Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, July 11, 2005

NASA Geeks Save Tea Leoni. Sort of.-July 11, 2005

Have you ever noticed the suspicious resemblance between that cell phone in your pocket and the ‘communicators’ carried by Kirk, Bones, Scotty and the rest of the freaks aboard the Enterprise? Though Spock’s probably didn’t have a Milk Dud permanently melted to the back of his the way you do, it’s a similar design, even if it doesn’t make that little ‘click click’ sound every time you open it. (Unless you download the ‘click click’ ringtone for $2.95, in which case, you’re scaring me.) The similarities shouldn’t be a surprise, really. It was the geeks of the 60s who saw those ‘communicators’ and decided to build them for real. Their first choice, of course, would have been to build robot versions of those foxy alien ladies Kirk had so much luck with, but as a fallback plan, cell phones worked out ok, too.

So in 40 short years, we went from imaginary freaks to real-life geeks to “Can You Hear Me Now?” Yes, we can hear you everywhere. I think you’ve made your point. Can you come up with a new campaign now? Still, that’s not bad progress, considering that the flying car has gone nowhere since originally prototyped by the Jetsons animators.

This week at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a small army of ultra-geeks remote control crashed part of a spaceship into a comet in a mission called Deep Impact. Its goal? To save humankind from a gigantic comet accidentally knocked onto a collision course with Earth by the radio waves emitted from Planet RA83 during a battle between the Bee People and the Gumbotronic Army from New New New Orleans on Mars 13. NASA’s ship bombarded the comet, named Baldwin, with a payload the size of a chiclet. Wintergreen, if I’m not mistaken. In space, chiclet-sized objects can easily change the course of large, pompous objects like Baldwin, named for actor Alec Baldwin, who’s mathematically projected to be the epicenter of the comet’s impact with Earth should this mission fail.

Actually, the mission was to crash the chiclet into the comet to kick up a cloud of comet dust, therefore enabling the dateless wonders at JPL to geek out on the data for months and years to come. There’s no war between the Bee People and the Gumbotronic Army; at least, not for the moment. In fact, the only thing true about the paragraph above is that first sentence about what happened and the name of the mission. (And the part about Alec Baldwin being pompous. Obviously.)

But if this mission wasn’t about stopping an eventual Death Rock from hitting Earth and wiping out Tea Leoni, why name it after a painfully bad 1998 movie about a Death Rock that gets pelted with chiclets in order to save Tea Leoni? Come on, JPLers. We may not be rocket scientists like you pencil-necks, but we’re not stupid either. Don’t be modest. Just go ahead and admit that you sorta saved the world this week. After all, Death Rock is out there somewhere, a fiery ball of fury heading straight to Earth like Tom Cruise chasing Matt Lauer across the ballroom at a Hollywood fundraiser. It’s probably not coming this week (which is convenient for me. My schedule’s crazy at least til Thursday.) Probably not next week (also tough, because I have an all day meeting out of the office on Tuesday), but someday that Cruise-like object will find our peaceful little planet. When that happens, well, we’ll all be Tea Leoni, and what then?

I’ll tell you ‘what then’. JPL will dust off Attack Plan R, developed in 2005 for just such an occasion. Back then, they had to cover up the real purpose of the mission, because people would have mocked the use of tax money on saving the world that could have been used instead to fund ineffective government programs that make us feel better about ourselves. Instead, they told people they needed to study comet powder to see if it bore any resemblance to Comet powder. Who doesn’t like a clean bathroom? Absurd, maybe, but what reporter is going to challenge a JPL scientist with technical questions? Not Matt Lauer, obviously.

So mock them if you must. Laugh that they won’t shower, shave or change out of their NASA logo T-shirt even when they’re being interviewed on TV in 100 countries. Scorn them for celebrating with Romulan hand dancing rather than high-fives. Snicker as one of them strangles another within an inch of his life for suggesting that Episode I of Star Wars is better than Episode V. Just bear in mind that these guys are all that’s standing between you and a fate worse than the completely predictable ending to a B-movie most people have already forgotten made in 1998 starring Morgan Freeman as the President and Tea Leoni as the attractive woman who needs to be saved.

