I'll Take Creative Problem Solving For $500,000, Alex

They just announced the winners of this year's MacArthur Grants and, once again, I didn't receive one. The winners each get $500,000 to honor their particular "genius." This is good since geniuses usually don't make a lot of money. Unless, of course, you're an evil genius, in which case you're an overpaid star in a James Bond movie, a Superman comic book, or the boardroom at Enron. I can't help but wonder if I didn't get my award because I have a firm policy of not picking up the phone if caller ID is blocked or I don't recognize the number and, since they're not the geniuses they're the ones calling them, after three tries they hand the prize to the next person in line. In this case that was guy from New Hampshire who works with robots that can change their shape. Silly me, I thought Transformers were old news.

Of course it could be that they're behind the times and didn't know that I'd altered my proposal from a few years back about housing criminals in museums, realizing it made more sense to use the buildings as sleeping quarters for the homeless. And why not? Museums are empty at night, they have a security system and plenty of guards, and it would do wonders for homeless people's morale and self-esteem since it's much more pleasant to look at a Degas before falling asleep than the underside of a cardboard carton. If that wasn't enough to convince the committee, I also suggested that we switch to rubber roads and concrete tires to save money on road repair and maintenance. Then about a year later I realized that by changing to an eight-day week we could have forty-five three-day weekends a year, seven fewer Mondays, and since we'd only need eleven months we could dump February which always feels like twenty-eight Mondays in a row anyway.

But I didn't win. Instead they gave awards to a group which includes an artist who draws on long pieces of paper, a musician who combines classical and bluegrass styles, and that guy and his Transformer robots. Cutting edge stuff, that. Considering all the problems the world faces today--wars breaking out daily, worldwide droughts, and the inability to create a TV sitcom that doesn't include an unmarried father, precocious children, and an obnoxious overly loud laugh track--you'd think they could find more important work to honor.

Luckily there are people who are working on the big problems. And coming up with innovative solutions. Innovative soapy solutions in some cases. Take IBM and USA Technologies, which have teamed up to solve a problem which has plagued parents since the introduction of indoor plumbing: how to stop kids from bringing their dirty laundry home from college so Mom can wash it. Their solution was simple--they invented a cheap, implantable device that sends an electric shock to a college student's brain anytime he or she leaves the dorm carrying a bag of dirty clothes. Just kidding. Unfortunately. Actually they're installing systems which allow students to pay for their laundry using a smart card, go online to see if washers and dryers are available, and get a cell phone call or e-mail when their loads are finished. Okay, so it's not Mahler as played by Bill Monroe, it's a start.

The next problem being worked on is getting the airlines out of their current slump so they stop hemorrhaging money faster than Melinda Gates at Costco. One thing they've done to save money is cut food service, which is the wrong approach. That's why Robert Brooks came up with a new business model--he wants to attract passengers by serving chicken wings. This will work, especially with male business flyers, because the chicken wings would be served by Hooters girls. Brooks, you see, is the owner of Hooters and he's making an offer to take over bankrupt Vanguard Airlines and turn it into Hooter Air. Seriously. I'm just waiting for them to paint the airplanes with slogans like "California or bust."

The next problem is what to do with aging hip-hop artists who can't sell a zillion records anymore because young whippersnapper rappers have taken over. If you're Snoop Doggy Dogg you solve this by putting out a line of porno videos. If you're Ice-T you become the spokesperson for Posse Pops, which are run-of-the-mill ice cream bars that are somehow supposed to help you lick inner city problems. I'm sure they would have hired the more appropriate Vanilla Ice as their spokesperson--lord knows he needs the work--but they probably couldn't find him. With three chocolate-coated flavors named Wild Thang, Knock You Out, and Blowin' Up they'll definitely make you think twice before asking, "What would you do for a Posse Pop bar?" You might not live to hear the answer.

Sometimes, though, solutions can be flat out wrong. Take the company near San Francisco which tried to fill downtime in their empty CAT scan machines by offering a Valentine's Day special: Buy one scan get a second for 50 percent off. Hey, nothing says "I love you" like his and her CAT scans. Or McDonald's, which needed a name for a sandwich they were offering in Norway comprised of beef and vegetables in pita bread which is supposedly based on an African recipe. Unfortunately the name they chose, McAfrika, stirred up protest because it belittled the millions of Africans who are in danger of starvation. Right, like they'd want a McAfrika sandwich anyway. Maybe now the company will think twice before releasing the McAsia Rice Burger, McEurope Ethnic Hand Cleanser, and McAustralia Krispy Koala Klub.

There are still plenty of problems which need to be solved. A big one, of course, is finding Osama bin Laden. This is actually easier than you might think. All we need to do is hire some e-mail spammers, they manage to find everyone! Once they find him we'll lure him in with an offer to make his, uh, turban larger. When we have him in custody we won't need to divert attention away from him anymore by going after Saddam Hussein, which means consumer confidence will rise, the economy will take off, and I'll finally get that MacArthur Grant I so deserve. See, it's easy if you just stop to think about it.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com

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