Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Madness of March

Hi there, basketball fans. It’s time for the long-awaited matchup featuring the Southwestern North Dakota Screaming Snow Drifts and the Eastern West Virginia Possums in what promises to be a March Madness classic.

And a special thanks to AT&T which sponsors the entire month of March.  Without their generosity, this tournament along with Daylight Savings Time, St. Patrick’s Day and Grover Cleveland’s birthday would cease to exist.

A tip of the hat as well to Hoffmann-La Roche, manufacturers of Valium, for letting us use its trademarked term “Madness.”

Let’s throw it down to the floor, sponsored by Harry’s Hardwood, where our sideline reporter, who is in fact an aspiring actress pretending to know something about sports, will chat with Reggie Rimbuster, Eastern’s point guard.

Reggie, who suffered a wrist injury while resisting arrest, is averaging 3.5 points a game, which is 3 points higher than his grade point average. This interview is sponsored by Drone basketball shoes that promise to lift your game to another level.  Drones, now with advanced weaponry.

 “What are your emotions as you prepare to play this game, Reggie?”

“Well, you know, we’re looking forward to playing Southwestern because, you know, they beat us by 50 points last year so we’re, you know, upset because, you know, we thought we got screwed by the refs.”

“What are the keys to the game?”

“Well, you know, we need to score more points than them.”

“Thanks Reggie for those exclusive insights into the game.  Back to you guys.”

And now here’s our other sideline reporter, a guy who admits he would rather be second banana in a TV sit-com, interviewing Southwestern’s coach, Chalk Talk Smith. This spontaneous interview is sponsored by Brainy Beer, the brew that will make you think you know it all. Be brilliant. Be charming. Be irresistible. Drink beer.

“Coach Smith, how do you approach this game?”

“Through the locker room door.”

“I mean, what is your strategy?”

“That’s up to my assistant coaches.  My job is to scream at the refs.”

“Why do the call your team the Possums?”

“Because we play dead at home and die on the road.”

There you have it folks, insights from those who will participate in tonight’s game.  Those insights are brought to you by McDonalds. Wherever you may travel, there’s a McDonalds in sight.

Stay tuned for a word from our sponsors:  Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Audi, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Volkswagen, Fiat, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Lexus, Infiniti, Kia, Hyundai, Arby’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Sonic, Subway, Bud, Coors, Millers, various telecommunication and brokerage firms, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

When our sponsors are done, we’ll return with the halftime show.

So here we are in the middle of March Madness.  Across the Atlantic, the term signifies the breeding season of the European Hare.  In the U.S., it refers to the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Basketball championships.

I suspect the U.S. version of March Madness is of greater interest, unless, of course, you’re a female hare.

There are 68 teams competing for the championship.  For those of you with a long memory, there were eight teams in the tournament from 1939 to 1950.

Talk about an event that captures the public’s imagination: March Madness costs $1.2 billion for every unproductive hour, according to one estimate.  “March Madness Ready to Distract Workers Nationwide," fretted Fox Business last week. "Say Farewell to Productivity: March Madness App released," declared PC Magazine.

So what do our fellow citizens do while goofing off?  A story in the Los Angeles Times several years ago cited an FBI source that more than $2.5 billion was illegally wagered on the tournament. 

I assume “illegally wagered” includes your office pool. It probably would be a good idea not to post your picks on Facebook.

And don’t spend your winnings quite yet. There are 9.2 quintillion possibilities for the possible winners in a NCAA bracket, making the odds of randomly picking a perfect bracket (i.e. without weighting for seed number) 9.2 quintillion to 1, according to one estimate.

Madness indeed.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Good Day Sunshine

Daylight Savings Time starts today. And that’s bad news for a lot of folks.

To hear tell, this will result in an increase in heart attacks and suicides, lower SAT scores, a decline in productivity and all sorts of other ills including but not limited to plagues of boils, frogs and locusts.

Even my sainted grandmother would draw a distinction between "God's time and Mr. Roosevelt's time" when spring rolled around.

Actually, Grandmother’s viewpoint was shaped by the fact that she was a Southern-born, rock-ribbed Republican, and the words "Mr. Roosevelt" would roll off her tongue with the same disagreeing tone usually reserved for "Yankees" or "canker sores."

