If you like trivia, check out my other site, THE HARRIS CHALLENGE, and play every weekday!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Conscientious Objectors

During the Vietnam War, the last time the US was involved in a multi-year military conflict, over 170,000 men were granted conscientious objector status and did not have to go to war. The number was so high because of the draft which, especially in the latter years of the war, meant many men wanted to avoid going to southeast Asia in any way they could.

We haven't had a military draft since that war ended, but even with our current all-volunteer army, we still have conscientious objectors. The difference is that these are not men (and women) who refuse to join the military. They have worn the uniform of the United States, but once they've been exposed to the brutal kill-or-be-killed nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have realized that it's a job they can't handle.

The Pentagon defines conscientious objection as "A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief," but there's a lot more to it.

Bill Galvin of the GI Rights Hotline joined me on KTRS/St. Louis to talk about the modern-day objectors, from what it takes to be granted CO status, what it means when they're discharged, and how the military tries to dissuade them from leaving. We also talked about a new breed of conscientious objectors who want out before Don't Ask Don't Tell is repealed because the thought of fighting alongside a gay soldier is so repulsive to them. The irony is that there are plenty of closeted gay troops now, but these homophobes don't want them to be free of the Pentagon's restrictions.

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

At the beginning of this podcast, I mention the interview I did the previous day with Jere Van Dyke, the reporter who was kidnapped and held by the Taliban for 45 days, who offered great perspectives on the war in Afghanistan, the Wikileaks document drop, and much more. If you missed it, you'll find that podcast here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Andy Borowitz teaches you a few words of Palinese, the language we'll all be speaking when the former Alaska governor becomes president in 2012...

Mad Men Unbuttoned

If you're a "Mad Men" fan, here's a podcast for you. It's an interview I did on KTRS/St. Louis with Natasha Vargas-Cooper, author of "Mad Men Unbuttoned," which connects the fictional characters and atmosphere of the show to the real-life people and zeitgeist of the early 1960s.

We discussed the advertising execs that Don Draper is based on, the difference between emerging feminist Peggy Olson and stuck-in-the-50s Betty Draper (and the latter's connection to Alfred Hitchcock), and the end of the Hat Era.

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

For more, see Vargas-Cooper's "Mad Men Unbuttoned" website.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Final Table #78: Norman Chad & John Racener

This week on the Final Table radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with 24-year-old poker pro John Racener, one of the November Nine for this year's World Series Of Poker Main Event, who explained:
  • how he debated with friends whether he'd fold a big hand earlier in the tournament when they were just a few players away from min-cashing;
  • why it took so long (5+ hours) to play down from 10 players to 9 ;
  • why so many of the players at the final table are under 26 years old; and
  • why lots of pros are now playing a lot more poker in Florida (his home state).
Next, we had a conversation with Norman Chad, commentator for ESPN's coverage of the WSOP, which will air every Tuesday night for the next three-and-a-half months. He revealed what kind of stories they look for as the event takes place, why a goofy outfit doesn't guarantee you camera time, which pros he knows he can turn to for a great interview, and what happened when he tried to get ESPN to show other games besides no-limit hold'em on television.

That interview took place in two parts, separated by a segment in which Dennis explained how and when the online poker sites approached Main Event participants to get them to wear their patches, and how much they were paid. We also updated the status of the Barney Frank internet gambling legislation that would clear up the legality of online poker

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

Next week on the show: Gavin Smith talks about winning his first-ever WSOP bracelet this summer, and I'll report on the World Poker Open in Tunica, Mississippi.

Phil Plait's Bad Universe

When I had breakfast with my friend Phil Plait ("The Bad Astronomer") at James Randi's Amazing Meeting 8 a couple of weeks ago, he was all excited about a new TV project he's been working on, but couldn't tell me anything about it because of confidentiality clauses.

Now it can be revealed -- it's a 3-part science and astronomy program called "Phil Plait's Bad Universe," which may debut on The Discovery Channel this fall. It will touch on many of the concepts Phil wrote about it "Death From The Skies," but this time he'll be testing their veracity. And blowing stuff up, "Mythbusters" style, too.

Here's the trailer...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Christopher Walken's Poker Face

You have to give Christopher Walken credit. He's not only a good actor with a long, successful filmography, but he's also a unique personality with his own delivery style -- he knows it and has a sense of humor about it.

That's why bits like this work. It's Walken reading the lyrics to Lada Gaga's "Poker Face" on Jonathan Ross' BBC show. Has anyone ever gotten this much laughter simply be enunciating a few vowels?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jere Van Dyk, Taliban Prisoner

I received more e-mail about my conversation with Jere Van Dyk today on KTRS/St. Louis than for any interview I've done in a long time. Van Dyk is the journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban in February, 2008, and held hostage for 45 days, a story he recounts in his new book, "Captive: My Time As A Prisoner Of The Taliban."

