‘Tis The Gift To Be Simple

October 7, 2008 - Leave a Response

There is no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, about what the “next big thing” will be in technology-based product engineering.  Simply put, it will be simplicity. Current thinking is that consumers want options. The more options the better. “It’s what America is all about”, you know, “choices”. But I’m not so sure.

It’s not just that there are something like 70 different kinds of Crest toothpaste, or hundreds, if not thousands, of user options on my Blackberry. It’s that our love affair with choices has made everything ridiculously complicated. I remember a man once tried to sell me car that had a radio with what he called a “parametric equalizer”. It was a series of slide controls designed to contour the sound to my particular vehicle. The dynamics of, oh I don’t know, “Jammin’ Z-90”, might change, you see, depending on the number of people in the passenger cabin, or the relative humidity. And you’d want to take your eyes off the road every once in a while and peak up or attenuate the 80 to 300 hertz range to compensate.  

At first, I thought it was a sign of age, and so I kept my thoughts to myself. Secretly longing for a car radio that had an on-off switch, some push buttons, and maybe a bass-treble knob. Wishing for a cell phone that just rang, for crying out loud, without first insisting I decide what the ring should sound like, how loud it should be, whether of not “I’m sure”, and if I want to “apply” my decision.

But now even my younger friends admit they are tech-taxed texters, and I can fast-forward a few years to when even the most option-agile minds will say “enough!”. It is then, that open-collared, fresh-faced, state-of-the-art marketing whizzes, shall preach about how “people have OD’d on complexity. Consumers now want simplicity. If your design calls for a hundred options, or just two of them, keep it simple!” “The age of simplicity”, they’ll probably call it. Our love-affair with bells and whistles and choices will be seen as a vaguely embarrassing relic of the early 2000s, like Washington Mutual.

Don’t get me wrong, I think “Have It Your Way” is a great idea, and “31 Flavors” is terrific. But like every other kind of excess, there’s a self-regulating aspect to all of this. In the future, things will most certainly swing back toward “simplicity”. And, when you get to 70 kinds of toothpaste. I think the future is now. Am I “Sure”. Yes. “Apply” yes.


What’s The Matter, Alma Mater?

September 9, 2008 - Leave a Response

Let’s be clear at the start here. The quality of a University is not measured by the success of its athletic program. Caltech may still hold the record for consecutive losses in college football. Notwithstanding,  I believe it is a highly regarded place.

Still, there’s something to be said for winning a big game. Maybe once in a while.  At least once in a lifetime. Like so many former San Diego State students, I had my fingers crossed Saturday, not expecting, but hoping for the Aztecs to win what’s called a “map” game. The kind of game that puts an otherwise mediocre program on “the map”. The kind of game that gets sports commentators around the country talking about your school. I imagine that must lead to great things, like grants, endowments, research contracts and so on. But mostly its just wanting my team to win a big one every half century or so.

I’ve been waiting since I was a student. I won’t say how long ago that was, but they played in a place called “San Diego Stadium”, when posting beer advertisements around the scoreboard would have been considered vulgar. In the years since, they’ve taken on USC and tied them, lost a dozen times or so to UCLA, Lost to Miami, Michigan, and the list goes on.

Very often the games are close, agonizingly close. But in the end, San Diego State always loses, as it did Saturday. They could have won it. An Aztec was carrying the ball into the endzone for what would have been a commanding 20-7 lead well into the fourth quarter. But he fumbled as he was crossing the plane of victory, and The Fighting Irish, thereby inspired, went on to win.

Aztec fans have wondered aloud if there’s something in the water at Montezuma Mesa. An attractive campus with attractive students, first-class athletic facilities, an excellent academic reputation in sun-splashed San Diego, why does it wallow thus, whilst Boise State and Fresno State thrive?

There is talk that the Aztecs must think smaller and play in the shallow end with lower division schools more suited to their skill level. That’s a sad thing to hear. Even more disheartening is the notion that the football program should be discontinued entirely. Especially because, at this point, there’s some logic to that argument.

A few years ago, the Aztecs were having a rough season. Add to that, the fact that, all season,  they had been wearing unfamiliar bright red jerseys, and hadn’t even looked like a team from San Diego State. But then, in their darkest hour, the players, coaches, and staff had an inspiration! The team would surprise everyone by bursting onto the field in their old familiar black uniforms from the glory days of State! The crowd went crazy, the team was pumped, and the Aztecs lost. 