But we digress. Others have more substantial problems with Daylight Savings.  Take the issue of energy savings, for example.

The U.S. Department of Transportation insists that Daylight-Savings Time trims the entire country's electricity usage by a small but significant amount, about 1 percent each day, because less electricity is used for lighting and appliances.

A couple of Yale academic types disagree.

It seems that the state of Indiana, once home to counties that both did and did not observe DST, adopted the practice statewide in 2006.

That unusual event meant Matthew Kotchen, an environmental economist at Yale, and colleagues could compare before-and-after electricity use across the state, according to an article in National Geographic.

In their study, they found that lighting demand dropped, but the warmer hour of extra daylight tacked onto each evening led to more air-conditioning use, which canceled out the gains from reduced lighting and then some: Hoosiers paid higher electric bills than before DST, the study showed.

Of course, that’s Indiana, a state largely populated by cornfields, cows and basketball hoops that simmers beneath a blanket of oppressive summer heat and humidity.

It apparently never occurred to our Yale friends to look to the West Coast, where air conditioning is rarely a necessity and reduced lighting can indeed result in savings.  So much for East Coast navel gazing.

I love Daylight Savings Time. The lingering daylight reminds me of spring and summer, of baseball and barbecues. Besides, man was made to walk upright in the light, not cower in darkness.

It would almost unpatriotic to dump DST. After all, the was the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin who, while living in Paris, first conceived the notion of daylight-saving time, according to David Prerau, who wrote "Seize the Daylight: A Brief History of Daylight Saving Time."

Franklin wrote that he was awakened early and was surprised that the sun was up, well before his usual noon rising. He humorously described how he checked the next two days and found that, yes, it actually did rise so early every day. Imagine, he said, how many candles could be saved if people awakened earlier, and he suggested firing cannons in each square at dawn "to wake the sluggards and open their eyes to their true interest."

Franklin, as usual, was ahead of his time, even if he was engaging in a bit of whimsy. Some historians even attribute Franklin's dictum "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" to his experience.

I will count Ben on my side. And joining me in my embrace of Daylight Savings Time is the golf industry which estimated that the extra month added to DST in 2005 was worth $200 to $400 million. Not to mention the U.S. barbecue industry which pegged their increased profits at $150 million.

Also in my corner: The aforementioned President Franklin Roosevelt who during World War II, instituted year-round Daylight Savings Time; President Lyndon B. Johnson who decided to implement a law stating that DST would begin the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October every year nationwide.  And President George W. Bush who extended DST for an extra four weeks through an energy bill policy.

Opposing me on daylight savings is the TV industry. According to Nielsen ratings during the first week of daylight saving, no matter when it is, even the most popular shows go down by 10 to 15 percent in viewership.

And Vladimir Putin who decided to abolish daylight savings time across Russia.  One news report put it this way: "On Sunday, Russia switches to wintertime and stays there. Forever."


Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Fair Weather Friends

I’ve head the same story at least a dozen times in the last few weeks.

“I just (called/texted/e-mailed) my (friend, relative, co-worker) who lives in (Boston/Albany/Glacial Acres, New Hampshire) who told me they had (6 inches, a foot, 20 feet) of snow overnight and the temperature is (5 degrees, 15 below zero, colder than a polar bear’s toenails).

“I told him/her it was 85 degrees in L.A. and we were attired in (shorts/Speedos/bikinis/absolutely nothing). They told me we were (lucky, boorish, insensitive).”

Call it Southland Schadenfreude, the latter being a term which means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It was coined by --- who else? ---the Germans.

We’ve all indulged in it. Some years ago when my wife’s family lived in western Pennsylvania, I would call my brother-in-law in the middle of January to tell him I had just walked off the golf course and that I was bummed because I got dirt on my shorts.

He was good natured about it, although he was probably making a mental note to slip finely ground glass in my martini next time we visited.

Even the ultra-provincial New York Times was forced to admit, “Among the pleasures of living in Southern California, none may be as wonderful as the climate, and the ability of residents to use it as a meteorological bat against the collective heads of their fellow Americans.”

It’s all true. We often behave badly when it comes to weather-shaming. It’s almost as if we’re covering up for an inferiority complex although I can’t imagine why.