When I booked Van Dyk, I didn't know that this weekend the folks at WikiLeaks would release over 90,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan, but since Van Dyk has reported on that nation for more than three decades, he was the perfect person to discuss these reports with.

We started with the explosive allegation that the Pakistani intelligence agency is supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the US provides over a billion dollars in aid to that agency, that means that US taxpayers are indirectly underwriting the insurgents we're fighting against. Van Dyk says he has little doubt this is true, as he heard it first person from his captors and others during his reporting more than two years ago. He's also sure that Osama Bin Laden is not hiding in the mountains between the two countries, and reveals what he thinks has happened to the Al Qaeda leader. We also covered the information about the Taliban using heat-seeking missiles to attack US planes and drones, just as the US-funded mujaheddin repelled Soviet air forces (see "Charlie Wilson's War") in the early 1980s -- a story Van Dyk covered.

Our conversation also included how Van Dyk is still haunted by having to provide his captors with his home phone number (and the messages they left on his voicemail) and the numbers of his family members, who he worries about to this day.

This is stunning stuff, from the veteran reporter who became the 2nd American journalist kidnapped in Pakistan (the first was Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by his captors six years before Van Dyk was taken).

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

Treasure Hunter

Robert Wittman spent 20 years as an agent for the FBI, where he created and ran the bureau's Art Crime team, helping to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars of valuable pieces of art and history -- including an original version of the Bill Of Rights. He recounts his career in "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures" and joined me today on KTRS/St. Louis to discuss how often these art thefts take place, the hardest cases he worked on, what the thieves usually do with the stolen art, and the big break-in that's never been solved. He also explained how he worked undercover to expose two appraisers on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" who turned out to be conmen.

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

Oz In Concert

Posting that video of Jewel doing Undercover Karaoke the other day reminded me of the terrific performance she gave as Dorothy in a concert version of "The Wizard Of Oz." It was done at Lincoln Center in 1995 as a benefit for the Children's Defense Fund with an all-star cast that included The Who's Roger Daltrey as the Tin Man, Jackson Browne as the Scarecrow, Joel Grey as the Wizard, Natalie Cole as Glinda, Debra Winger as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Lucie Arnaz as Aunt Em.

The concert was recorded, aired on TBS, and released on VHS and CD, but to my knowledge has never become a DVD. That's a shame, because it was really a lot of fun and would surely sell a ton. Here's another member of the cast, Nathan Lane, channeling Burt Lahr as The Cowardly Lion...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Undercover Karaoke

You'd think people would have learned from Susan Boyle that you don't have to look hot to sing well, but watch what happened at a karaoke bar when a plump woman with glasses sang a couple of songs by Jewel...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

From A Grandson of Immigrants, Welcome

My brother Seth, the Deputy Secretary of Labor, gave the keynote address on July 4th at an event where some 50 immigrants from 34 nations took the oath to become citizens of the United States of America. This is the third time he's been at a naturalization ceremony, and calls it "the most powerful expression of patriotism I've ever encountered." The ceremony took place in Annapolis, Maryland, at the home of William Paca, one-time governor of the state and an original signer of the Declaration of Independence.

As with so many things he has done, I was very proud of the message Seth delivered as the grandson of immigrants to the overflow crowd that included his wife and sons. Here's what Seth said to the newest citizens of the USA that morning:

On behalf of President Obama and Vice-President Biden, it is my distinct honor and great pleasure to welcome you into the citizenry of the United States.

I would like to begin by offering you an important tip about how to succeed as an American citizen. When you are watching the World Cup, the game is pronounced "soccer," not "football."

And, as Americans, no one will expect you to be good at soccer, but I encourage you to practice your baseball and basketball.

You arrived here from every region of our world — Ghana, Gambia, and Guatemala; Cameroon, Canada, and China; Pakistan, Peru, and the Phillipines; Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey; and many, many other countries.

But like generations of immigrants and new citizens who followed the same path that brought you here today, now, you share a new home --- this remarkable country we call America.

More than one hundred years ago, Esther Tauber, Pinkus Sheffer, Becky Plutt, and Morris Awerbach sat in ceremonies just like this one. They took the same oath you just took. And they felt the same excitement and satisfaction you are feeling this morning.

Esther, Pinkus, Becky, and Morris were my grandparents. They came from Eastern Europe to escape tyranny and to seek opportunity. They wanted the liberty and freedom that makes America a beacon to the world. They looked forward to their futures, but they worried about what awaited them in their new country.

As they raised their hands and crossed the threshold into American citizenship surrounded by other new citizens from around the world, I wonder, could they have dreamed that one day their grandson would be a senior official of the United States government participating in another naturalization ceremony?

America is a place where dreams like these can come true.

In America, we have no kings. We have no family titles. You cannot and should not be born into power in the United States.

In America, we all have the same rights and responsibilities --- new citizens and old, those who were born here and those who travelled long distances to make this country their home.

In America, you have the right to speak out when you disagree with your government. You have the responsibility to participate in choosing the people who run your government.

