Friday, November 30, 2012

Harris Challenge

Play along with this week's Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "Not So Fiscal Cliff" and "This Week In Showbiz." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News®

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a bad job interview with the FBI, trouble with a chainsaw, and two bacon-related stories. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Stop asking. Yes, one Powerball winner is here in Missouri. No, it's not me. Like I'd announce it on Twitter if I was. #butsomeonewill
  • I'm disappointed I didn't win Powerball. With all that money, I was going to start ordering all my food with extra gluten.
  • Ain't That America: At the supermarket yesterday, there was no line for the salad bar, but 25 people in line for Powerball.

Road Trip Day 12: Cleveland

This summer, I kept 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. At this point, I'm still in Ohio...

After last night's disappointment (a losing session in a game that didn't even last four hours), I resolve not to go back to the Horseshoe until late in the afternoon, when I presume the weekend players will roll in and the games will be better.  So, I stay in my hotel room writing, reading, and returning phone calls.

When I finally walk over to the casino and ride up two flights to the poker room, there are plenty of people, but to my utter disappointment, the games are all small-stakes. There are several tables of $3-6 limit hold'em and $1-3 no limit hold'em, where the players don't realize that they can't possibly beat the house's rake.

The Horseshoe takes $6 out of every pot, plus another dollar for the bad beat jackpot (in the very unlikely event that you lose with four of a kind to a better hand, you get part of that prize). If you tip the dealer a buck every time you win a hand (as most players do, at a minimum), that's a total of $8 coming out of pots that are rarely over $100 -- a percentage that's too high for even good players to overcome. For comparison, the games I play in St. Louis are capped at a $4 rake and aren't eligible for the bad beat, so they don't take a dollar for it.  It may not seem like much, but those few extra dollars out of the pot add up. If ten people buy into a game for an average of $100 each, at these rates, after an hour, they'll each have an average of $76 and no idea that the house took the rest.

You'd think that for the money they're taking out of the game, the casino would give the players some good comp value, but no. While other rooms add 75¢ to $2 to your account for each hour you play (which can then be used for food, hotel rooms, etc.), the Horseshoe offers a measly 25¢/hour.

The only PLO table is a $1-3 game, but I figure that I have nothing better to do, so I sit down anyway. It's apparent immediately that this is an inexperienced group, which I hope to exploit, but most of the players have only bought in for $100, so there's not a lot of profit potential. It's also clear that the dealers have even less idea what's going on than the players do.

At one point, there are five players in pre-flop for $3 each (in other words, no one raised, but four of them called the big blind). On the flop, the first player says "pot," meaning he's betting the maximum, which is the amount that's in the pot already, fifteen dollars. The second player folds, and the third player says "re-pot." At that point, everything stops, because no one knows how much the bet should be, including the dealer. She sees that there's $15 in the middle, plus $15 the first guy bet, so she announces that the raise is to $30 -- and another player, who's not in the hand, tells her she's right. I'm not in the hand, either, but I have to speak up and tell her the correct amount is $60 (he calls for $15, then raises the total of all the bets so far, which is $45, for a total of $60).

Now the other player not in the hand starts arguing with me while the dealer looks confused. She decides to call over a floor supervisor, who listens and then agrees with me on the correct bet size.

I'm willing to cut dealers some slack because the numbers in PLO can get confusing, but I'm usually not the only player at the table who understands the math. Fortunately, this dealer's half-hour at our table is up, and another one slides in. Unfortunately, he doesn't know how to deal PLO, either. Nor does that next one.

I have encountered some rookie dealers making mistakes at the World Series Of Poker, where they have to hire so much staff that everyone can't be an all-star, but I've never seen three incompetent dealers in a row. I learn that there are at least two reasons for this problem.

One is that, when Ohio approved casino gambling, the law required that a very high percentage of the employees be residents of the state. That's a noble idea to create jobs for Ohioans, but because there had never been casinos there, there weren't a lot of experienced people to take those jobs. So there's a learning curve in play, considering the Horseshoe has only been open for 3 months. The other reason is that the dealers share their tips -- not just with other poker dealers, but with every dealer in the building, including those on table games like blackjack, roulette, craps, etc.

That reduces the incentive for any dealer to get better at their job. If you keep all your own tips, as in most other poker rooms, you can make a lot more money if you're accurate, pleasant, and fast. That last one, the speed at which you deal, is the biggest factor, because the more hands you get out, the more tips you'll take in.  But if the slow dealers benefit just as much from the fast dealers because tips are pooled and shared, there's no impetus to go faster, count the pot, and run the game properly. The slack will be made up by the good dealers, whose tip rate will be dragged down conversely.

After witnessing this extravaganza of incompetence, I decide I'm gonna keep my mouth shut unless I'm involved in a hand. And with the stacks of chips on the table too small to make the game worth my time, I resolve to win a few pots and get out of here, which is exactly what I do.

