Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Redux

Here's the Halloween column I wrote in 2001, which is worth resurrecting every year on this day:

The excitement meter is already pinned at our house. And this is before my seven-year-old daughter goes into sugar overload from her candy bounty to come.

It’s for her sake that Halloween is a big deal at our place, and there are lots of important decisions to be made. She has her costume planned months in advance, and while always clever, never gets too exotic, expensive, or age-inappropriate (she’s too young to want to be Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider”).

Then, just as the calendar turns to October, she starts bugging us to go pick out the Official Harris Halloween Pumpkin. Make that plural -- this year, we also have to have a backup pumpkin, in case there’s some sort of Jack O’Lantern mishap. Gee, where’d she get that idea?

After making her big orange selections, she insisted that we carve right way, but my wife and I were able to table that discussion for awhile by explaining the concept of how fruit can go from pleasantly raw to unpleasantly rotten when left exposed for a fortnight or two.

In the meantime, we kept her busy festooning the house with a boxful of Halloween decorations. Yes, we erred slightly by allowing her to apply ghoulish stickers to the windows -- she applied all of them to the same kitchen window pane and then asked for more so the room wouldn’t look lopsided.

By the weekend before H-Day, there was no more delaying. It was time to dig into the pumpkin. Fortunately, our daughter had designed an intricate drawing of exactly what the Jack O’Lantern must look like, complete with cartoon word balloons saying “Boo!” She got these ideas from a pumpkin carving kit that my wife – in a moment of total insanity – found at a local store. One look at the renderings on the cardboard and I laughed for a half hour.

You know the way the pictures of food on a restaurant menu never look anything like the actual dish that’s served to you? The same is true of these pumpkin carving samples.

The cruel people who produce this product try to convince you that you have a chance of success by giving you little carving tools to work with. In my house, the only way the final product would come close to resembling the illustration is if they also provided a professional pumpkin carver (there must be people who specialize in that, in a world where you can making a good living forming chopped liver into a turkey shape and carving ice into giant swans).

Let’s just say we’re not good at the visual food arts. It doesn’t matter how extravagantly it’s designed -- our Jack O’Lantern will always end up with triangle eyes, a triangle nose, and a mouth with three top teeth and two bottom teeth. You can hope for Pumpkin Van Gogh, but we’ll just end up with both pumpkin ears missing. Nevertheless, once that candle was placed inside, my daughter gave us a big, satisfied smile (which I’m happy to say, contains more teeth than the Jack O’Lantern).

When it comes to trick or treating, I’m happy to say we live in a neighborhood where lots of kids are out doing the door to door routine, usually accompanied by a few Dads, including me.

Best of all, none of the Dads bothers with an intricate costume. That’s why I’m certain that none of them will be stupid enough to wear an Osama Bin Laden mask this year. Besides the waste of $95, what’s the appeal? Are you hoping to pick up some hot woman in a Taliban-approved burqa?

I’ve always been creeped out by adults who get too into their Halloween costumes. You’ll never see me dressed as Frankenstein, or Austin Powers, or Tony Soprano. Even in college, when I attended a costume-mandatory party in the girl’s dorm, I hated the concept so much that I just strapped a colander to my head and went as an upside-down bowl of pasta. Two things should be apparent from that story – one, alcohol was involved in my last minute costume choice, and two, I didn’t spend much time in the girl’s dorm after that.

Anyway, back to the food. The part that we are good at is choosing which candy we’ll give away. There’s a delicate balance to be achieved here, because you want to get something good enough that you’ll enjoy eating the leftovers (mini Mr. Goodbars, tiny Twizzlers), but not so tempting that you down them before the doorbell even rings on the 31st (orange cream filled Halloween Oreos, pulled pork sandwiches).

You also don’t want to get the reputation as The House To Avoid because you gave away the wrong thing last year. Anything from the fruit and vegetable family qualifies here, as do homemade taffy, stale candy corn, or bulk stationery. On the other hand, there’s no real risk of retribution, because the “trick” option rarely exists anymore. What’s the last time a house got egged over a bagful of zucchini sticks?

Here’s to a Happy Halloween. Lots of families need it as a distraction this year. And remember, when it comes to telling hair-raising stories, avoid the recent ugliness and stick to the classics from days of old. Tell your kid about when you invested in internet stocks. Oooh, scary!

Book Recommendation


"I'm Dying Up Here" is a great read for anyone who was a fan of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, Richard Pryor, and the other comics who broke through in the 1970s.

The early years of their careers form the basis for the story about the battle that eventually raged between the comics and Mitzi Shore, owner of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where most of those comedians were first seen by the TV and film industry. Shore didn't pay the stand-ups, claiming it was enough that she gave them a place to work out their routines and gain the confidence and exposure that allowed them to become stars. The comedians, many of whom were so broke they couldn't afford food, were disenchanted with an arrangement that was making Shore wealthy while they struggled financially.

When Shore wouldn't accede to their demands for just a few dollars per set, the stand-ups (now unified as Comedians For Compensation) went on strike outside the Comedy Store, setting up picket lines, hiring an attorney, and fighting a public relations war with Shore in the media.

