Monday, September 24, 2012

Blowing It In The NFL

My tweets after the horrible calls by the refs during -- and especially at the end of -- the Green Bay/Seattle game tonight:

  • This was the worst ruling by officials since those replacement justices blew the call at the end of the big Gore-Bush game 12 years ago.
  • I wonder how Wisconsin's anti-union Governor Walker feels about his state's only NFL team being screwed on nat'l TV by non-union scab refs.
  • Ironic that Steve Sabol, who did more to build the NFL brand than many, died last week -- just as the brand is being destroyed by league HQ.
  • In retrospect, the '87 NFL scab players season seems 1,000% better than this scab referees season. How can Goodell not see the damage?

Quick Hits

A friend points out that while Mitt Romney is paying more taxes than he has to, he has a fail-safe -- if he loses the election, he can file an amended return, claim the deductions retroactively, reduce his tax rate, and get money back.  Romney's counting on the fact that most Americans have no idea how the tax code works, with its loopholes and deductions exploited primarily by the wealthy.  He's also hoping you don't remember that he said, during a GOP primary debate in January:

I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.
Then there's this quote from Romney about airplane windows, made to the LA Times Saturday night after Ann Romney's plane had to make an emergency landing when an electrical fire filled the cabin with smoke:
When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no - and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem. So it's very dangerous.
Really, Mitt? You don't know why airplane passengers can't open the windows? I know the GOP scores poorly on all things scientific, but you might want to look up the word pressurization.

Finally, in his "60 Minutes" interview last night, Romney tried to explain to Scott Pelley how he's going to lower taxes on people and corporations, but he claimed that by eliminating deductions, everyone's going to continue paying about the same amount they pay now, because:
I don't want a reduction in revenue coming into the government.
I thought that was the whole idea of the tea party and the right-wing fiscal policy -- have the government take less and do less.  If everyone's going to pay the same amount we pay now (highly unlikely!), how does that solve anything?  Oh, right, we're not allowed to ask about specifics.

The Blue Cheese Conundrum

Yesterday, a friend and I wanted a couple of Cobb salads to go from a restaurant.  When I called to place the order, I  asked the waitress to make sure there was no blue cheese on mine.  "No problem," she replied.  "We'll see," I thought.

When we went to pick up our food, there was one regular styrofoam container and another with the words "no blue cheese" written on it.  Familiar with the "always check your order" rule, we opened them to take a look and they both had blue cheese on top.  We could not figure out how this happened.  If you can, let me know.

This was our thinking:  if neither container had anything written on it, but both had blue cheese, I'd assume the order wasn't transmitted to the chef correctly. If only one had blue cheese, but nothing was written, okay, I got what I asked for.  But at what point did someone write "no blue cheese" on one of the containers if both of them had blue cheese?  Did someone put the blue cheese in and then write the message on top?  Did they pass it off to someone else who wrote it without checking?

By the way, the restaurant also had no setups (forks/knife/napkin) to give us.  Not in the mood to eat salad with our hands, we asked a woman at a nearby food cart for utensils, which she graciously supplied.  We walked away, shaking our heads at the multiple levels of incompetence we'd just encountered.  Why bother with to-go orders if you don't have plasticware for your customers?  How does the supply get depleted without someone noticing they're low and need to order more?  That's why I didn't ask the restaurant to fix my order -- who knew what else there were capable of getting wrong?  I pushed the blue cheese off to the side as I ate.

I was reminded of the time my wife and I were driving across Florida and pulled off to get lunch at a Burger King.  After ordering burgers and fries, I asked for some ketchup and the cashier informed us they had run out.  We were stunned.  How are you out of the most-used condiment in the burger world?  At lunchtime?  Does "Have it your way" not apply in this franchise?

I noticed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket across the parking lot and thought, "Why don't you take $5 out of the register, go over there, and buy a couple of bottles of Heinz?"  Notice I didn't actually say that to the Burger King cashier, because I'm sure she would have answered "we're not allowed to do that" or something similar from the world of no-rational-thinking-allowed-on-the-job.  I'd had first-hand experience with this during my summer as a teenage McDonald's employee, when some of my colleagues clearly had their brains in neutral.

I also remember the time at another drive-through place when I asked, "Do you have root beer?" and the immediate response was, "No, but we do have Diet Sprite!"  As if that's the fallback beverage for root beer.  It's apparent Mensa membership is not a requirement for fast food employment.

With no ketchup to be had at this Burger King, we cancelled our order and went across the street to Wendy's, which had miraculously avoided The Great Ketchup Drought, so our burgers came with all of the appropriate condiments.

And no blue cheese.

Steve Sabol, NFL Films

Steve Sabol, the man who ran NFL Films, succumbed to brain cancer last week at the age of 69.  There are plenty of obits and bios online about how he and his father Ed changed the way we watch football, but I'll remember him as one of my longtime money-in-the-bank guests.

He made about a half-dozen appearances on my radio shows in the 1990s, always had great stories to share, and put up with my obsessive questions about process -- explaining how NFL Films shot from different angles from everyone else, convinced players and coaches to wear microphones, and managed to get amazing footage of every game in the league, then ship it back to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to process, edit, score, and produce, often in less than 72 hours.  This was all in the pre-digital, pre-instant-transmission era, when he had employees carry the cans of film from each home city on their laps as they were taken to the airport by a police escort to fly back to NFLF headquarters.