After cashing out, I take the escalator down to the first floor and emerge into downtown Cleveland. It's a Friday night, so the area is bustling, but I feel uneasy. Not only was the experience inside not so good, but I feel nervous walking around with a bunch of money in my pocket in this area. The ask-a-security-guard-for-an-escort option that I used in Philadelphia isn't available, so I keep my eyes peeled as I walk very quickly back to the Marriott.

Once there, I try to figure out where I'll go next. This was going to be the last stop on my road trip before returning to St. Louis, but I don't want to end it with this sour taste in my mouth. I know I'm only five hours from Chicago, where the Horseshoe Hammond always has good games, lots of action -- and a staff that knows what it's doing.  I call my wife to ask if she minds if I head there tomorrow. She doesn't object at all, so I watch some TV before calling it a day, looking forward to putting Cleveland in my rear-view mirror in the morning.

Mileage thus far: 1,881.

Who Said This? (The Answer)

Yesterday, I asked who said the following, and who were they talking about?

I think his success says much more about something in this culture than it does about him. I think he found a ready-made audience of young, white males who are frustrated and angry and confused and alienated. I don’t want to sound heavy-duty sociological here, but it’s true. They’re not comfortable with assertive women who are competent and capable. And they’re uncomfortable about immigrants. I think that has to do with the job market, the supposed threat of the job market. And they’re not comfortable with homosexuals because they’re not really sure of their own manhood at this point in their lives.

I always felt comics and satirists and humorists attacked the powerful, attacked the people who were messing with everyone, pulling the strings, and his targets are the underdogs. Now I don’t think he came out of the box saying, “I think I’ll attack all the underdogs,” but I think he found and gravitated toward an audience that agrees with that, that likes that.
I received many guesses, some believing the speaker was Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or David Letterman, some believing the subject was Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh (none of whom has a young audience, by the way).  None of those is right, nor are Grover Norquist and Rick Perry.

When I posted the quote, I didn't tell you when it was said, but it's interesting that so many found that it fit contemporary figures.

The correct answer:  the speaker was George Carlin, in 1991, in response to a question about Andrew Dice Clay, who was then at the peak of his not-very-long-lasting fame.

Carlin's analysis was right on the money, but could easily describe so many loudmouths in the media today, from talk radio hosts to cable TV pundits to print and online columnists. They all find it easy to use their pulpit to attack targets they know their audience fears -- or in too many cases, do everything they can to exploit and increase those fears for their own career gain or political agenda. It's lowest-common-denominator stuff, aimed at those they deem below them on the status ladder, just like schoolyard bullies who never take on anyone stronger. The irony is that the hatred, while somewhat harmful to its targets, ends up hurting the bullies in the long run, as they get left behind while the rest of society changes, matures, and progresses.  Carlin knew that, because his act was about cutting the legs out from under the powerful, the bloated, the bombastic -- just the opposite of Clay's approach -- and one of many reasons he had a career that spanned decades, while Clay's spanned months.

As for the context of the quote, it came from an episode of Alan King's "Inside The Comedy Mind," a series that ran on The Comedy Channel (an HBO network that later merged with Viacom's HA! to become Comedy Central).   Each week, King sat down with another stand-up to talk about comedy -- a subject that is usually not very funny, but got them to open up about their own histories and thoughts on the business.

It wasn't the kind of conversation seen on most TV interviews, in which the guest has something to plug and comes prepared with material ready to go. There was no audience, nor a set-up/punchline every few seconds. In fact, some long stretches were quite serious and thoughtful. The modern-day equivalent would be Marc Maron's "WTF" or Kevin Pollak's "Chat Show" podcasts.

I just watched a DVD collection of those interviews, in which King elicited stories that I hadn't heard before, like:
  • Buddy Hackett revealing what happened the first time he cursed on stage in 1961;
  • Dennis Miller detailing the process of writing Weekend Update for "SNL";
  • Neil Simon describing how he balanced the comedy and drama in his plays;
  • Garry Marshall enumerating the differences between directing comedians and actors;
  • Rob Reiner explaining how the lead characters in his first movies were all extensions of his own personality.
King's conversation with Carlin was fascinating because they were so culturally different. Although both New Yorkers and both often angry onstage, King was an old-school, tuxedo-wearing, cuff-shooting, cigar-smoking storyteller whose career path went through the Catskills and Las Vegas, while Carlin was a new-school, jeans-and-t-shirt, long-haired wordsmith who had made his career in comedy clubs and on college campuses. King couldn't quite relate to Carlin, but obviously enjoyed his act, and was enthralled by his insights.

Aside from the geographic and temperamental similarities, Carlin and King didn't have much in common as comedians, but they were in accordance on one thing -- they both saw right through Andrew Dice Clay.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Road Trip Day 11: Cleveland

This summer, I kept 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. After writing about the first 9 days (see those here), I'm finally getting around to picking up where I left off, in Philadelphia...

I check out of the Comfort Inn around 10am and head west towards Pittsburgh. There are two casinos there, and I've heard that at least one of them has a decent pot-limit-Omaha game weekdays.  Five-and-a-half hours later, as I approach the city, I have to decide which one I'm going to, so I pull over and look at the Bravo Poker Live app, which tells me what games are going, what stakes they're playing, and how long the waiting lists are.

