Monday, May 30, 2005

Voyager Has Left The Solar System

It's an amazing achievement. Voyager, a man-made object, has traveled more than eight billion miles, at tens of thousands of miles per hour, is more than twice as far from the Sun as Pluto is, and is entering interstellar space. Nothing solid has ever left Earth and gone that far. Hurray for science!!

The irony is that, while I can't get a decent cellphone signal during most of my commute on Highway 40, we're still getting radio signals full of scientific data from the Voyager 1 as it travels these unseen distances.

But Voyager isn't just our window to the far reaches of outer space. It's also our calling card to any aliens who might exist in that abyss. In the event Voyager 1 (and its sister craft Voyager 2) ever run into someone else's neighborhood, they carry a special recorded message from Earth.

The problem I foresee is that the aliens who find the message may not be able to understand it. Not just because it's unlikely they'll speak our language -- there are greetings in 55 different Earth languages, along with recordings of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and others, plus nature sounds (in case the aliens live a stressful existence and need a New Age relaxation moment).

No, the problem is that the technology is so outdated.

Voyager was launched in 1977, when our best recording method was the phonograph record. Forget about aliens understanding that. Most Earth children under 21 have never played a vinyl record. Except for club DJs, who uses that technology anymore?

The scientists who planned the Voyager project included equipment and instructions on how to play the record. But what if these aliens are like every guy on Earth? They'll never read the instructions! And if they do, well, you know how impossible it is to make anything work based on instructions written in a foreign language. Remember that VCR you once tried to hook up to the cable input behind your TV with a user's guide written in Japanese? How'd that work out?

We'll just have to hope that the alien who opens up Voyager is like Jeff Bridges in "Starman." Not only did he comprehend the "drop by if you're in the solar system" invitation, he also loved dutch apple pie. It's terrific.

Eddie Albert

Every obit of Eddie Albert mentions that he starred on "Green Acres" and was 99 years old when he died Thursday.  I haven't seen any that noted the irony of his dying the day before the "Longest Yard" remake opened.  Albert played the sadistic prison warden in the original.  Back to that in a moment.

My mother's aunt Eva was 99 when she died.  She was only four days from being 100 and wasn't terribly ill, but she decided that "nobody should be 100 years old," and died peacefully that day.

Maybe the reason Eddie Albert died is that he decided "nobody who is 99 should live to see an unfunny remake of a classic in which he co-starred."  Either that or, like in a real football game, the leap from 99 to 100 is The Longest Yard.

Another Sinner Goes to Sin City

No one can explain the ongoing phenomenon of criminals on the run showing up in Las Vegas, the city with more surveillance cameras than just about anywhere else.

It certainly wasn't enough to deter Paul Iannuzzi from showing up in Sin City last week, in violation of his bail. Iannuzzi, who's facing child pornography charges in Rhode Island, was spotted in the crowd at "The Contender" finale in Vegas last week by two detectives who had worked on his case and were watching the show on NBC. Apparently, Iannuzzi doesn't understand the concept of lying low, because he even spoke to a reporter for The Providence Journal about the boxing match.

The next night, Iannuzzi was back in Rhode Island, where the cops picked him up and busted him for violating the terms of his bail and various arrest-related charges, including assault, resisting arrest, and malicious damage to state property.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Gary Schroen, First Into Afghanistan

Gary Schroen, a 35-year CIA veteran who commanded the first American team on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, was on show today to talk about his experiences and his book, "First In."

We talked about how the war in Iraq distracted from our efforts to get Osama Bin Laden despite the marching orders he was given to bring Bin Laden's head back in a box (he says the government was "rash and reckless"), whether the Afghanis could control and defend their own country if we pulled out, his response to the allegations of torture and murder of prisoners by US military interrogators in Afghanistan, and the millions of dollars in bribe money he and his team of seven disbursed while fighting the Taliban in those first two months after 9/11/01. Another fascinating first-person story.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Six Flags Over Molesters

Six Flags announced yesterday that their tickets will have new fine print on the back, barring entry to convicted sex offenders. Their spokesperson says Six Flags added the new wording as "an extra level of protection."

Against what? With all those kids in the park everyday, it sounds like a good idea, but it's completely untenable and unrealistic.

My engineer, Kevin, used to work at Six Flags, and tells me that the park holds about 40,000 people (5,000 in Hurricane Harbor, the rest on the rides side). How are they possibly going to check them all? There's no way they can do background checks on every person who passes through the turnstiles -- they have enough trouble keeping the backpack-checking line moving on a busy day.

Six Flags acknowledges this impossibility, but says that someone acting inappropriately could be subjected to a check and thrown out of the park. Isn't that the way it should be already, regardless of your criminal history? The rule is simple: if you misbehave, you gotta go.

