Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Drop In The Bucket


The teenager who was accused of peeing in a drinking water reservoir in Portland did an interview yesterday with a local TV reporter. I can't embed it, but it's worth watching here. Two things that amused me about this:
  • the kid's attitude and his claim that he never peed in the water, despite the dare from his friends;
  • the promise by the reporter to not show The Urinater's face on camera -- she shot him from the waist down -- but when the story aired, the control room added a photo of him, probably from Facebook.
There was no valid reason for Portland drain that reservoir because of the incident. Even if the teenager did pee in the water, his output was nothing compared to the 38,000,000 gallons of treated water in the reservoir. As Laura Helmuth wrote in Slate:
Several smart people on Twitter quickly did the math and figured that a typical urination of about 1/8 gallon in a reservoir of 38 million gallons amounts to a concentration of 3 parts per billion. That’s billion with a b. For comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for arsenic in drinking water—arsenic!—is 10 ppb.

The EPA doesn’t appear to have a limit for urine in drinking water, but it does limit nitrates in drinking water to 10,000 ppb, and urine does contain a lot of nitrogen, so let’s use that as a proxy.

How many times would that teenager have to pee in a Portland reservoir to produce a urine concentration approaching the EPA’s limit for nitrates in drinking water? About 3,333 times.
Believing his urine fouled the water is the same bad belief system that sells homeopathic products. Like them, this was a small quantity diluted in a huge quantity to the point where it had no effect -- other than the psychological effect of hearing that someone had peed in the water. But when it's an open, outdoor reservoir, there are certainly other disgusting things already in the water, such as bird droppings.

They don't drain the reservoir for that -- even if the birds do it on a dare. Like a certain 19-year-old in Portland.

Harris Challenge 4/18/14

Today's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Global News Of The Week," "Lessons of Law," and "One Book You'll Need Is An Atlas." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

America Weekend Saturday

Today on my America Weekend radio show (air times vary by market), my guests will include:
  • Doug Fine, author of "Hemp Bound: Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The Next Agricultural Revolution";
  • Ben Jacobs of The Daily Beast on efforts to do away with the Electoral College;
  • Greg Mitchell, author of "When Hollywood Turned Left -- And Politics In Films Changed Forever";
  • Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911 on whether you still should be worried about the Heartbleed bug;
  • Dr. Nathalie Martin of UNM on the ripoffs and hidden fees in pre-paid credit cards.

Friday, April 18, 2014

KTRS Friday


I'll be back on the 3-6pm CT show at The Big 550 KTRS/St. Louis today, along with my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on!) a new batch of Knuckleheads In The News®, and Joe Hipperson talking movies. You can listen live here or via the station's free smartphone app.

Overcoming Fear In Space

Astronaut Chris Hadfield proved his public relations value when the video of him playing guitar and singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity" onboard the International Space Station went viral and racked up something like 22 million views on YouTube. Since then, he's had a best-selling book and speaking engagements all over the world, becoming arguably the most inspirational astronaut of his generation. Here's the presentation he did last month at the TED conference in Vancouver about overcoming your fears...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Worth A Link

  • Fans of Tom Lehrer will both love and hate this profile of the man who created so many brilliant song parodies and then simply stopped, with no interest in his career after that.
  • A good piece on the different career-launching platforms of "The Daily Show" vs. "Saturday Night Live".
  • Fascinating insider piece by a longtime boxing manager on how he fixed fights and how the business really works.

Carl Sagan's Life Lessons

Sasha Sagan, daughter of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, writes of the lessons of immortality she learned from her parents at an early age:

One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.

“Because they died,” he said wistfully.

“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.

He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.

“Why?”

Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
I like to think that because of the inspiration of Carl Sagan and many others, my wife and I have raised our daughter with the same mix of wonder and skepticism, asking questions of those who make extraordinary claims and demanding extraordinary evidence.

The President Who Knocked


I've spent the last couple of days on Long Island, helping my mother prepare to move out of her house and into an apartment. We're awash in paperwork, furniture, and closets full of stuff she has accumulated over the last 4+ decades.