It's mid-afternoon, but I'm disappointed to discover that neither poker room has any PLO running, and none of their hold'em games are bigger than $1-3. Thinking that may change later, I call both rooms and am told they don't expect any Omaha today, but there might be a $2-5 no-limit game after dinner. Maybe.

I check Google Maps to see how far it is to Cleveland. From the beginning of this trip, that was always going to be one of my destinations, because I'd met a guy from there a month ago in St. Louis, and he'd said that there's a juicy $5-10 PLO game every night, and plenty of other action, too, at the new Horseshoe Casino. Located in downtown Cleveland, it's the first casino in the entire state of Ohio, which means lots of new players who don't necessarily know what they're doing. Sounds like the beginning of a good poker recipe.

I'm already a little tired from the drive, but decide to continue on to Cleveland. I use the Priceline app on my iPhone to lock up a room at the downtown Marriott, three blocks from the casino, and pull back onto the highway.

Two-and-a-half hours later, I'm in the middle of rush hour, and it looks like I'm gonna get stuck on city streets because I have to drive right by the Indians' ballpark just as the game is ending. In St. Louis, it's impossible to go anywhere downtown for at least an hour after the Cardinals play, because they get 30-40,000 fans for every home game, and the roads are packed. This is a lot easier because, according to NewsRadio WTAM, there were only about 5,000 people at Progressive Field. I snake my way to the Marriott in 10 minutes.  I check in and collapse on the bed, planning to sleep for an hour before checking out the Horseshoe.

When I wake up, I walk over to Public Square, looking for the casino. Every other place I've played has had big signs, flashing lights, something to indicate there's a casino inside. The Horseshoe has none of that. Just a single sign on a downtown building that used to be a department store (The Higbee Company). Inside, a security guard tells me the poker room is on the third floor.

To get there, I have to wind through the place (which is full of people) to find an escalator to the second floor, where I have to ask yet another guard to point me towards the escalator up to the third floor, which turns out to be on the other side of the building. This kind of setup seems standard in department stores, but it's a pain in the ass in a casino.

I finally get up there to find, happily, there is indeed a $5-10 PLO game that has just started, and there's a seat open. I sit down, buy in, and proceed to play very few hands for the first half-hour so I can see how the action goes and how my opponents play. It's quickly apparent that there are at least 3 guys here who don't have a clue what they're doing.

That's good. What isn't good is that I don't get any of their money. Instead, other players are hitting their draws against me, while I keep missing mine. Worse, those three players all go bust within 90 minutes, and there's no list for others to replace them. The remaining players are extremely tight and aren't giving a lot of action, so the pots stay small. Since I haven't eaten in a long time, and thinking the game will be better later in the evening, I decide to go to dinner.

Unfortunately, the only options at the Horseshoe are the buffet and a snack bar. I'm not in the mood for either, so I ask what's in the neighborhood. One of the guys tells me about an area nearby called East Fourth Street, which is closed to traffic but has lots of restaurants.  Sounds good to me, so I rack up, cash out, and head outside.

It turns out to be a great recommendation.  East Fourth Street is full of trendy restaurants, a comedy club, a jazz bar, a comedy club, and several other places.  It reminds me of the Power & Light District in Kansas City, Fourth Street Live in Louisville, and LaClede's Landing in St. Louis. It's teeming with people, but I manage to get a table at an upscale Mexican place called Zocalo, where I enjoy a nice dinner and some people-watching.

When I get back to the Horseshoe, the $5-10 PLO game has broken because no one else showed up to play, and there aren't any other games going except some low-limit ones. I'm not happy because I've just had my first losing session of the trip, but I hope the action's better tomorrow.

I walk back over to the Marriott where, before sacking out, I go online to check e-mail and other things. As if my day hasn't been frustrating enough, I discover that the Marriott charges $14.95/day for internet access. This is one of my pet peeves of travelling -- motels like the Comfort Inn offer cheap accommodations and free wi-fi, while hotels like this one charge more for the room plus a fee for the wireless connection. Unfortunately, there aren't any of those motels close by, so I grudgingly add the internet charge to my expenses for the day, which I hope to make up for when I turn things around tomorrow.

Mileage thus far: 1,881

Who Said This?

Can you figure out who said this, or who it was said about? All I'll tell you is that it was an off-the-cuff answer by a famous person to a question about another famous person. I'll post the answer and context here tomorrow.

I think his success says much more about something in this culture than it does about him. I think he found a ready-made audience of young, white males who are frustrated and angry and confused and alienated. I don’t want to sound heavy-duty sociological here, but it’s true. They’re not comfortable with assertive women who are competent and capable. And they’re uncomfortable about immigrants. I think that has to do with the job market, the supposed threat of the job market. And they’re not comfortable with homosexuals because they’re not really sure of their own manhood at this point in their lives.