All I know to do, is go to the games with anybody I can get to come along. We clap and cheer and usually leave disappointed, and frankly, puzzled. Other than that, I don’t have any ideas. I like Chuck Long. He is an earnest and charismatic fellow, and the Notre Dame game made they think that, come the next “map” game, there might actually be hope for….oh, never mind.

Good Bye, Bob Dale

July 18, 2008 - Leave a Response

It’s been a few weeks now, but the letters and calls keep coming in. There’s a real sense of loss among San Diego television viewers that Bob Dale is gone, and with him, an era.

Bob was our weatherman at NBC 7/39, and before that, a movie host. And before that, he presented the afternoon movie over on KFMB. And before that he was a kid-show host, movie emcee, and TV disc jockey, playing phonograph records on the air at a pioneer television station in Cleveland.  That was 1947, when the studio lights were so hot, he had to keep the records flat on his desk, or they would warp and be useless.

I admired Bob’s history. He was there when television began. But that’s not the thing that I’ll remember most about him. It was the gracious way he carried his celebrity. And make no mistake, this man was a huge star in our city. Never mind that he never believed he deserved that fame, he nonetheless felt that with it came responsibility.

TV personalities today are judged, as much as anything else, by their ability to make guests, and the audience squirm. Whole programs are built around tabloid fascination with human discomfort, and shame. Bob couldn’t imagine hurting anybody’s feelings. We trusted, that no matter how awkward the situation, he would neither embarrass himself, nor us.

A long-time viewer told me a story of watching Bob Dale one day. I’ll recount it as best I can. It seems Bob was moving through a crowd, live microphone in hand, interviewing San Diegans, when he came upon a wheelchair-bound man who had obviously suffered some kind of stroke, and could not speak clearly. The man tried to say a few words, but they came out broken and slurred.  At last the man said “I’m sorry, I’m so difficult to understand”. Today, such a scene would have never made air. A cynical host would sprint away to someone more attractive and whole. But, Bob Dale listened, let the man finish his words as best he could, and then said, “We are understanding you just fine,  Sir, God Bless You”.

Watching Bob Dale interact with his fans, you could see why they loved him. He had time for a word with everybody. And I think it’s because he really didn’t think he was one bit better than any of them. He didn’t believe he deserved to cut in line, or be at the head of any table.

I used to talk with Bob Dale. He was an encyclopedia of film and television history.  The stories of people he met and things he did were simply amazing. Yet, he never saw himself as a celebrity. He was one of a dying breed of television performers who thought more of his audience than he did himself.  And in my book, for that alone, he’ll always…always be a star.

The kind of government we deserve.

May 9, 2008 - Leave a Response
A person very dear to me once allowed as how she could never vote for Richard Nixon. “I don’t like the curl of his lip”, she explained. I don’t know if that was the only reason, but I got the sense it was a deal breaker.
John Edwards might have been the greatest President of our time, or the worst, I don’t know, he never got the chance. He’ll be remembered as the guy who got super-expensive haircuts. In 1972, Ed Muskie cried. Well, it isn’t clear if he really cried. It may have been the snow melting on his face, but no matter, the Senator from Maine was finished. He could have been the next Abraham Lincoln, who knows, because he maybe, possibly, perhaps, might have cried, and that’s all that mattered.
Did John McCain suffer an inappropriate flirtation? In his 300th news quote of the day, did he accidentally say “Iran” when he meant “Iraq?” Well, sheez!, show him to the door! Was Chelsea Clinton churlish when asked about her Dad? Ummm! then her Mom has got no business running for President! What was it that Obama’s minister said? Has he been strong enough in repudiating the Reverend’s words? He must secretly hate America! It would be one thing if these topics had a flashbulb existence, burning white-hot for one gossip-cycle,  but instead they fester into dramas that, amazingly, take on a self-perpetuating energy of their own. While the fate of The Republic hangs in the balance, campaigns sound like a schoolyard full of 8-year-olds. Seasoned reporters who should know better, justify being a part of the frenzy, by pretending this is “a test of how the candidate handles the heat!” In fact, it’s a loss to all of us. We end up with no sense of who might make a good President, but a terrific idea who’d make a nice prom queen. 
Candidates, desperate to please, become vanilla clones, their responses only slightly varied shades of beige . They make it a point to go to church and sit up especially straight. They wear flags on their lapels, and propose “gas-tax holidays”.
Voters complain the candidates we elect so often end up disappointing us. Once in office, they prove to be incompitent, ineffective, self-serving, or, most often, just painfully unremarkable.  It’s been said we get the kind of govenment we deserve. Until we start paying more attention, we deserve nothing better.
Years ago, there was a Mayoral candidate in San Diego who figured he had the election locked up. Then the voters cast their ballots, and he lost. He responded by putting together a list of those who, he was convinced, had betrayed him. He titled it “One Thousand Liars”. Cooler heads convinced him not to publish it. Why he lost has never been made clear. Maybe it was the curl of his lip.