I hadn't talked to Sabol for over a decade, unfortunately, but was sad to learn of his death, and also sad to read this Robert Weintraub piece about how the future of NFL Films looks dim because of the way the league is treating its product.
I'd been fascinated by NFLF's work for years, watching the 30-minute "Game Of The Week" and "This Week In The NFL" telecasts, with the basso profundo of John Facenda narrating it all as if it were an epic.  I was also taken by the original music Sabol commissioned, so much so that when he released a CD compilation, I went out and bought it, then listened as I imagined the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

When we had our first conversation in September, 1991, I started by asking about the music, specifically why he used "What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?" as the theme for one of his first NFL Films. We chatted for a few minutes, then he and my sports guy Dave The Predictor made their picks for that weekend's games. As you'll hear, Sabol wasn't shy about voicing his opinions, and at the end he correctly forecast the two teams that went on to play in Super Bowl XXVI, although he chose the wrong one to win it.

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

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Harris Challenge

Here's your chance to play along with this week's Harris Challenge -- five categories, 25 questions, two punishment songs, and a prize package worth over one million dollars! Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Seinfeld, Reiner, and Brooks

Jerry Seinfeld did a web series this summer called "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" with guests like Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and Bob Einstein. Some of the episodes were funny, some were boring, some were overly self-indulgent. But this week's is the best of the bunch because it features Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks sitting in Reiner's living room, where the two comedy legends and friends of 62 years spend every night eating dinner off TV trays while watching "Jeopardy" and movies now that their wives are gone. They tell stories, they do shtick, they get mustard on their faces, and Seinfeld realizes that Mel has no idea what he does in his stand-up act.

After you watch those 17 minutes, click on the Spare Parts at the bottom of that site and watch the first one, in which they talk about ending a TV show at its peak -- as both "Seinfeld" and Reiner's "Dick Van Dyke Show" did -- despite network entreaties (and big checks) to continue.

Tweet Of The Day

From Chris Rock: "Hey Mitt Romney, You Know That Huge Lead Obama Has? You Built That"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wrong On Veterans Again

Yesterday, Republicans in the Senate blocked a bi-partisan bill that would have helped put veterans back to work. Amazingly, some of those Republicans are the ones who worked to write the bill, which couldn't proceed despite a 58-40 vote because it didn't get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster threat. That means it's dead for this Congress. The GOP considers that a victory because it means Obama won't get credit for it, but it also means they're now on record as opposing aid for the men and women who've come home from multiple tours at war.

Today on KTRS/St. Louis, I asked Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, to explain why the bill failed, how it would have helped our returning veterans, how many of them have come home but been unable to find jobs, and what kind of jobs the bill would've helped prepare them for.

We also talked about today's one-year anniversary of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and a new study that says that all predictions to the contrary (e.g. John McCain's claim that it would do "great damage" to the military, the Marine Corps commandant who said it would "cost Marines' lives," or that a quarter of our troops would quit in protest), there has been no overall negative impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, or morale.

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

Don't Know Much About Presidents

Ken Davis sold about a million copies of his book, "Don't Know Much About History," so he's written a sequel, "Don't Know Much About The American Presidents," and joined me on KTRS/St. Louis today to talk about it. I asked him:
  • Whether the sniping between candidates and their camps has always been as bad as it is this year;
  • Whether history shows that Presidents in office while at war have a better chance of being re-elected;
  • Why Romney's Mormonism isn't more of an issue, considering the religious hatred in previous presidential elections;
  • How the idea of a presidency began when the founders wrote the Constitution (yesterday was its 225th anniversary);
  • Whether we'll ever get rid of the electoral college.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

West Wing Reunion

When you're running for office, it helps to have famous friends who can help you out. Bridget Mary McCormack is a law professor at the University of Michigan who is running for the state supreme court. That's not an office where a candidacy gets a lot of PAC money support or buys a lot of TV time. But Bridget has an ace up her sleeve -- her sister is Mary McCormack, who was on "The West Wing" in its last few seasons, and Mary got some of her fellow cast members -- Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Joshua Malina, Lily Tomlin, Janel Moloney, and Melissa Fitzgerald (Dule Hill was out of town) -- to reprise their roles in a clever ad for her sister. Malina has been teasing people on Twitter by posting photos purportedly shot during the filming of a "West Wing" movie, but were obviously from the set of this ad. Would Mrs. Landingham approve?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Raunchy Fundraiser Conundrum

Imagine this fictional scenario: Barack Obama has a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the home of a man who once hosted a party so raunchy that guests "cavorted nude in the pool and performed sex acts, scantily dressed Russians danced on platforms and men twirled lit torches to a booming techno beat" and "a man and woman stripped, jumped into the pool and later performed sex acts on a lounge chair before stunned fellow partygoers."

Do you think Fox News and the right-wing media might have a field day with the story, even though none of those things happened at the Obama fundraiser, but just because the host had thrown the other party, too? They'd be all over Obama, demanding explanations for how he could be involved with someone who'd sanction such activity. Romney's campaign team would produce commercials with code words like "family values" that would turn the party host into the new Jeremiah Wright.

