To boldly go where no one has gone before…

When I was a little kid, they used to roll a TV into our grade school classroom so we could watch space shots. Watching a grainy, black-and-white image of the rocket igniting, breaking free of its hold-down bolts, and slowly climbing into the crowds was a thrill beyond belief. And it was a thrill not only from a scientific viewpoint (back when science was revered, as opposed to the tendency for certain right-wing elements to revile science). It was also thrilling because it was ours. It was something we, the American people, were doing as a country, prodded at first by the young, forward-looking President and then continued in his memory. When JFK said “we will go to the moon,” the first reaction from the scientific community was something along the line of “he’s nuts.” The second reaction, though, was “Well, let’s see if we really can do that.” NASA and the space program was born. Something like over 40,000 people worked together to invent rockets, capsules, rocket fuel, telemetry and everything else needed to get men onto the moon and back safely. Along the way came a myriad of things we take for granted now, everything from transistors (vacuum tubes wouldn’t do on a spaceship) to velcro and teflon. There was, of course, Tang, and smoke detectors (after a launch pad fire killed 3 astronauts).

But all the “things” we got out of the space program are really beside the point. What we got more than anything was that we went along into space. We were there with John Glenn when he orbited the earth, and we took that first step with Neil Amstrong. It was — and is — a point of national pride. We did it. No other country on earth could do what we did. Talk about “American exceptionalism.”

Watching the shuttle take off was no less thrilling than watchin Shepherd all those years ago. We have come to think of space travel as routine; of the Shuttle as the “space truck,” no more interesting than a Starving Students moving van blocking our street. Every so often, we were reminded that exploring space, even when it means being the delivery van for the International Space Shuttle, is still dangerous business. Challenger and Columbia reminded us of that. Those two space shuttles are not living out retirement in some museum; their crews are not enjoying retirement on earth. So there was still that moment, as the rockets ignited in glorious high-def TV with the digital surround sound shaking the house, when everyone held their breath. Would the huge boosters lift the shuttle off the ground? Would it reach orbit without a mishap? It did, of course, a picture-perfect launch for the end of the shuttle program.

NASA officials have been quick to note that this is not the end of the US space program. Design and planning continues on a “heavy lift” (that means Big Mother) rocket and capsules to make humans into space, beyond earth orbit, on to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But at this point, it seems to far off to be real. Perhaps when we start seeing test rockets going into space, it will become more real again.

In the meantime, the push to “privitize” everything will give us commercial space travel. You and I probably won’t ever have the chance to take a ride on Virgin Galactic. A couple of hundred thousand a trip is a bit steep for most of us. And, unlike Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle, those flights won’t be “ours” anymore. I’ll miss the thrill

Rachael Maddow, will you be my friend?

I tried to be Rachel Maddow’s friend. I mean, I think she’s cool.She’s adorable, with that cute little bit of an overbite and the geekier-than-tho glasses. She’s also a journalist the way they used to be, which is to say that she does her homework, trying to find out the actual, um, facts before forming an opinion. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts. I suspect Rachael agrees with that assertion. Fox News, of course, couldn’t agree less).  I like her slogan, “Mind over chatter.” There’s too much mindless chatter on TV, particularly on the cable networks. And she is one of the few journalists that truly “speaks truth to power,” being unfraid to challenge the statements of her guests when they’re blowing smoke.  Then there is that thing about fairness:  she has often stated that she wants her guests to leave feeling they’ve been treated fairly, even if she has disagreed with most of what they said. That whole “disagreeing without being disagreeable” thing that seems to be mostly missing from political discourse in recent years.

So there I was on Facebook, when up popped the suggestion that I might want to be friends with Rachael. My good friend Gil Askawa is a “mutual friend,” said Facebook. (Gil’s also a journalist, so that’s a doubly-good recommendation). So much of what appears on Facebook is useless drivel (no, I’m not interested in how you’re doing in Farmville — with apologies to my niece, who’s really into that), but there are potentially some interesting posts here and there. I figured Rachael Maddow would have something interesting to say.

Alas, it was not to be. Facebook informed me that “Rachael has too many friends.” (Funny, I thought friends were like ratings points; you can never really have too many. Rachael would probably love to take a few ratings points away from Fox). Facebook has recently limited “friends” to 5ooo. Now, for most of us, 5 friends is about all we can handle, but “friends” in the online sense is something else. Facebook claims something about their plumbing getting all clogged up if you have more than 5000 friends. As with most things involving Facebook, there must be a sinister motive to this. My friend Bob the Media Guy keeps trying to figure out how to “monetize” this social networking stuff (since that’s that Media Guys do); I keep saying once you figure out how to make money doing it, it will drive all the freeloaders away and there will be audience left. In any event, it seems like a bad idea to limit media types and celebrities in how many people they can influence or at least touch.