We are second to none when it comes to majestic mountains, roaring rivers, spectacular deserts, forests, fields and streams.

We have sparkling cities, world class wine, great universities, movie stars and championship sports teams. We have In N Out Burgers, the juices from which drip down our shirt-sleeved arms.

They have stifling humidity, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, basketball-sized hailstones, the polar vortex, white outs, ice storms and blizzards. And White Castle burgers.

 I sincerely believe if the European explorers would have made landfall in, say, Newport Beach, everything east Palm Springs would be largely unpopulated to this day.

The rest of the country knows this. They can talk about enjoying the changing of the seasons, fireflies on a summer night, white Christmases, fall foliage.

Bunk. They’d dump it all faster than you can say “pass me a margarita” for a chance to live in California. Schenectady or Santa Barbara? Are you kidding?

But there’s an inherent danger in our boasting. If you persist in e-mailing Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe in Boston pictures of your tan lines, they may just show up on your doorstep for an extended stay with their hyperactive kids who have been housebound for two months.

They may be followed by a thousand other Marys and Joes who have decided to  exchange the Ice Belt for a spot on the 405 freeway each day.

Worse, the reason we are enjoying these balmy winters is that we’re in the middle of a severe drought. While we may enjoy poking fun at our snowbound Eastern brethren, we will pay a steep price for our endless summer.

According to one report, California, for the second year in a row, saw its warmest December-January, with a monthly average temperature 5.1°F higher than its 20th century average. With that heat having continued into February, it’s almost certain to be the warmest winter on record in California, surpassing the previous record set just last year.

Two storm events, one in December and one at the beginning of February, have brought some moisture to California and parts of Oregon and Washington. But snowpack is California’s main source of drinking water, and the tropical origins of the storms, called atmospheric rivers, meant that winter rain fell instead of snow, the report said.

One forecaster characterized it as “being down by nine touchdowns in the 4th quarter of a football game. It’s not a score you’re likely to catch up to.”

The result of all this is that we may have more severe water rationing come this summer. We’re not talking reduced lawn watering. It could be real life-style altering stuff.

The Metropolitan Water District put it this way: “Southland consumers have responded to the water conservation challenge this past year. We all, however, need to be prepared to take water saving to another level this summer if water supply conditions don’t improve.”

When that happens, get ready for an onslaught of texts and e-mails from the folks back east asking if they will be replacing the bear on the state flag with a camel. And other drought-related insults.

Payback can be painful.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Attack of the Killer Bots

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day."
--- Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress, 1967.

I was thinking about our big beautiful tomorrow recently when I watched a video produced by a Google subsidiary called Boston Dynamics.

In it, they introduced their latest invention, a robotic dog called Spot who weighs in at 160 pounds, can run, jump and climb hills and stairs with the best of them.

The company has produced several other “animals” that run faster and jump higher than their human overlords. They share one other trait: they are terrifying.

Spot is no Golden Retriever.  He is a headless, tailless menacing machine that looks like it was rejected by “Star Wars” as too evil looking.

During the video presentation, a Boston Dynamics employee stepped into camera range and delivered a swift kick to Spot’s midsection. The “dog” staggered briefly, legs flayed, then regained his balance. You could almost hear the growls.
 
When they figure out how to pack a brain into one of these contraptions, Spot and his buddies, remembering that kick, may someday gather in packs and chase us off a cliff.

Or, as one wag remarked, “An artificially intelligent elevator will ask him "Are you the guy who kicked the robo-dog?" just as the doors are closing.”  Fade to black.

We’ve been assured that we have nothing to fear from robots, even nightmarish creatures like Spot. And being a nation that embraces technology, we believe it.
Then we read this recent news dispatch:

 “When a South Korean woman invested in a robot vacuum cleaner, the idea was to leave her trustworthy gadget to do its work while she took a break from household chores.

“Instead, the 52-year-old resident of Changwon city ended up being the victim of what many believe is a peek into a dystopian future in which supposedly benign robots turn against their human masters.

“The woman, whose name is being withheld, was taking a nap on the floor at home when the vacuum cleaner locked on to her hair and sucked it up, apparently mistaking it for dust.