Now, imagine that the presidential candidate the fundraiser was thrown for was not Barack Obama, but Mitt Romney. Think the conservative blowhards would say the same things for a guy from their own team? Of course not, as they're proving by mostly having no comments about Mark Leder, the multi-millionaire co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers who actually did host both the raunchfest and the Romney fundraiser that's garnered so many headlines after the secretly-taped video of his "47%" comments were made public by Mother Jones. The lone right-wing media exception is Murdoch's New York Post, which reported all of this on its Page Six.

I happen to think it's fine for Leder to throw any kind of party he wants -- black tie or white g-string -- and couldn't care less about it. But I'm not a member of the political hypocrisy that talks a lot about "family values" and sneers at what people on "the other side" do in their personal lives, but doesn't flinch at this affiliation as long as the campaign contributions keep rolling in.

Will Durst "Elect To Laugh"

Comedian Will Durst has made many appearances on my radio shows over the last three decades, and I invited him back today on KTRS/St. Louis to promote his new e-book, "Elect To Laugh," a combination of the columns he's written in this election year (for The Huffington Post and other sites) and some new material. The discussion ranged from the Romney 47% video to how Clint Eastwood is bullet-proof to how little we're seeing Joe Biden to the way Fox News keeps trying to humanize their candidate.

Will also told me something he'd never mentioned in all the years I've known him -- he was once one of the bachelors on "The Dating Game." He claims there's no tape of it, so I made him describe the experience.

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

CNN's Don Lemon

CNN's Don Lemon was supposed to join me today on KTRS/St. Louis to talk about the fallout from the Romney 47% video, how the polls look in the swing states, and whether the candidates' appearances with Letterman and Kelly Ripa/Michael Strahan will have any effect on how American's vote in 48 days. We did get into all of that, but first we had to get past the sugar rush Don got from eating several Candy Corn Oreos, which I consider an abomination of the perfect cookie by combining it with one of the worst candies.

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

Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson

Here's the conversation I had today on KTRS/St. Louis with Ann and Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart, who have a new book about their careers, "Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll" and a new album (due in 2 weeks) called "Fanatic." I asked them about the sexism they faced from a male-dominated rock culture, what it was like the first time they heard one of their songs on the radio, and what they thought when they saw themselves on MTV. I also asked Nancy about her work creating music for "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," and how Ann's voice is holding up after overcoming years of alcohol and drug problems.

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

James Randi on Real People

I've mentioned before on this site the documentary in production about James Randi entitled "An Honest Liar." The filmmakers have been interviewing Randi and lots of others, as well as digging up footage from his remarkable career. Here's one clip they found from the NBC series "Real People" circa 1980, with Byron Allen, Skip Stephenson, Sarah Purcell, and John Barbour, who challenges Randi to bend a spoon a la Uri Geller (but through trickery and physics, not claims of mental powers and psychic ability)...

Incidentally, Randi's willingness to out Geller's methods led to major legal problems for several years. Geller's litigiousness Randi a lot of money, but our hero won in the end and is still fighting against claims of paranormal and psychic ability for which no proof is offered. If you haven't read his book, "The Truth About Uri Geller," here's the link.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Leonard Maltin

Here's the conversation I had today on KTRS/St. Louis with Leonard Maltin, whose "2013 Movie Guide" is out this week. We talked about the impact of Netflix and streaming video on the movie business, whether after all these years he's ever pleasantly surprised by what he sees on the big screen, and whether he has walked out of a movie screening. He also told a story about appearing on "Password Plus" with the late Phyllis Diller, and mentioned two documentaries he's seen recently and liked, as well as the upcoming Ben Affleck-directed "Argo."

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

Romney's Base Doesn't Pay Income Tax

Mitt Romney might want to check this map, showing the percentage of people in each state who pay no federal income tax. Turns out the states with the highest numbers are the ones that make up the Republican base, while the ones with the lowest numbers make up Obama's core...

The Science of Weather

Sunday night between 10 and 11pm, three local TV meteorologists forecast that Monday would be "mostly cloudy, with some showers probable in the evening." Based on those scientific predictions, and since we've been rather dry lately, and because I'm still trying to get our lawn to recover from its bake-until-brown summer by watering it daily, I set our sprinklers to go off in the early hours of Monday. Then I went to bed. When I woke up around 7:30am, just nine hours after the weather experts had told us it wouldn't rain until Monday night, it was pouring outside.

Okay, so they got it wrong. It's not the first time, and the extra moisture won't kill my lawn, but I had begun to believe that the science of weather had reached the point when they could at least get the next day correct. Then I started thinking about the Farmers' Almanac, which began making long-term weather predictions (in print) since 1818, when the only way to be sure about the weather was to step outside and look at the sky. And people bought it, even thought those forecasts weren't made a day ahead of time -- the predictions for each annual edition were made two years in advance of the publication date, with methodology slightly less exact than we have in the 21st century. In the 19th century, the closest they came to Doppler radar was finding a cat named Doppler and spinning him around ten times. If he threw up a fur ball, it meant hail.

