Monday, December 09, 2002

Wireless Wonders

We went to see “Ocean’s Eleven” this weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s as good as the original was bad -– that is to say, very. While my wife got the bonus of looking at the attractive men on screen (George Clooney and Brad Pitt), I was happy just to be caught up in the cleverness of the scam unfolding in the plot.

I’ve always been a sucker for movies about great con games or heists. From the best ever -- “The Sting” -- right up to the two from earlier this year, “Heist” and “The Score,” I get a kick out of seeing the elaborate process of the thievery being plotted and then executed. Steven Soderbergh does a masterful job of showing us that process in “Ocean’s Eleven.”

As much as I admired the movie, there’s one thing that bugs me.

All of the con men are hooked up with earpieces through which they can hear each other and their hacker/electronics whiz, Livingston. To pull off the heist, a couple of the characters go several stories underground. They travel down an elevator shaft and then through some subterranean corridors but -- I’m not ruining the movie for you, I promise -- they don’t seem to have any trouble staying in audio contact with Livingston. Neither do other characters, who are scattered all over the place, both inside and outside the target building.

Why does this bug me?

Because last week, I was driving down a major interstate highway, talking on my cell phone to a friend, when the connection got fuzzy and then dropped off completely. After reconnecting, we talked for a few more minutes before it happened again. So I called him back a third time. This time, we didn’t lose the cell connection, but his cordless phone was low on power, and we got cut off yet again.

My point is two-fold. First, how come this never happens in the movies? I’ve actually tried to use my cell phone inside the Bellagio –- the centerpiece casino in “Ocean’s Eleven” -– and couldn’t get a call out. But for Pretty Boy Clooney and his colleagues, no problem.

Secondly, why is it, in 2001, when I can get a crystal clear television picture bounced off a satellite in orbit directly to a 20" dish on the side of my house, that we can’t get wireless communications to stay connected for more than a few minutes at a time? And don’t tell me it must be my phone or my service, because I’m not using The Cup And String Company here. I’m talking about a major carrier, and a major roadway, near a major American city. Besides, I know I’m not alone in this complaint.

What makes it more frustrating is that I can vividly recall two episodes in which I was blown away by the marvels of wireless communication.

One was when I was driving to work early one morning to do my show and my cell phone rang. Since it was 4:30am, it could only mean one of two things, and neither of them was good news. Either my wife was calling to tell me something was wrong at home, or my co-host’s car had broken down and he needed a lift.

Fortunately, it was neither. Instead, it was my friend Russell calling to say hello. Russell happens to live in Sydney, Australia, and with the time difference, the end of his work day coincided with the beginning of mine. I was amazed that he had gotten me, but I wasn’t prepared for what he told me next.

He wasn’t in Sydney. In fact, he wasn’t even in Australia. He was in South Africa on business. He had just landed at the Johannesburg airport, was making the two-hour drive to his client’s office, and since he had some time to kill, decided to give me a try on his cell phone, hoping to catch me on my drive to work.

Think about that. He had taken his cell phone from Australia to South Africa, and had used it in his moving rental car to call me on my cell phone in my moving car, halfway around the world!

How the hell did the call get through? How did it find me? I know there’s probably a simple technical explanation -- keep in mind that I’m still baffled by how I can sit in a studio and talk into a microphone and it somehow comes out of the speaker of your radio -- but come on, you gotta admit that’s astounding.

The other occasion took place several years ago when, thanks to my big-shot brother, my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited to a special tour of the White House at Christmastime. Okay, it was special, if you consider that there were approximately 8,000 other people with federal employee connections who coincidentally were also afforded this privilege at the time. Still, even though I had been on the grounds twice before, getting to go inside the White House on something other than the usual tourist tour was impressive -– to me, at least.

Anyway, we were working our way through the various displays (“how much of my taxes went for that ten foot wide gingerbread house?”) when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I glanced around, and was greeted by the steely gaze of a very serious looking guy who asked me my name. I told him, and he introduced himself as a lieutenant in the United States Secret Service. Gulp! He then smiled and said he’s a big fan of my show, and would I like to have a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House?

It took almost a full second before I blurted out, “Sure!” So he took us -– my wife, my brother, and me -– through a hallway to the official White House Guest Office, down to the Roosevelt Room, the Cabinet Room, and we even got to view The Oval Office (don’t worry, the Marine guard at the door kept his eye on us the whole time).

Along the way, he filled us in on the history of this, the story behind that, and so on. We also went into the Press Room, which was empty, and took some photos at that famous podium with the White House logo behind us on the blue curtain that you’ve seen so many times on television.

Yes, it was pretty damned cool.

When we were through, I wrote down Secret Service Guy’s name and made a mental note to send him as much free stuff from my show as I could scrounge together. As we walked out to my car, I told my wife and brother that this was going to be the entire topic of discussion the next morning.

Then I thought of something. Maybe Secret Service Guy didn’t want everyone to know that he was giving Radio Guy this private tour. I certainly didn’t want to get him in trouble. After all, he had just done me a tremendous favor -- and besides, he was armed.

In my car, I picked up my cell phone and called the main White House number and asked for Secret Service Guy by name. In two seconds, I was connected to someone else in his office, and I again asked to speak to him. There was a click, then a pause, and then I heard him answer and identify himself.