Remember: I said “most” people have forgotten this movie, but not these guys. They’ve devoted their lives to it, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their commitment.

On the other hand, they don’t have much else to do with their time, what with not being able to get dates and all.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Rock of Old Ages Letter from California-June 20, 2005

Every red-blooded soda drinker who was around at the time remembers the New Coke fiasco, but here’s a recap for the uninitiated. A company (Coke) spends a hundred years making their product (Coke) amazingly popular and world-famous. Times get a little tough and they decide to replace this 100 year old product with something that tastes like cola Kool-Aid. People go crazy like they have the Rage virus and destroy entire cities until the company (still Coke) returns the old product, but with a super cool new name.

Classic Coke.

Back in those days, the word “classic” usually proceeded “-al music,” which, then as now, made people want to cry with boredom in advance and get it out of the way. Now, of course, anytime somebody wants to make some lame old product, performer or food sound like we should care about it, they just stick the word “classic” in front of it. Beat up old ’81 mustard yellow Datsun doesn’t sound too exciting, but Classic Sunset Orange Datsun B210 makes it sound like you’re taking it on Antiques Roadshow. Yeah, only if you can dig it out of your backyard first.

Classic Coke worked. People liked it even more than they did when it was just plain old Coke, because now it was “classic.” Not surprisingly, lots of companies decided that their products deserved this treatment too, so suddenly you had classic TV dinners, classic Hefty bags, classic root canal treatments, whatever.

Not coincidentally, somebody got the idea to create a new format for radio stations called “Classic Rock.” These stations’ primary audience was (and is) people who dreamed of spending their whole lives holding up a cigarette lighter in an arena, singing along to “Freebird.” 20 years later, those exact same people are still the ones listening. Sad, but true.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the hard-rockin’ music of the 60s and 70s. Once, as I was listening to a Classic Rock station, it occurred to me that it was like listening to the record collections of my Mom’s younger sisters. My mom has six brothers and sisters, so, even if you know them, you can’t be sure which ones of them I’m talking about (Amy, Cathy). As I listened, it wasn’t hard to imagine myself as a little kid, leafing through the albums (like a CD but less laser-based), pausing to gaze on the freakish picture that covered Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” record. He’s wearing a shiny jacket and walking through a wall into a scene that looks like the merry old land of Oz, as decorated by Junior High School students. (Come on, people. You’re telling me you didn’t know Elton wasn’t, uh, a ladies’ man back then? I had an excuse for not getting it. I was 4.)

Seriously, though, hundreds of great songs came from that era, and as I sat there as a child, sorting through those records, with the smell of, let’s just say, incense in the room, how could I have known that those same few hundred great songs would one day be played over and over and over and over and over again on radio stations, well into the 21st century? In 1985, when Classic Rock radio took off, the idea of putting “The Boys Are Back in Town” or “Hotel California” was a refreshing alternative to listening to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam or Kajagoogoo. But now, it’s tired. In fact, every holiday weekend, including the recent Memorial Day, brings the “Classic 500” countdown of “Classic” songs, which is basically the same 500 songs they always play, but now with a number before them. What’s going to change? There’s no new “classic rock” so the countdown’s not exactly full of suspense, is it?

Now, it’s 2005 and time to face some facts. First, and most importantly, it’s time to accept the reality that the long organ solo in the middle of “Light My Fire” by the Doors really sucks eggs. It’s just pointless and tiresome and thinks it’s way better than it actually is, much like The Doors themselves. It probably sounds a lot better if you’re smelling incense.

Second, Classic Rock fans need to know that while we’re sorry you’re not young anymore, there’s nothing that listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is going to do about that. It’s been a long time since you rock and rolled because you’re 50.

For everyone else, a warning: baby boomer nostalgia could very well kill us, but I predict a counter-trend. Here in Los Angeles, a radio station launched promising to “play whatever we want,” which translates into a crazy, unpredictable mix of rock, pop, r&b and even rap. They have no DJs, don’t take requests and make fun of their advertisers. And it works, which means it will probably grow, which is ok, because it’s a fresh alternative to what’s out there now.