Others from the era who were part of the story: Budd Friedman (owner of The Improv), Paul Mooney, Andy Kaufman, Mike Binder, Johnny Dark, Argus Hamilton, Marsha Warfield, Steve Landesberg, Jimmie Walker, George Miller, and Steve Lubetkin.

William Knoedelseder was one of the journalists who covered the comedy industry at the time, and now tells the story in great detail in "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era." It's a quick read, which includes anecdotes about first-time appearances on the Carson show (the comedy brass ring, which literally made careers take off overnight), Freddie Prinze's huge breakout and quick burnout, the drugs, the sex, and the highs and lows of the comics who did or didn't make it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Politician Of The Week

Jeff Flake is a US congressman who regularly refuses to get involved in the nonsense that goes on in the House of Representatives. This week was no exception, as a press release from his office -- quoted here verbatim -- proved:

Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents Arizona’s Sixth District, today released the following statement regarding his vote against H.Res.784, a bill "honoring the 2560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius and recognizing his invaluable contributions to philosophy and social and political thought."

"He who spends time passing trivial legislation may find himself out of time to read healthcare bill," said Flake.

Worth A Link

Craig Ferguson says Dick Cheney ogled his wife's breasts.

Paul Shaffer Stories


I've just finished listening to Paul Shaffer's autobiography, "We'll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives." I got the audiobook version because I knew it would be better to hear the story told in Shaffer's own voice -- including his impressions of Don Kirshner, Cher, and even David Letterman -- and I was going to be in the car for quite awhile on a round-trip to Chicago. Listening to Shaffer made the time go by very nicely.

Shaffer has had a helluva career. Before the Letterman shows, he spent several years with the original cast on "Saturday Night Live." He and his colleagues have been the house band for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies for the last quarter-century. He's had a failed sitcom, a hit song, been a sideman on countless albums, done a memorable cameo in "This Is Spinal Tap," and claims to have been Jerry Seinfeld's original choice to play George Costanza on "Seinfeld."

It's apparent that his love of show business has never faded. In the book, Shaffer discusses his obsession with the Jerry Lewis telethon, the painful experience of roasting Chevy Chase, and how his mishandling of a pair of scissors might be responsible for Mel Gibson's anti-semitism.

He also goes into detail about the rift that formed when he was forced to choose between being a member of the Blues Brothers band or working on Gilda Radner's album. In the end, he chose Radner, who he had known since they worked together on a 1972 production of "Godspell" in Toronto (that also included Martin Short and Eugene Levy). That decision alienated Belushi, who banned Shaffer from the Blues Brothers movie.

In the chapters on his years as bandleader for Letterman, Shaffer explains how he comes up with the clever play-on songs for guests by getting together with the band a couple of hours before the show and taking suggestions from everyone. The one that makes them all laugh is the one we hear that night.

He tells in vivid detail what it was like the night Sonny & Cher reunited on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, as well as what was going through his mind on the night in July, 2001, when Julia Roberts was on the Letterman show, not long after she'd broken up with Benjamin Bratt (who she'd been publicly proclaiming was the "love of her life"). Given the opportunity to ask her a question, Shaffer went with the obvious, and brought down the house...

Worth A Link

When Nicole White claimed the TSA took her son at an airport checkpoint, her blog got a lot of attention from people outraged at a government agency gone amok. Too bad the story wasn't true.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Another Movie You Might Not Know


I'm adding "Away We Go" to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

It's a small movie (a la "Juno" and "Sunshine Cleaning") about a couple in their early thirties who discover they're going to have a baby. They decide they need a better place to live, so they take off on a road (and air) trip to Phoenix, Tucson, Montreal, and Miami. They stay with friends or relatives or old pals from college, all of whom have children and various levels of sanity. It's this exposure to the world that brings the duo closer together.

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski play the couple beautifully. Rudolph really shines, proving that she's capable of more than she did on several seasons of "SNL." The supporting cast includes such stalwarts as Catherine O'Hara, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Jim Gaffigan.

"Away We Go" is funny, heartwarming, and original.

See my entire Movies You Might Not Know list for more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hotel Rumination

I know couples that like to "get away" from home by staying at a hotel. They go downtown, have dinner, go to the hotel, spend the night, get up and have breakfast, then go home. I don't get it. You were 20 minutes from your house, where everything was set up the way you like it, but paid to sleep somewhere else without all your stuff.

Perhaps I'm jaded from staying in too many hotels, motels, inns, and lodges, but there's no thrill or romance in that for me. I love to travel, and my wife and I have had some lovely weekends at bed-and-breakfast places in other towns (here's one we loved), but spending time in a regular hotel room is not among of the highlights of my life.

I don't ask much from the room I'm renting. Just give me a comfortable bed, a toilet that doesn't overflow, an internet connection that's faster than sending a postcard, a shower that's more than a schpritz, and a TV with the basic channels first in the lineup (why do I have to weed through HGTV and several shopping channels before I get to the real networks and whatever game I want to watch?).

I don't need fancy soaps and shampoos. Who wants to clean themselves with something that's labeled "bitter orange," which I found as my only choice recently? Even oranges don't want to go around with a bitter scent. Give me a bar of Ivory soap that's larger than a peanut M&M and I'll be fine. And someone will have to explain to me what Body Wash is -- it sounds like Tarzan explaining what he does in the shower.

