Friday, March 27, 2009

"The Colbert Report" Report

NASA, the often maligned, sometimes forgotten space agency has a galaxy-sized headache. To try to get more people interested in space exploration, NASA sponsored an online contest in which people could vote on a name for a new room to be added to the International Space Station. The choices on the ballot were Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise, and Venture. However, the winner was "Colbert," named for Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's, "The Colbert Report." He asked his viewers to vote for him, and they did. Now what does NASA do? Do they overrule the 115,000 people who voted for "Colbert" or stick with the popular choice and become the laughingstock of the already giggly world of astrophysics?

Can you name any of the astronauts who are up in the International Space Station? I couldn't either until I did some research for this column. Things have certainly changed in the half-century since the heyday of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Back then, "everybody" not only knew the astronauts' names, they knew what their favorite foods were. These days, we’ve become awfully blasé about the space program. Do teachers have their students watch every space launch on the school's TV set? I don't think so. And I assume that enthusiasm for spending money on space exploration went down as unemployment rates and AIG bonuses went up. So right when NASA comes up with a nice gimmick to get people involved in the space program again, they get out-gimmicked by, well, a goofball.

Colbert tried to get people to vote for him for President – as many comedians have in the past – and that fizzled. But for some reason, this caught on. Since NASA is an agency of the federal government, there was, naturally, a "weaseling out clause" in the contest. They reserve the right to overrule the popular vote if they want to. Kind of reminds you of the 2000 Presidential Election, doesn't it?

So far, NASA is being mum on whether they will go with "Colbert" or one of the more reasonable, and boring, names. John Yembrick, a NASA spokesman, says they'll make a decision sometime in April. My advice to Yembrick: go with the joke.

I guarantee if "Colbert" wins, Colbert will spend even more time publicizing NASA and space exploration on television. More people will get interested, and that was the original idea of the contest. And it usually doesn't hurt if a governmental agency demonstrates a sense of humor.

I know the dangers of going along with this joke. It's a very slippery slope. Other TV shows will probably want to get their names in space. Some agent's bound to think that "Dancing with The Stars" is a natural. Other shows are going to want to have their names up there, too. Will the next space shuttle be called, "Late Show With David Letterman?" Will the next galaxy astronomers discover be called, "America's Biggest Loser?"

When it comes to naming things and publicity, money always seems to enter the picture. Therefore, I have to admit that I worry a little that the heavens might suffer the same fate as that of so many sports venues. If there can be a "Petco Park," a "U.S. Cellular Field," and a "Staples Center," isn't it just possible that astronomers might change the planets' names, too? And if so, are we really going to be happy when our children's children learn that "Alpo" is the fourth planet from the sun, and the one with the two big moons is called, "Hooters?"

Despite these caveats, I still think NASA should go along with the popular vote. They should be able to draw the line and avoid catastrophic commercial consequences. And if they are worried about making the seemingly smug Stephen Colbert even smugger, the joke might actually be on him. One of the functions of this soon-to-be-named part of the space station will be to house a machine that turns astronauts' urine into drinking water. Would you really like to have that room named after you?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Free Trip To Rome - If You Have Surgery?

I was half-reading a book and half-watching TV the other day, when I thought I heard someone on TV advertising a "colonoscopy sweepstakes." I assumed that either I had heard wrong or it was a spoof on sweepstakes contests, so I put my book down to find out. It was neither. It was real. It was part of something called "CBS cares." The grand prize winner would get to fly to New York where he or she would receive a free colonoscopy. The winner would also be given three nights in a "luxurious" hotel. Oh, and the winner could bring a "companion" on the trip. That's an interesting bonus, although a colonoscopy probably wouldn't make a good first date.

The pitch was done with a sense of humor, but it was obvious that they really wanted to publicize the need for people to be healthy and have appropriate medical tests.
I think publicizing it like this is an interesting public service. But it can be more than that. And I'm not just talking about the kind of dates that I hinted at that begin with, "Hey, baby, want to go to Miami with me while I get this thing removed from my back?" I think things like the free colonoscopy trip could be a great "travel stimulus package." And the government wouldn't even have to be involved.

First of all, some medical procedures could actually be done on the way to a destination. For example, there's no reason why airlines can't take passengers' blood pressure for free. There are many other tests that could be done on a plane. I can easily imagine ads like this: "Fly United and find out what you're allergic to." "Fly American and get a free chest x-ray." "Travel with Jet Blue and turn your head to the left and cough."

I also think it can be used to bring more tourists to a city. Obviously, it would be hard to turn down a free trip to Paris if all you had to do was have a hearing test once you got there. But it could be used for American cities as well, especially those that have been hit hard by the recession. "Free root canal and three days in Detroit" could help businesses in the motor city. I'm not suggesting that you have the procedure if you don't need a root canal, but if you have to have one anyway, why not travel?

Another good campaign would be, "Fly to Washington D.C. for a free delivery of your baby." Immigration foes might not like it, but people from all over the world would want to fly to D.C. to make sure their kid would be a U.S. citizen. Imagine how it would help the businesses in our nation's capital. Car seats would be flying out of stores, pediatricians would have more patients, and the blankie biz would be off the charts.

Cruises are perfect for this kind of thing since they aren't over in a few hours. There's no reason why they can't offer passengers a free physical during the cruise. But the big boon to cruises would be cosmetic surgery. You go away for a little while and come back with a new face. It's also a natural for another kind of cosmetic surgery. I can see the ad now: "Afraid to take a cruise because of the open sea? Float better after breast augmentation."

