Dispatches > The Buzz

Taking jokes seriously

Tank McNamara gets real, the Iron Mountain hoax, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Sports as cartoon
Tank McNamara has quite a job. He's the ex-jock TV anchor who covers the insanity of the sports world in the comic strip named for him. Cartoonists Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds don't flesh out his character much. For 25 years in 350 newspapers, his "reports" have presented a more insightful angle on American society than many political cartoonists and real-life sports commentators combined. From the NBA strike and Nike's hype to the misdeeds of Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson, Tank is there. The mostly apolitical strip takes big sports stories and tweaks them into the absurd. IRS agents chase Mark McGwire's home runs. Teams set up Nerf watercoolers to keep players from getting injured when they throw temper tantrums. But in recent weeks, the strip played a part in its own strange story: Every year, Mr. Millar and Mr. Hinds let fans elect the "Sports Jerk of the Year." In the most recent vote, announced last month, the ballots were stuffed by college sports fans mad at Ronald Curry. This native Virginian snubbed the University of Virginia to attend North Carolina, where he plays guard on the basketball team and quarterback on the football team. So Virginia fans say Mr. Curry reneged on a promise and vented their rage by slam-dunking the Sports Jerk award. Mr. Curry got the dubious award in the college division while Mike Tyson got the nod for the pros. Cartoonist Millar said he was taken aback by the Virginia vehemence, but he should not have been. Tank McNamara has over the years raised ire among some fans by pointing out that sports are about not only heroes and fair play, but skyboxes and criminal records as well. The ratings stay high even as some players and owners compete in crassness. Tank helps us laugh to keep from crying at what our culture is losing. Hoax turned conspiracy theory
When Leonard Lewin started a joke in 1967, he had no idea he was creating an Internet sensation. He concocted a phony classified government document known as Report From Iron Mountain, which claimed world peace would throw America into chaos. Mr. Levin died last month at age 82, but people around the world are still falling for his trick. The Report claimed that conflicts like Vietnam were just what America needs. In fact, peace would be devastating since the social functions served by armed conflict would go away. In cold, jargoned prose, the "Special Study Group" said the only hope for America was perpetual war. Upon publication, reviewers caught the scam and attacked it as anywhere from "a harmless subterfuge" to "the sinister work of a sick mind." So to help sell their scam, Mr. Lewin & Co. enlisted economist John Kenneth Galbraith to write bogus book reviews saying the Report was authentic. In 1972, after the book was safely off the bestseller lists, Mr. Lewin came clean and said the whole thing was a sham. He wanted "to caricature the bankruptcy of the think-tank mentality." But he was too late; within a few years, true believers were reprinting bootlegs of the Report. When the Web came, so did they. So Mr. Lewin started suing his suckers for copyright infringement, saying the book was now fuel for militiamen and conspiracy nuts. His book has stirred up so much publicity that The Free Press reissued it in 1996. And believers still cite his hoax as the secret key to American foreign policy. Making computers invisible
Former Apple Vice President Donald Norman wants desktop computers to go away. He says they are too intrusive, too big, too noisy, and too time-consuming. Our machines should meet our demands, not vice versa. "People are analog, not digital; biological, not mechanical," he exclaims. "It is time for a human-centered technology, a humane technology." Mr. Norman's alternative is The Invisible Computer, the title of his book from MIT Press. These are not PCs, but "information appliances" that are as nonintrusive as a wristwatch or air conditioning. Such products include today's digital cameras, personal organizers, drum machines, and digital phones. They're fun, they do what we want, and they don't take over. For Norman, now an executive with Hewlett-Packard, they are the future. Instead of the big box, the single-function devices he praises will be carried in briefcases, hidden in our eyeglasses, and even embedded in our furniture. And a lot of them won't be powered by Microsoft and Intel. A new generation of high-tech business success is just starting. "Properly built, properly deployed technology makes people smarter than we would otherwise be," Mr. Norman explains. "The problem lies in the word properly." Right now, he says that too much of the computer market is run by "aging teenagers" building the muscle cars of the desktop. They make machines for early adopters, people enthralled with technology or with heavy-duty technological needs. And the PC that results is too much like a Swiss Army Knife: "of all the umpteen things it does," says Mr. Norman, "none of them are done particularly well." That must change or the information revolution will plod along for decades. The PC probably isn't as bad as Mr. Norman describes. After all, there's something to be said for that one-size-fits-all machine that can run an endless variety of software. Still, Mr. Norman understands one bit of wisdom very well: Most people don't buy computers just to play with a digital toy. They buy them to do something, like writing e-mail, or doing homework or playing chess. Technology is a means, not an end.

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