In America, you have the right to worship as you wish and associate with whomever you would like. You have the responsibility to contribute to your community and to help make America even greater than she already is.

In America, you have the right to a lawyer if the government accuses you of a crime. But you have the responsibility to respect our laws and to give evidence if you see something that's wrong.

In America, your property is your own, not the government's, and your house is your castle, no matter how humble or grand. But you have the responsibility to pay your taxes and support your family.

America's greatness lies in these powerful ideas. They are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and millions of your fellow citizens serving in our military services have defended them over the decades.

Men like William Paca risked their lives by proclaiming that they wanted a country governed by these ideas, not by a king ruling by fiat from across an ocean.

Our Founding Fathers, including Governor Paca, invented a new form of government for the modern era --- as President Lincoln described it, "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

This radical invention endures around the world today in countries large and small. And while we come from different backgrounds, and we eat different foods, and we hold a wide variety of beliefs, it is this idea --- this American idea — that unites us as a people.

Today, July 4th, we celebrate those ideas and the courage of William Paca, his fellow patriots, and the generations since who have built and strengthened our country.

I have no doubt that Governor Paca, one of the very first Americans, would be greatly pleased to welcome you, our newest Americans, into his home.

In a sense, he is passing on our nation's ideals to you. I hope you will safeguard and defend them, as he did.

Being an American isn't always easy. Freedom and liberty require that you make difficult choices. No government official, and certainly not this government official, will tell you how to live your life in America.

The choices are yours. The opportunity to succeed is yours. And the risk of failure is yours.

I understand those words may be unsettling, particularly now. You are entering our nation's citizenry at a difficult time for our country.

We are emerging from the worst economic recession in seven decades. Almost 15 million of your fellow Americans are unemployed. Six-point-eight million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months.

Certainly, new jobs are being created again, but we need even more jobs than have been created in the last few months. Our nation has returned to the path of economic growth, but this growth must be felt in the lives of ordinary working Americans, not merely in investment bankers' board rooms and stock traders' bonuses.

America will recover. We will continue on the road to prosperity. Americans are a resilient lot.

Your President, your Vice-President, and your Labor Department are working hard for working families like yours. So, while the choices, opportunities, and risks are yours, you do not have to face your challenges alone. Your government stands ready to help.

There are some in our society who want you to believe that your government is your enemy. But you know better. Some of you have come from places where that is literally true. The American government is not your enemy.

Because, when you get right down to it, your government belongs to you. You choose who runs it. You hold it accountable. You speak out and organize your neighbors if you disagree with it.

And, perhaps, one day not long from now, your grandchild, or your child, or you, will take a senior position like mine in the U.S. government.

And perhaps you or your family member will have the high honor of standing in front of a group of new citizens, like I am standing in front of you today, to say to them, as I say to you again, "welcome, my fellow Americans. Welcome."

Doug Henning

After I mentioned magician Doug Henning briefly on this blog yesterday, reader Frank Gresh e-mailed to say that he never saw Henning's Tony-award winning "Magic Show" on Broadway (as I did), but he remembers seeing a primetime special Henning did in the early 80s. That show was one of eight annual broadcasts the magician starred in, many of which won Emmy awards. Frank searched YouTube and found this clip, which I think is from Henning's final special, in 1983.

Along with lots of spandex, Henning was a master at engaging the audience in "the wonder" of magic. Here he is doing a close-up trick with a Rubik's Cube and then his twist on the classic Cups And Balls...

A few years later, Henning retired from the stage and sadly spent almost all his time and money caught up in Transcendental Meditation, falling under the spell of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The magician died of liver cancer a decade ago at age 52.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Annie Duke Testifies

Following our discussion yesterday with Howard Lederer about getting the government to license and regulate online poker and other internet gambling, here's testimony by his sister and fellow poker pro Annie Duke at today's House Financial Services Committee hearing.

More Rich Man's Justice

Last week, I wrote about how Roman Polanski remains free thanks to Rich Man's Justice.

Here's the story of another wealthy pedophile, billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, who today completes his one year of house arrest for sexually abusing more than a half-dozen underage girls. He's being released because he paid off the victims -- more than a million dollars each, according to The Daily Beast -- but even his home incarceration was a joke. He was allowed to go to his Florida office many days, as well as his home in New York and his private island in the Caribbean! And when he walks free today, Epstein won't even be listed as a sex offender on any registry.

The Palm Beach police department identified 17 girls, aged 14 to 16, who Epstein had contact with. The FBI says the number was closer to 40 girls, including one he imported from the Balkans as his sex slave. The investigation also uncovered the enablers, employees and friends of Epstein who helped him find his young victims, often flying them in from overseas to be molested.

Once again, think about how this would have been different if the accused didn't have all that money and real estate. Someone like a teacher, an auto mechanic, a shoe salesman. Think he would have gotten the same treatment from our justice system?

Conchita Sarnoff has the outrageous story here.

