Vast Wasteland

Fifty years ago today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters and told them it was time for television to “grow up”.

The bigwigs of broadcasting were not delighted by this dressing down from a bureaucrat. The most benign (and delightful) reaction to Minow from the TV industry came when the producers of Gilligan’s Island named the cast’s ill-fated boat after him.

You can listen to the whole thing if you want, but here’s the famous quote (the long form):

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Newton Minow is still with us today at age 85, and last month wrote a commentary for The Atlantic about the anniversary of his famous speech. He bemoans the fact that so much emphasis was placed on the words “Vast Wasteland” when he thinks the most important word pair in the talk was “Public Interest”.

But there you go. The result proves his argument. Regardless of what you think you mean to say, opportunistic interpreters will find the most provocative and lucrative part of your statement, and that is what we will peddle. And by “we”, I mean the bazillions of us who make up what some call “the media” of 2011. Minow’s original critique focused mainly on the offerings of three measly networks. Big deal.

Here at Trail Baboon, my preferred method of trivializing significant things is to celebrate them with a silly, sing-songy poem. Why should Newton Minow be spared?

Newton Minow watched TV
and said he was appalled it
did not deserve its public, and
a wasteland’s what he called it.

A two-word slam. A snide remark.
A snotty little slight
That for 50 years has stung
And made us wonder – was he right?

A scolding seldom wins the day.
A snob is just a snob.
And to wag his finger at the box
was Newton Minow’s job.

He did his part. He turned his phrase.
He sang his little song.
But seeing how the landscape changed
We know he got it wrong.

Because Minow didn’t know about
“Apprentice”. The poor guy!
He had not beheld a Hasselhoff
Or seen a CSI

In ’61 no one had watched
Mob Wives or Jersey Shore.
But today we gladly take these shows
To have and to abhor.

The ‘wasteland’ part is accurate
today as in the past
but he blew it when he called
his paltry ‘60’s circus “vast”.

What’s the worst TV show you’ve ever seen?

Ask Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

When my youngest graduated from Stanford in ‘08 and took a job at a venture capital firm that finances Initial Public Offerings for tech startups, I relaxed. I thought he was going to be spending his time with responsible people. So imagine my surprise when he comes home for Thanksgiving and he’s got a tattoo on his arm – a company logo for DigiChip – an image of a standard potato chip but with sparks flying off the sides and all kinds of technical thingies on it. And it was etched on his arm – that beautiful, pristine, still baby-soft skin! I almost fainted. His explanation? It was the first account he ever worked on, and he wanted to remember it.

I still can’t believe he turned his body into a shrine for this miserable company, because they were out of business by the following Memorial Day. I think my child’s ravaged skin is the only thing left of DigiChip – not that anyone would notice because he’s cluttered up the rest of his exposed flesh with logos from all the OTHER companies he’s worked with in the past 36 months – mostly bankrupt news aggregators and failed social networks (why would you name one “Sardine Tin?” People don’t want to be THAT close!). I joke that they’ll have to fire him in two years when the illustrations start creeping up his neck.

The latest atrocity hurts me more than all the previous tattoos combined – the company is called “Mother’s Milk Energy Drink”. The image is a bottle of the product with a heart superimposed over it, and yes, the word “Mother’s” on a scrolled banner.

If my child is going to have any form of “Mother” written on his skin in indelible ink, it had better be there as a tribute to ME, not to honor some toxic combination of carbonation, corn syrup and caffeine!

He says “If you want it to be for you, mom, it’s OK to think that. I’m sure the dudes at Mother’s wont mind.”

Dr. Babooner, I bit my tongue, but what if I mind? Doesn’t that count?

Listen You Dope, I’m Angry!

I told L.Y.D.I.A! that this was a terribly unfortunate situation and I can understand her distress, but she needs to remember two things.

1) Tattoos today are not the same kind of outsider’s social statement they were when she was young.
2) Some people just get too wrapped up in their work.

When one’s child emphasizes the professional over the personal, one should feel pity alongside the rage. Eventually it will dawn on him (in the shower perhaps), that he has emotionally over-invested in these shaky IPO’s.

And it wouldn’t hurt to mention sometime that when you gave birth to him, it was an extremely risky and terribly painful Initial Public Offering that has been a good investment overall, though there have been some shaky quarters of late.

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

Professional Absentee

It seems like every May there’s a morose note from Wendell Wilkie High School’s perennial sophomore, Bubby Spamden. What a pity – to be so young and so bleak in springtime.