Which brings me to the other meteorological prediction that drives me crazy. Around this time each year, some "expert" pronounces his long-range forecast for the upcoming winter, predicting it will be unusually cold, or won't have as much snow as last year, or will start earlier, or whatever. It doesn't matter whether he was right or wrong last year -- the media, which never goes back to check and hold anyone accountable, dutifully reports his prediction, as if we're supposed to do something with the information, like postpone the family ski trip until President's Day weekend. Again, remember that weather is such an inexact science that they couldn't tell us on a local level last night that there was a storm moving in this morning, and we're supposed to believe that this guru of the jetstream can predict in September how harsh it's going to get in February -- for the entire nation?

It's nonsense, no more reliable than this guy used to be at forecasting the weather...

Monday, September 17, 2012

More On The Vote Fraud That Isn't There

Today on KTRS, in a followup to the piece I posted here last week, I discussed how the voter ID laws now in effect in 17 states will affect this year's elections with Dr. Jon Rogowski of Washington University. He and University of Chicago's Cathy Cohen have released a study saying as many as 700,000 minority voters under 30 may not be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote, which could affect both the presidential race and some Congressional districts, too. The study is summarized in this AP story. As for why many minorities lack ID to show at the polls, Slate has endeavored to explain.

Meanwhile, today's NY Times had a front-page story on right-wing groups inflating the vote-fraud lie way out of proportion, despite a continuing lack of evidence that people are committing that crime. The story highlighted one organization called True The Vote which, like so many other GOP groups that are supposedly grassroots-driven, gets its funding from rich conservatives whose only agenda is to control American politics so it does their bidding:

True the Vote began working in Wisconsin in 2011, the same year it received a $35,000 grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin and is a major backer of conservative causes, including Americans for Prosperity. The foundation’s president and chief executive, Michael Grebe, was Mr. Walker’s campaign chairman for his 2010 campaign and for the recall election, which he won.
The puppets of True The Vote are sure that Democrats are committing election fraud and rigging the outcome, but whenever they try to prove it, it turns out that there's no actual evidence to support their claims:
Ms. Engelbrecht has said her goal was not to stop the recall election, which had been backed by labor unions, but to prove to those behind it “that unions cannot strong-arm America.” She said thousands of volunteers helped enter petition signatures into a database, which was then analyzed by the group’s software. Of the one million signatures, True the Vote said 63,038 were ineligible, 212,628 required further investigation and 584,489 were valid.

The accountability board concluded that about 900,000 signatures were valid and, in a memorandum reviewing True the Vote’s work, criticized its methods. For example: Mary Lee Smith signed her name Mary L. Smith and was deemed ineligible by the group. Signatures deemed “out of state” included 13 [out of a million!!] from Milwaukee and three from Madison. The group’s software would not recognize abbreviations, so Wisconsin addresses like Stevens Point were flagged if “Pt.” was used on the petition.

While the board commended the group for encouraging “a strong level of civic engagement,” it found that True the Vote’s results “were significantly less accurate, complete and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B.”
And then there's my favorite part of the story:
In Racine, conservative poll watchers also alleged fraud, including a claim that a busload of union members from Michigan had come to Wisconsin to vote illegally. The Racine County Sheriff’s Department determined that the accusation had been based on an anonymous call to a radio station. “There is no evidence this bus convoy existed or ever arrived in Racine County,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

As for the buses her organization saw in Wisconsin, Ms. Engelbrecht could not provide details. “It was reported to us that this had occurred,” she said. “I know these sightings were also being reported on the radio.”
Well, if someone called in to a radio station and said it, it must be real. Trust me, I've spent over 30 years on the radio and can tell you that you can't trust much of what you hear from anonymous callers unless you have independent verification. You'd think a group with the word "True" in its name would have a minimum standard leaning in the direction of facts instead of rumors and inaccuracies -- but you'd be wrong. And that's the state of the Republican Party these days, basing policies on "I heard this from somebody..."

Finally, this e-mail from listener Stephen Webb:
Thanks for your discussion of voter suppression this morning. One important part of the idea that anyone can get a photo ID is that the aged, poor and economically disadvantaged don't have the financial wherewithal to go and pay for a photo ID. I agree with you that the Dems should simply play the game as follows: Declare that photo IDs will be free to all comers; bring some kind of proof of residency. Take the voter registration/photo ID vans into the neighborhoods where getting out to get the ID would pose a problem (don't forget that there are aged persons in retirement homes, in 'older neighborhoods' like the one where I live), and elsewhere. Think the 'Bookmobile Model.'

And, one more thing: requiring an at-cost photo ID is actually a form of a poll tax in that it requires some kind of required expenditure in order to exercise one's constitutional franchise, and that's illegal. Remember, all this is really an effort by the OldSouth to resurrect those voter suppression rules that they formerly used to deny the vote to Blacks and immigrants. Plantation mentality couched in today's legal fear-mongering jargon.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • The refs in the Rams-Redskins game may break Rick Perry's record for most televised mistakes by people who don't have a clue.
  • The definition of premature: Fox's Chris Myers just referred to RG3's "legacy." In his 2nd NFL game. Call the Hall of Fame.
  • Tom Shales is back reviewing TV, for Roger Ebert's site, starting with SNL's not-so-impressive season debut.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Keep Your Top On, Kate

I couldn't care less about the royal family, but one aspect of the Kate Middleton topless photos story did strike me. Like so many others before her, she forgot a basic simple rule of being famous -- if you don't want someone to take photos of you with your clothes off, then keep your clothes on whenever you're outside. In fact, the rule applies whether or not you're famous, as far too many Facebook photos have proven in the last few years.