Another Movie You Might Not Know

I'm a sucker for movies about con men and thieves, from "The Sting" to "House of Games" to "Criminal" to today's entry on my Movies You Might Not Know list: "Harry In Your Pocket."

It's 1973, and Michael Sarrazin is at the train station in Seattle trying to rip off wallets, purses, and watches. Trish Van Devere sees what he's up to, and that he's not very good at it. After he takes her watch, she confronts him, but is attracted to his looks and intrigued by his profession. Soon, the two of them come across Walter Pidgeon as the cokehead partner of a big time pickpocket who's looking for a couple of people to join his mob.

That's Harry, played by James Coburn. He's a first-class thief, both in ability and lifestyle. He teaches the newbies the tricks of the trade and the foursome goes off to lift some leather from unsuspecting tourists and businessmen -- but there's conflict, particularly when Sarrazin notices that Coburn has eyes for Van Devere (and who wouldn't, considering how she looked at the time?).

I'd watch just about anything the always-smooth Coburn and Pidgeon did, but "Harry In Your Pocket" works as both a lesson in how pickpockets ply their trade and as a character study, too.

See my entire Movies You Might Not Know list here.

Final Table #77: Howard Lederer

This week on the Final Table radio show, Dennis Phillips and I continued coverage of the 2010 World Series Of Poker Main Event, which has now reduced a field of 7,319 players to the 9 who will come back in November to play for the most coveted championship in the game.

We discussed the members of this year's November Nine, as well as some amazing stories from the Main Event, including:
  • a horrible bad beat with a pot of over 42,000,000 chips;
  • a European player who made it to Day 3 but went home because he couldn't afford to change his flight;
  • the $2,000,000 fifty-pound weight loss bet between Ted Forrest and Mike Matusow
Next, we talked with Howard Lederer, known as "The Professor" for his years of teaching up-and-comers how to play poker, who has cashed in over 70 tournaments and won two bracelets at the WSOP. We discussed his second place finish in the Tournament Of Champions (behind Huck Seed), his big-money bets with Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey over WSOP bracelets, and -- since Lederer was one of the founders of Full Tilt Poker -- what he thinks of the chances of getting legislation through Congress this year that would allow online poker sites to be licensed, regulated, and taxed in the USA.

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

Next week on the show: John Racener (one of this year's November Nine) and ESPN's Norman Chad (just hours before ESPN starts this year's coverage of the WSOP).

Randi Amazes Barbara

Of all the people James Randi has debunked over the years, his number one nemesis has always been Uri Geller. In 1975, Randi wrote "The Truth About Uri Geller," in which he provided evidence that Geller was a fraud who used simple magic tricks, not the power of his mind, to bend metal objects and perform other such chicanery. Randi was sued more than once by the self-proclaimed psychic spoon-bender, but that never stopped him from speaking out against the Israeli charlatan.

Here's video of Randi explaining an appearance he made with Barbara Walters on "Not For Women Only," a daytime talk show she hosted for NBC's owned-and-operated stations in the mid-1970s. He's on the panel with magicians Mark Wilson and Doug Henning (the latter had the very successful "The Magic Show" on Broadway at the time). When Walters turns the conversation to Geller's recent appearance on her show, Randi is more than happy to replicate his key-bending and psychic picture-drawing tricks, much to her consternation...

For more info, visit the James Randi Educational Foundation's website.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pay To Sit

If you think it was outrageous when the CEO of the Irish airline Ryan Air said he was considering putting pay toilets on his planes, you'll go nuts over this. It's a Pay To Sit bench, created by Fabian Brunsing. And you'd better pay attention, too, because you don't want to miss the warning beeps...

[thanks to Mike Moyer for the link]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vegas Magic

Because I've been going to Las Vegas several times a year for many years, I get asked by friends who are going there, especially for the first time, whether there are any shows worth seeing. I have three shows I usually recommend, all featuring terrific magicians, appropriate for all ages. In no particular order they are:

Penn & Teller at The Rio. I've seen this one so many times I've lost count. They add new bits and bring back classics on a regular basis, so it's never the same year-to-year. Penn has added a lot more skepticism and ballsiness to his verbiage, and Teller's silent solo spots -- including his new red ball illusion and the water tank full of coins -- are nothing short of brilliant.

Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. Years ago, I asked Penn to recommend a show, and he sent me to see Burton, saying "the first 12 minutes of Lance's show contain some of the best sleight-of-hand you'll ever see." That's quite a statement, considering he works with Teller every night. He was right. The rest of Burton's show consists of big theatrical illusions and some good in-person stuff with young members of the audience (my daughter was invited up once and was holding onto a small birdcage while Lance vanished it, and although his hands were on top of hers, she couldn't see how he did it -- nor could anyone else). I was told recently that Lance is going to end his long run in his own theater at the Monte Carlo on September 4, 2010. He hasn't announced a new venue deal, so see him there while you can.

