FLIGHT LINK: Telephones first began appearing on airplanes Media Mix in the late 1980s. Back then, every conversation began with "Mom! I'm calling from the plane!" At $5 a minute, this seemed like a judicious use of time; and with a string of suckers waiting in line to give their money to such needy causes as Boeing and American, there didn't seem to be any point in lowering prices or upgrading services.

Eventually, however, the novelty wore off and people only used the phones for actual business. Seeking to increase the sucker trade, America West recently introduced the "Flight Link" system, a phone/video game/information terminal. Composed of a handset and a small, black-and-white LCD screen attached to the back of each seat, Flight Link offers not only standard telephony functions but also on-line shopping, video games, stock quotes, entertainment news and an incredible number of ads.

Essentially, every time you choose a service, you must cycle through at least two or three screens of advertising for a more expensive service, forcing you to repeatedly press the "Next" key.

But the fun doesn't stop there! For $2.50 for 20 minutes, or $4.50 for "unlimited" use, you can play one of 16 games. These are not exactly state-of-the-art, high-speed action games, however. Just to give you a clue, one time the screen in front of us crashed, and up came a C:\ prompt, followed by a hardware diagnostic which indicated a 386sx processor, so basically you're working with a machine only slightly more sophisticated than that "Pong" thing you put in a closet in 1981.

The games menu lists such standards as Las Vegas Casino, poker, solitaire, and golf, but if you scroll down a bit, more unusual fare awaits. Old DOS classics like Space Miner and Space Hunter await side by side with the suggestively named Freakin' Funky Fuzzballs, and Stuffin' the Briefcase. As if to make up for these bizarre indiscretions, the list closes with the incredibly chaste Apples and Oranges, Tic-Tac-Toe, and the refreshingly simple Puzzle.

If games aren't you're bag, and you don't like anyone enough to spend $2.50 plus $2.98 per minute to talk to them, you can try the free "information services." These include a stock quote query, which asks you for a ticker symbol and then tells you to wait. About 20 minutes later a message comes up telling you the quote could not be retrieved and asking if you wish to try again. At least that's what happened the last three flights we tried it.

Once you've had your fill of that fun, try the oxymoronic "Entertainment News." There, you can scroll through a series of short items, mostly concerning obscure British pop bands. After reading four articles about the feud between "Take That" and "Ideal," we gave up on learning anything of substance about Madonna's baby and switched to the "Gifts and Shopping" area. Of course, first we had to page through several ads, including one for Las Vegas Casino which read, "Try your hand at casino games without losing any money!" This seemed a bit disingenuous, as it actually costs a minimum of $2.50 to play Las Vegas Casino, and there is exactly zero chance of winning any of it back.

This was followed by an ad for the game Sky Golf, another for poker, and then finally the "Gifts and Shopping" screen. Oddly, there was no ad for Freakin' Funky Fuzzballs--it probably sells itself.

The "Gifts and Shopping" screen had two options: 1) Gifts; and 2) Shopping. The distinction between these two being too mysterious for us to discern, we finally gave up and tried to watch the in-flight movie, hoping for something with Charlie Sheen or Emilio Estevez, or maybe one of those delightful Steve Gutenberg comedies. We were not disappointed.

INSIDE SCOOP: Mark your calendars for 4 to 6 p.m. next Thursday, May 29, when Jo-Ann Mapson comes to town for a reading and signing of Shadow Ranch at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway. The third-time Southern California novelist once again proves her deft hand and engaging voice for fiction writing with this latest effort. (Other works include two novels--Hank & Chloe and Blue Rodeo--and a collection of short stories entitled Fault Line.)

In Shadow Ranch, her rich storytelling details the lives of protagonist Lainie Carpenter, her failing marriage, slacker brother, and "fierce and crusty" grandfather Bop, as the Carpenter family heads into the third anniversary of the death of Lainie's four-year-old son. But all is not sadness and loss; when Bop falls in love with a retired stripper, as the book jacket says, "their earthy romance touches each of the Carpenters' lives in refreshing, unexpected ways."

The Albuquerque Journal calls it, "An entertaining mix of pathos and comedy, peopled by characters with warts and nobility, a little bit like all of us." Sounds like just the ticket for a shady back porch, cool glass of sun tea and thou. Start your summer reading by meeting the author between 4 and 6 p.m. Thursday, May 29. Call 881-6350 for information.

OTHER SIGNINGS: It's been in print for three years, but Elsie B. Washington's landmark study UnCivil War, which includes both the glorious history and contemporary reality of relationships between Black men and women, remains one of the most provocative pieces of literature to date on the subject. Compassionate and informed, this critical analysis covers the economic pressures, racial discrimination, and declining significance of spirituality and community faced by middle-class African American couples, as well as the conflicting relationship values found in Afrocentric versus Eurocentric cultures.

Washington, a published novelist who's written for Newsweek and served as senior editor for Essence magazine, signs and discusses UnCivil War at 8 p.m. Monday, May 26, at Borders Books and Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road. Call 292-1331 for information.

And for those Tucson Weekly readers blissfully unaffected by the change in our printing schedule (you know who you are, you people who roll out of bed at the crack of noon!) get the jump on improving your health with a discussion and signing with Christina Stemmler, M.D., author/editor of The Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Event starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22, also at Borders Books. Call 292-1331 for information. TW

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