I don't need the mini-bar. They must have guests who don't mind paying $16 for a Snickers, but I'm not one of them. I used to use it as a mini-fridge where I'd keep a couple of bottles of juice cold until the morning, but since you can't move things around inside the mini-bar refrigerator any longer without being charged for everything inside, I leave it alone entirely.

I don't need the room cleaned every day. First thing I do when I get to a hotel room is hang the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, and I don't take it off until I leave. When I'm home, I don't put out fresh towels and vacuum the carpet and make my bed every day, so I don't need those services during the short time I'm in the hotel -- especially since they insist on tucking in the sheets, no matter how many times I ask Lupe not to, and since I'm 6'4" and my feet dangle over the end of the bed, that means a nightly battle with the bed linens.

Plus, this way, I don't have to worry about putting my laptop and other stuff away whenever I leave the room. Yes, I know the housekeeper and other staff still have access to the room, but I'm sure they're happy to have one less room to clean that day, so they stay out, and I've never had a problem.

On a recent Vegas trip, I stayed at the Venetian for the first time, and it was beautiful. Really too nice for me. Every room there is a "suite," with all the amenities and plenty of space, including a separate living room area -- which I never used. When I'm in that town, I spend very little time in the room. And when I am there, I'm mostly unconscious, so I don't have any need for the DVD player nor the audio system nor the fancy lighting nor, especially, the copier/fax machine in the corner, which they supply as standard equipment.

There's a real selling point: "Want To Fax In Your Room?" I've seen plenty of ads for that sort of thing in Sin City, but never in the pluperfect subjunctive.

Final Table #39: Eric Baldwin


This week on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I talked about the WSOP Circuit event in Hammond, Indiana, which we've just returned from, and why I don't want him to play ace-king for his entire stack ever again.

We were joined by young poker pro Eric Baldwin, who is in the lead for Card Player's Player Of The Year with 14 final tables and over $1.2 million in tournament cashes in 2009. That led to analysis of a hand Eric played recently at an event in Aruba (where he finished 4th) against an aggressive online pro.

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

Worth A Link

Dr. Raoul Parikh, a pediatrician, says all the noise cutting health care costs by capping malpractice payouts is based on bad math, since defensive medicine adds very little to healthcare's price tag, and rising malpractice premiums have had very little impact on access to care:

Let's look at the numbers. First, based on the current rhetoric, it's easy to assume we have an epidemic of malpractice suits in America. We don't.

There are many statistics out there, and it's not always possible to make an apples to apples comparison between one study and another. Some surveys cover the nation, some cover one group of states, some cover another cluster, and results vary. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, nationally, between the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the frequency of malpractice suits per capita remained stable at about 15 claims per 100 physicians per year. Another report, from the National Center for State Courts, actually shows that the number of cases between 1996 and 2006 dropped 8 percent.

Although the payout per claim has increased, the Justice Department, in a 2007 report about medical malpractice -- in fact, the same report cited by the authors of the Wall Street Journal piece mentioned above -- provided an explanation quite different from an epidemic of lawsuits. "Growing healthcare costs and an increasing effort by many attorneys to litigate only those medical malpractice claims involving severe injuries or wrongful death claims may explain some of these increases," they wrote. Still, even with the rise in payouts, the Congressional Budget Office, using statistics from the government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, estimates that malpractice costs account for less than 2 percent of healthcare spending. Saving 2 percent of the over $2 trillion we spend on healthcare isn’t going to bend the cost curve.
See his whole piece here.

Worth A Link


Nell Scovell on her days writing for David Letterman, the sexual politics around that office, and the dearth of female writers on late-night TV:
Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
The whole piece is here.

Unidexter Tarzan

Here's a classic bit from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as performed for a Royal Command Performance in the 1970s...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Today At The Final Table


Today on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I will talk about the WSOP Circuit event in Hammond, Indiana, which we've just returned from. We'll be joined by young poker pro Eric Baldwin, who is in the lead for Card Player's Player Of The Year today from 2pm to 3pm CT on 590 The Fan KFNS/St. Louis.

iPhone Halloween

Reko Rivera and Bobby Hartman did more than dress up as iPhones for Halloween. Their costumes actually work. They're each wearing a 42" LCD television (weight: 85 lbs.) which get their images from the output of their iPhones. Cost: $2,000.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Boss Time


Twenty-nine years after I first saw Bruce Springsteen in concert, I took my daughter to see him for the first time last night. We had a great time, singing along with all the songs she knows, impressed by how tight the E Street Band still sounds, wondering how Max Weinberg doesn't drop dead of exhaustion after three hours of beating the hell out of those drums, and amazed at the energy Bruce still puts into a show at age 60.

One complaint: the concert was scheduled to start at 7:30pm, but the band didn't hit the stage until an hour later. I know he has a reputation for late starts, but this was ridiculous. His roadies didn't even bring out the set lists (and tape them to the floor in front of each musician's position) until 8:10pm. Then, five minutes later, they returned with new set lists to replace the old ones (click here to see the original version of Bruce's handwritten list and here for the actual list of songs he played). Why? Bruce had the entire day to decide which songs he'd play that night, and since 8 of them were pre-determined by his decision to play his seminal 1975 "Born To Run" album all the way through, it should not have been difficult to flesh out the rest of the list before the scheduled showtime.