Mac King at Harrah's. I first discovered Mac when he was doing his comedy-magic act in nightclubs like the Funny Bone in St. Louis. We talked afterwards, he came to do my show a couple of times, and then he found a permanent home in Vegas, where I've seen him on several occasions. Unlike the others, his is an afternoon show (1pm and 3pm five days a week), and he's alone onstage except for audience volunteers he brings up -- he has a remarkable knack for picking just the right people out of the crowd to enhance the banter and make the show better -- not to mention a half-dozen Fig Newtons in supporting roles. If you're not stunned by his goldfish illusion, then you weren't paying attention.

A friend of mine went to see Mac on my recommendation just a couple of weeks ago. When I asked him afterwards, he told me that he enjoyed the show, but he knew how Mac did a couple of the tricks. For example, he mentioned one where Mac makes a card (which was signed onstage by a woman from the audience) appear out of nowhere, and then does it again and again and again. I asked my friend how he thought Mac did the trick. He replied that it was obvious Mac had met that woman in the lobby before the show and had her sign her name in the exact same way on several cards, which he then pulled out and displayed onstage. I shook my head in disbelief and then asked him to think this through with me.

If what he was saying was true, then the woman was kind of a confederate. And since Mac does his show ten times a week all year long, that means he's had 500 people a year help him this way. And they each probably brought someone with them, and told their companion about it, so that's a thousand people a year. And Mac has been doing the show at Harrah's for about a decade, so that's nearly 10,000 people who would know that Mac cheated. Isn't that a huge number of people to conspire to keep one magic trick secret?

My friend was taken aback by my answer and asked me how I thought Mac did it. I explained that Mac is an extremely talented magician, very skilled at sleight-of-hand, and wasn't it more likely that Mac was simply that good at his job?

When I saw Mac a couple of nights later at The Amazing Meeting, I told him this story and he hung his head. He said that, a few times a year, he hears this from people who have seen his show (like Penn & Teller, he leaves the stage and goes straight to the lobby to talk with fans as they depart the theater). It always bothers him, because it means those people didn't appreciate his true talent, and they don't understand that using plants in the audience would make his job harder, not easier.

I realized that what was going on here was that my friend didn't want to admit that he couldn't figure out how the trick was done, and that frustrated him. There are lots of people who walk out of magic shows spouting theories about how the performer pulled off some illusion, and there are others who, knowing that I know a little (very little) about magic, come running to have me explain the trick to them. Even if I know, I never tell them, not because I'm bound by any magician's promise, but it's the mystery that makes the magic so good.

For instance, I've seen Penn & Teller close their show with the Magic Bullet Trick at least a couple dozen times. It's a beautiful illusion, in which each of them fires a .357 Magnum at the other, who catches the respective bullet in his mouth. I have no interest in knowing how they do it. Sure, I could spend a few minutes searching online to find a perfectly valid explanation of the method, but I don't want to know. I prefer to be astounded at their technique, the staging, the subtle changes they've made to the bit over the years, and I like wondering how the hell they pulled it off.

That's the magic.

So when you go to Vegas, treat yourself to one of these shows. Then, on the way out, tell each other how much you enjoyed what you just saw without trying to unravel the methodology behind it. Because in the case of all of these magicians, the answer to "How did he do that?" is "Very well."

Off The Wall Golf

I don't know anything about golf, but this was a pretty amusing shot by Miguel Jimenez at the British Open this weekend. Even one of the other pros found it funny...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

IDs for Nuts

The other night, while playing poker at Lumiere Place, I needed a snack. Looking for something crunchy, I walked to the gift shop, found a small package of Planters cashews, and handed it to the cashier, who told me it would be 99 cents plus tax. I handed her my Lumiere players card, on which I have amassed hundreds of dollars in comps from all the hours of poker I've played there -- an amount that hasn't been depleted because I rarely buy anything while I'm playing.

The cashier took my card and asked to see some ID. She needed to verify that I was indeed the same Paul Harris whose name appears on the players card. I handed over my drivers license wordlessly, but inside my head I was asking, "Really? For a one dollar bag of nuts?"

I know it's company policy to ask everyone who uses a comp card to prove that it's really theirs, but if this weren't mine -- if I were engaged in some form of identity theft -- wouldn't I try to get away with something a little more expensive? Are there thieves who get their kicks from ripping off casino gift shops for a few salted nuts?

The funny thing is that I can use that same comp card to go upstairs to Lumiere's VIP dining room, where I can eat and drink as much as I want for free. And when I walk in, they just swipe my card without ever asking for my ID.

I guess it's a good thing they don't serve cashews up there.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Snopes Snoops

A decade ago, I used to do a regular segment on my radio show with Barbara Mikkelson who, with her husband David, run Snopes.com (the Urban Legends Reference Pages). She'd come on ever month or two to talk about the latest nonsense that people were sending and re-sending via e-mail, spreading rumors or half-truths that the Mikkelsons would investigate and inevitably debunk. This was before Google made it easier to track things down, and before other urban legends sites cropped up.