I always felt comics and satirists and humorists attacked the powerful, attacked the people who were messing with everyone, pulling the strings, and his targets are the underdogs. Now I don’t think he came out of the box saying, “I think I’ll attack all the underdogs,” but I think he found and gravitated toward an audience that agrees with that, that likes that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Worth A Link

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mobsters and Pinball Wizards

If you're in Vegas looking for something to do away from gambling and the strip, I have two suggestions for you.

First is The Mob Museum, which opened this year in a downtown building that used to house the federal courthouse and post office. It was also home to the Kefauver hearings of 1950 and 1951, in which the US Senate investigated the growth of organized crime across the country.

The museum has exhibits about the history of the mob, its growth during prohibition, its legendary characters (Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, John Gotti, Whitey Bulger), and the actual wall from the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago. It also tells the story of the cops and prosecutors who fought the mob, from Elliot Ness to the real-life Donnie Brasco. Among the exhibits are several short films, including one on Hollywood's longtime fascination with mob stories, and an extended look at the role the mob played in the birth of Las Vegas. There's also an electric chair, where kids line up to give Dad the shock of his life.

The Mob Museum spans three floors, but we got through it in a couple of hours on a weekday, not counting a few minutes in the by-now-mandatory gift shop visitors are forced to exit through. And since this is Vegas, you won't be surprised to hear that it has already been the site of several marriage ceremonies (no, they don't give you complimentary handcuffs for the wedding night).


The other recommendation is the Pinball Hall Of Fame, a few miles east of the strip on Tropicana, which has over 200 games -- which all work! -- evoking all sorts of nostalgia for those of us who grew up in the pre-videogame era.

The place is run by Tim Arnold, who owns the machines, maintains them, and wants you to play them. The Hall Of Fame has bill-changers so you can get all the quarters you need and work your way through the huge collection, which includes:
  • the old baseball pitch-and-hit game with the ramp for home runs;
  • machines with commercial tie-ins (e.g. "Star Trek," "South Park," Playboy, Kiss);
  • classic videogames from the 1980s (e.g Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Donkey Kong);
  • machines with multiple balls;
  • machines with analog counters that click as the score increases;
  • machines that knock when you earn a free game;
  • machines you shoot;
  • machines you sit in to play.
I didn't know that there were once pinball machines without flippers on the side, but Arnold has a couple on display from the early 1930s. I even found The Wiggler, a machine I inserted many coins into in the basement of my college dorm (I became so proficient, I was known to sit backwards on the glass and still rack up free games). 

Arnold isn't getting rich running the place, which doesn't charge admission, is staffed by volunteers and gives proceeds to charity. But if you have a few bucks left after you're out of quarters, he accepts donations to keep the place running. Take a look at photos of the Pinball Hall Of Fame's current inventory here.

A Black Friday Lesson

My daughter learned an important lesson this weekend. On Thanksgiving night, she went with three friends to a nearby mall to experience Black Friday madness at midnight. It's the sort of thing you do when you're 18 and willing to try all sorts of new things.

When I saw her the next day, she reported that, although they walked around for 4 hours, she hadn't bought anything, was annoyed by the crowds of people, and would never do it again.

In other words, she's my daughter.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Mitt Romney will have his own inauguration on 1/21/13, when he's added to the Also Ran gallery in Kansas.
  • Poor management, not the union, is what killed Hostess, as Michael Hitzik explains.
  • You won't read a better Larry Hagman story than this one from Mark Evanier.
  • After hearing about it for 30 years, we finally tried syncing "Dark Side Of The Moon" with Thanksgiving dinner, but it didn't work at all.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bet You Can't

Professor Richard Wiseman has another round of bets you can win against friends...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Late Quartet Strikes Sour Note


When I hear a movie stars Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it goes on my must-see list. This afternoon, I went to see them in "A Late Quartet," and can report that you don't have to bother.

It's not a horrible movie, but the story -- about a string quartet that's been together for 25 years and finds itself dealing with aging, adultery, and jealousy -- isn't as compelling as it should be. While Keener and Hoffman put in their usual solid performances, the plot should have given us a lot more of Walken, who is outstanding as the quartet's eldest member, a cellist battling early-onset Parkinson's. There's one scene late in the movie, in which Walken tells a story of meeting Pablo Casals, that is more riveting than anything in the subplot about an affair between Imogen Poots (the 20-something daughter of Hoffman/Keener) and Mark Ivanir (the 40-something first violinist in the quartet).

Walken will likely be nominated for "A Late Quartet," but that's not enough to get me to recommend it to you.

How Turkeys Didn't Fly on WKRP

Last night, after all the Thanksgiving festivities were over, I sat down with my family to watch the classic "WKRP In Cincinnati" episode, "Turkeys Away," in which bumbling station manager Arthur Carlson conceives one of the worst holiday promotions ever, culminating with one of television's all-time final lines: "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"

Here's an oral history of that episode, as told by show creator Hugh Wilson, some of its stars, and one radio guy who actually did that promotion in real life.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

This Used To Be A Holiday

A minority grows larger today, though its members would prefer that it didn't. They are the Americans who are forced to work on Thanksgiving.