Like anything, these medical giveaways might get out of hand. We'll know they've gone too far when we see an ad like this: "Free trip to California to anyone without money who wants to give birth to eight babies."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Keep The "Paper" In Newspapers

The good old-fashioned American newspaper is dropping like the proverbial fly that we used to swat with it. Recently, the "Rocky Mountain News" printed its final edition. In April, the print edition of the "Christian Science Monitor" will no longer be published daily, the "Detroit News" and the "Detroit Free Press" have announced they will end daily home delivery in favor of their websites, and other newspapers are sure to follow. It's a shame. Maybe those of the digital generation will say I'm crazy and that they can get everything from their computer that people used to get out of having a real newspaper. Oh, really? Let's see them try to housebreak a puppy by spreading their laptops all over the kitchen floor.

Over the last several years, online outlets have very successfully competed for the "eyeballs" (as they call them in digitalk) of the American news reader. At first, these online "newspapers" imitated real newspapers. Those in charge also saw that sensationalism worked well online, so they imitated the sensationalized tabloid as well.

Unfortunately, instead of real newspapers responding by emphasizing things that they could do that online outlets couldn't do -– like hiring more reporters and doing in-depth stories -- the real newspapers started imitating online news. Now it's hard to tell their content apart from that of their former imitators.

Here's what I mean: Which of the following quoted items do you think were in a prominent American newspaper and which do you think were online or in the "National Enquirer?" 1)"Washington Porkers;" 2)'Swiss gigolo' jailed in BMW heiress blackmail;" 3)"Mad Cow Drug Ineffective;" 4)"Daylight savings time can affect your health;" 5)"Is it time to take Ashton Kutcher seriously?"

Sadly, all five were either in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Times.

Both online news outlets and real newspapers serve definite needs. I'd like to see them exist side by side, just as television news and newspapers have for so many years. This will only happen if we demand it, and if we click a little less onto the Daily Online Newsburst or whatever the latest popular digital news outlet is called. For fast-breaking stories, sports scores, and all kinds of photos, online is great. But if I want to try to understand which religious group is which in a faraway war or why the latest economic theory is just as bogus as all the others, I want a newspaper that I can hold in my hands.

So maybe that's it. Holding "the news" in your hands is a different experience from seeing it on the screen. Perhaps I'm just of a generation for whom words printed on paper mean a great deal. Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that people read my work online. But there's a little extra joy, knowing that some people are also reading it in real newspapers. Even if you get the same information online, it's different from having the feel, the smell, and everything else that goes with a real newspaper. Even if my hands get dirty from it sometimes, I don't want to give that up.

I know people can still read a "newspaper" on their computers at the breakfast table, on a commuter train, or maybe even in that room of the house that many people have traditionally read their newspapers in. But it's not the same.

I worry about kids, the future generation. They may never read an actual newspaper. They might never cut out articles to bring to school or pictures to put up in their rooms. As adults, they may never have the joy of enveloping themselves in a Sunday paper, spread all over their bed. And there's something else. If newspapers disappear, how are kids going to make anything out of papier-mâché?

Friday, March 6, 2009

When Breastfeeding's Not Okay

Ohio police recently stopped a woman who was using her hand-held cell phone while driving. That's illegal in Ohio, but that wasn't the only reason they stopped her. She was not only driving and talking on her phone, she was breastfeeding her baby at the same time. The woman was outraged that she was stopped, and said that she did not want to let her baby go hungry. So it was concern for her child that made her endanger the kid? The baby was not strapped safely into a car seat while being nursed by the cell phone-using/car-driving mommy. All she had to do was put up with the baby's crying for a moment or two, pull over, and feed the kid. Up until now, I've never been a big fan of "three strikes" laws. However, driving, phoning, and nursing at the same time are three strikes that deserve punishment. Imagine if Octo-Mom Nadya Suleman were driving while talking on the phone to Dr. Phil and nursing all eight of her babies at the same time. Yikes!

Where I live, using a hand-held cell phone while driving was banned beginning on January 1st of this year. So my family bought hands-free equipment shortly before that. We weren't alone, so I thought I'd never see another driver trying to balance his steering wheel and cell phone while cutting me off with a left turn. Boy, was I wrong.

Not a day goes by that I don't see people driving and talking on their cell phones as if the new law had never been enacted. I called the local police departments to see what we ordinary citizens are supposed to do when we see this activity. If we are pedestrians, should we run up to the car in the intersection and make a citizen's arrest? Are we supposed to honk or yell at the driver? Should we take down the license plate number and call the police?

Answer: None of the above. The police explained that a police officer must see the person committing this offense in order to cite him. They won't just take our word for it. Why not? Can't they just give us a lie detector test so they'll know we're telling the truth about the woman in that black SUV we see every day as she drives her kids to school and talks on the phone to set up a lunch date?

One member of the police department, Sergeant Horn, said that the good news is that according to police statistics, fewer people are using their handheld phones while they drive than before the ban. His feeling is that those who are ignoring the new law and not getting caught while driving and talking will eventually be spotted by a cop. I'm not sure if this feeling is based on statistics or his views about karma.

It's very frustrating to keep seeing people drive dangerously while they talk on the phone and not be able to do anything about it. Sure, we've all seen drivers do other dangerous activities like putting on make-up, eating, reading, kissing, and doing the crossword puzzle. What is so disturbing about the Ohio mom is that she took it to a whole new level by combining cell phone use with doing something else that she shouldn't be doing while driving.

It probably shouldn't shock me. This is the era of multitasking, and I should get used to it. But things are so different now. For generations, we heard about people who had sex in their cars. But those cars were parked! I remember "Benjamin" – the Dustin Hoffman character –in "The Graduate" enjoying the fact that "Elaine" was conceived in "an old Ford." If they ever shoot a remake of that movie, they could probably say that Elaine was conceived in a Ford cruising down the highway at 70 MPH while both parents were talking on their cell phones – and maybe doing their taxes, too.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by