Fully clothed, he's in Congress

Published December 3, 2006

With any luck, the most embarrassing photograph taken of you in the 1970s is stashed away in a box that nobody will ever find. John Hall, the newly elected Democratic congressman from the 19th District of New York, is not that lucky. There he is, standing shirtless and smushed against his equally shirtless band, Orleans, for the cover of Waking and Dreaming. The album contained Still the One, a hit that sparked more anniversary-party conga lines than any other song in history. Once we forgive Hall for penning such excruciatingly unshakable couplets as "You're still the one who can scratch my itch / You're still the one and I wouldn't switch," let us acknowledge his singular place in American history: He is the first professional rock musician elected to Congress. (No, Sonny Bono doesn't count.) It's hard to believe that the bearded and topless Hall of 1976 and the Hall wearing a suit and tie today are the same man. But they are. With little prodding, Hall will talk about the time in 1974 that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened for Orleans at a high school in Maine. But frankly, he'd rather talk up his slate of left-leaning goals, such as raising the minimum wage, weaning the nation off fossil fuels or pushing for universal health care. His Orleans band mates say that in the '70s, Hall would launch into a politically charged monologue in the middle of a concert, grinding the festivities to a temporary halt. When he ran for Congress, few took him seriously at first. "I don't quote George Bush very often, but I think I will here," says Hall. "They misunderestimated me."

The radioactive spy

Could Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who was found to have radioactive polonium-210 in his body, have irradiated people around him before he died? No, but he might have secreted radioactive material. The polonium isotope discovered in Litvinenko's body emits radiation only in the form of alpha particles, which are the charged nuclei of helium atoms. Alpha emissions can be blocked by something as insubstantial as a piece of paper or the layer of dead cells on the surface of the skin. The polonium would have been able to seep through Litvinenko's capillaries into very close proximity with every one of his tissues. Litvinenko couldn't have irradiated his friends and family directly, but once he'd been poisoned, the toxic element would have entered all of his bodily fluids. (Doctors confirmed the presence of the material by testing his urine for alpha emissions.) That means that anyone who came into contact with his urine, feces, or sweat might be at risk.

Singapore's drive for sex

A birth dearth is forcing Singapore to promote sex. The birth rate there is 30 percent below what's needed to replace the population. One big reason: Economic pressure makes Singaporeans work so hard, they have no time or energy for sex. The government warns that if births don't increase, the country will need more immigrants. So, it's promoting sex therapy, loosening its control of porn, and offering benefits to working moms. A recent survey of 22 nations by a condom maker put Singaporeans at the very bottom in terms of sex drive.

The rich a little less so

Once upon a time, the United States was the world leader in making people rich. Not anymore. The annual World Wealth Report keeps track of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), otherwise known as millionaires. According to the 2006 report, South Korea, India and Russia are producing new millionaires three times faster than we are. (Last year, the United States even fell behind Canada.) According to government data analyzed by the New York Times, the rich in America actually didn't get richer for once. From 2000 to 2004, the top one-tenth of 1 percent, about 130,500 taxpayers, reported their average annual income fell almost 17 percent. That income "fell" to just under $4.9-million. Because of the tax cuts, aftertax incomes fell by a significantly smaller amount, 12.1 percent. Don't cry for them, though. Those very top households reported significantly more pretax income combined than the poorest 120-million Americans earned in 2004.

Eating their words

If you have an incredibly rare condition called lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, you can actually taste words. These people involuntarily "taste" words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, said Julia Simner, a cognitive neuropsychologist and synaesthesia expert at the University of Edinburgh. Her study, "Words on the Tip of the Tongue," was published in Nature last month. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States. Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking. It can be surprisingly unpleasant. One subject hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax. And Simner has yet to figure out any logical pattern. For example, the word "mince" makes one subject taste mincemeat, but so do rhymes like "prince." Words with a soft "g," as in "roger" or "edge," make him taste sausage. But another subject, hearing "castanets," tastes tuna fish. Another can taste only proper names: John is his cornbread, William his potatoes. They cannot explain the links. The flavors are just there.