But ask me how I feel about it in 2025.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Trophy Inflation-June 13, 2005

I was walking through the toy section at Target a few days ago and noticed that a Hot Wheels car still costs about $1.25. It’s amazing to me, because 25 or 30 years ago, it’s the same price I paid for them when that was my weekly allowance, balled up in my sweaty paw walking through Kmart to get a tiny version the Smokey and the Bandit car. Things have changed some, of course. Now the car is made of mostly plastic and built by slave children in communist China, whereas back then it was built from battleship scrap by the President of the United States. Still, no real price increase in all those years means kids these days can buy a lot more useless trash with their weekly allowances. Ah, progress.

Despite the lack of inflation in mini cars, I have noticed dramatic inflation in another category popular with young kids: trophies.

It’s not that they’re more expensive. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that in the past, you’d pay $10 and wait 2 weeks for a trophy you could get for $2 at the drive through window today. No, it’s not the price that’s inflated; it’s the size and number of the trophies out there. Whole bedrooms have disappeared in a jungle of silver-painted basketball players, golden baseball batters and bronze ballerinas. I heard about a family that did an add-on just to have a place to keep all the grade school bling-bling their younguns have collected.

It wasn’t always this way. Trophies were the golden (or at least gold-painted) dream of all Little Leaguers but only the elite actually ever managed to get one: All-stars, league champions, Most Likely to Get to the Majors and Then Be Forced to Testify Before Congress. Things like that. We’d have killed for a trophy, which is probably why so many of us got involved in the Junior Killing League. The top performer got a trophy.

But no more. Trophies are handed out to every kid on every team regardless of how feeble his or her efforts might have been. A kid could chase butterflies around the outfield nine innings a game and cry every time the ball came near him at the bat, and he’d still go home a winner, trophy-wise.

Our own Little League season came to an end the other day, and as we left (with my son’s trophy, of course), we walked by a picnic table that was covered with trophies the size of oompa-loompas. Surely, these kids weren’t part of our League. Awards like this must be the result of some kind of extraordinary heroism. Perhaps these kids stood on each other’s shoulders and rescued the King of Belgium from the top floor of a burning building. OR maybe they foiled a Yu-Gi-Oh-based terrorist attack.

No. They were the champions of their 4-team league. I don’t mean to minimize the achievement, but wouldn’t a memento smaller than a coat rack be more appropriate to the occasion? After all, every four-team youth sports league has that one team who never wins, so you’re down to three.

At that rate, the average sports playing kid is going to accumulate enough trophies by middle school to be able to melt them down into a small golden (painted plastic) calf, housed inside a miniature fake marble temple. From there, it’s only a short step to animal sacrifice, witchcraft and possibly even Celine Dion music. There should be an After School Special about this.

So do you suppose my problem with Trophy Inflation stems from envy? Would I feel better if there was a shipping crate full of man-sized statuettes with my name on them in my mom’s attic, instead of just a couple little trophies and a stack of forgotten and despised “Participation Certificates”?

It’s possible, but I doubt it. I once won a basketball championship (of a four-team league) with a last minute heroic shot of my own. If we hadn’t been 11 and really not very good at basketball, Ron Howard could have made a movie about it. When they gave us our trophies (pitiful by comparison to today’s), it felt like we’d come through the fires of hell and earned eternal glory. We treated those trophies like treasure covered in magic chocolate.

For about a day. Then we had to find a place to put it on top of the chest of drawers.

For my son, the thrill of his ‘participation trophy’ lasted about half way back to the house. I kept having to tell him not to let the trophy slip out of his hands, because he would forget he was carrying it. And at age 7, he’s pretty much maxed out the top of his chest of drawers. When he finally got this one home, we knew we needed a solution to our trophy problem, especially with his younger sister being league age next year.

So we decided to institute a recycling program in our house. From now on, we’ll pool all the trophies and put them in a box on the kitchen counter. Through the course of the day, anytime anyone does anything noteworthy, that person will immediately receive a trophy. When they get over the thrill of winning it, they can put it straight back in the box. From there, the trophy will get awarded again to someone who, for example, reminds Papa to take his coffee off the top of the car before pulling out of the driveway. That way, there’s the thrill of winning a trophy and the convenience of not having to worry about where to put it.