There was a time when this was our only national day off from work. The only businesses that remained open were those that were already operating around the clock every day (radio and TV stations, gas stations) or restaurants that served Thanksgiving meals to others or those providing essential services (police, fire, hospitals, airlines and airports, NFL teams). Retailers, with the exception of some convenience stores, kept their doors locked.

But not any more. In yet another case of creeping corporate greed, more and more department stores and other outlets will begin their Black Friday sales tonight, forcing their employees to go to work while the clock still says Holiday. The irony is that these companies wouldn't open their doors and make people work if the customers didn't come streaming in, which they will. They'll claim that they're just meeting the demands of the American consumer, but it's a demand that didn't exist until they created it.

The media, which benefits from all the extra advertising, will play its role as always, sending reporters to the stores for live shots to report on the crowd that showed up to try to get a flat screen television for a buck and a half. At some point, they'll mention that the new Black Friday That Starts Thursday is the busiest shopping day of the year -- a factoid that has never actually been true (that honor goes to the Saturday before Christmas, when male members of the human species simultaneously realize they still haven't bought something for their significant other).

I'm not advocating for a law that bans these stores from doing business whenever they want. I'm opposed to blue laws of any kind. I'm just sorry to have lost the only truly American day off, the one we all got to participate in. Plenty of people don't celebrate Christmas and far too many companies are open on federal holidays like Presidents Day or Martin Luther King Day. Even Labor Day doesn't count as a break from work for many American laborers.

Couldn't we have just one 24-hour period where the country got to stay home?

Should Have Used Plugs

In reply to my story of Travelling Tired, Dave Aronson e-mails:

While noise-cancelling headphones cut the engine noise nicely, as you've discovered they don't do so well on non-predictable noise like screaming babies, overly verbal people, etc.  That's where *earplugs* come in.  I've seen cheap disposable foam plugs with up to about 35 dB of reduction, available in drug stores, gun stores/ranges, and probably other places you can think of.  Still an incomplete solution, but much better than headphones alone, and not very uncomfortable once you get used to having something inside your ear. I even use them when sleeping at hotels, and sometimes when I have trouble sleeping at home and there's any noticeable noise.  There's something very relaxing about hearing (almost) nothing but your own breathing.
As for Mrs. Colonoscopy, maybe you could have switched seats with her. Though you might have found a window seat a bit narrow (IIRC you're a bit large-framed), it might still be more restful than having to get out of your seat for her every half hour.
I wouldn't take the window seat away from the kid, and even if I did, my claustrophobia would have kicked in to the point where I couldn't sleep, anyway. But Dave is right about the foam ear plugs, which I have used and found highly effective. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring them on this trip.

It could have been worse. It could have been the day before this woman's colonoscopy which, as I have written, is the Day Of Hell No One Warns You About.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Travelling Tired

I'm just back from a long weekend in Vegas, which I'll write about later, but the way it started and ended should give you an idea of how it went.

On the flight there, I took an aisle seat next to a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. The kid was quiet and well-behaved, reading or drawing most of the time. The mother, however, had to get up every half-hour to use the bathroom, because she'd had a colonoscopy the previous day. Since there was no way she could crawl over me, she had to keep waking me up to stand up and let her in and out. I'd had a bad night's sleep and was hoping to snooze most of the way, but the regular interruptions kept me from ever entering a deep sleep. You're not supposed to arrive in Vegas bleary-eyed, but I did.

On the return trip, I took my favorite seat in a two-seat emergency exit row so I'd have the legroom I need, with no one to crawl over me on the way to the bathroom. Everything was going as planned until a couple got into the row ahead of me with their little boy, an infant who was far from quiet. He wasn't crying, but he was "verbalizing" so much that the mother at one point looked back and apologized.  Having been in their shoes myself all those years ago, I sympathized, but I was still tired -- when you start a Vegas trip exhausted, there's little chance you're going to catch up on REM sleep before you leave -- and the kid wouldn't shut up.

I put my Bose noise-cancelling headphone on, but they only brought the boy's voice down several decibels, rather than completely muting him.  Restless (literally), I sat there watching TED videos on my iPhone the whole way home. When we landed, I walked out of the terminal to find my wife waiting to pick me up curbside. I climbed into her car, said I'd fill her in on the trip later, and dozed off in the passenger seat.

Worth A Link

Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong

Speaking of TED talks, here's a good one by Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist explaining why eyewitnesses get it wrong so often and how he used his science to clear an innocent man of murder. If I'm ever charged with a major crime, this is one of the people I want on my defense team...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stones Stinkers


While I've liked many of their songs, I've never been a big Rolling Stones fan. The new documentary "Crossfire Hurricane," airing this month on HBO, didn't do anything to change my mind. Rather, it reinforced two things: 1) the Stones were terrible in concert; and 2) concert promoters in the 1960s didn't know anything about security.