Listeners used to send me virtually every one of these stories, so I'd receive them many times over, and I'd always write back, "Before you send me anything like this, please check it out with Snopes.com. That's what I do, and if you did it, you'd save us both a lot of time!"

Sadly, that barely slowed down the garbage flowing into my inbox. So I can only imagine what Barbara and David have to deal with every day.

Yes, they're still at it. In Friday's New York Times, David Pogue posted the transcript of an interview he did with Barbara for "Sunday Morning" on CBS. The whole thing's here, but this is my favorite quote:

People will write to us and say, "Well, I know the one about Microsoft was a hoax, and the one about Nike was a hoax. And the one about Honda was a hoax. And the one about Levi's was a hoax. But I got this one about Sony giving away laptops. Is this true? (laughs) So there are times when you kind of throw up your hands and wonder if anybody's actually learning anything.
They're not, Barbara. The unfortunate truth is that you have a job for life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Animator vs. Animation

Here's a Picture Of The Day that I can't embed, but you have to see. It's called "Animator vs. Animation" by Alan Becker. Trust me. [thanks to Shannon Wyatt for the link]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slap In The Face

Slow-motion closeup of a slap in the face, from a Japanese production company...

[thanks to Jennifer Wahl for the link]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Final Table #76: Johnny Chan

This week on the Final Table radio show, Dennis Phillips and I continued coverage of the 2010 World Series Of Poker Main Event, including details on some hands Dennis played before being eliminated on Day 2, and a story about an inspirational young player playing the most important tournament of his life.

We also talked with poker legend Johnny Chan, who was one of the chip leaders going into Day 4 of the Main Event, and who rarely gives interviews. Johnny explained the difference in the opponents he's facing now compared to those he defeated in 1987 and 1988 when he won back-to-back Main Event bracelets. He also discussed what it's like playing in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio in the biggest cash game around, and whether he cares that Phil Hellmuth has one more WSOP bracelet than Johnny does.

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


Glenn Greenwald wonders why the word "disgraced" is regularly used to describe Elliott Spitzer (hooker-loving ex-governor and newly-named CNN talk show host), but rarely used to describe Senator David Vitter (another patron of prostitution) and Newt Gingrich (serial adulterer now considering a run for the presidency).

George & Billy

In every obit of George Steinbrenner, there's a mention of "Seinfeld," which mercilessly parodied the Yankees owner, with his permission. But another way to remember him is via the relationship he had with Billy Martin, the team's combative on-again off-again manager.

Here's they are together in a Miller Lite commercial doing the "tastes great" vs. "less filling" argument. This was actually the second version of this commercial. In the first one, Steinbrenner told Martin "you're fired." But after he re-hired Martin yet again, they redubbed the line to "you're hired."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Singing Scientifically

In 2005, British balladeer Katie Melua had a hit record called "Nine Million Bicycles." Among its lyrics were these lines:

We are 12 billion light-years from the edge
That's a guess
No one can ever say it's true
But I know that I will always be with you.
That September, science journalist Simon Singh took issue with her words in an op-ed he published in The Guardian. Noting that the latest data indicates that the age of the universe is actually 13.7 billion years, he wrote:
Katie Melua has no right to call the age of the universe "a guess" or quote it as 12 billion years when we now know it to be 13.7 billion years old. You might think that I am being rather uptight, but the role of the scientist is slowly being undermined with a growing belief that scientific results are merely subjective guesses that go in and out of fashion. In fact, scientific results are a careful attempt to objectively measure reality, and although they may be refined over time, they are always our best hope of getting at the truth. In light of this, I propose that Miss Melua rewrite her opening verse so that it reads:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe,
That's a good estimate with well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you
Here's the kicker: at James Randi's Amazing Meeting 8 this weekend in Las Vegas, Singh recalled that the day after his article appeared in the newspaper, Katie Melua contacted him and invited him to a nearby recording studio -- where she re-did the song with his lyrics!

Want to hear how that sounded? Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, noted this happy ending and played both pieces of audio in a speech he gave at TED a couple of years ago...

Kudos to Singh for his scientific accuracy, and especially to Melua for her sense of humor!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski is a free man, at least as far as Switzerland is concerned. He will not be extradited to the US for the pedophilia he committed in 1977.

There's something still very wrong here. The girl he drugged (champagne and quaalude) and raped was 13 years old. Thirteen. I have a teenage daughter a little older than that, and I shuddered as I typed that number. Sex can't be consensual when the girl is 13, especially if the man is 44, which Polanski was at that time. But instead of getting a long stint in prison, Polanski spent six weeks in psychiatric evaluation, then left the US before he was sentenced, and hasn't returned.

There are those who say that, over the last three decades, he has suffered enough for his crime. The victim even wrote an op-ed in 2003 asking that Polanski be allowed back in the country to receive an Oscar for "The Pianist" (this was several years after Polanski paid the victim hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle her lawsuit against him -- not unlike the victim of Michael Jackson).