A spokesman from Buckingham Palace was quoted Friday as saying that the way the paparazzi follows Kate is as bad as it was for Diana. That's probably true, but the royals should have learned in the intervening years to be more careful about where and what they do. And yet, there were the photos of Harry in his gestapo uniform, and then his naked partying in Vegas, and now Kate topless poolside in France.

I'm reminded of those actresses who, while still unknown at 18 or 19, agreed to have nude or semi-nude photos taken because "they needed the money." Then, years later, when they achieve some fame, they're shocked and embarrassed when those photos are dredged up and published somewhere. Want to avoid that? Then don't pose for them in the first place. Similarly, if you don't want your partner to release your sex tape out of spite after you break up, you can easily pre-empt their actions by not allowing them to videotape you acting like a Kardashian.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Harris Challenge

If you missed The Harris Challenge yesterday on KTRS, you can play along right now! Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, September 14, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Trivia: Name an Arab country where US involvement in changing leadership turned out well. Answer: None. But we'll keep trying & failing.
  • Time's James Poniewozik on the bizarre anti-Muhammad video, with links about the maker's apparent deceit of his own cast.
  • Slate's Stefan Fatsis asks why is the NFL discouraging long field goals?
  • Offended by NBC not carrying the 9/11 moment of silence Tuesday? You know you could've turn your TV off & had silence at home, don't you?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Better Way To Fight Voter ID Laws

There's been a lot of chatter again this election year about voter ID laws. Despite a complete lack of evidence of fraud at the ballot-box, Republican legislatures in several states have rammed through laws requiring that every voter show a state-issued photo ID before being allowed to vote. The Democrats have screamed bloody murder, claiming it will hurt their core voters who are poor, old, or don't have an ID for whatever reason, and called upon judges to declare those laws unconstitutional.

It's not working, so the Dems need a new strategy. It's not like they couldn't have seen this coming. Voter ID laws didn't just appear this year -- we went through this to a certain extent four and even eight years ago. Yet Democrats keep banging their heads against the losing wall.

Instead, they should undertake a national project to get every single person in America -- starting with their own likely voter base -- a state-issued photo ID. Start the project now and you'll have made considerable progress by the time the 2016 elections roll around (you might even affect the 2014 congressional races!). Sure, it will take money, so use your giant fundraising apparatus to bankroll it. Frame it so that Republicans so "concerned" about voter fraud have to play along, passing laws to have states issue free photo IDs to those with the proper documentation, and underwrite the cost for those who don't have it to get it.

Legislation like that would help a lot of people in other ways, too. While plenty of adults don't have a driver's license because they don't have a car, don't they need ID to cash a check or do other personal business? Having that ID would help. Democrats could easily turn this into a civil rights issue -- denying Americans the right to vote is bad enough, but denying them the right to get the very piece of plastic that confirms they are who they say they are? That's not even a battle.

Democrats are making exactly these efforts in Pennsylvania, one of the states that recently enacted a voter ID law, which should serve as a model for the rest of the country.

iPhone 5 vs. 4s

How much do people buy the hype about Apple's new iPhone 5? Jimmy Kimmel did a clever bit last night in which people on the street were asked to compare the new model to the iPhone 4s -- except that iPhone 5 isn't available yet, so they were really looking at the current model, but that didn't keep them from being impressed by what they didn't see...

Some analysts today are predicting that Apple won't sell as many iPhone 5's as originally thought, because they say the improvements aren't a giant leap forward. What they're neglecting is that a lot of people didn't buy the iPhone 4s -- despite the presence of Siri -- because they were waiting for version 5, which actually is a generation better than the plain old iPhone 4. Those analysts, many of whom always doubt Apple's strategies, will be proven wrong again. If you're an Apple shareholder (as I am), there's no reason to panic-sell.

As for the fuss over the new Lightning connector plug, several reports are trying to worry people by telling them their old iPhone/iPod/iTouch plugs won't work anymore or they'll have to buy an adapter. Completely false. The 30-pin plugs that used to be standard will still work with all of the previous models. If you buy the new models, they'll come with the Lightning connector, which is smaller and allowed Apple to make the entire phone thinner. If you have both old and new models, you'll just have to have different plugs available. It's no different that when we upgraded from the earliest iPhone models and our old iHome speaker dock no longer charged the newest iPhones. Somehow, we managed to adapt, and so will you. Believe me, consumers are not as stupid as some of these reports make them out to be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • The unique perspective of the only American off the planet at the time of the 9/11 attacks, astronaut Frank Culbertson, through the letters he wrote at the time aboard the International Space Station.
  • More evidence that public funding of sports stadiums/arenas is a bad idea that doesn't help the local economy.
  • DVR Alert: if you missed Robert Greenwald's terrific documentary "Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers" when I showed it locally in 2006, catch it this week on Current TV.
  • How do you keep track of your identical quadruplets? Cut their hair into numbers on top of their heads!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Million Dollar Challenge

For years, James Randi has offered a large cash prize to anyone who can prove psychic or paranormal ability. Naturally, the well-known con artists who make their living via these claims will never step forward to be tested, because they know they'll fail and be exposed. However, there is still a large number of people who truly believe they have these abilities, or have invented something miraculous, or whatever. Because they're sure they can really do what they say they can do, they will step forward and try to win what is now known as the Million Dollar Challenge.

