The moon and secondhand cellphone light

I had the misfortune at a recent concert to sit next to a guy constantly checking WhatsApp messages. He might just as well have brought a lamp into the room and kept it on throughout the show.

Cartoon Israel lunar spacecraft (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon Israel lunar spacecraft
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week Israel sent a rocket to the moon.
Think about that for a minute. In the early 1980s, when I first arrived in the country, you needed to wait a year to get a phone line; had to pump dozens of asimonim into a public phone to make an overseas call before you got that line; and then had to stand an hour in a bank line each month to pay the bill, once the phone arrived.
Back then, this country was low-tech.
Now we are going to the moon, just like the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese before us. The only difference is that there are about two billion of them, and some nine million of us. As pundits at The New York Times have said repeatedly over the years, though usually in a negative context, “this ain’t your grandmother’s Israel.”
No it isn’t.
This is not the Israel whose chief export is the Jaffa orange – unless, of course, you want that orange delivered in a drone... or a spaceship.
MY HOPE, however, is that there is no need for a workable wireless microphone onboard the lunar spacecraft, or the need to project a PowerPoint presentation on the walls of the vessel. Because then we might be in trouble.
At a recent presentation to a group of foreign visitors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – boasting again about the “innovation nation” – became somewhat frustrated when slides he needed to prove his point failed to appear.
“Hellooo,” he said to the unfortunate person running the audiovisual part of the evening, adding sarcastically, “Israeli technology.”
And this is something that has happened repeatedly.
Netanyahu will be on a stage, crowing about how Israel has turned into a capital for automated car technology, precision agriculture and cybersecurity, when the slide he wants won’t appear on a large screen behind him, or the wireless mic in his hand won’t work.
Yet, whooosh, there we are, racing to the moon.
It brings to mind that old Jackie Mason routine about Italians and Jews. Individually, the Italians are the toughest guys on the block, no one wants to tangle with them. But put them in an army, and that army can’t fight. Individually Jews won’t fight, but put them together in an army – the Israeli army – and they are unbeatable.
Same with technology (though this time without the Italian component). Walk into a lecture where a Jew is in charge of the audio/video situation, and something will inevitably go wrong. There will be audio, but no video; or video without audio; or neither audio nor video. Something won’t work, and the first part of the presentation will be spent fumbling to get it right.
But ask us to develop an antiballistic missile that can knock out an incoming rocket above the earth’s orbit, or build a lunar spacecraft the size of a washing machine to send to the moon – that we can handle.
THE ISRAELI moonshot is a wonderful thing that fills me with great pride. And I’m sure the technology that has enabled this incredible feat will be channeled back into civil society in ways that will improve all of our lives.
One way I would suggest is to develop technology to block cellphones in theaters and auditoriums.
No, not to keep people from talking loudly on their cellphones; most people have enough consideration nowadays not to speak on their phones during a movie, concert or play. But they do write emails, check their WhatsApp, or take pictures with their phones as Miri Mesika is belting out a song, or Iago is reciting one of his soliloquies in Othello.
If you are sitting next to, in back of, or even in the same row as the person doing any of the above, the light from those phones is as irritating as if the guy had been screaming at his kids on the phone.
Light from the cellphones in darkened theaters and auditoriums is the new cigarettes.
You remember cigarettes. One of this country’s most impressive achievements over the last couple of decades was to get people to stop smoking in public areas. After years of choking from smoke on buses or in an army tent, I thought the country was badly overreaching back in 1983 when it first started passing laws banning smoking in public places.
No way, I thought, remembering that Talmudic dictum about not issuing a decree the public is unable to abide by. It won’t happen here, not in this land. Yet it has, and life – largely void of secondhand smoke – has become that much more pleasant.
Until the onset and bane of secondhand cellphone light.
I had the misfortune at a recent concert to sit next to a guy constantly checking WhatsApp messages. He might just as well have brought a lamp into the room and kept it on throughout the show.
As Chava Alberstein was singing calm and pleasant favorites, all I could think about was strangling the man. It was a lose-lose situation. If I said something, he was unlikely to just acknowledge the rudeness of his ways and turn off the phone with a humble apology. No, he would certainly argue, something that would ruin the rest of the performance.
But if I didn’t say anything, I would stew in the thought of being a sucker who paid NIS 150 for a performance impossible to enjoy because of the guy next to me shining a flashlight in my eyes.
When, however, I watched SpaceIL send a capsule to the moon a week ago, it dawned on me. Why not use some of the technological smarts that went into that space launch to develop something to get people to dim their smartphones in auditoriums. Now that would truly be a tremendous feat, an example of technology in the service of humanity. Nay, it would be a miracle, almost as astounding as the moonshot itself.