I asked if he would mind me talking about the visit and VIP treatment on my show and he said he didn’t mind at all. But he asked that I not use his name, for security reasons. I said I understood completely -- after all, the Service is Secret! -- and again thanked him profusely.

While we were talking, I could hear a string quartet performing in the background. I remembered that they had been playing in the area in which the lieutenant had first tapped me on the shoulder.

That’s when it dawned on me.

He wasn’t in his office. And he wasn’t on the phone.

Here I was, driving along through the District Of Columbia, talking into my cell phone with a guy inside the White House who was hearing me through his earpiece and talking to me through the microphone in his sleeve!

My mind raced: Isn’t technology unbelievable? Is this the coolest call I’ve ever made? Can you believe that I’m.....hello? Hello? HELLO?

Yep. As we turned the corner, the cell phone connection dropped.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Snow Day In The City

St. Louis was in disaster mode today. The city -- no, the entire area -- was gripped with panic, when we were suddenly attacked by an enemy that strikes fear into the hearts of the majority.

It snowed.

The first snow of the season. By unofficial measurement in my backyard, the accumulation was well over an inch. Maybe two. Call it four or five in the outlying areas. Bottom line, while other parts of the country were being hit pretty hard, we weren’t exactly experiencing a blizzard.

Immediately, my fellow citizens let go of their natural instincts and decided that they no longer knew how to drive. Roads were backed up for miles. Sure, there were some accidents, some sliding on slick surfaces (and some unnecessary alliteration), but in many instances, it wasn't collisions or hazardous conditions that slowed down traffic. It was simply the anxious overuse of the brake pedal instead of the gas pedal. If you listened carefully, you could hear thousands of frustrated drivers shouting at the slowpokes, "Go! Go already! It's only a little bit of moisture! Drive! Go!"

Half-hour commutes were turned into morning-long adventures. Once the destination was reached, there had to be a discussion of each person's hellish drive. At this point, the common complaint was heard again and again: "People here do not know how to drive!"

I've heard that same grievance in every city I've ever lived in or visited -- and I've been to more than half of our fifty states. No matter where you go, the locals will always complain about the bad driving abilities of the other locals. Of course, no one ever steps forward and says, "You know what? I'm not a very good driver, and I'm even worse when the weather gets messy. I don't even know why they gave me a license. I'm an accident waiting to happen. From now on, blame me."

Another effect of snow is what it does to television newsrooms. They go into hyper-overdrive, with all the standard "team coverage" clich├ęs covered. Here's one reporter at the Department of Transportation garage, where the plows are ready to roll. Here's another reporter at the giant salt and sand pile, where the trucks are loading and spreading. Here's a third reporter at DOT headquarters, where the supervisor is confident his troops can get the job done (as if they’d admit, "We’re completely unprepared! We don't have any gas for the vehicles, and I forgot to order sand and salt this year. You’re on your own, folks!")

Here's the weather crew, enjoying yet another adrenaline rush day thanks to all the expanded airtime they're receiving while explaining the difference between air temperature and ground temperature and pointing out snowfall amounts in sixteen different locations on the map. Here's the station's consumer affairs reporter informing us that snow shovel sales are up considerably today. Here's the health reporter reminding viewers to be careful while shoveling, and not to over-do it (never mind that most viewers will be able to clean their driveways with a broom). Here's the traffic reporter, standing in front of an electronic road map that's so covered with red arrows and other symbols that you can't even tell which street is which.

Here's a reporter live on an overpass showing us how highway traffic has slowed to a crawl. Here's still another reporter -- standing right next to the previous reporter -- telling us how several side streets are backed up because TV live trucks are taking up the entire right lane on the overpasses for live shots.

The snow panic equation wouldn't be complete without the supermarket rush. What is it about snowflakes that makes so many people develop such an intense need for milk, bread, and toilet paper -- especially when the snow is only going to fall for a single day, followed by sunshine and warmer temperatures? I could see the need to stock up if we were under the siege of your average Buffalo, New York, snowstorm in which we can't even leave our houses for a week. But we're talking about a couple of inches. You'll get there tomorrow. In the meantime, scrounge around your kitchen for some ramen noodles, a pickle, and a glass of water -- it won't kill you!

Hearing and watching the way this town -- like so many other towns across the country -- reacted to this rather mild version of a storm today, I thought about all those disaster movies. No, not the ones about winning a free cruise on the SS Norwalk Virus. I mean the ones in which some American city is about to be attacked by some madman with a nuclear device, or an asteroid is going to hit nearby and cause calamitous damage for hundreds of square miles, or Eddie Murphy is shooting scenes for "I Spy on Pluto Nash."

In every one of those movies, they always try to save millions of lives by evacuating the big city. I'm here to tell you: forget it! Can't be done. If we can't even make it down the highway safely through two inches of snow, we're never going to get out of town should a bona fide catastrophe occur.

If and when the time comes, I'm not going to try to get out of town. My family and I will sit in the living room and watch the whole thing on CNN. At least we'll be close to the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, where we'll make due with some orange juice, a can of peas, and a box of saltines.

That'll be better than being on the highway, surrounded by cars going nowhere, with drivers yelling, "Drive! Let's go! It's only a little bit of radiation! Go!!"