Over the last few summers at The Amazing Meeting, Randi's colleagues have conducted live tests of some of these claimants in front of an audience of hundreds. Before they're allowed to set foot on stage, they meet with Banachek (the mentalist/magician who oversees the MDC for the James Randi Educational Foundation) and Jamy Ian Swiss (the magician and author), both of whom appeared on last year's "Nightline" special about the Million Dollar Challenge (watch that here). They and other JREF advisors design a customized protocol specific to each applicant's claims, ensuring it is valid scientifically, mathematically. No test begins until the claimant agrees that this will be a valid test of what they say they can do -- if the applicant doesn't sign off on it, they tweak until everyone's on the same page. The JREF doesn't want anyone to say afterwards that they were tricked in any way.

Thus far, all of them have failed, and no one has won the million dollars -- but that hasn't stopped most of them from believing they can do it. They usually have an alibi, despite agreeing ahead of time to all the conditions of the protocol.

This summer, a man named Andrew Needles agreed to be tested at TAM. He is the inventor of the "Dynactiv SR," a brand of wristbands and pendants that supposedly give the wearer better balance and increased strength thanks to tiny microchips he has embedded into his products.

I give Needles credit for being willing to make the attempt publicly, especially in front of a crowd of skeptics. To that end, Banachek makes it clear to the audience that Needles is to be treated with respect, that there shouldn't be any laughter or derisive commentary aimed at him during his appearance. If the purpose of this exercise was simply to make fun of the claimant, no one would ever agree to be tested again. There's a serious scientific protocol in place, a lot of money on the line, and real egos involved -- nothing to be trifled with.

Here's how the testing played out, on stage in a ballroom at the Southpoint Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas in July. Since this involved a lengthy protocol, you may not want to watch each test subject, so after the first one, you can skip forward to about an hour and eight minutes into the video to watch the finale, followed by some closing remarks by Banachek and Jamy. You can also read this summary by Richard Saunders, the Australian skeptic who Needles first contact, and who brought him to the attention of the JREF for its Million Dollar Challenge.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Eye Don't Like It

I have a major phobia about my eyes. Call it an extreme sensitivity. Not only can I not stand the thought of someone or something touching my eyes -- I can't even watch someone else put in their own contact lenses or apply eye makeup (good thing there isn't much call for the latter in the radio business).

I was once urged to do live commercials for a doctor who specializes in Lasik surgery. The salesperson took me to the doctor's office, where his assistant gave me a full tour and described the procedures he did. Hearing her descriptions while surrounded by photos of eyes in various states of distress, it took every ounce of willpower for me not to throw up. I knew I couldn't do these commercials -- how could I convince our listeners to visit a business that freaked me out so much? To our salesperson's horror, I had to politely decline to be the doctor's radio spokesman.

You can imagine how I feel when I have to get my eyes checked annually to see if I need a new prescription for my glasses. It's one of the most anxiety-producing things in my life. I have no problem getting in front of a huge crowd to make a speech, or driving on icy roads through blizzard conditions, or any of a number of things that might make other people nervous. But sitting in the examination chair while drops are applied to dilate my eyes, or when the doctor has to reach over and move my eyelid as he uses the machine that touches my eyeball to test for glaucoma -- it's all I can do to keep from running out of the room at high speed.

Still, I can manage to get through it once a year, albeit with a slight increase in blood pressure. But a few days ago, I noticed a small growth on my left upper eyelid. This can't be good, I told myself. Even if it was nothing dangerous, the thought of having someone do something about it started getting to me. I called my eye doctor, who agreed to see me that afternoon. He immediately recognized it as a sebaceous cyst, kind of like a pimple. He told me it was usually harmless (I liked hearing that), but I might need to have it removed (not so much), so he got me an appointment for today with an ophthalmologist who could better determine what needed to be done.

This afternoon, I drove to the ophthalmologist's office in a building topped by a sign containing two words I never want to see together: Eye Surgery Center. I got there early so I'd have time to fill out all the paperwork, then sat among a dozen other patients until it was my turn. A half-hour later, a nurse took me into an examination room, had me do a quick reading test, put some notes in a computer, then escorted me to the next waiting area, where only six other patients were sitting. Anticipating the wait time, I'd brought two newspapers with me. Finished them both. Then checked email on my iPhone.

Fifteen minutes later, a second nurse took me into yet another examination room. "The doctor will be right with you." Back to my iPhone to check Twitter. If the idea was to exercise my eyes, mission accomplished.

Nearly an hour after I'd arrived, there was a knock at the door, then I was finally in the same room as the doctor. Before he got started, I explained my crazy eye phobia. He smiled, saying I wasn't alone, and he'd be gentle. With a minimum of eyelid-touching, he checked out the cyst and declared that as long as it didn't hurt, wasn't in my field of vision, and wasn't bothering me, then it wasn't a big deal and he didn't have to do anything about it. In fact, if it didn't change in the next six months (or six years), there was nothing to worry about.

