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Big, Big News

Mad cows and other insanities

By Bob Harris

I'M FLIPPING through the Los Angeles Times the other day and I come across a one-paragraph item, an inch high and 63 words long, buried in the corner of page A11: "Mad Cow Disease Linked to Humans."

The story: Two separate studies in England and Scotland conclude that a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is directly caused by eating beef contaminated with Mad Cow disease. Doctors weren't certain before, but the virus definitely jumps species. That's where the Times story ends.

Gee, thanks, guys.

Here's the rest of the story, the part that most papers left out: The new form of CJD, which turns your brain into Swiss cheese, recently arose in humans because of the recent factory-farm cost-saving practice of grinding up the carcasses of sick animals and mixing them into the feed of perfectly healthy animals, which we then eat.

Nobody stopped this little viral food chain until only a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the incubation period of the disease can be as long as a decade. So the folks who recently died from CJD might have gotten it from meat they ate while the Berlin Wall was still standing.

You're probably OK--so far most of the problem has been in Britain--but keep your fingers crossed. We're looking at anything from a handful of new cases every year to a major problem. No one really knows.

This might all blow over, but it might be a big deal. That's also true of El Niño, and we're getting prepared for that, just to be safe.

So how come proof that Mad Cow disease can kill us humans rates only one tiny paragraph, not just in the Times, but all over the country? Of course, if tiny murder victim Jon-Benet Ramsey had died of Mad Cow disease, that would be front-page news.

SHOULD ONE ENTERPRISE be tax-exempt, even though all its competitors and customers are paying their fair share, and its employees aren't being paid a cent? Let's back up. I went to the engineering college at Case Western Reserve University. They didn't do athletic scholarships. They held competitions to do things like design a functional robot out of three crayons and a CB radio, or build an atomic clock from a brick of tofu. I once saw a guy use a chicken and integral calculus to back-engineer an egg.

CWRU had a full schedule of varsity sports, but we played most of our games against other Starfleet Cadets, which is probably the only reason most of our athletes survived to graduate. Watching us play football against Carnegie-Mellon was pure joy. Our quarterback could use fractal geometry to describe random variations in the parabolic flight of a forward pass; actually throwing one was another matter.

We passed the time at the games by making up our own cheers: With Heisenberg and Schroedinger's equations all implausible, the quantum view of physics says a touchdown's not impossible! Yay!

If it wasn't for all the stirring pep talks from Stephen Hawking, we never would have won a game. I've found that most people outside Cleveland have never heard of CWRU. Which is a shame.

Academically, it rocks.

Of course, if we'd given athletic scholarships to a bunch of 320-pound steroid jobs and lost to Ohio State every year, you'd know us really well. It wouldn't have anything to do with anybody learning anything, but hey, what's a college for, anyway?

That's precisely what the Kansas City Star has asked in a recent series of articles it has carefully researched for over a year. You already knew that NCAA sports are big, but did you know that their basketball TV contract is worth more than the contracts for the Super Bowl or World Series? Or that the largest college football teams are worth more than some NFL franchises?

As you realize that the players themselves are forbidden from seeing a dime, you can imagine the amount of cash flying around. And guess what? The NCAA, because it's tangentially related to college education, is tax-exempt.

Granted, some of the money does find its way into actual educational stuff, which is great. But do college sports really deserve their tax-exempt status?

Oh, sure. If nothing else, the unpaid players making millions for others are learning a lot about how the world really works.

A WHILE BACK, I had the temerity to suggest that maybe the world media were overselling their coverage of Diana Spencer's car accident just a teensy bit. I got plenty of angry e-mail, but some new data have arrived to corroborate my position.

According to a British company that compiles newspaper articles by subject, the car wreck in Paris got more coverage in England than any single event that happened in all of World War II.

In fact, Durants Press Cuttings--which has kept track of such things since the Bonapartes were driven from France--says that the crash and funeral got more than 25 percent more daily coverage in Britain's major papers than the Nazi invasion of France, the withdrawal at Dunkirk, the bombing of London, the invasion of Normandy, or the final Nazi surrender.

Thank goodness Diana wasn't around during the 1940s. No one would have even noticed the war.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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