We took some time away from it Tuesday night to go into Manhattan to see Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut in "All The Way." When I first heard about the show, I thought it was a one-man performance piece, but there's a cast of 20, and they're all terrific.

Cranston plays Lyndon Johnson from shortly after he became president in November, 1963, until he was elected to his own full term in November, 1964. The centerpiece of that year was the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson cajoled through Congress. The political resistance came from within his own party, as the racist South (the so-called Dixiecrats like Dick Russell, Strom Thurmond, and Robert Byrd) lined up against him on one side while civil rights leaders (like Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Stokely Carmichael) tugged from the other.

The actors portraying those men, as well as the women who play LadyBird Johnson and others, plus Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, all gave solid performances, but it is Cranston's energy that drives the show. He's on stage for virtually the entire three hours, and his LBJ is in constant motion, even when sitting down. It's a powerful, densely verbose performance that must leave him drained nightly.

There were a couple of times where I thought I heard echoes of Walter White, another Cranston character who didn't suffer fools gladly and used his wits to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Many in the audience were no doubt drawn to "All The Way" because they knew Cranston's talents from his years on "Breaking Bad" -- and wanted to see him play LBJ as The President Who Knocks. Whether it's his celebrity or the 50th anniversary of the civil rights act that's putting them in the seats, they end up with a helluva history lesson.

When we got to the theater, I noticed several men standing around dressed in suits, wearing wired earpieces and eyeing the crowd as if they were Secret Service agents. A nice touch by the producers, I thought, considering the play is about a man who became president after the assassination of another. A few minutes later, I realized they weren't pretending to be Secret Service guys -- they were the real thing -- when I spotted Attorney General Eric Holder, who used to head the civil rights division at the Justice Department, taking his seat several rows in front of us. I knew about the retinue of agents who traveled with my brother during his stint as Interim Secretary Of Labor, and these guys looked cut from the same cloth.

I learned later (through McKean's Twitter feed) that we had two other famous audience members in our midst -- NYPD top cop Ray Kelly and impressionist Rich Little. Although the latter no doubt imitated LBJ back in the day, he could not have done so nearly as forcefully as Cranston.

James Randi, "An Honest Liar"

Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom have been working for three years on "An Honest Liar," a documentary about the life of one of my heroes, James Randi. The film will debut tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival and hopefully roll out across the country later this year. Meanwhile, here's the newly-released trailer...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Now With Even More Blog!

With hay fever season underway, I'm already suffering from a head full of yuck, so last night I went to get some Nyquil out of the medicine cabinet.

The first thing I grabbed was a mostly-empty bottle, and noticed something on the label I hadn't seen before. It said "Great Taste! Vanilla-Cherry Swirl." Nice try, but wrong. There's no human alive who would take a gulp of Nyquil and pronounce, "It's delicious!" Call it whatever you want, but it still tastes like medicine. In fact, I want it to taste like medicine, so my brain thinks, "Help is coming!"

With so little liquid in that bottle, I pulled out another 12-ounce bottle, which didn't say anything about taste on the label -- but it did say, in big bold letters, "Now with 50% more!" Then, underneath, in smaller letters, "Than our 8-ounce size."

Yes, Dr. Obvious, that's how math works. Twelve is fifty percent more than eight. I can figure that out even with clogged sinuses.

But why stop there? Go ahead and make it "Now with 100% more -- than our 6-ounce size!"

Or double the hyperbole: "Now with 200% more -- than our 4-ounce size!"

Or go for the gold: "Now with 12 ounces more -- than an empty bottle!"

Nyquil, you're not supposed to make my head hurt.

Worth A Link

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Phil Ivey, Card Cheat?


Phil Ivey is considered one of the best poker players in the world. He has won nine World Series Of Poker bracelets and millions of dollars in cash games. He also has a reputation as a big-time gambler, a "whale" who puts huge sums at risk at the craps tables, which has made him welcome in casinos all over the world. Now he's involved in lawsuits with two of them who accuse him of cheating -- but not at poker or craps.