This may stem from an incident in 2000, when a 19-year-old employee molested three girls while strapping them into a ride. He was arrested, there was a lawsuit, and Six Flags settled for over a million bucks. But he wasn't a visitor. He worked there. In that case, doing background checks on all of its employees might have tipped them off to a problem -- if he had a record, of course.

Like so much of what passes for protection in America these days, this move may make people feel more secure, but will not make actually make Six Flags any safer.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

National Driver's License

With all the talk about who can and can't get a driver's license under the Real ID act which President Bush will sign soon, why is it we don't have a national driver's license yet? I'm a privacy advocate, and there are certainly concerns about the information that will be required and gathered under Real ID, but I don't understand the concerns of those who oppose the idea of a national driver's license.

Your state-issued license is already valid in every other state, and you use it as identification when you board a plane, cash a check, pick up tickets at the box office, and on and on. The laws aren't all that different from one state to another, so why not have a national standard and a USA driver's license? Most other countries already do it that way. It could still be handled by the license bureaus in each state, who could still collect the fees, with the only change being the look and conformity of the license.

I mentioned this on my show today and got several e-mails, including this one from Richard, retired police officer: "Another point with regard to national security. As a St. Louis cop, I'm familiar with the Missouri license and perhaps with an Illinois license, and I can usually spot a fake -- but I have no friggin' idea of the current 2005 format of a North Dakota license, or a Vermont license, etc. If someone shows me something that looks reasonably official, I'm gonna accept it. Keep in mind that, lately, all states seem to change their format every few years."


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Intolerant Pinhead du Jour

Gerald Allen, an Alabama state legislator who wanted to pass a law that would ban spending public money on any "printed or electronic materials or activities" that "sanction, recognize, foster or promote" a homosexual lifestyle. As an editorial in the Tri-City Herald pointed out, this could mean libraries couldn't buy books by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, or many others.

Allen says he pushed the bill because, "It's not healthy for America, it doesn't fit what we stand for. And they will do whatever it takes to reach their goal." I assume that when he says "they" he means gays, but I don't know what he means by "their goal." Could it be that "they" want Americans to read more, so they don't turn into intolerant jerks?

Fortunately, the Alabama legislature rejected his bill, but he says he'll bring it up again next session to "protect the hearts and souls and minds of our children."

Yes, let's keep our kids from reading "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," "Streetcar Named Desire," "In Cold Blood," "The Important of Being Earnest," and other great pieces of literature That'll keep them pure, and leave them plenty of time to read the US Constitution -- which Mr. Allen might want to brush up on, too.

Don LaFontaine & Joe Cipriano

Two of the top voiceover talents in the country were on my show today to talk about their profession -- you may not know their names, but you'll recognize them as soon as you hear their voices.

Don LaFontaine is arguably the most succesful voiceover artist of all time, with over 4,000 movie trailers and tens of thousands of TV promos among his credits (he's the one saying "In a world..."). Joe Cipriano has been the voice of Fox's TV comedies since 1988 and the CBS comedies since 1997, and has been the live announcer for the Grammys and other award shows. They are among the contributors to Joan Baker's book, "Secrets of Voiceover Success" (with proceeds going to Alzheimer's research).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Why Can't The Coach Wear A Suit?

Mike Nolan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, asked the NFL if he could wear a suit on the sidelines during games, instead of the team sweater, poncho, jacket, whatever. The league turned him down, saying that he and all other coaches must wear NFL-sanctioned team clothing.

It's part of their marketing plan, because you know most fans decide to buy team merchandise based on what the coach is wearing. If he were to dress like legendary coaches Tom Landry, Hank Stram, and Vince Lombardi, it might affect sales of jerseys and running shoes, and we can't have that.

Speaking of coaches' garb, I still don't understand why baseball managers wear a uniform during the game. It's not like there are any player/managers in the game these days. Tony LaRussa wasn't going to take over behind the plate after Jadier Molina's injury. I can't hear Wayne Hagin saying, "Here comes number ten, the skipper, as a pinch runner!" Not gonna happen, so why not let 'em wear street clothes in the dugout? Same thing goes for the pitching coach and the rest of the non-playing staff.

Maybe Nolan should suit up in a full 49ers uniform, complete with pads, for a game next season.


The media is once again going crazy over the annual gridlock survey by the Texas Transportation Institute. That's because not one reporter takes the time to do a little math and gather some perspective on how bad our commutes really are, and why.

This year's report doesn't take into account that people are moving further and further away from downtown areas, so that outlying counties (e.g. St. Charles, Missouri) are now considered bedroom communities. People are willing to sacrifice a few more minutes in the car to and from work in exchange for more houses and larger property at lower prices. It also doesn't address the phenomenon of suburb-to-suburb commuting, which is on the increase across the country.

Do our roads desperately need work? Absolutely. But it would be nice if someone dialed back the panic a little bit and put this annual Texas report in context. Here's what I wrote on the subject four years ago:

Pardon me while I slip into my alter ego, who I call Mr. Perspective. In that guise, I have no super powers other than the ability to apply rational thought to news stories that are otherwise swallowed whole by the media at large, and then blown way out of proportion.