Maybe I'm a stickler for this sort of thing because of the business I work in. In radio, we don't have the luxury of saying, "I'm not quite ready yet, so the audience will just have to wait." When the second hand hits the top of the hour, the show starts and we're on, no matter what, so we'd better be prepared.

I wouldn't have minded so much if Bruce had been 10-15 minutes late, to allow the last-minute stragglers to buy their beer and tour t-shirts before getting to their seats, but an hour is way too much. It was even worse for those on the floor, who bought general admission tickets and didn't even have seats. They were on their feet for a long time before the three-hour-long concert even started -- and since most of Bruce's fan base is around my age, that's not as easy as it was the first time we heard "Thunder Road."

Still, it's always a thrill to see a Springsteen concert, particularly when he throws in songs I've never seen him do live before. Last night, during the requests portion of the show (where fans hold up signs with song titles they want him to play), he not only did "Roll Over Beethoven" and the "Devil With The Blue Dress" medley, but also sat down at the piano for a solo version of "For You," from his very first album. After he brought a couple of fans onstage for "Dancing In The Dark" and then launched into "Rosalita" to close the 27-song show, we walked out very happy into the late St. Louis night.

Award Winner!

I just received an e-mail from the US Commerce Association congratulating me for being selected for their 2009 St. Louis Award in the Book Publishing category.

The message goes on to tell me that they have a lovely plaque waiting for me if I'll only click the embedded link. When I do, I'm taken to a page that asks for all sorts of business and personal information, which I'm not about to volunteer to some organization that has obviously targeted me as a random sucker.

How do I know they're not legit?

For one, I have never published a book. That would, under the best circumstances, tie me with about two million other people in the St. Louis area who have also never published a book. Anyone who has put out even one book would be so far ahead that I have very little chance of catching up at my historical pace of zero books a year.

Second, as far as I can tell, this organization (which is not the Chamber of Commerce) has only one business -- giving out awards. They even have a boilerplate press release posted for my use, to announce my receipt of this award I didn't earn.

Third, while I don't know how much they would charge me to receive this "free" award, I don't have space for it anyway, because my shelf is already full of honors I didn't deserve from the International Brotherhood of Bean Bag Chair Producers, the US Council on Cork Repair, and the American Lint Removal Institute.

No wonder I haven't had time to put out a book.

Falling With Style

In the movie "Toy Story," Woody says that what Buzz Lightyear does "isn't flying, it's falling with style." The same could be said of these base jumpers in Norway -- who, after all, can't fly up -- but there sure is a lot of style in what they do...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

McCartney Is Dead

On this day in 1969, the Beatles issued a press release informing the world that Paul McCartney was not dead. Seven years later, Paul released a single called "Let 'Em In," proving that, while his body was still alive, his ability to write good songs wasn't.

At the time, it was hard to believe that the guy who wrote all those Beatles classics, solo albums like "Ram," and Wings albums like "Band On The Run," was responsible for this drivel -- and even worse that it became a top 3 hit in the US and UK.

How bad was it? Sample the not-so-brilliant lyrics to "Let 'Em In" for yourself.

Someone's knockin' at the door
Somebody's ringin' the bell
Someone's knockin' at the door
Somebody's ringin' the bell
Do me a favor, open the door and let 'em in
Had Paul's life become so insulated that he couldn't get out of the chair and open the damn door himself? He then lists the people who are knocking at the door that he wants you to let in, from sister Suzie to brother John, Martin Luther to Phil and Don (ooh, a civil rights leader and the Everly Brothers, who have so much in common). Then repeat ad nauseum.

As the years have rolled by, McCartney's abilities have atrophied even further. Witness this masterpiece from last year called "Dance Tonight," which he played ukelele on (and that choice of musical instrument may tell you everything you need to know):
Everybody gonna dance tonight
Everybody gonna feel all right
Everybody gonna dance around tonight

Everybody gonna dance around
Everybody gonna hit the ground
Everybody gonna dance around tonight

Well you can come on to my place if you want to
You can do anything you want to do

Everybody gonna dance tonight
Everybody gonna feel all right
Everybody gonna dance around tonight
Imagine a new songwriter trying to sell that to a singer or label. They'd be thrown out of the office. But, in Paul's case, it's his office, dead or not.

Reverend Who?

It's so hard to tell these young African-American activists apart, particularly the new ones who haven't gotten much media exposure, as MSNBC's Contessa Brewer proves in this clip. I'm sure the wrong name was on the teleprompter -- and how did that happen? -- but that's no excuse when you can see the guy on your monitor.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Rushing Game

Howard Hoffman on the right-wing whackjobs calling for a boycott of the NFL because it wouldn't allow Rush Limbaugh to buy the Rams (yeah, that'll show'em!!).

Fighting For Freedom & Equality

Here's an 86-year-old lifelong Republican WW2 veteran speaking on behalf of gay marriage. The money quotes:

"My wife and I did not raise four sons with the idea that three of them would have a certain set of rights but our gay child would be left out."
Last year when he went to vote, "the woman at my polling place asked me do I believe in equality for gay and lesbian people. I was pretty surprised to be asked a question like that. It made no sense to me. Finally I asked her: what do you think I fought for in Omaha Beach?"