For the first time today, a smile crossed my lips. I was about to stand up and walk out, but I couldn't help myself: "I'm probably going to regret this question, but what if it does change?" He replied, "Then we'll have to inject a little anesthetic into the lid, puncture the cyst with a very small needle, and drain the fluid." I stopped him. "You had me at inject, Doc!!" Seeing how I'd recoiled at the thought, he reassured me that I was fine for now, that he wouldn't go anywhere near my eyes again until I told him it was necessary.

Good enough for me. I happily coughed up my co-pay at the front desk, then got out of there as quickly as I could, breathing easily with eyes intact.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • When Manhattan had tornado warnings a few days ago, my Missourian daughter looked out the window & calmed friends' nerves by saying "Nope, not dark enough!"
  • Nice to see Congress has returned from a 5-week vacation so it can get back to the business of doing nothing. BTW, did you get 5 weeks off?
  • Can't wait to see these new features in Apple's iOS6 (plus whatever they announce Wednesday).
  • Stephen Tobolowsky remembers how much fun it was to make the movie "Sneakers" 20 years ago w/Redford, Kingsley, et al.
  • Missouri stupidly banned the use of phones & any other electronic equipment at poker tables. I defied the rule by watching the NFL on a nearby TV during a hand.
  • More TSA Idiocy: testing drinks bought by travelers inside the terminal, AFTER passing security!
  • I have decided I'm going to get a divorce from Kelsey Grammer, too. Here's why.
  • Slightly Cooler Than Your Job: meet the people who drive NASA's Rover on the surface of Mars.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Harris Challenge

Many years ago, I created a trivia segment called The Harris Challenge for my radio show. It became one of the most popular things I've ever done, and led to my publishing two Harris Challenge Trivia Calendars that sold fairly well. By the time I stopped doing daily radio shows, I had written something like 50,000 questions and hosted many charity trivia nights. As I continued to freelance as a fill-in host on various radio stations, listeners would ask when they could play The Harris Challenge again, and I would occasionally bring it back, but not very often.

Now that I've taken over the Friday 3-6pm show on KTRS, I've decided to return The Harris Challenge to a regular slot, each week at 5:15pm. The format's still the same -- contestants pick a category, answer five questions in sixty seconds, then win a prize (like tickets to a Wehrenberg movie theater) or get punished for not doing well enough. Pretty simple, but if you've never heard it, here's what it sounds like...

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

Punt The Politician

After Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke in favor of a ballot initiative in Maryland that would legalize gay marriage, a state legislator named Emmett C. Burns Jr. (a Democrat and minister who opposes the idea) wrote a letter to the team's owner (cc'd to the media) asking that he "inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions." The Ravens didn't do any such thing, nor did the team comment on the letter, but Ayanbadejo tweeted: "Football is just my job it's not who I am. I am an American before anything. And just like every American I have the right to speak!!!"

Burns' letter concluded with this sentence: "I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing." That prompted a player on another team, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, to write his own response to Burns, reminding him that Kluwe has also spoken out in favor of legalizing gay marriage -- he's a vocal opponent of a referendum that will be on the ballot in Minnesota in November that would amend the state constitution with a gay marriage ban -- and pointing out that attempts by a government official to squelch speech are a violation of the Bill Of Rights:

As I suspect you have not read the Constitution, I would like to remind you that the very first, the VERY FIRST Amendment in this founding document deals with the freedom of speech, particularly the abridgment of said freedom. By using your position as an elected official (when referring to your constituents so as to implicitly threaten the Ravens organization) to state that the Ravens should "inhibit such expressions from your employees," more specifically Brendon Ayanbadejo, not only are you clearly violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a narcissistic fromunda stain. What on earth would possess you to be so mind-boggingly stupid? It baffles me that a man such as yourself, a man who relies on that same First Amendment to pursue your own religious studies without fear of persecution from the state, could somehow justify stifling another person's right to speech. To call that hypocritical would be to do a disservice to the word.

Gadgets On A Plane

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (the men behind the famous Invisible Gorilla test) wrote an op-ed urging the FAA to drop its ban on electronic gadgets on planes, saying there's a complete lack of evidence showing that their use threatens anyone's safety:

To gather some empirical evidence on this question, we recently conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year. In this sample, 40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren't supposed to.

Consider what these numbers imply. The odds that all 78 of the passengers who travel on an average-size U.S. domestic flight have properly turned off their phones are infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion, by our rough calculation. If personal electronics are really as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights. But we don't see that.
Read their whole piece here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Road Trip Day 10: Philadelphia

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

I leave Atlantic City and head towards Philadelphia, where my wife and I lived for about 20 minutes a quarter-century ago. In that time, and in several visits before and since, I've seen every part of the town I wanted to visit, so there won't be any sightseeing this time. Instead, I'm going to stop at Parx Casino, where I've heard great things about the poker room. Matt Glantz, who I had dinner with a couple of nights ago, has signed an endorsement deal as poker ambassador for Parx. He's brought some of the high-stakes games from Borgata to Parx, and tells me there's always good action.