So, sorry, Rachael. Guess if you want to be friends with me, we’ll just have to meet for coffee sometime. We actually work a few blocks apart, so it should be easy. Have your people call my people.

Here’s to Shatner

Once upon a time, in a recording studio far, far away, I worked with William Shatner. He was in to do some narration for the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium (now the Rose Center). He was rude, arrogant and downright awful. But, as the then-director of the Planetarium put it, “We have to use him; he’s Cpt. Kirk!” One of my more memorable recording sessions, but not one of my favorite.

Bill Shatner’s mellowed over the years. He’s learned to laugh at himself, and he’s learned to exploit his <um> “acting talents” to good effect, especially comedy. On Boston Legal, he played a far-right Republican. In real life, William Shatner is somewhat to left of most liberal Democrats.

For the past couple of years, Shatner’s been doing a somewhat unconventional “chat show” on the Bio Channel — William Shatner’s Raw Nerve. Shatner chats with a single guest, the two seated in an s-shaped “love seat” type chair, facing each other. Shatner’s recent guest:  Rush Limbaugh. Now, the ever-corpulent (physically and mentally) Rushbo has been making the rounds, doing what Rush usually does:  make up shit and pull supposed “facts” and opinions out of his ass. The man lies. Or perhaps he believe the bullshit, but I think not. I think it’s all done in the interest of keeping Rush in the “news” and getting ratings and raking in money. I’m cynical that way. (Rush should never have allowed cameras into his studio while doing his radio show. Not only does he spend half the time pulling his short off his huge, sweaty body, but am I the only one to notice that most of the time he’s reading from a script? That’s right. It’s long been rumored that el Rushbo’s “opinions” are in fact written for him by a squad of writers. And it’s not just notes; he does seem to be reading verbatim off the paper in front of him.

Anyway, leave it Bill Shatner to boldly go where no “legitimate” newsperson (let alone a single Republican) would go. Shatner posited the theory that, if you are rich, you get good health care in the United States; if you’re poor, you don’t. Limbaugh countered with “if you have money, you can afford a beach house; if you don’t, you live in a bugalow.” But, protested Shatner, this is health care we’re talking about. Limbaugh said he saw no difference.

Wow. At least an admission that the far right believes in “them that’s gots gets more; them that’s nots, fuck ’em.” Now, I suppose that’s a legitimate political philosophy. But do most of us really want to live in a country where people are dying in the richest country in the world for lack of health care?

It really is a question of morality. You either believe in some kind of communal common interest and taking care of each other, or you don’t. And William Shatner seems to be among the few in the media willing to articulate that.

Needless to say, if I ever have a chance to work with Bill Shatner again, I will not hesitiate to do so. Shatner rules!

Farewell to America’s Uncle

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the future of journalism. My pal Gil Asakawa’s been on a few panels discussing it. Newspapers are dropping like flies, slimming down like The NY Times, going online more and trying to reinvent themselves in an era of declining readership and plummeting revenue. We’re told that “new media,” citizen-journalists (what is that anyway?), bloggers and tweaters are the future of information delivery. The professional, trained journalist is out of fashion; old-fashioned legwork and reporting won’t cut it in this era of 24-hour “news” outlets and an unrelenting news cycle.
Walter Cronkite

For anyone alive at the time John F. Kennedy was shot (or the millions who have seen the famous video clip since), the image of Walter Cronkite announcing that the nation’s young President was dead is forever engraved in our brains. Cronkite seldom showed emotions on air, but after reading the annoucement he paused, removed his glasses and seemed to stare into space for an eternity, before slowly replacing his glasses. He communicated not only the facts of the story, but seemed to sum up the feeling of the country.

Cronkite’s famous sign off was “…and that’s the way it is,” and it was the kind of journalism he practiced. He had noted that his tenure as a reporter for The United Press, where he said he learned to write accurately and fast, both talents that would serve him well. Hired by the legendary Edward R. Murrow, he helped to mold the fledgling CBS-TV network news operation into the famed “Tiffany network.” He gained the trust of America at a time when three networks dominated network news, with Cronkites CBS Evening News being the most dominant of the three. Even after he left his anchor position (with some prodding from a network eager to keep Cronkite’s heir Dan Rather in the fold), Cronkite was consistently voted among America’s most trusted leaders, frequently holding the top spot.