There's a scene in the film from an unspecified venue in the late sixties where fans climbed onto the stage to hug Mick Jagger, dance around Brian Jones, and bang on Charlie Watts' drums. It seems as if there was only a single cop in the wings who came out to clear the stage, but was no match for the idiots who essentially took over, forcing the Stones to cut the concert short and leave. In an interview voiceover, one of them says that, for the next two or three years, they never finished a concert because of similar incidents.

Two or three years? Word didn't get out that more security personnel would be needed to keep the shows from dissolving into a melee? The Stones' management couldn't even ensure their own band's safety?  Ludicrous. That shows no regard for the fans who paid good money to attend what they thought was going to be a full concert, but became a ripoff because the band allowed idiots to ruin the night.

The pinnacle (or more accurately, the nadir) of that era was the Stones' free concert at Altamont, which was marred by so much violence that the Grateful Dead, who had organized the concert, refused to perform. Having the Hell's Angels act as security wasn't a brilliant idea, a fact that became clear to the Stones while onstage, with Jagger stopping more than once to urge both the Angels and the crowd to calm down. It didn't help. One fan was killed, dozens were injured, and no concert was ever allowed at Altamont again.

Meanwhile, when the band was performing, they weren't anything special. There have been numerous acts in rock and roll history that were described as great in concert, but lousy in the studio. The Stones were the opposite. Their records were masterfully produced, the band was tight, and Mick's voice was always front and center. But in every filmed Stones performance I've seen, they epitomize sloppiness -- especially Jagger, who doesn't sing the lyrics as much as shout them, exuding attitude over melody. Meanwhile, the rest of the band looks like it couldn't care less.

Yet the fans still went wild.

In the documentary, there are many comparisons to The Beatles, whose iconography exceeds the Stones' in almost every way. One that's clear from the film is the art of the interview. While all four Beatles charmed the press wherever they went, offering witty responses to reporters' questions, none of the Stones said anything even remotely interesting into a microphone or on camera. The utter lack of personality in Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman was striking, while Jagger and Richards, the group's creative team, weren't much better.

"Crossfire Hurricane" is part of a celebration of the Stones' 50th anniversary, which will include a new song, a limited tour, and yet another greatest hits compilation -- they've issued way more of those than original recordings -- but no one will say that these guys haven't had a decent new tune in three decades ("Start Me Up" was the last), so they're no better than any other sixties nostalgia act (e.g. The Beach Boys) who only return to the spotlight in a cynical attempt to cash in yet again on their past glory.

But now with better security.

Big Bang Theory Flash Mob

From a recent taping, a surprise for the studio audience -– and Chuck Lorre and the other execs on the set...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Harris Challenge

Play along with this week's Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "Cheating Politicians" and "Coach Potatoes." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Hostess Down

Memo to the outgoing Hostess management team: if you can't make it in the snack cakes business at a time when America is supposedly more obese than ever and states are legalizing pot, maybe you're the problem.

Stores selling Hostess products have been inundated by consumers bemoaning the company's going-out-of-business announcement. It'll probably turn out to be the best sales day in recent Hostess history. Of course, if all those people now claiming their love of Twinkies had actually bought them in the last few years, Hostess wouldn't be bankrupt.

I'm one of those who hasn't bought Hostess products for a long time, but whenever I'm in New York, I always make it a point to get a product made by one of their subsidiaries, the Drake's Coffee Cake.  Along with the individually-wrapped-in-foil Yodels and Ring Dings (which Hostess ripped off to make Ho Hos and Ding Dongs), they're a regional favorite in the northeast that we can't get in St. Louis. I hope Drake's survives post-Hostess. I also mourn the loss of those chocolate cupcakes with the swirl on top, which I knew had never been touched by human hands until they stuck to mine.

In 1988, when Hostess introduced Strawberry Twinkies, they let me do a promotion where I gave a thousand of them to one listener. If there are any left a quarter-century later, I bet they taste just as horrible as they did originally.

Random Thoughts

I may be all hopped up on flu vaccine, but here are some of the things that occurred to me today:

I went to the DMV yesterday to get new paperwork processed for our cars. While waiting my turn, a guy in his twenties approached and asked if I knew what he needed in order to get license plates. I told him I didn't know, but said he could ask the clerk when he got to the counter. He said he didn't want to wait a half-hour for his turn and left. He was young enough that I can be 100% sure he has a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, so why didn't he check the internet for that information before wasting a trip to the DMV?

The St. Louis Cardinals held a press conference today to display a new uniform they'll wear for Saturday games next year, and the local suck-up media played along as if this were an important story. It got prominent mentions on TV and radio, and the newspaper put it on the front page. What none of them mentioned was that this is yet another attempt by the team's ownership to get fans to buy more Cardinals merchandise, just because it has a new logo.

The now-infamous photo of shirtless FBI agent Fred Humphries has him posing between two target dummies that are as buff as he is. My first reaction: does the FBI have fat-guy targets, too? For every bad guy who looks like Channing Tatum, there must be some who look like Chris Christie. On the other hand, I suppose if you can hit the thin target, you can probably hit the fat one, too.