The poker room at Parx is in a separate building from the rest of the casino, on the second floor of the racetrack grandstand. The horses only run on the weekends, so it's a little slow as I arrive on Wednesday afternoon, but I take the escalator up to the second floor to find a huge space with 60 poker tables and plenty of games going. Unfortunately, there's no PLO, so I put my name on the list for the $10/10 no-limit hold'em game and get the floor guy to start a list for $5/5 pot-limit Omaha. He says that game probably won't go for several hours, but he has a seat open right now in a $2/5 no-limit game.

I sit down and it becomes quickly apparent that Parx is a well-run room. They have personnel with carts to sell chips to players at the tables, the dealers are efficient and nice, and the floor people are on top of things. I play for a few hours, then pick up and go to check into my motel room (there's no hotel in the Parx complex, so I'm staying at a Comfort Inn less than 2 miles away). After checking in, I realize I haven't eaten since breakfast, so I find a local restaurant that's advertising half-price meals tonight. It's packed, but I take a seat at the bar, where the service is good and the food is fine.

In the mood for more poker, I head back to Parx, where there's a seat open in the $10/10 game. I like the fact that they play it with $10 chips and matching blinds, which makes the game go faster. Around 10:30pm, there are finally enough PLO players to start that game. There aren't any real fish at the table, but a couple of guys who play too aggressively, and I take advantage of that. Around 2am, we're down to five players, so I call it a night with a nice big stack.

As I cash out, I feel a little uncomfortable walking across the large parking lot carrying my bankroll in my pocket, so I ask a security guard to escort me to my car. That's not a commentary on Parx in particular -- many casinos offer this service, and I've taken advantage of it several times, particularly in places I didn't know well.

The first time I made the request was a couple of years ago at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, when the idea of walking through the darkness at 3am to the space I'd parked in when the sun was out made me a tad nervous. That night, I spotted a sheriff's deputy near the front door and asked if there was someone who could walk me out. He stood up (taller than me, and I'm 6'4"), put his hand on his gun, and said, "I'm your man!" He then took out his flashlight and led the way, stopping me when we got to my car so that he could make sure there wasn't anyone hiding in the back seat. Talk about full service protection.

This time, the Parx casino guard (Curtis) doesn't have a gun, but uses his walkie-talkie to notify dispatch that he's escorting me to the parking lot. As we step outside, I see a security patrol car headed in our direction. Curtis explains that they heard his call and this was standard protocol -- that officer would keep an eye on us, too, until I drove away. When I get in my car, I thank him, he says good night and waves to the other officer, and I head back to the motel.

Miles thus far: 1,440.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Odd Day At The Movies

My wife and I went to see "Robot and Frank" yesterday and something happened that I've never seen before: the projectionist introduced himself to the crowd. Normally, the only time you even see the projectionist at a movie theater is when there's a serious problem -- the film is irreparably broken, there's no electricity, someone poured popcorn butter all over the coming attractions. But there was no problem this time, just a guy in his late 20s walking to the front of the theater and announcing, "Hi, I'm Josh, I'm the projectionist." He said it in the same way a waiter would, right before asking if we'd like something to drink while we look over the menu.

Josh The Projectionist continued, "Thank you for coming today. If you have any problems -- if the picture's blurry, or the sound isn't loud enough, or anything else, please let me or one of the other employees know about it, and we'll fix it right away. Again, thank you for coming, enjoy the movie, and Happy Labor Day!"

We have been going to that theater at Plaza Frontenac for over a decade, and had never been greeting by the projectionist. As we (and the rest of the crowd) sat there with quizzical looks on our faces, Josh happily walked up the aisle and into the booth, where he turned down the lights and started projecting non-blurry images and crystal-clear sound. So, what was that about? Neither of us had any idea, but I guessed that it might have to do with Labor Day -- perhaps management was allowing the staff a moment of recognition on their holiday?

As for the movie, "Robot and Frank" is a lot of fun, although not in the way our fellow attendees thought. It takes place in the future, where Frank Langella plays an ex-cat-burglar now in his 70s beginning to lose his mental faculties but still living alone. His son, James Marsden, worries about his father and buys him a talking home health-care robot, which will cook and clean, put Frank on a regular schedule, and keep him engaged. Frank, of course, despises the idea, but since his son insists it's that or a mental facility, he goes along. Soon, Frank bonds with the robot and teaches him how to open locks and plan burglaries. There's a parallel plot involving the local library, which Frank still visits because he loves books and has an attachment to the librarian, played by Susan Sarandon. To his chagrin, with all information now digitized, there's little need for the books, so the new young head of the library is having them removed and the space turned into something else. And there's your antagonist.

I won't give away any more, but will say that we enjoyed it. Langella is always fun to watch, Sarandon is incapable of a bad performance, and the supporting cast (including the person operating the robot, which is voiced by Peter Saarsgard) are all good, too. However, unlike the others in the theater, my wife and I didn't find it hysterically funny. We don't even consider it an out-and-out comedy, but a clever drama with some amusing moments. She thinks some of the laughter came from people who find it amusing to hear senior citizens curse. I don't know. It's certainly light-hearted, not dour, and there were plenty of moments that made us smile, but the audience acted like they were watching "Bridesmaids."

Maybe they were still confused by Josh The Projectionist.