[thanks to Marcia Walters for the link]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Final Table 38: More High Stakes Dennis


Today on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I talked further about his appearance next month on "High Stakes Poker," including how much money he'll bring to the show, who he wants to play against and how he responds to comments by Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, who has never appeared on the show despite being invited.

In his Poker Coach segment, Joe McGowan analyzed the unusual play in a hand from the EPT London High Roller event final table between Matt Glanz, Ilari Sahamies, and Leo Fernandez. We also discussed the state of Kentucky trying to grab the domain names of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and 139 other online poker sites -- a case that goes to the state Supreme Court this Thursday.

Unfortunately you won't hear Phil Hellmuth, who was scheduled for today's show but had to cancel on us. We hope to reschedule him for another show soon. You'll also notice some technical problems in our first segment which makes us sound a little like Max Headroom. We apologize for that, but think you'll find the content entertaining enough to stick around.

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Busting The Mommy Myth

I've been a fan of the "Mythbusters" for years, but the new season has only increased my admiration.

It's not just the continued emphasis on the scientific method in testing the various myths, but also the way they've handled Kari Byron's pregnancy. They didn't hide it, as so many other TV shows have done by making moms-to-be stand behind counters, carry heavy coats, or wear billowing outfits. To the contrary, Kari's been on the show regularly in all her pregnant glory, not afraid to show off her big belly -- nor has it kept her from participating in the segments with Tory and Grant.

The shows we're seeing now were filmed earlier this year, before Kari gave birth to a baby girl at the end of June. I don't know whether she'll miss any shows in the future for maternity leave, but in the meantime, kudos to her and the producers and the Discovery Channel for busting the myth that America won't watch a show with a woman in "that condition."

Here's the goofy video they posted online to announce her pregnancy...

Michael Shermer vs. Bill Maher

I was going to write about Bill Maher's naive conspiracy-nut denunciations of vaccines on the last two editions of his HBO "Real Time" show, but Michael Shermer (Editor of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American) beat me to it in this brilliant open letter to Maher:

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 "truthers", Obama "birthers", and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Richard's foundation, which promotes reason and science.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body's immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system "adapts" to the invading pathogens and "evolves" to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See www.sciencebasedmedicine.org for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science's greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection--Alfred Russel Wallace--was, but we've learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to "trust the government" to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about "big pharma" being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 ("because it worked"), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people--when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention--suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it's the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.

One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say "I was wrong." Perhaps we don't do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I've done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, "I changed my mind. I was wrong."

With respect,
Michael Shermer

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Balloon Boy Followup

I'm not surprised that the Balloon Boy story now looks like it was a hoax. Despite Sheriff Jim Alderdon's statements two days ago (including my conversation with him on WLS/Chicago), I still had my doubts.

That disbelief was driven by the Heene family's eager willingness to make so many TV appearances -- all the network morning shows on Friday (with Falcon Heene throwing up on two of them), "Larry King Live" the night before, and Richard Heene's regular "news conferences" at the barrage of microphones in his front yard. Whenever someone opens themselves up to news outlets that easily, I get queasy.

I know my colleagues in the media will hate me for saying this, but I wish more people would turn down the opportunity to tell their stories to the world. Perhaps the surplus of reality shows has added to the ever-increasing desire to be in front of a camera, but I have more respect for those who refuse to bare their lives for our entertainment.

That's why I was disappointed to see Jaycee Dugard show up on the cover of People magazine. She and her family didn't need to expose the still-raw wound of what she was forced to experience for the last 18 years, and I had hoped that she would protect herself -- and especially her two teenage daughters -- from the glare of the media spotlight. They should have followed the examples of the Hornbeck and Ownsby families, both of whom have kept their sons under wraps since they were rescued from Michael Devlin's apartment in Kirkwood, Missouri, two years ago. It has, and will, take a long time for them to get over the psychological and physical abuse they were forced to endure, and while they do, it's none of our business.

None of our business. That's a concept that's become almost alien in America. We, as observers need to remember it. Moreover, the participants need to apply it. When they don't, when they accept every media request to tell their story, when they even make initial contact with the media (as Richard Heene allegedly did), we should be wary of the tales they spin.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy Sheriff

This morning on WLS/Chicago, I talked with Jim Alderden, sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado, who found himself thrust into the media spotlight yesterday because of the Balloon Boy story.

I asked him whether he think the Heene family had pulled off a hoax or media stunt, how he viewed the family, and why his department hadn't found six-year-old Falcon during their search of the house. We also talked about what he knew about the launch, how far the balloon had traveled, and more.

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

Miracle On The Hudson


Alex Magness was one of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, which took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, headed for Charlotte, but ended up in the Hudson River instead. You've heard about the flight from the perspective of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Magness joined me on WLS/Chicago today to talk about what it was like from the passenger's point of view -- from the moment the geese hit the engines to the water landing to the ferry rescue.

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


Magness and his fellow passengers tell more of their story in the book, "Miracle On The Hudson."