 “Unable to free herself, she called the fire department with a “desperate rescue plea” and was separated from the robot’s clutches by paramedics, according to a South Korean newspaper.”

Then, there was this:

“A Swedish company has been fined 25,000 kronor ($3,000) after a malfunctioning robot attacked and almost killed one of its workers at a factory north of Stockholm.

“The incident took place when an industrial worker was trying to carry out maintenance on a defective machine generally used to lift heavy rocks. Thinking he had cut off the power supply, the man approached the robot with no sense of trepidation.

“But the robot suddenly came to life and grabbed a tight hold of the victim's head. The man succeeded in defending himself but not before suffering serious injuries.”

OK, so things go wrong sometimes. But what happens when things go wrong with something more deadly than a vacuum cleaner? Think of Spot with a heat-seeking missile strapped to his back.

The day of the Killer Bots is not that far away.

Gen. Robert Cone, the chief of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, was quoted in a published report that he thinks there’s a chance the size of the military’s brigade combat teams will shrink by a quarter in the coming years from 4,000 total troops down to 3,000.

Picking up the slack, he said, could be a fleet of robotic killing machines akin to the ground versions of the unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, increasingly used by the world’s armies.

We are already beginning to develop robots that can coordinate autonomously—that is, with no human input—in order to complete team objectives. Just last August, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences invented a robotic swarm consisting of 1,000 small robots that worked to form shapes.

So here we stand at the threshold of a great big beautiful tomorrow populated by robotic killing machines that can think for themselves.

No less a visionary than Stephen Hawking, the preeminent physicist, has warned that success in creating artificial intelligence “would be the biggest event in human history, [but] unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

It’s serious enough that in Geneva this past year, 118 nations present at a UN conference agreed about the need to tackle the future threat of robotic killing systems, according to Human Rights Watch.

Abandon the research and development of robotics? No, but let us proceed with caution.


Let’s hope this is one case where the human race doesn’t learn a lesson through trial and error.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Jobs Report

There is enough data on jobs released in this country each month to choke a hippopotamus. It is discussed, debated and analyzed, politicized and probed until it becomes a statistical Tower of Babel.

I don’t pretend to understand it. But I do know this. Job hunting for journalists is treacherous. Openings are so rare these days that they’re passed around the Internet like so many puppy photos.

It doesn’t matter that they usually read something like this:

“An award-winning bi-weekly located in the Midwest is looking for a sports editor to lead a two-person staff. The Global Observer, located in Feed Lot, South Dakota serves roughly 2000 square miles of largely uninhabited territory.

“The winning applicant will direct coverage of sports at our only school in addition to the weekly cow chip throwing contests that pit our many local taverns against each other. Coverage of 4-H Clubs and church potlucks is also required.

“The editor is expected to assign, edit, write, shoot pictures and videos, design the pages and do light janitorial work in the office. It’s the perfect opportunity for you young folks who didn’t get that internship at the Washington Post. Salary is negotiable but it will be helpful if you can hunt and kill your own food.”

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But only slightly.

Here’s an honest-to-God posting from a New Orleans business publication that appeared recently, admonishing we can smell desperation from a mile away (strangely, it’s reminiscent of bacon). So take the time and write an original cover letter if you want to be considered a candidate.

“… send me your mind-blowing cover letter. If you don’t think it’s mind-blowing, at least make it sincere and original. If it’s lame, I might just post it here so that you are mocked and scorned…”

Sound like someone you’d want to work for? Me neither. Which proves that writing a job posting takes as much care and thought as answering one.

This example is more like it:

“We want to add some talent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede.

“For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here…

“Our new governor once ran a health care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up). And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.”

Then there is this one, courtesy of Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed website, which goes to show you than no matter how well written, it’s a tough sell:

“This position is responsible for management of the online Antarctic Sun newspaper and management of the photo library archive. The Editor will create a budget of story ideas and timelines, conduct interviews, write articles, take photographs, edit, obtain approvals, and publish news and feature content about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research and operations.