The Problem With Football

February 11, 2008 - Leave a Response

*NOTICE TO READERS…..(The term “Super Bowl” and all related references to “Super Bowl”, the “Super Bowl Game”, or the words “Super” and “Bowl” appearing congruently in any fashion, are the exclusive ownership of some faceless entity more powerful than any of us can possibly imagine.)

Now that the season is over and the Chargers (sniff) didn’t make it to The Big Game*, we may speak with relative liberty about the biggest drawback in football. What you see is too often not what you get. As football is America’s Most Popular Sport, I’ll try to explain, and then dive for cover. Let’s say the quarterback gets the ball, sees all of his receivers are unavailable, and in a flash of creativity seasoned by experience, decides to tuck and dash for the endzone himself. 20 yards, he runs, and then 40!, 50!, 60!…gloriosky! He scores! He scores!!!! One of the most exciting runs in the history of the s….! Hold it! Hold everything, there’s a flag! Back at the 10.

A high school football coach once told me that an eagle-eyed ref could, if he chose to, call “holding” on almost every play. Some of the most dramatic moments in pro games are during kickoff returns. But rarely is the ball put in play where the receiver is finally downed. There are, after all, penalties to be sorted out.

Of course, the same is true of America’s Most Popular Sport, basketball. But it doesn’t seem to disrupt the flow of the game as much. You hear a whistle as the play is unfolding, and somehow take that into account.

But baseball…ah! The runner touches third and slides home ahead of the tag and he’s…safe! Hate it, love it, cheer, scream, cuss, boo!, he’s still safe. You have to admire the crust of a smug umpire. Having adjudicated chaos ex cathedra, he turns his back on the whole groveling spectacle at the plate, and, amid a hail of boos and booze, simply heads for his car.

‘Course I still watch football. Love the Aztecs. Root for the Chargers. Every year I try to watch The Big Game* . But with the coming of Spring, I confess my mind is beginning to yearn for the kind of certainty and finality that has helped make baseball America’s Most Popular Sport.

This Myth Be The Place

January 14, 2008 - 2 Responses

About once every couple of weeks or so, somebody will ask about those “midget houses” on Mount Soledad. According to the story, circulated for decades by high school students who would drive up the mountain to , oh, “study”, there were small homes off to one side of the road. They were small, you see, so that midgets would be comfortable moving about therein. And not just any midgets, but the very ones who appeared in the 1939 classic film “The Wizard Of Oz”.

Or the San Diego Chargers, so named, it is said, because former owner Baron Hilton, the driving force behind “The Diners Club” card, wanted people to think of “Charging” their meals to a revolving credit account.

Or Thomas Edison, who, while attending an event at the newly wired Hotel Del Coronado was supposedly so annoyed with dimming electrical lights, that he rose from his banquet table, threw off his formal shirt, descended to the boiler room, and began shoveling coal until the bulbs were back at full brilliance. I love that story. It’s fun to think that the most creative and accomplished
human being since Michelangelo might have been stoking flames in the basement, as diners above slowly began realizing “Oh, this is fish”.

I guess it’s possible that if you built a small house, a midget might move in. But the houses in question certainly aren’t small anymore. They’ve been remodeled, and the truth is, they weren’t that small to begin with. They were simply built on level ground, while the road was built on a grade so the homes appeared to be smaller. Add to that some gingerbread eaves, and you’ve got the stuff to start stories stat.