Worth A Link

  • If only the engineer of this train had been a dingo.
  • Intolerant Putz Of The Day is a Louisiana Justice of the Peace who won't marry interracial couples: "I'm not a racist, I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."
  • If I ever need a lung transplant, don't get them from a donor who smokes two packs a day, which killed this recipient, an Iraq war veteran.
  • A new study says smoking bans are effective -- they save thousands of lives.
  • Bad weather is keeping you from losing your hearing, because you're not driving around in a convertible with the top down.

Bogus Headline of the Day

The headline says, "Study Suggests Link Between Cell Phones and Brain Tumors." Except, when you actually read the story, you see that the link is weak, and there are no definitive conclusions. You'll also see how easy it is to reach the conclusion you want when you toss out the studies that say something else.

WLS Friday


I'm filling in for Don & Roma on WLS/Chicago today from 5am to 9am CT. My guests will include Larimer County Sheriff James Alderden on the Balloon Boy story, Gov. Pat Quinn on new legislation that would make it easier for Illinois voters to recall the governor, and one of the passengers who survived Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson earlier this year. You can listen live here.

Celluloid Inspiration

A montage of inspirational movie moments...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

WLS Thursday


I'm filling in for Don & Roma on WLS/Chicago today from 5am to 9am CT. My guests will include George Stephanopolous, Paula Zahn, US News' Rick Newman, and Congressmen Danny Davis and Mike Pence. You can listen live here.

Picture Of The Day

Don't click here unless you want dog saliva all over your screen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Final Table #37: High Stakes Dennis


This week on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips revealed some news that broke just before we went on the air (at our new time, Tuesdays at 2pm CT) -- he has been invited to play on the new season of "High Stakes Poker"!!

That's a tremendous honor, and recognition that Dennis has made a real name for himself in the world of poker. Most recently, he made the final table of the EPT High Roller Event in London, which we recapped on this show, and you can see his deep run again in this year's WSOP Main Event in the ongoing ESPN coverage. The "High Stakes Poker" sessions will be recorded in November and then air in February 2010 on GSN.

In the Poker Coach segment of our show, Joe McGowan talked about the mistakes players make in tournaments once they've built up big stacks that cause them to bleed many of those chips away. And both Dennis and Joe offered their analysis of a hand I played this weekend at the Bellagio.

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

What's That Name Again?

Someone at KTVO-TV in Kirksville, Missouri, hasn't been watching "The Simpsons" episodes where Bart calls Moe's Tavern and asks for customers with fake, punny, embarassing names -- or they would have spotted some of these which made it onto the morning show earlier this year thanks to several pranksters who contributed birthday and anniversary wishes. The fun starts with the third screen of names and the way the anchors pronounce them. A childish prank made funny by the completely clueless announcing style...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Weird Albums


That unintentionally creepy album cover -- obviously from long before the church pedophilia scandals -- is one of 20 weird ones that Jessica Amason has dug up. Here are the rest, which include Living With Lesbians, Muhammad Ali vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, Colonel Sanders' Tijuana Picnic, and what can only be described as the converse of Herb Albert's classic "Whipped Cream" cover. [thanks to Alan Light for the link]

Monday, October 12, 2009

Musical Steps

Alan Light e-mails: "The steps on the stairs next to an escalator at the Odenplan train station in Stockholm, Sweden, were turned into working piano keys one day, causing people to virtually abandon the silent escalator..."

Friday, October 09, 2009

Blowing Up The Moon


That's blogger and planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla, who I called upon today on KTRS/St. Louis to discuss NASA's seemingly anti-climactic attack on the lunar surface this morning in an attempt to find water. She provided an explanation of just what they were trying to accomplish, whether it was successful, and what happens next in our exploration of the moon.

Then Dan Strauss and the gang chimed in with the urban legend about a broom standing on its bristles because of some supposed planetary alignment, which Emily cleverly debunked.

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

Twofer Friday



First, I'll be on KIRO/Seattle from 11am to 2pm CT. You can listen live here. Then, I'll go over to KTRS/St. Louis for 3pm to 6pm CT. You can listen live here.

He Harnessed The Wind

William Kamkwamba wasn't allowed to go to school in Malawi, Africa, because his parents couldn't afford the $80 annual. So he worked on the family farmm and taught himself as much as he could with books he borrowed from the school. He was 14 when he discovered an elementary-school science book with a windmill on the cover. It explained how windmills can generate electricity, which is scarce in Malawi. William decided to make a windmill so his family could have power. It took two months to gather the parts and build his first windmill. Then he built a second, more efficient one. Now, his family has lights so they can read at night, and an electric pump to help irrigate their fields.

William's story caught the attention of some journalists, which led to his being invited to the US to see giant wind farms in action, and now to his autobiography, "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind."

Here's a six-minute short in which William tells his own remarkably inspirational story...


[thanks to Janet Stone for the link]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Todd Robbins, Sideshow Freak


Here's another example of an interview with someone who fascinates me, because he's had experiences I've never had and is wildly entertaining in discussing them.

Todd Robbins is a freak -- a sideshow artist and magician who eats light bulbs and pounds nails into his nose for a living. Today on KTRS, we talked about his life in the sideshow, the performers he's worked with and been inspired by, and the documentary he's featured in, "American Carny" (which debuts on The Documentary Channel on October 19th and is available on DVD here). We also discussed his "Modern Con Man" book and DVDs.