“You must pass rigorous medical and dental examinations before going to the Antarctic. Antarctica is an extreme, remote environment, and medical facilities are limited. U.S. Antarctic Program facilities are equipped and staffed to provide routine ambulatory care that would be expected in a U.S. clinic, and have the capability to stabilize and manage a range of emergency medical and dental conditions before transporting patients off the continent. However, medical evacuations take a lot of time and effort and place others at risk, even when the weather allows travel. Remote field camps and research vessels pose additional difficulties. Therefore, the physical qualification …process administered seeks to screen out people with conditions that cannot effectively be managed on the Ice or aboard ship.”

No mention of pay but I assume it’s in cold, hard cash.

I’ve had it both ways in my career. I worked for publications small enough that job listings suggested covering Palmdale was a notch above the Paris beat.  I’ve worked for newspapers so big that applicants were told they needed a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize and a Medal of Honor, awarded simultaneously, just to get in the door.    

One of the most infamous job postings is from a literary journal is Britain warning that “Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the Internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”


At least they were honest. 

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Sky Is Falling

Ah, the joy of flying. It brings out the animal in all of us. Airports resemble stockyards. An aquatic hierarchy governs boarding: Big Fish in front, sardines in the back.

Then there’s the bad food, bad air, bad equipment and a guaranteed bad attitude when you deplane. Nobody is going to remember this as the Golden Era of Air Travel.

And it just got worse.

Faced with the gloomy prospect of a long flight, any ray of sunshine, anything that could put a smile on your face is to be embraced.

For me, and many others, it was the SkyMall magazine, in the seat pocket in front of you, just behind the dog-eared airline magazine whose crossword puzzle had been filled out in ink and the barf bag.

A veritable kaleidoscope of items nobody really needed, it was nonetheless a diversion that helped you forget that your knees were pushed up under your chin and that the guy in front you just went into full recline mode while the kid in back of you kicked the seat.

Besides, it beat the hell out of reading the emergency safety instructions card.

Alas, SkyMall is no more. The magazine is a victim of the same forces that batter many publications theses days. Its owners said it had been affected by new regulations that allow passengers to use their smartphones and tablets during flights. 

"With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog," Scott Wiley, the CEO and CFO of Xhibit Corp., SkyMall's parent company, said in court filings.

Another scalp on the belt of progress.

But there was more to it than that. It was undercut by websites like Amazon that sold similar products but at a cheaper price. And its parent company was involved in some questionable business decisions.

No matter. Its owners are requesting an auction in late March to begin the process of liquidating remaining merchandise.

SkyMall, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a bunch of guys with a great idea: "get customers to order within 20 minutes of landing and have the goods waiting for them on arrival."
  
That would have required SkyMall to operate warehouses near major airports. According to one report, this business model translated into a $6 million loss per year.

Then they had a better idea. They wouldn't carry any products, they'd just be a magazine where other companies could advertise. These companies would either pay a flat advertising fee or pay SkyMall a percentage of each transaction. The companies that advertise in SkyMall would be responsible to "drop ship" their products directly to the customer, according to a story in Atlantic.

But what products! 

A bar contained in a replica antique Italian world globe. A spatula with a headlight for flipping burgers at night. A head massager. An underwater cell phone system.  A paper towel holder with USB ports. A pizza scented T-shirt. A mounted squirrel head. A laser guided pool cue.

But wait, there’s more. A selection of lawn ornaments such as a ceramic Sasquatch, 8-foot-tall giraffe, or "muscular god of the sea." A dainty wooden box that emits laughter when opened. A living room end table that doubles as a litter box. A foot tanner, a high heel bottle holder, a Star Wars Darth Vader toaster or a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat.

For the person who has everything there was the Velociraptor Dinosaur Statue. It was described this way:

“This Jurassic-sized, meat-eating prehistoric replica dinosaur statue is realistically sculpted with terrifying teeth, retracted foot claws and an S-shaped neck, then cast in quality designer resin and hand-painted with powerfully convincing color and texture as faithful to the ancient species as possible.

“This large-scale, display-quality sculpture transforms any home, garden, restaurant.”

The last sentence can only be described as an understatement.

There is an upside to the decline and fall of Skymall, especially if you’re an airline CEO.

According to an article on the Wired website, the company’s bankruptcy could improve airlines’ bottom lines, because they’ll no longer carry the catalog in every seat-back pocket.