Walter Cronkite insisted on the both the title an job of Managing Editor for the CBS Evening News. He was very much the “anchor” that held things together, but he continued to be a working newsman, frequently writing his own copy, rather than just reading someone else’s off the teleprompter. (After assuming the post, Dan Rather continued the practice during his tenure).

After the Tet offensive in Viet Nam, Cronkite made one of his few editorial expressions on the air. PBS’s Bill Moyers recalled Lyndon Johnson watching the broadcast and observing that if he’d lost Cronkite, he’d lost the support of the country for the war.

One of the things I remember most about “Uncle Walter” was his coverage of the various space shots and flights. This was back in the time when going into space was a big deal; when the teacher would wheel a TV into the classroom so we grade-school kids could watch the launches. This was one area where Cronkite’s professional demeanor would give way to sheer amazement — a feeling shared by most of us. Covering the live, first steps on the moon, he momentarily was speechless. Again, pretty much conveying what most of the world was thinking at that moment. I knew something was wrong with Cronkite when he was conspicously absent from all the coverage surrounding the 40th anniversary of that event.

It seems the last few months were hard on him, as cerebral vascular disease causes the blood vessels in that formidable brain to melt way. One can only imagine the damage the disease did. Walter Cronkite was, however, active and productive up until almost the very end. He contributions to journalism, to television, and to our collective consciousness will live on.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

Among the seemingly endless stream of bad news comes this “bright spot:”  Apps for the iPhone are selling briskly. For those who have been inhabiting a cave in Wazeristan for the past couple of years, apps are the little software programs for the iPhone (and some other smartphones from the non-Apple world). Some of them are downright useful, like the app that records the GPS coordinates of where you left you car, and provides a map with step-by-step instructions to find your way back. I’ll admit I could use that one.

But now, two appmakers are considering heading to court over….wait for it, wait for it…. farts. It seems that iFart is one of the biggest-selling iPhone apps. Yep, an app that makes your phone fart. Americans have, it seems, become too lazy to even pass gas on their own. Considering that the American ass has been expanding in indirect proportions to the economy as a whole (not to mention the proliferation of hot air on cable news channels), you would think producing farts would not be much of a problem. More and more, I’m starting to think that Wall-E was not much a cautionary tale and a documentary.

Now the company that produces a Pull My Finger fart app is threatening to sue the makers of iFart. This ranks right up there with Congress debating a bill about monkeys (true!).

I’m sure somewhere, someone has come up with an app to turn your iPhone into sex toy (iDildo?). Personally, I suggest all those app-crazy iPhoners just set your phone to “vibrate,” shove their phone up their ass, and have a friend call. If you’re not too busy having your phone fart, that is.

Why Are My Newscasts Singing?

I really don’t need my newscasts to have theme songs. NBC’s NY station is trilling, “We’re FOUR New York” these days. Thanks heavens Brain Williams has the good sense to not sing, but merely recite some cutesy line (“This year, I’m not for any particular candidate, but I’m four New York” was the line during the election season). Alas, the same can’t be said for Sue “What the fuck are you doing?” Simmons, who seems to curse far better than she sings. (After about 100 years anchoring, you’d think she’d have learned to never assume your mic is off when on the set!). Continue reading

Shall We Dance?

When my sister and I were kids, we would get invited to the family weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and funerals. Now, there wasn’t generally much dancing at the funerals, but the other affairs (as they were called in the day) generally included dancing, usually accompanied by a live band. (This was in the era before DJs became the norm for such affairs, though I suppose some bands still reign). While we “kids” generally attempted ot dance, we were used to dancing to rock and roll. The bands attempted a few “rock” tunes, but Herb Zane and his band (who played not only my bar mitzvah party but also my sister’s wedding party years later) were about as far from rock and roll as you could get. Continue reading

The Well-Hung Flag

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity (“I know it when I see it”) pretty much sums up art. One person’s artistic expression is another person’s irrelevant trash. I’m not sure if art is defined by the artist or the public (whatever public it may be that’s doing the defining).

Down in Florida, that bastion of sense and culture in America, a piece of work in a museum exhibit has the Sons of the Confederacy’s panties in a wad. Continue reading