They're wrong. Polanski hasn't suffered. He got Rich Man's Justice. He's lived in a chalet in Switzerland and has continued making movies.

Imagine for a moment that this was not a world-famous movie director, the man behind "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown." Imagine instead that this was the janitor who comes in at night to clean your office building. And he was caught at a party at a friend's house (and the friend wasn't Jack Nicholson, as it was in Polanski's case) partying with an underage girl and then going to bed with her. You think that would work out well for the janitor? That guy would end up doing some hard time, and then be in a sex offender registry for the rest of his life. That's Not-A-Rich-Man's Justice.

Is Polanski a talented filmmaker? Sure. But let's not allow that to obscure the fact that he was a pedophile. And, in the end, he will have spent less time in jail than Lindsay Lohan.

Keep Right To Pump

When you rent a car from any company these days, they give you the choice of paying ahead of time for a full tank of gas, and then return the vehicle with however much gas remains and skipping the step of refilling it yourself at the end of your rental. I don't enjoy paying for gas I haven't used, so I always take the "fill-it-myself" option.

Yesterday, at the end of my Vegas trip, I stopped at a gas station a couple of blocks away from the car rental center at McCarran Airport. I pulled the Mazda M5 I'd rented right up to the pump, pulled the little lever under the driver's seat to open the gas cap, and got out -- only to find that the gas cap wasn't on the left side of the car. It was on the right. There was a time when the hoses at pumps were long enough that you could pull them across the car and still refill your tank, but not anymore.

That meant I had to get back in, pull around, and try it from the other side. It's a minor thing, but why do we even have this lack of continuity anymore?

No car rental agency in this country would ever give you a car with the steering wheel on the right side, so why don't all vehicles sold in America come with the gas cap on the left? We drive on the right side of the road -- you should get gas from the right side of the pump.

Not only would we all follow the same convention, we'd also avoid that glare you get from a left-side re-filler when they encounter you suddenly facing them on their side of the pump, as if you were going the wrong way on a one-way street.

I know America is a deeply divided nation, but surely we can all get together on this.

Once we do, we can take on our next priority -- killing the people who put TVs spewing nonstop commercials on top of the pumps.

Swimming In Oily Water

Mac McClelland of Mother Jones has been covering the BP oil spill for more than two months, and joined me today on KTRS/St. Louis for an update.

The most shocking thing she told me is that, in the areas where authorities haven't closed the beaches despite tarballs on the beach, people continue to swim -- and let their children swim -- in the oil-infected water. These are the same people who would keep their kids away if there were a lot of jellyfish nearby, but oil?  Go body-surf, kids!

Mac also explained the newest cap BP is trying to put in place to capture more of the oil leaking out of the Earth, and the effect this disaster is having on gulf coast businesses.

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

Urinalot Of Trouble

A collection of photos of some of the funniest construction failures includes this one:

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Final Table #75: At The Main Event

Today on my Final Table radio show, Dennis Phillips and I are at the Rio in Las Vegas, where the 2010 World Series Of Poker Main Event is underway.

We recapped some of the highlights and lowlights of the last few days and looked back on a couple of players who had been overhyped to have big results at the WSOP, but fell short -- Tom Dwan and Annette Oberstad. Joe "The Poker Coach" McGowan joined us to talk about making the final table of the $1,500 Limit Shootout tournament a few days ago, and about a guy who was disqualified in the middle of that event under some very odd circumstances. Then I spoke with Jack Effel, the WSOP Tournament Director, who explained some last-minute changes he had to make to the structure of the Main Event, and an addition he's already planning for next year's WSOP.

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

Do you have your Final Table t-shirt, hat, and sweatshirt? Get'em now at our online store now and we'll get it to you right away!

Friday, July 02, 2010

Paul Provenza

Paul Provenza has been a standup comedian and student of comedy for some three decades. He directed "The Aristocrats" and is hosting Showtime's "The Green Room," in which he talks about the business with fellow comics.

He has also compiled "Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs, and Vulgarians," a collection of discussions he had with Robin Williams, Lewis Black, Don Novello, Colin Quinn, Lily Tomlin, PJ O'Rourke, Dave Attell, Richard Lewis, Robert Klein, Bill Maher, Patton Oswalt, Craig Ferguson, and a couple dozen other practitioners of the craft -- including George Carlin, about a week before his death.

Today on KTRS/St. Louis, Provenza and I discussed the book, beginning with why so many in the comedy community hold Stephen Colbert in such high regard, and why what he does on his Comedy Central show is so different and difficult. We also touched on:
  • why there aren't more conservative comedians
  • why he believes left-wingers are more responsible for censorship than right-wingers
  • why no one's created great musical satire since Tom Lehrer
  • how wealth changes comedy
  • whether satire can really change anything
  • why Joy Behar is pulling off something unique on "The View"
  • why Jay Leno is included in this collection in the first place
  • whether Matt Stone and Trey Parker were out of line in how they went after Janeane Garofalo in "Team America," and what she told him about them, too
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The President's Personal Physician

Here's another interview with someone with a unique job I've always been curious about.