The most recent suit was filed by the Borgata in Atlantic City, where Ivey won $9.6 million playing baccarat. According to the Associated Press:
The lawsuit alleges Ivey and an associate exploited a defect in cards made by a Kansas City manufacturer that enabled them to sort and arrange good cards in baccarat. The technique gave him an unfair advantage on four occasions between April and October 2012, the casino asserted in its lawsuit. The casino claims the technique, called edge sorting, violates New Jersey casino gambling regulations.

The lawsuit claims the cards, manufactured by Gemaco Inc., were defective in that the pattern on the back of them was not uniform. The cards have rows of small white circles designed to look like the tops of cut diamonds, but the Borgata claims some of them were only a half diamond or a quarter of one.

The lawsuit claims that Ivey and his companion instructed a dealer to flip cards in particular ways, depending on whether it was a desirable card in baccarat. The numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 are considered good cards. Bad cards would be flipped in different directions, so that after several hands of cards, the good ones were arranged in a certain manner — with the irregular side of the card facing in a specific direction — that Ivey could spot when they came out of the dealer chute.

The lawsuit claims Ivey wanted the cards shuffled by an automatic shuffling machine, which would not alter the way each card was aligned.
The other suit was filed by Ivey against Crockford's a London casino that wouldn't pay him the $12 million he won playing punto banco because he was using "edge-sorting" to know which cards were coming out of the shoe next. According to the Daily Mail:
It was well known in the industry around this time, according to Mr Ivey’s claim, that players might be able to use imperfectly cut cards to their advantage. Because of this, the claim adds, the casino should have thoroughly checked them before use.

On his visit to Crockfords, Mr Ivey was accompanied by a Chinese associate known as Kelly, who was adept at "identifying the design flaws." Mr Ivey’s claim says: "During the second session on August 20 [Mr Ivey] made various requests for decks of cards to be changed at the end of hands with which [Crockfords] chose to comply. This continued until Kelly identified a deck or decks of cards where the pattern on the reverse side of the cards was asymmetrical (in that one “long’’ side was different from the opposite side)."

Outlining how the pair managed to "edge sort" the deck, the claim says: "Kelly would ask the dealer to reveal each card in turn by lifting the edge furthest from the dealer so that Kelly could identify whether the card was a seven, eight, or nine – the key cards in punto banco. The first time that Kelly identified a key card, she told the dealer that it was a "good" card which she wanted the dealer to rotate in the opposite direction to all the other cards and the dealer complied with the request.

"In this way, the long edges of the key card became distinguishable from those of the other cards." Over the course of time, "the cards in the deck were increasingly orientated so that “good” and “bad” cards faced in the opposite direction." This meant that Mr Ivey was later able to recognise the key cards and bet accordingly.
The Borgata lawsuit isn't the first time Gemaco's been involved in controversy. The Golden Nugget, another Atlantic City casino, claims the card company screwed up and caused it to lose $1.5 million to players.

Here's a video with a good explanation of how to edge-sort. How is it possible that a large casino doesn't know about edge-sorting and doesn't set up procedures to prevent players from using it? Here's another story with more details on what went down at the table.

Then there are the moral questions: Is it cheating if the casino uses defective equipment and a player is savvy enough to spot it and exploit it? What about if the casino wants a player to stay at the table as long as possible, and thus allows a player to arrange the cards in a way that's beneficial to him? Did the Borgata know about the Crockford's lawsuit? If so, why did they let Ivey play at their tables, and to dictate the position of the cards? 

The best answer I've seen to those questions is a post from someone with the username "1938ford" on the Two Plus Two poker forum thread on this topic:
Okay, I'll take a stab at explaining. First, the cards were not "marked" in any way that made them distinguishable from one another during normal play and use. Only when Ivey and his cohort had them "placed in a condition" other than the normal random position they should be in could the differences in the cards be discerned. In order to keep the cards in this position Ivey insisted on using an automatic shuffler, because hand shuffling the cards usually involves a "scramble" and or turns of the deck during the shuffle, which would put the cards back into random order, which is the entire purpose for shuffling the cards. Also, Ivey insisted on a very specific deck of cards, make and color, because he he knew the differences in the cards could be exploited by his scheme. Ivey insisted the same 8 decks of cards be used over and over and not be replaced during his session.

