Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

Comedians in space, nerds in the newsroom go Facebook and a price war breaks out for phone companies that don't make phones. Yup, it's just another week in paradise in the strange new world of technology.

Here, then, our picks of the techno week.

Colbert in Space

For nerds, it does not get any better than this.

NASA held one of its usual open-to-the- public, "let's name a space toy" contest: A new wing of the space condo, the International Space Station, needed a name. Usually, the space agency prefers serene common nouns for the things it sends hurtling into the night sky: Serenity, Unity, Harmony were the other choices.

But the undisputed worldwide leader in fake news, Stephen Colbert, had other ideas. He pointed out these names made the stations sound like an air freshener. So he prompted his fans to mount a write-in campaign for his name. And, sure enough, Node Colbert led the vote counting by a wide margin.

Now, this would be just so much late-night, laugh it up if it were not for the fact that the move shows just how vulnerable NASA is becoming in these new media days. If the agency charged with leading the charge into the last frontier can be blown off message by one comedian with a cheap stunt, what other messages is it not getting across?

Think about it. What was the last truly compelling NASA mission? The Mars rover? Maybe ...?

It appears that relying on the set to get the word out for getting us into deep space just isn't going to make it in the MySpace generation anymore.

Cell Phones Reach for Zero

Here is a bizarre idea: a company that offers all-you-can-eat voice and data service across a network of data lines and cell infrastructure it does not own. Meet Las Vegas-based Zer01 Mobile. The company has developed its own VoIP system that runs not only on the landed Internet, but on the mobile Web as well. Details are hazy.

More will come out at the coming Cable Telecommunications and Internet Association trade show in Las Vegas early April. But the buzz on the Zer01 is compelling: The product will offer all the voice, data and cell usage a customer wants for $70 a month. That's right, $70, with nary a contract or commitment.

New Company Likely to Raise Ire

The system will emulate landed broadband phones by running on data networks and not phone systems. And Zer01 is almost certain to raise traditional carrier ire.

But, still, in these cost-conscious times, expect value-hungry cell phone users to take this product seriously: Since who really has the money these days to throw away on pricey data plans?

Nerds of the Newsroom Dig Twitter and Facebook

The Investigative Reporters and Editors held its annual computer-assisted reporting (CAR) convention in Indianapolis. These are the news wonks who comb through public records, company information and other public data with software and other digital tools to dig up fraud, abuse and other criminality.

Without question, these folks are unsung heroes of the news world. Who really dies to check flight records for the last time, say, former President Clinton got a free ride on a private 727.

But in this time of massive media hemorrhaging, these media moles offered a rare glimmer of ... hope!

Yes, the Rocky Mountain News may be flat out of business. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer may be online only. And Michigan's Ann Arbor News announced it will cease daily publication in July. But the nerds of the newsroom were upbeat.

These database reporters and editors are finding hip social tools like Twitter and Facebook to be a great way to check facts, scrub sources and get the lay of the land on a story. And they like what they are seeing, new database collection and analysis methods.

There is also, and here is the big story, a major shift in how the industry is viewing readers: Big media no longer talks at its customers. Instead, it has a conversation with them. And looked at from this perspective, today's media shakeout might actually be viewed as, dare we say it, healthy.

Because the last thing the world needs these days is a stodgy media outlet that lectures its readers.