Hey Mr. C.,

Summer’s coming, and it looks like the job scene for teens is tough again this year. Getting a definite “no” or just plain being ignored all the time can wear a guy out, especially since all I’ve ever heard since I started school was how great I am and how I should really, really feel good about myself all the time no matter what.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The past few years of being held back as a high school sophomore has been kind of humbling, but I started with a huge excess of self-positivity and there’s still some left in the barrel. Still, I’m thinking about giving up my job search so I can preserve what’s left of my ME! reserves.

I have looked all around and so far there’s just nothing. It doesn’t help that my grandfather is applying at all the same places I am – the burger shop, the coffee place and the movie theater. He’s 84 and says he needs some extra money to help pay for his medications or he’ll die. Talk about piling on the guilt!

When I told my mom I’d have to stay in the basement playing video games all summer so grandpa could live, she gave me THAT LOOK. But I’m serious! It really helps to have the feeling that what you’re doing (or NOT doing) makes a difference in the world, and making it so I could buy my popcorn from Gramps at every summer blockbuster this year while getting to see him so happy behind the counter, over-filling the pop orders, snarling at the 12 year olds and getting fake butter smeared on his cheerful yellow ScreenLand vest, that would be something I could point to with pride while I tell my friends ‘I helped make that happen!’.

Mr. Cornsmut told the FFA kids that some farmers get paid to not grow crops so I’m wondering – could I get paid for staying out of the job force? Seriously – me not being in the way of more deserving candidates is worth something, isn’t it? In fact, being absent-for-hire may be the next big business opportunity! There’s so much competition for everything, why not pay me something to thin the job herd by at least one?

If that worked I’d also try to get paid for staying out of the wilderness, out of the bowling alleys, out of that crafts store my mom likes and out of the dentist’s office too! It looks like every single place is more and more crowded than ever before, except for bookstores and video rental places, so there’s lots of opportunity.

I would even consider taking money to stay off the roads, if only somebody would give me a car first so I could get paid to park it. Then I could start dating, as long as my girlfriend was OK with us not actually going anywhere.

My mom says if I don’t find a way to make money this year, they’ll send me to Punctuation Camp, so I’m getting a little desperate. What do you think of my idea, Mr. C? I know you’re in the job market – would you like to be the first to pay me something to stay out of your way?

Your pal,

I told Bubby he was making a LOT of assumptions with his “plan”, not the least of which is the wild guess that some fictitious girlfriend would be satisfied to just go sit in a car with him. I know teenage girls are sometimes irrational, but it’s hard to imagine that there is one so lacking in common sense and ambition that she would be attracted to this offer. If she does exist, her parents might pay her something to NOT go out with Bubby – a wise investment, I think.

As for Bubby getting paid by me or anyone to not apply for jobs – it sounds like a Ponzi Scheme or trading in bundled sub-prime mortgages – a method of making money that could only work if one could suspend the laws of mathematics. So ten years ago he might have had a shot with that idea, especially on Wall Street. In 2011, maybe not.

He gets points for imagination, but Punctuation Camp sounds like a real possibility.

What would you give up in exchange for money?

Pothole Poetry

We may be broke dollar-wise, but we’re rich in potholes!
Let’s celebrate our wealth with some appropriate limericks.

There was a pothole in Cloquet
That was always, somehow, in the way.
When your car took its pounding
The noise was astounding
And bolts were seen rolling away.

A pothole in Inver Grove Heights
Was replete with suburban delights.
It had flora and fauna
A dock and a sauna
And mini-golf under the lights.

In an ancient pothole in St. Paul
Hieroglyphics were found on one wall
But their worth was debunked
by each car that ka-chunked
and the water that blasted them all.

Got a pothole story? A limerick of your own? Share the pain!

Job Opening!

For people who use mass transit, there is a moment you dread – when you realize the bus you meant to catch is pulling away from the stop and you are still three blocks down the road with an bag of groceries clenched in one arm and a cranky four year old hanging from the other.

Unemployed people have a similar kind of sinking-in-the-gut sensation – when you find out they’re hiring for your dream job the day after the position closes. That’s how I felt when I discovered Virgin Galactic was looking for three pilot/astronauts.

Too bad, because I could easily see myself doing this!

True, I don’t feel comfortable with heights and I tend to get slightly dizzy from sudden movements, but there is nothing in the job description that says you have to look down at the ground from outer space or turn your head quickly. In fact, doing either of those things would probably interfere with your efficient operation of the next-generation Virgin Galactic space plane, the SpaceShipTwo! A great pilot/astronaut would keep his eyes on the controls, no? And my eyesight is pretty good, especially around the middle part of the day. I don’t do so well after dark, but that wouldn’t be an issue. In space, the sun is always shining!