The Chargers may have known a good thing when they saw it, and a lot of San Diegans can remember Dodge Chargers parked in the end zone of the stadium. But the actual name was suggested by a Los Angeles Area resident when the team was new up there, and held a contest to pick a name. He submitted a whole list of names. “Chargers” wasn’t even at the top of it.

And as for Thomas Edison, here’s the “what’s watt”. He never shoveled coal in the basement of the Del, and neither did anybody else. The power plant was in a separate building, and supplied sparks for much of the City Of Coronado. If the lights had really been growing dim, lots of folks would have been pounding on the door before Edison had even loosed his cummerbund.

Still, years become decades, the stories pass from generation to generation, and it’s easy to see why. Nobody likes to be the person to say they’re not true. Except they’re not. And that’s the truth.

War Piece

November 13, 2007 - One Response

I’m not good at ignoring people on the street. It’s an urban skill I’ve never mastered. If approached by a homeless person, my impulse is to shell out. I never have, of course. It’s been drilled into me that to do so, is akin to feeding a feral cat or listening to a telemarketer. It only encourages the behavior.
But then there are the news reports. One in four homeless people is a veteran. “Support The Troops” only goes so far, I guess. That guy I just waved off, may have put his body on the line to protect my comfortable lifestyle. Now, who in this world can he turn to? I feel like I owe him something more than a pained grimace and directions to Father Joe’s.
I’ve never served in the military, so I’ll have to feel my way through this, but here goes: I think if I were a veteran, I would be furious. It’s bad enough that military men and women are being asked to fight a war that demands no sacrifice on the home front. No discernible inconvenience dampens our civilian lives, except perhaps the vague concern that our tax breaks may be delayed, or that Holiday spending could be a bit down this year. Only those serving, and their families of course, suffer the agonies of war.
And then they come home. And, as in Vietnam, in numbers, again, that can only be estimated, they are ill with physical and mental disorders that demand log-term caring attention. But the evidence on the street suggests they are not getting it.
So I’ll call up my Representative, and say it’s a “national disgrace”. But what do I say to the homeless veteran with his hand extended? . “I…uh, appreciate your service, that’s it!,…appreciate your service.”

Too Much TV

September 17, 2007 - One Response

This may sound odd from somebody who makes his living doing television, but there’s such a thing as too much TV. Not that anyone could possibly be overexposed to “About San Diego” or the myriad splendid offerings eminating from this broadcast house. No, I mean simply that there’s a time and place for everything, and some times and places should be TV free.

When my friend’s brother had a colonoscopy, he was able to watch the entire procedure live on a television just a few feet away from the action itself. Afterward, he was asked if he’d like a videotape of it all to take home, (he did), and show to others. (he…um. did.)

At my post office, there is usually a line. But the amusement needn’t stop while we wait. A TV has been set up to occupy every idle moment. Pumping gas, the other day, I recognized a familiar voice. It was my colleague Pat Brown announcing the weather from a screen on the pump itself. It never occurred to me that the minute or two that it takes to gas up was otherwise wasted. I wonder if urinals will be next? I hope they show channel 8.

Maybe it’s just me, (and it usually is), but there’s something curious about an SUV packed with a vacationing family, bounding down the interstate, past all the visual wonders of the great cities, majestic mountains, magnificent desert geology, sparkling lakes, and achingly beautiful panoramas, all of it going unnoticed by those aft of the front seat, who are watching a video.

I can certainly remember taking road trips as a youngster. Of course there were times when I felt there wasn’t enough going on to keep the mind alive. My parents must have said “just look out the window, there’s a whole field of asparagus!” I don’t remember, I was probably busy poking fun at my sister. So I understand any parent’s desire to keep the kids in the back quiet.
But I still think it’s sort of sad.

On the Fourth Of July, our news department covered the activities of San Diegans as they gathered to celebrate the day and frolic at the beach. As the camera closed in on one family, it was clear that they had not forgotten to bring television for the kids. Under their tent was a large screen video projector, ‘else a day at the beach prove insufficient stimulation.

Last year there was a Jet Blue flight that was attempting a landing with a malfunctioning nose gear. A full-on crisis in the sky. “Everybody assume the crash position!”, kind of thing.
Yet, aboard the troubled craft itself, television was never interrupted, and passengers (who peeked) could watch the safe landing live on CNN.