Let's start with this headline in today's paper: “Study Ranks Area Among Worst For Road Congestion.”

It’s based on a new report from the Texas Transportation Institute about how much time we’re spending in our cars going to and from work everyday. According to this report, St. Louis is the 9th-worst metropolitan area for road congestion. You know it’s an important report because it’s not written in real, everyday English -- they call us “motorists” instead of “drivers,” as in “motorists, use caution” rather than “drivers, be careful!”

The report says that St. Louis drivers lose an average of 44 hours a year to traffic delays -- or “more than one workweek.” That sounds like a lot. Here’s where Mr. Perspective comes alive, applying simple math to the claim.

If you lose 44 hours a year on the road, that’s less than an hour a week. It actually works out to about 10 minutes a day. That’s five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. Not so much anymore, is it?

But no one would print a headline based on the real story: "You Spend Less Time In Traffic Than You Do in Line Waiting For A Mocha Latte At Starbucks!"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Monkey Trial Anniversary

Today marks the 80th anniversary of John Scopes' arrest. He was the teacher in Tennessee who was busted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a public school. The "monkey trial" that summer was about as big as Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, and OJ Simpson combined, with William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow facing off as opposing counsel. Bryan won, Scopes lost and was fined $100, but evolution soon became standard fare in schools across the land.

Over the last few years, there's been some backsliding in school districts across the country -- Kansas being the most famous, but not the only example -- as fundamentalists have tried to sneak in "creation science" as an alternative curriculum and insisted that textbooks and teachers tell students that evolution is not the only accepted theory. It is the only accepted scientific theory, but that hasn't stopped legislators like Cynthia Davis, here in Missouri, from trying to undermine the way biology and other sciences are taught. Fortunately, the state legislature has thus far rebuked her efforts. Maybe some of them listened to the late Pope John Paul II, who said that evolution was not incompatible with faith.

Hard to believe this battle is still being fought eight decades after Scopes. Perhaps we still haven't evolved as much as we should.

Louie Louie, Again Again

"Louie Louie" is still creating controversy, almost 50 years after Richard Berry wrote it and 42 years after the Kingsmen recorded their mumbled version of it.

Paula Dawning, the superintendent of schools in Benton Harbor, Michigan, wouldn't let the McCord Middle School marching band play the rock classic in a town parade this weekend after one parent -- one parent -- complained that it was inappropriate because of its lyrics.

It's been over a quarter-century since the FBI -- after wasting two years and untold taxpayer dollars -- determined that not only was "Louie Louie" not obscene, it was "unintelligible at any speed." It has since become a staple of rock radio and a favorite of marching bands across the country (so, this one time at band camp, we played a song that was featured in "Animal House" and "The Naked Gun"), including a version by the Rice University Marching Owl Band on this compilation.

All this superintendent of schools had to do was a quick Google search to discover that there's no problem with the song, especially since the marching band wouldn't be singing it! Or better yet, she could have told this one tightass parent to stick her complaint in a marching band tuba. Instead, her response was that if a majority of band parents supported their kids playing the song, she would reconsider.

Thankfully, the more enlightened parents stepped up -- or maybe one of them printed out the real lyrics and showed them to her -- and Ms. Dawning reversed herself late Thursday.

That marching band, they gotta go now.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Seat Belt Quandary

I've been flying for years and seen that flight attendant safety demonstration hundreds of times. You know, the one that starts with instructions on how to operate your seat belt. I couldn't imagine that there could be any adult on the plane who couldn't understand this simple mechanism -- after all, they must have been in a car at some point in their life before getting on board the plane, right?

Wrong. Yesterday, on my way back from Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who had no clue how the seat belt worked. She was an older Asian woman, traveling with her middle-aged daughter. I was on the aisle and mom was in the middle seat between us, struggling to make the metal tip somehow connect with the buckle. She tried lifting the lever and putting the tip in there. When that didn't work, she tried forcing the belt through the holes in the end of the tip. No good. Finally, she simply gave up and held the two pieces together in one hand. She was obviously too embarrassed to ask her daughter for help, and I didn't want to exacerbate the situation, so I didn't volunteer any assistance. I don't know how she made it from her Asian homeland to the US in the first place, but it was probably on a sea-going vessel that didn't require seat belts.

The irony here is that the safety demonstration had still been absolutely no use. At this point in America's airborne history, flight attendants do these things by rote and just breeze through the required verbiage. But even if they had taken it slower and offered a more detailed explanation of how to harness yourself to your seat, it wouldn't have helped the woman next to me, because she didn't speak a word of English.

Fortunately, the daughter eventually noticed mom's difficulty and showed her the proper way to buckle up. Now, it was time for that next technical stumper -- the fold-down seat-back tray table.