Airlines are obsessed with cutting weight, because lighter planes need less fuel, and jet fuel is, depending upon who you ask, an airline’s no. 1 or no. 2 expense. That’s why airlines are investing in thinner seats, lighter trash compactors, and entertainment systems that use sleeker electronics.

So tossing those catalogs will save airlines like Southwest (which already planned to ditch them), United, and American hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Will the savings quickly be passed onto the traveling public? When pigs fly first class. Or Velociraptor statues become all the rage.

I’ll miss SkyMall.  I’ll rue the day I didn’t order the Justin Beiber travel kit or the sippy wine cups.


Like air travel itself, the fun is gone.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Empty Rhetoric From On High

Despite all the time and effort the media invest in covering the State of the Union address each year, it remains remarkably bad theater, a production whose importance is dwindling along with its audience.

The script:

The President assures his fellow Americans that the State of the Union has never been better while reciting a list of accomplishments that he embraces as his own, which in more than a few cases is an exaggeration.

The President will then lay out his vision for the future, including many initiatives that will go nowhere because his party doesn’t control either the House or the Senate.

He will then attempt to convince us that America’s greatness is the direct result of his party’s stewardship. He will view with alarm, point with pride, call to action.

Rinse and repeat every year.

While this is going on, an army of reporters are tweeting what is being said as fast as their thumbs can dance across their Blackberry keyboards. (“President declares America good, our enemies bad.”)

Members of the opposition fall all over themselves to give a response. While there is one official response, everybody can now get into the act thanks to You Tube.

Within 24 hours, contrarian opinions outnumber cat pictures on the Internet.

In the meantime, dozens of analysts, like archaeologists exploring a mysterious ancient tomb, try to make sense of it all.

The highlight, for me at least, is watching to see how the lack of civility that defines Washington politics is going to rear its ugly head.

A few years back, Democrats lustily booed President Bush when he when he called for renewal of the Patriot Act. The next year they shouted "No!" when Bush pushed for Social Security reform.

Then there was the time that Republican Joe Wilson in the midst of the speech shouted “you lie” at President Obama, thereby cementing his place in the Blockhead Hall of Fame.

And this year, when Republicans derisively cheered after Obama commented that he had no more campaigns to run, he ad-libbed, “I know, because I won both of them.” To raucous laughter and applause. For a moment, I thought I was watching open mike night at a comedy club.

TV viewership for President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night fell to a 15-year low, according to numbers from Nielsen. 

The combined figure is down about 5% from last year's State of the Union address, which drew about 33.3 million viewers. It was the lowest since President Clinton's final State of the Union in 2000. That speech pulled in just under 31.5 million viewers.

To be sure, there have been memorable moments from the State of the Union Speech. Historians agree on these as worthy of recognition:

--- The address had been a written document submitted to Congress, rather than a delivered speech. This changed with President Woodrow Wilson, who chose to deliver his message personally to Congress in 1913.

--- Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 evoked “the Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear—as a powerful justification for what was to be America’s role in a world at war.

--- Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, his first address since ascending to the presidency in the August of 1974 after Richard Nixon's resignation, pulled no punches when he declared, “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good.” 

--- Lyndon Johnson promised in his 1964 address that the coming Congress would be remembered as the one that “declared all-out war on human poverty.”

--- James Monroe’s State of the Union address in 1823 outlined a policy which stated that the United States would not meddle in the affairs of European governments and, most importantly, declared that any further efforts by European powers to colonize countries in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. It became known at the Monroe Doctrine.

--- In 1862, Abraham Lincoln used his message to Congress to tie the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. "Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.”

Alas, the moments when the lofty rhetoric translates into something meaningful are rare.

So what to do? Should we shut off the cameras, send the pundits packing and let the proceedings take place in some obscure committee room?

No. Despite the politics and posturing, the people’s business should be conducted in public. The most serious threat to democracy comes from those who would govern in secret and speak only among themselves.

So how do we make the State of the Union address relevant again?

Why not a modified debate format? The President and the leader of the loyal opposition are given 15 minutes for an opening statement, then are questioned by members of the media and the public.

At the end of the day, we would ultimately know a lot more about the state of the union than we learn from an oratorical press release conceived and delivered by and for the party in power.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.