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

You'll see a couple of samples of what Todd does onstage in the trailer for "American Carny"...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Hong By Day, Kong By Night

I can't embed it, but here's a link to simple photo of the skyline of Hong Kong. Roll your mouse over it to change from day to night.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Final Table #36: Cory Zeidman


On today's show, Dennis Phillips and I had an extended interview with Cory Zeidman, who was at the same table as Dennis and Joe "The Poker Coach" McGowan on the first day of this year's World Series Of Poker Main Event.

Cory is known for using his mouth to throw his opponents off their game, most famously in an encounter he had with Phil Hellmuth on an episode of "Poker After Dark" this year, and some rather harsh criticism he's expressed for the management of the WSOP. We also got his side of the story regarding a hand he played against Jennifer Harman a few years ago in the Main Event, in which he was accused of slow-rolling her with a straight flush, and delved into his expertise at stud poker, too.

Next week, we'll have stories from Dennis' recent trip to London, where he played in the WSOPE and made the final table of the EPT High Roller Event.

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

Raiders Of The Lost Heston

A couple of months ago, I embedded a cleverly edited trailer for "Ghostbusters," as if it had been made in 1954. Now, the guy behind that concept (Eyevan) has produced another one. The year is 1951, and Charlton Heston has donned the hat and whip as Indiana Jones...

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Stuck On The Moon Speech

The late William Safire, longtime columnist for the NY Times, was also a speechwriter for President Nixon. In that job, you often write speeches that are never delivered, and here's one of those. It's the speech Safire wrote for Nixon to read to the nation in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin never made it off the moon and back to earth four decades ago.

Southwest Rap

Air travel is full of hassles, so I welcome anything that can make the experience less stressful. Ever since American Airlines started cutting back on nonstop service from St. Louis to most other cities, I've been spending my flying dollars on Southwest Airlines, and found myself less stressed and more satisfied.

I like the Southwest attitude. I like that I've never been late on one of their planes. I like not being charged to check bags, although I rarely do. I like their website, the easiest to use in the industry. Being 6'4" tall, I like being able to board early enough to get an emergency-exit-row seat (which used to require getting online exactly 24 hours before your flight to get a boarding pass that gave you a low enough number in the first-come-first-served queue of passengers at the gate, but I'm more than happy to pay the new $10 early-boarding fee to guarantee one of those spots in line and more leg room at my seat).

As for the atmosphere on board, it's a lot more casual than other airlines, as Southwest flight attendant David Holmes proved during these in-flight announcements earlier this year...


[thanks to Stuart Snyder for the link]

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Paper Cuts

Whatever happened to the paperless society we were promised? I've signed up for e-statements and online billing from virtually every institution we deal with, and still the printed material keeps coming.

I just spent two hours filing away all sorts of paperwork that accumulated over the last few months. Receipts, statements, EOB insurance forms, tax stuff, and on and on. I had tossed it into a huge pile atop one of the cabinets in my office until it became a game of Jenga each time I added a new one, so it was time to deal with it before gravity overruled me.

Unfortunately, the inside of the file cabinet was pretty full, which meant I had to clean out the old files before stuffing the new ones in there. Fortunately, I discovered a lot of paperwork that I didn't need to keep any longer, which meant I could haul out my favorite piece of office equipment -- The Shredder.

We bought the thing over a decade ago and use it, ostensibly, to avoid the risk of identity theft. My wife and I never fell for the scares that made other people buy radon detectors or CO2 alert beacons, and I know it's unlikely that anyone is going to go through my trash to dig up an account number or some other information off a statement I've discarded, but safeguarding our personal security seemed like it was worth a $79 investment.

Besides, The Shredder is just plain fun to use. Something about it cranks my Y-chromosomes into high gear, so I happily sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and feed sheets of paper into this thing, thrilled to hear its little blades tearing everything to bits. Even when it jams, the mechanism is so simple that I can clear it and get it munching away again quickly. Today, once I'd gone through everything I'd planned on shredding, I had to stop myself from looking around for more material to feed the beast.

Does it help protect us from identity theft? I don't know. Somewhere, there's probably someone with software that can scan all the shredded paper and reassemble the information via some internal algorithm (I'm sure I saw that in a movie once). So we make it even harder for the potential criminal. We use the shredded paper to line the cage of my daughter's guinea pig, so it eventually gets soaked with the pure ammonia the animal excretes as a waste by-product.

It may not be as secure as LifeLock, but it sure smells worse.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Fame


I showed my daughter the original "Fame" last night and was surprised to see it hold up thirty years later.

The movie had breakout performances by Irene Cara and Gene Anthony Ray, plus a wonderful cast of adults as teachers at the performing arts high school, led by Anne Meara as an English teacher who's taken too many years of crap from students who expect academics to be an afterthought, Jim Moody as the drama teacher who wants the class to draw on their own experiences, and Albert Hague as the music teacher fighting a losing battle against synthesizers. Then there was that soundtrack, which won a couple of Academy Awards, and direction by Alan Parker (who a decade later made an even better musical, "The Commitments")

My daughter's reaction to the first hour, which shows the joy of performing and learning, was to wish that she'd gone to a fun high school like the one in "Fame." But as the second hour revealed some of the downsides of show business life -- from Coco's encounter with a "director" who only wants to see her topless, to the former star actor who left for a career in California but returned to New York to wait tables -- I saw that desire lessen. And she was mystified at how some of the students were even accepted to the performing arts high school, considering how bad their auditions were (in particular, the young woman who shows off her acting skill by recreating OJ Simpson waiting for an elevator in "The Towering Inferno").