Ivey asked for all of these things explaining that they were merely "superstitions". However, Ivey and his partner knew that was a lie, which makes it a fraudulent representation. They knew this "scheme" would "tend to alter the normal random selection of characteristics or the normal chance of the game which could determine or alter the result of the game."

In furtherance of this scheme Ivey bet the minimum during the "staging process" of his scheme, which was rotating all of the cards into a position where he could exploit the "un-random" position of the cards, whereupon he proceeded to bet the maximum on every hand thereafter. He did this because he was able to determine the relative value of the first card off the deck for each hand. This knowledge, obtained only by his lies to the casino about his "superstitions", his knowledge of a "defect" in a certain brand and color of playing cards and the use of an automatic shuffler shifted the odds of the game into his favor, which is illegal under the controlling law.

I continue to struggle with the rational that this conduct is "okay". Would it be okay if it was the casino exploited some inside knowledge, of any kind, they might have in order to manipulate any game to change the games normal odds to odds that made them even bigger favorites?
There are undoubtedly poker players who have lost to Ivey -- either in tournaments or high-stakes cash games -- who, upon hearing these stories, will convince themselves that he must have cheated them by seeing something in the patterns of the cards during hands they played. That seems unlikely, because of the way cards are mucked at the end of a hand, the top card is always "burned" before the next card in a round is dealt, and the way players often cover them with their hands during play.

Final note: if you click the link for the AP story, you'll see a ridiculous photo accompanying it, showing a player holding four aces in his hand. I don't know what card game that is, but it's certainly not baccarat or punto banco, the games the story is about!

Amazon Fire vs. Roku vs. Apple TV


Last week, Amazon Fire became the newest entry in the set-top streaming wars. Along with Apple TV and Netflix's Roku, you now have several devices to choose from to get movies and television shows to your television on demand. But which one is better, and what's the difference?

On my America Weekend show, I asked Yahoo Tech's Dan Tynan for a complete comparison. We also talked about Google Chromecast -- and why you might not need any of this hardware in the first place. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Here's the bizarre Gary Busey commercial for Amazon Fire that Dan and I mentioned...

James Gandolfini's Life


Today on America Weekend, I talked with Dan Bischoff about his book, "James Gandolfini: The Real Life Of The Man Who Made Tony Soprano." Bischoff's connection starts with his work for the Newark Star-Ledger, the real-life newspaper that the fictional mob boss picked up in his driveway each week for eight years on HBO. He has spent the 10 months since Gandolfini's death talking with the actor's colleagues, family, and friends.

In our conversation, Bischoff revealed Gandolfini's lack of confidence in his acting skills, to the point where he tried to quit every role he landed, thinking another actor could do it better. We also discussed why Gandolfini referred to the "Sopranos" writers as "vampires," how he wanted to do more light comedy (like his much nominated work in last year's "Enough Said"), and why he considered himself a 270-pound Woody Allen.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Unsealing Settlements

The government has arranged financial settlements with big banks and other corporations who had a role in causing our ongoing fiscal crisis, but hasn't gone after anyone criminally. Why, and what's in those sealed settlements? Those are among the questions Professor Brandon Garrett and his students at the University of Virginia School of Law asked, and when they didn't get answers, they filed lawsuits demanding to unseal those settlements.

On my America Weekend show, Garrett explained what they're looking for, why the government should be willing to reveal the information, and what his students have learned about the law in the process. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/13/14


Today's Knuckleheads In The News® stories include an expensive break-up text, a sex toy in the sewer, and an unhappy weed customer. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

America Weekend Sunday

Today on my America Weekend radio show (air times vary by market), my guests will include:
  • Dan Bischoff, author of a new biography of James Gandolfini;
  • Professor William Sager on using robot submarines to search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370;
  • Brandon Garrett of UVa Law School on unsealing government settlements with companies too big to jail;
  • Mike McCann on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Thursday night;
  • Dan Tynan of Yahoo Tech on Amazon Fire TV vs. Apple TV vs. Roku -- which is best?