OK, to be fair, a doctor needs a video screen to see your colon is OK, and well, why not let you see too? If the kids prefer a video of “Home Alone 4” to the real-life Grand Tetons, it’s not the end of the world. But I still wonder if we have some kind of culture-wide attention deficit disorder where every moment absent of external stimulus must be filled, or we’ll…we’ll….have to use our imaginations or something.

Eeeeew. An Old Person.

August 23, 2007 - Leave a Response

A story on the MSN web site tells us of a new study about seniors and sex. Turns out that seniors are, according to the story, “surprisingly frisky”. I guess that must be news if you feel that once you turn, oh, I don’t know, 32 or so, there’s no real point to being alive. Indeed, as if to forewarn the reader that the topic might be a bit icky, we were cautioned that this “may be too much information for some folks.”
Another story, out of Brattleboro, Vermont, made it on to one of the cable TV news channels. It seems that local residents there sometimes walk around pretty much naked. Everyone at the anchor desk appeared to agree with local townspeople that this had not, until now, been a problem. But lately things had gone too far. An elderly person was recently seen without enough clothes. Watching the report, it was clear that the writer, the editor, the anchors, nor anybody else in that journalistic chain of events picked up on the ageism. To the “20 or 30-somethings” who were responsible for that newscast, an older person showing skin was universally repulsive.
Many older people say they don’t fear their age, so much as they fear being irrelevant. There are no role models, heroes, or reassuring figures to be found anywhere in popular culture or media. If an older person appears in a TV drama or commercial, they are often dismissed as obsolete clowns or fools. Seldom is there a hint that they may truly be sexually vital human beings. No wonder people in Brattleboro react like they’ve seen a two-headed seal.
I used to wonder if my generation would be the one to change things. We are, after all, the “baby boomers”. In terms of sheer numbers, we have the political power, to go with our reputation for social activism, to say nothing of our penchant for getting naked in public.…or is that “too much information?”

What Are The Chances?

July 25, 2007 - Leave a Response

An incredible thing happened to me the other day. Something so statistically unlikely that it seemed amazing it had really occurred.
I guess we all think the improbable is possible, or we’d never buy a lottery ticket. Consider the odds of winning a Mega-Millions jackpot, for instance. They are 1 in 176-million. According to National Safety Council, you have a far better chance of dying this year from contact with a venomous snake or lizard. You are 28 times as likely to be struck and killed by lightning this year.
Which brings me to my story. I recently got a call from an old friend from my Public Broadcasting days. Her name is Faith Sidlow, and she is now a television anchor for NBC in Fresno.
With a group of friends we gathered on the beach to talk about old times and new ones. In passing, one of us, I can’t remember which, mentioned my birthplace, Pasadena, California.
“Well, how interesting”, Faith observed. (or words to this effect) “My husband was born there also.” I had earlier learned that he and I were the same age. “Really? In what hospital?” “Saint Luke’s”, came the reply. Now, you must understand that St. Luke’s was a nice, medium sized hospital. Not the biggest in Pasadena, but anyway, back to the story. “What Month?” Turns out he and I were born in the same month of the same year in the same maternity ward. “And, uh…What Day?” Well, it was exactly the same day!
We, of course called Faith’s husband in Fresno, trying to determine the exact hour of his birth. Mine was 7:09 A.M. He couldn’t recall, but he remembered his mother telling him that just as he was to arrive, her doctor was called away to another delivery, and a different doctor brought him into the world. Hmmm.
I’d be curious to know what the statistical chances of that happening are? My nursery roommate marries my longtime friend, whom I’ve never known, except he might be one of the first people I ever met.
Years ago, I used to do a talk radio show with a professional astrologer and psychic named “Nova”. People would call in and tell her the date and place of their birth. With this information she was able to consult a star chart, or some such thing, and determine their qualities of personality, aptitude for love, and cholesterol count. It certainly seems to me that I have to make a trip to Fresno to meet Faith’s husband. I mean, the stars and planets must have been pretty much in the same spot when we came into this world maybe only minutes apart. We must be emotional and intellectual twins! At the very least we should get a Mega Millions ticket!