Knuckleheads In The News®

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a wife running over her husband for not voting, a woman dealing with a flasher in the park, and 28 girls in a Mini Cooper. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Touchdown, Princess Bride

The guys on ESPN's NFL Kick Off show (Trey Wingo, Mark Sclereth, and Tedy Bruschi) are big fans of "The Princess Bride," so they riddled a recent show with lines from the movie. All that was missing was, "Hello, my name is Ben Roethlisberger. You broke my shoulder. Prepare to die."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

George Takei, Prisoner Of War

Any list of shameful things the US government has done would have to include the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, some 120,000 of them were taken from their homes and locked up in concentration camps -- their own country making them prisoners of war despite the fact that they were citizens.

George Takei, best known as Sulu on "Star Trek," was one of those imprisoned. He was five years old when he and his family were sent to live in the stables at Santa Anita Race Track, which had been converted into an internment center, complete with barbed wire. Recently, Takei appeared on Penn Jillette's podcast to talk in great detail about the experience, the affect it had on his community, how they were treated, and the memories that are still seared into his brain seven decades later.

One of the most moving stories is about young Japanese-American men who were allowed to leave the camps if they'd put on a US uniform and go to war. They were not permitted to serve with Caucasian-Americans, placed instead into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was sent to Europe to undertake some of the most dangerous missions of the war. They became the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army, awarded a total of 8 Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor. But the heartbreaking part of the story occurred when members of the unit died, and the US Army delivered the flags that had draped their coffins to their wives and/or families -- who were still imprisoned in those camps.

Takei is part of the cast of "Allegiance," a Broadway-bound musical about that shameful era, which includes story elements based on his experiences.  Below, you can listen to Takei on Penn's show -- the first half-hour is abolutely riveting...

Don't Cheat Off Nate

Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight statistician who predicted the outcome of the presidential election correctly in both 2008 and 2012 (he got every state right, as well as the national numbers) did an online Q&A with Deadspin readers. Here are two of my favorites:

Q: Did you let people copy off you in college statistics, or were you selfish and covered up your paper?
A: In middle school, I once put down a bunch of fake/wrong answers on a math test since I knew that people were peeking. By my senior year in college, however, I was reasonably burned out so it was buyer beware if anyone was trying to cheat.

Q: Who gave the most ridiculous refutations of your work? Old school baseball guys, or GOP media a couple weeks ago?
A: It's much worse in politics, I think.
1) People in sports will make lots of silly refutations of your arguments. But they do tend to deal with your arguments, rather than attack your character or your integrity.
2) A lot of people in politics operate in a "post-truth" worldview, whether they realize it or not. Less of that in sports.
3) In sports, scouts actually contribute a lot of value, even though statistics are highly useful as well. In politics, the pundits are completely useless at best, and probably harm democracy in their own small way.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Tech Wow: the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that James Bond resurrects in "Skyfall" was made with a 3D printer!
  • A great piece on why (and how) you should be skeptical of [pseudo] scientific claims in TV ads and elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Let Down By Bond, Again

I've been a sucker for James Bond movies for decades. I don't mean that I've liked them all. To the contrary, more often than not, I have walked out of the theater mad at myself for wasting another two hours. Yet every time a new one comes out, I find myself in a seat with a popcorn and soda hoping this will be one of the good ones.

"Skyfall" isn't. It's not horrible, but it's not what it should have been. In fact, the whole series has abandoned what Bond has traditionally been -- an agent with special abilities, a superb intellect, worldly style, and more than a bit of wit, armed with some really cool gadgets and strikingly attractive female companions while taking a clever megalomaniacal villain who wants to rule the world. But with Daniel Craig in the lead, Bond has turned his back on the wit and gadgets to become The Terminator.

For a guy so skilled with a gun, this Bond engages in far too many fistfights, the kind where no matter how often he's punched or kicked or strangled or knocked down, he pops right back up as if nothing has happened. He exists in the kind of action sequences where, anytime someone is pointing a gun at another at close range, the person without the gun moves so quickly that they knock the gun away, and as it skitters across the floor, another fistfight breaks out.  Bond fights opponents on top of a train, in a tall building, in a tunnel, in a mansion, in a courtyard, and on and on.

The Terminator analogy even includes a scene where he uses a knife to cut into his own chest and dig some shrapnel out so that the lab can analyze where it came from. Craig owes Arnold Schwarzenegger a royalty for that one.

As for gadgets, the Bond of "Skyfall" is given only two -- a gun only he can fire, and a GPS locator. At one point, Bond brings out his 1964 Aston-Martin DB5, to applause from the audience, which is happy to recognize a piece of history onscreen.  The car first appeared in "Goldfinger," when it was packed with Bond-ian gadgetry (ejector seat, machine guns, smokescreen, rotating license plates, oil slick sprayer, etc.). The audience's reaction isn't simply nostalgia, it's a recognition that gadgetry is elemental to a Bond film, and this one doesn't have enough.

I won't spoil the end of the movie for you, but I will say that, when the credits rolled, I heard that voice in the back of my head saying again, "Why did I bother?"