Dr. Connie Mariano was "The White House Doctor" from 1992 to 2001, charged with taking care of the President, the Vice President, their families, and lots of people around them. She went everywhere the President went -- from the Oval Office to the motorcade to Air Force One to meetings with dignitaries to rallies and speeches -- always just a few feet away.

We talked about how she did her job while "the specter of assassination hung over all of us," the Secret Service training she went through, how she was sometimes called upon to help a sick tourist on the White House tour or a friend of the President who was choking on shrimp at a holiday party, and why she didn't think she'd get the job in the first place. Fascinating stuff from a medical professional who was that close to the most powerful man in the world every single day for nearly a decade.

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

A Bunch Of Bull

Every year at this time in Pamplona, Spain, thousands of people come together for the San Fermin Festival, the centerpiece of which is the Running Of The Bulls, where hundreds of humans run through the streets, chased by large bulls on their way to the city's bullfighting ring. Since those bulls will eventually die in the ring, I root for them to take out a few runners along the way.

Brant Wilkins was one of the guys running with the bulls, and he's going back next week for another adventure in beating the bovines. Today on KTRS/St. Louis, he joined me to talk about why he does it, what it was like last year, and how he ended up sleeping in an ATM vestibule instead of a hotel.

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

Brant told me off the air that he's going to try to capture some video via an iPod Nano he'll attach to the back of his head, which he'll post online. When he does, I'll re-post it here, with his permission.


Today on KTRS/St. Louis, I talked with David H. Freedman about his book, "Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us, and How To Know When Not To Trust Them."

We discussed the conflicting information we get from "experts" on diet, medicine, finance, and so much more. Much of it has to do with a lack of accountability, because as long as you keep making expert pronouncements, it doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong. Some of that blame belongs to the media, which has gotten lazier in challenging the assertions of experts, relying more on punditry than reporting facts. We also talked about The Idiocy Of Crowds and the role of the internet.

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

Moscow On The Puget

Spies. Who doesn't love'em? Whether you grew up with James Bond or Jason Bourne, they've always been portrayed as the coolest of the cool, with incomprehensibly difficult missions, unbelievably cool technology, and necessarily classified lives.

That's part of the reason the Russian spy story is so fascinating -- couples living in our country, integrating themselves into American life, trying to meet important people and gather who-knows-what-kind of information.

This had to be a dream job for them.

Life back home was gray. That's the dominant color in the Russian color scheme, though sometimes it runs the gamut from dark gray to light gray. I was there in 1989, doing a week of live broadcasts from Moscow to DC, and the entire city was gray -- the buildings, the streets, the food, even the people. When you grow up in that environment, the opportunity to come to America -- where every color in the spectrum exists, where the food choices are endless, where the entertainment options are myriad -- is priceless.

The hardest part of being a spy for Russia must have been not blowing the gig, not being recalled to gray-land.

Thus far, we haven't heard of any devastating information they sent to their handlers in Moscow -- and that must have been their biggest challenge. The home office wanted to know what was going on at the highest levels of America, yet these spies didn't have access to it. They had the technology to send encoded messages between passing laptops, but the content of those messages may have been just enough to keep their bosses from pulling them out of the field; enough to justify their deep-cover operations for another month, another year, or however long their cell phone contracts ran.

The spy who has gotten the most media attention is, of course, the one who was the best-looking. That would be Anna Chapman, the 28-year-old redhead who lived a secret life in New York (not to be confused with thousands of other 28-year-old redheads living a secret life in New York). She loved her life so much that she shared it on Facebook, complete with a photo gallery worthy of the pages of the New York Post. If no one in Hollywood is working on a script about the "sexy, savvy, secret agent" and trying to get Emily Blunt to star in it, they're just not doing their jobs.

The rest of the undercover agents weren't nearly as glamorous. Take Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, who were arrested in Virginia. Before moving there, they lived in the Seattle area, which is why I was talking about them on KIRO-FM yesterday with Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin. He talked to some of their neighbors and co-workers who, naturally, couldn't believe that they were spies (just as neighbors never know that the serial killer next door even owned a chainsaw). Of course, that's what being a spy is about. If you're good at it, no one should ever know that's what you do for a living. Right, Valerie Plame?

Listen to my conversation with Jonathan Martin.

Oleg Gordievsky, former deputy head of the KGB who defected 25 years ago, told the Associated Press this week that Russian probably has about 50 deep-cover couples in the United States. This comes as no surprise considering that the top two leaders in Russia, Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, are both ex-KGB.

What no one has said is that the US certainly has plenty of our own agents living the parallel undercover life in Russia. More worrisome than this mutual spying between post-Cold-War allies is the notion that we also have enemies living here. That's how Al Qaeda woke up its sleeper cells in September, 2001, and there's no doubt there are more of them here. They're the ones we really need to keep an eye on.

Problem is, none of them look like Anna Chapman.