It’s a perfect system, and I think I deserve an award for coming up with it.

Hey, that’s exactly what the box is for!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Seeing Red-June 5, 2005

In the forward progress of time, some things get left behind and become unappreciated. You might have an ancestor, for example, who gets starry-eyed talking about the fatback (salted strips of pig fat) sandwiches his mother used to make for him before marching him off to the one-room schoolhouse. The more he describes those sandwiches, the more you have to fight the gagging sensation building in the back of your throat. Society’s tastes have passed that one by; don’t look for the McFatback Sandwich to show up on the Value Menu anytime soon.

Other things go out of style but shouldn’t. Take shame, for example. More unfashionable than a Members Only jacket, shame once ruled the world. It was hot. It was happening, and it was everywhere. You could get it at home, doled out in heaping helpings by Mom and Dad for failure to eat broccoli, back-talkery, or a long list of other crimes. You could get it on the streets, where a perfect stranger would provide it if, for example, you were a girl and you dared expose your knees to the sunlight. And of course, you could get it at school in Price Club-sized packages at just about anytime for almost any reason at all.

Personally, I never felt worse than when being handed back a test or report and seeing that a small animal, maybe a squirrel or mongoose, had been slaughtered on it. I could see it across the room in the teacher’s hand and knew I was in trouble. On test day, I might have felt that I had faked my way through the questions, but it was obvious from the flood of red ink that I was wrong about Moby Dick having a happy ending. When the hideous thing hit my desk, I felt slightly faint and immediately turned the paper down so no one else could see its shameful mediocrity. It’s the kind of thing that can ruin a kid’s whole day.

Which, I think, is the point.

Red ink on your test paper is nature’s way of telling you that you need to smarten up, buster. Back in caveman times, getting a lot of red ink on your Mammoth-killing mid-term let you know that if you didn’t buckle down and work harder, you’d be eating turf throughout the winter. And not the kind that goes with Surf n’. I mean literally turf.

I started hearing rumors a few months ago that a Southern California school district (I won’t tell you which one, but I’ll just say that in Pasadena our Schools are in that District) had stopped using red ink to make corrections on students’ work. The story had it that red ink had been banned because it’s such a strong color that it might make the kids feel bad for getting incorrect answers or saying that the main theme of Moby Dick is that “fighting whales is best left to other whales or possibly sharks.” A crackpot answer like that calls for a bucket of red-ink, Carrie-style, to pour from the rafters on the slacker, but that’s just not in the cards anymore.

I had forgotten about all that until I read an article in USA Today this week where I learned that this insanity is spreading. The principal of a school in Carlsbad, near San Diego, even went so far as to say that corrections should be made in lavender, instead of red, because “it is a calming color.” In the same article, a corporate executive from Pilot Pen says this is all because “teachers are trying to be more reinforcing and less harsh.” The way I see it, if you’ve got enough things wrong on your paper that you need to be “calmed,” you could probably use a good old-fashioned dose of panic. You’re going to flunk, hairball! Too much “harsh” isn’t your problem; too much looking at life through lavender-colored glasses might be.

Don’t think that it takes a special mix of smog, soy milk and goat cheese pizza to make people nutty enough to believe this. Even in good old Pennsylvania, USA Today found an elementary school principal who calls red ink on student papers “frightening.”

Frightening? Well, ok, maybe red ink is a little frightening, but like with everything scary, you’re supposed to get the idea that it’s bad. That second row of teeth in a shark’s mouth? Frightening, definitely. That’s because they use them to turn bones like yours into a chunky salsa that goes well with whale chips. You’re supposed to be frightened; it’s helpful in keeping you from becoming a cold appetizer that gets pushed aside as soon as the main meal arrives.

So I say keep the red ink. In fact, couldn’t NASA or Microsoft come up with an ink that not only glows a ghastly blood red but also moans like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Christmas Carol? That, I believe, would send the more appropriate message that if you’re constantly making mistakes on your schoolwork, you don’t need “calming”.

You need to “study.” It’s in the dictionary, cream puff.