When Mel Brooks turned his classic movie "The Producers" into a Broadway musical, it worked. But when he made a movie out of the stage version, it stunk up the theater. There's a remake of "Fame" in theaters now, but it can't be as good, because Hollywood loves to "re-imagine" movies instead of understanding what made them work in the first place.

"Fame" has been a movie, a TV series, and a Broadway musical. There's no reason to start the cycle again; once around the horn is enough. After all, the lyric is "Fame, I'm gonna live forever!" -- not "Fame, I'm gonna be reincarnated when Hollywood can't come up with an original idea!"

Chicago No-Go

Chicago has lost its bid to be host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. That's a good thing, as I explained in June on WLS Radio. It has nothing to do with the typical overreaction by the Obama-haters, and everything to do with economics.

Interesting to see the instant man-on-the-street interviews with disappointed Chicagoans, considering that for the last several months, every poll (and all the calls to my show whenever I brought it up) indicated that the public didn't want the games in the first place.

Stupid Plot Tricks

Watching David Letterman talk about the extortion plot against him and affairs with women who work for him was a bizarre experience.

On the one hand, you have Letterman in his best storyteller mode. On the other, you have an audience that wasn't prepared for the story he was telling. They've seen Dave in serious mode before (upon his return to the air after 9/11, discussing his cardiac emergency, etc.), but this tale started light and silly ("Do you want to hear a story?"), so they laughed, and then continued laughing nervously as the story got darker and more serious. It wasn't until 8 minutes into the 9-minute explanation that the confused crowd fell quiet.

It reminded me of the night Jerry Seinfeld was a guest and arranged with Letterman for Michael Richards to appear with them via a satellite feed just a couple of days after Richards' racist-and-profanity-laden rant at the Comedy Store. The incident hadn't become widely known yet, or at least those in the Ed Sullivan Theater that afternoon didn't know about it, so they responded as if it were all a wacky bit. Which it wasn't, as Seinfeld was forced to explain. On TV, it came off as uncomfortable.

A NY tabloid is reporting this morning that the accused extortionist is the ex-boyfriend of one of the employees Letterman had an affair with -- Stephanie Birkitt, who you may remember seeing as a regular contributor to the show a few years ago. Her segments were never as amusing and entertaining as Letterman seemed to think they were, but we now have an explanation for why they recurred so frequently. It's not the first time sex has been exchanged for camera time.

As to the question of what impact this will have on Letterman's job and/or popularity, I'd guess none. And I don't expect him to back off on joking about adulterous politicians like Mark Sanford and John Ensign and Bill Clinton, who still deserve the scorn and punchlines because of their cover-ups and lies to the public (all that garbage about "family values"), while Letterman has done the converse. If no laws were broken and no harassment claims filed, it's unlikely his image will need any rehabilitation.

Worth a link: Daniel Feinberg's analysis of how Letterman handled it and why there won't be any fallout.

Here's Letterman's explanation/confession...

Clunk

Several media outlets reported last night that car sales were down more than 40% in September versus August, when the Cash For Clunkers program was in effect. What a shock that, when they have to use their own money, fewer people are buying cars. Where are the pundits who wrongly predicted that the rush to more fuel-efficient vehicles would stick with consumers? The vast majority of those vehicles weren't purchased to save the environment; they were bought because they were cheaper by thousands.

Now I'm waiting for the reports on how many people are having trouble making the payments for the cars they bought under CFC, trading in their paid-up vehicles for new auto loans they can't afford.

Mad Men on Sesame Street

For the pre-schooler who knows what "sycophant" means...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Worth A Link

A brilliant piece by Roger Ebert on the whack-jobs of the right: The Anger Of The Festering Fringe.

They Bought The Fan



Congrats to Dave Greene and James Oelkhaus, who have been running KFNS Radio for Big League Broadcasting, and today announced they've formed a business group (Grand Slam Sports) to buy the station and make it their own.

I've enjoyed dealing with them and having their support as the home base of our poker radio show, The Final Table, and look forward to continuing that relationship. In fact, we've just extended our deal and will move the show from evenings to afternoons (2-3pm) beginning October 13th.

Dave and James seem to understand how to make money with sports media targeting a local audience by combining radio (KFNS), print (St. Louis Sports Magazine), and the web. I wish them the best in their new venture.

Honoring Caesar

Mark Rothman has been writing about Mel Brooks being one of this year's Kennedy Center honorees and making the case that there were others who worked in the Sid Caesar circle who were more deserving, including Woody Allen, the late Larry Gelbart, and Caesar himself.

Greatest Prediction Ever

If only all the pundits could be as specific -- and as correct -- as Mike Blowers in a Seattle Mariners pre-game-show prediction on KIRO Radio...