Oh well.

It’s undeniable that technically I was lacking in some of the specific qualifications, like graduating from an accredited test pilot school and logging at least 3,000 hours flying highly complex, super-fast jets. Oh, and the job announcement says “prior spaceflight experience is an advantage”. Fair enough. When filling out the application, I’d be forced to admit that I’ve never been in space before. But at least it’s not required!

And I’m sure once the Virgin Galactic people got to know me, they would be mightily impressed with my extensive knowledge of what it takes to be a public radio folk music disc jockey. Some very useful qualifications never make it into standard job descriptions because the people doing the hiring just don’t stop to think about the value of some unusual types of experience!

Good luck to the candidates who got their applications in on time, and a sharp salute to the three who will be chosen to be pilot/astronauts for Virgin Galactic. Just remember this when you put on your fancy helmet and your crinkly silver jumpsuit with your name stenciled above the left pocket – it shoulda been me!

What’s the best job you ALMOST got?

Get Off My Lawn!

When things get complicated and tiresome here on Earth, it’s always a bit of a relief to get off-planet and look at something quite distant – a place where our problems are unknown and everything that keeps us awake at night is completely insignificant.

In this case, it’s 2.5 million light years away – the galaxy Andromeda.

This remarkable image is a composite, taken from several space cameras operated by the European Space Agency. They all observe different flavors of light – microwave, ultraviolet and X-rays – each indicated by a distinct shade.

The blue sections are older star clusters that have exploded or are in their final stages, and the reddish orange swirls represent areas where new stars are forming. I see it as just a lot of colorful fun, though it’s my luxury to think that – I don’t live by a star that has just blown apart and don’t have to put up with a new sun popping up next door.

But if you don’t mind waiting 4 billion years, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will eventually collide with Andromeda, and then things get really interesting. Rumor has it the two galaxies will intermingle and eventually become one bigger, fatter galaxy. It does not necessarily mean that other planets and stars will come crashing into the Earth or our Sun. The distances between objects in space are so vast, I guess it’s possible for two galaxies to combine without it becoming a cosmic demolition derby.

But, if you ever thought you could move to a place where you would never have to concern yourself with nosy neighbors invading your space – think again. The universe just naturally mixes things up.

There are suddenly new people (creatures?) next door. Do you go over and say hello, or draw the shades?

An Historic Announcement

Last night, during a time when there happened to be a lot of commotion on TV about some sort of impending major news announcement, I made the shocking discovery that there was a tick attached to my dog’s neck.

This tick was literally sucking the blood out of my longtime, faithful canine companion and was possibly spreading diseases that could eventually cause great discomfort and serious illness. I instantly made it my top domestic priority to remove this tick, even though the activity on TV was growing more frantic and all the major news anchors were urgently demanding my attention.

Seeking guidance provided by several intelligence specialists on various websites, I considered many options for the successful removal of this disgusting leech. After careful consideration, I implemented a strategy that employed tweezers, a flashlight and some rubbing alcohol. The tick was determined to hang on, but through persistent, constant pressure without any sudden jerking or twisting, the blood sucking beast was separated from the bone chewing beast, and I was able to gain control of the entire body of the offender, head included. I now have it in my possession though I have no idea what I can do with it that is both appropriate and dignified.

I immediately applied alcohol to the wound to discourage infection.

The Canine

I am relieved that the tick has been removed, but this does not mean that we can now be blasé about ticks. In fact, we must remain extra vigilant. I know I will, even though my dog will probably charge into those bushes again in spite of my efforts to make her stay on the path whenever we visit our local park.

Many people are going to claim credit for this achievement, and many deserve thanks for a remarkable success. Makers of tweezers, rubbing alcohol and Q-tips performed their duties bravely and with professionalism. Having the proper tools and proceeding with patience and focus led to this most appropriate outcome.

The Offender, Pickled

No thanks to the guys who suggested using peanut butter, garden shears and blow torches. Sometimes the decision to skip a particular strategy is as important as the decision to go forward with another one.

I usually don’t think of the death of another creature as a cause for celebration, but in this case the eventual outcome was just and necessary. As a result of our careful conduct of this operation, I entirely missed whatever all the TV fuss was about, but last night I slept peacefully, secure in the knowledge that at least one parasite had been removed from circulation.

What’s the most memorable historic announcement that you’ve witnessed, and why?

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