Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

Cosmic bait and switch?

Tue, 10/08/2013 - 8:00am

Back in the ‘70s, I happened to hear a news report regarding one of America’s best-known retailers, which had recently been caught bilking a lot of loyal customers out of hard earned cash by means of a sleazy marketing scheme called “bait and switch.”

That phrase, fairly new at the time, has now become all too familiar. A long list of multi-national corporations have hopped on the same bandwagon, adopting tactics previously known only to grifters, con men and other low life types. In case you’ve been asleep on the couch since the Reagan administration, here’s how the scam goes.

You start with the “bait” part, which involves advertising a product for a ludicrously low sale price. “How ‘bout a brand new, luxury car for only $4,999.99?” Too good to be true or what? Hmm, hold that thought.

When the line forms in your showroom, it’s time for the “switch.” Explaining that you’ve “just sold” the last of your $4,999.99 specials, you offer the mark a “similar” car for slightly more money, say $31,750.99. Pretty slimy, huh?

I was reminded of this stuff recently when NASA announced that Voyager 1, the unmanned satellite we sent hurtling into the cosmos back in the Carter administration is still, to the amazement of everyone involved, whizzing its way merrily through the galaxy.

Having long since surpassed its mission goals, Voyager 1, like some other survivors of the Disco Era that I won’t mention here, has apparently just “kept on truckin’.” In fact, it has earned the unique distinction of being the first man-made object to exit our solar system.

By all accounts it will continue to boogie its way across interstellar space almost indefinitely at the laid back (no traffic, no destination, no toll booths) pace of roughly 650 mph. At that rate, the next major scenic overlook (a fly-by of a neighboring solar system) won’t occur for another 40,000 years or so.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with “bait and switch,” so here goes. Having been around at the time of the Voyager 1 launch, I vaguely recalled hearing something about a “golden record” being placed on board. A bit of Web surfing confirmed that, sure enough, a select group of Earthlings, led by the late visionary science guru Carl Sagan, managed to convince those stuffy eggheads at NASA to slip a specially made golden disc into the satellite’s cargo bay.

Further research revealed that this “gold record” is in fact an actual long playing 33 and 1/3 rpm phonograph record remarkably similar to the one Gilbert O’Sullivan received for selling a zillion copies of his 1972 hit “Alone Again Naturally.” The record was conceived as a sort of cosmic calling card from The Human Race to any extraterrestrial beings technologically advanced enough to decipher its contents.

The general idea was that if, at some point in the distant future, our unmanned satellite accidentally rear-ended a shiny new starship belonging to one of our intergalactic neighbors, the E.T.’s would at least have some idea who to call to talk things over.

Perhaps, while searching for the owner’s insurance card in the glove box, they’d discover the golden disc, slap it on their awesome “technologically advanced” Generation XXVII Bang and Olufsen turntable and learn all about The Earthlings who sent it.

That’s what’s bothering me. I mean, what exactly did we put on that disc anyway? Apparently, besides the mandatory geeky mathematical equations, boring anatomical diagrams and a map of our neck of the galaxy, the record contains what the experts determined to be the “very best” of Earth, sort of an Earth’s Greatest Hits LP.

There’s some awesome music from Beethoven and Chuck Berry, plus bird songs, whale songs, folk songs, great poetry and awesome sunsets. There must be at least one cute puppy picture in there, too, right? And we included some inspirational speeches from Earth’s most enlightened cultural, political and religious leaders.

And that’s pretty much the problem. I’m afraid that by sending out that little gold disc, we might, however unwittingly, be participating in interstellar bait and switch.

Think about it. What if someday The Zorcons really do find our “calling card” and decide to packed up the kids and come over for a visit? Based on our “bait” they’d no doubt be expecting to visit a miraculous “big blue marble” populated by, a bright, happy, friendly, high-minded visionary race, some singing whales and plenty of righteous rock ‘n’ roll.

Unfortunately, even a quick review of the world news headlines in this or any other newspaper on the planet leaves little doubt that any future interstellar visitors are far more likely to experience the “old switcheroo.”