketball coverage that “90 percent of readers would be unable to distinguish” from the work of a human journalist. As if sports stories are nothing but a bunch of stats and clich├ęs strung together in an utterly predictable … uh-oh.

But generic sports stories are one thing — there are plenty of other types of journalism that you’d be hard pressed to get a robot to execute. Take for instance a humor column, which relies not on rote formulas but on the creativity and ingenuity of the writer. (Note to self: Insert joke about SPAM here.)

I also wonder if a robot could do a heart-tugging feature story or an in-depth news analysis. I guess the more ways we have to efficiently collect information the better, but I still say human journalists are better equipped to get to the essence of the story by choosing just the right words. Or, in the case of TV journalists, looking smoking hot and not like Jabba the Hutt’s smelter droid.

So I propose a deal: Robots can collect all the information they want, but we humans should still be the ones to ask the really tough questions and write the big stories, so the robots can actually benefit from our skills.

And in exchange, we’ll take lasers.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

AT LARGE Fake News Wednesday: Pope - I Thought Priests Were 'Amusing' Children

VATICAN CITY (CAP) - In the latest development in the ongoing Catholic Church child abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI is blaming his failure to stop pedophile priests on a hearing problem that has plagued him for decades, or at least since the first abuse reports surfaced.

"For years, I thought my aides were telling me that people had come forward to say the priests were amusing children in their parishes," said Benedict in a prepared statement released by the Vatican. "With laughter being one of God's greatest gifts to mankind, you can understand why I didn't think this would be a problem."

Benedict claims he reassigned the accused priests, rather than remove them from a position where they would come into contact with children, because he was trying to "spread the laughter."

"That's just the type of Pontiff I am," wrote Benedict, noting his propensity for buying virtual drinks for all 1,000 of his Facebook friends. "I love to laugh."

"Now I understand why the Cardinals would give me such funny looks when I would react with such delight every time the topic of children being amused came up," added the Pope, noting it was similar to the times when he would tell them long, wistful stories about his time spent in the Hitler Youth, only to find out recently that it wasn't actually the Bavaria chapter of the Boys & Girls Club.

Some are skeptical about the Pope's claims, though, pointing out that many of the accusations came in lengthy written reports outlining the potential scope of the abuse claims. But Benedict says most of his memos and reports were read to him by an aide who had a speech impediment, which compounded his hearing problem.

"For years when we were discussing keeping abortion under control, I thought the topic was portion control," explained the Pope. "Which frankly I could stand to have a little more of, the way I love that apfelstrudel."

[Read the rest at CAP News.]

Thursday, April 01, 2010

I pity the fool!

For April Fool's Day over at Popdose, I compiled a list of films featuring, what else, fools -- both the comic and the tragic. (Sarah Palin's not on there because she hasn't made a movie, although I'm sure that's coming.) It was tough to narrow down, but here's what I came up with:
  • Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) in Lethal Weapon 2
  • Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) in Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) in The Godfather, Part II
  • Igor (Marty Feldman) in Young Frankenstein
  • Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) in Caddyshack
And I already thought of someone I forgot: Stephen Stucker as Johnny in Airplane! "Look, there's a sale at Penny's!"