Tech Wow: the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that Bond resurrects in "Skyfall" was made with a 3D printer!

Line Of The Day

Regarding the Petraeus story, from my friend Andy: "This is what happens when generals take orders from their privates."

Chipped Off


It is impossible to keep poker players happy, as they will always find something to complain about: this dealer is too slow; it's too dark at this end of the table; the TV isn't on the right channel; that guy takes too long to bet; that seat's been empty for two minutes and the floor personnel haven't brought us a new player yet; where they hell is the waitress? Add to that the variance of any poker game, where even the best player can lose a hand when the wrong card comes, and you find yourself surrounded by people prone to moan.

The latest example has to do with the recent purchase of Harrah's St. Louis by Penn National Gaming, which re-branded the venue as one of its Hollywood casinos. It will eventually mean new carpeting, new restaurants, a new nightclub, etc. -- an upgrade that will cost tens of millions once it's done.  But in these first two weeks of the new ownership, the priority was getting the Harrah's logo off everything and replacing it with the Hollywood brand on every sign, card, table felt, uniform, employee ID, and chip.

Upper management may be new but, fortunately, the personnel in the poker room haven't changed, nor have the games and players, so there's very little to complain about. But poker players will always find something worth a gripe, and their ire has been aimed at the chips.  The complaint is that the $5 chips and the $25 chips are too similar and thus easily confused at the table.  Most of the games in the poker room have low limits (buy-ins up to $3000), so the $25 chips are rare, but in the bigger games ($500-$5,000 buy-ins) chips of $25 and up are more common.

Those are the games that I play in regularly, so I've heard the whining and shaken my head. St. Louisans seem to have a congenital resistance to change, even when there's nothing they can do about it.  In this instance, Hollywood isn't going to toss these chips out and make new ones, so players will just have to get used to them, which they will in the next few weeks before they discover something new to bitch about.

I have played in dozens of casinos around the world, with plenty of different color schemes, and the chip colors don't matter to me at all, because I try to remember that the idea of a poker game is not to be aesthetically pleased by the chips, but to get as many of them as possible from your stack into mine.

10 More Bets You'll Win

From Professor Richard Wiseman...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Nice to see that the CIA took time away from not knowing what's going on in the Middle East to not know about Petraeus' affair.
  • Looking forward to the new financial advice show this weekend, hosted by Fiscal Cliff.
  • It may be too early to say, but I think Mitch McConnell will be successful in making sure Obama is only a two-term president.
  • New to the Senate in this election: 1st openly lesbian woman, 1st disabled woman, and 1st Asian woman. Getting to be a helluva binder.
  • The $2 billion spent by corporate America on campaigns didn't help those companies -- studies show it hurt, instead.

Harris Challenge

Play along with this week's Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "The Multiple Choice Election," "Lyrics You Should Know," and "Bond, James Bond." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News®

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a Craigslist ad from a vampire, a woman sentenced to make Thanksgiving dinner, and a music star's odd name change. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Headline this morning on the front page of The Clint Eastwood Times-Courier-Journal-Post: "The Chair Won!"
  • The answer to the question, "Does America have a drinking problem?" is that 48,776 people voted for Roseanne Barr yesterday.
  • Without a doubt, Americans are better off today than they were 18 months ago, when all those goddamn campaign ads started, but are now gone.
  • Despite more women being elected, the most powerful minority in America remains people of the male gender, for the 237th consecutive year!
  • Dear Justice Roberts: this time, don't wing it when you give President Obama his oath of office. You have 10 weeks to rehearse!
  • Which pundits should be banned from TV after making horribly wrong predictions about the election? Here's the answer.

Wrong In Every Way

These are some of the claims spewed in recent weeks by GOP politicians, pundits, radio and TV talk-show hosts, consultants, experts, and similar blowhards -- all of which turned out to be completely wrong:

  • Enthusiasm for Obama is way down.
  • Young people will not vote in as large a quantity as 2008.
  • African-Americans won't turn out on the scale they did in 2008.
  • Latinos won't skew as much for Obama as they did in 2008.
  • The polls are wrong.
  • The polls are skewed and can't be believed.
  • The polls are a liberal conspiracy.
  • When all polls but one show Obama winning, believe the one that says Romney.
  • Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will go red this year.
  • Benghazi will be the story that tips the election against Obama.
  • Obama not meeting with Netanyahu at the UN will kill the Jewish vote for him.
  • It's a good idea to say stupid things about rape.
  • The War On Women is a liberal lie that won't affect the election outcome.
  • You can't win the White House when unemployment is around 8%.
  • The Black Panthers exist in numbers larger than 5.
  • Obama will take away your guns.
  • Kid Rock and Meat Loaf are bigger than Bruce Springsteen and Jay Z.
  • Karl Rove is as good at math as he is at influencing campaigns with SuperPAC money.
  • Hundreds of millions of Super PAC dollars will make the difference for Romney.
  • Dick Morris is a political genius.
  • Nate Silver doesn't matter.
  • Donald Trump matters.
  • You can win an election with a base made up mostly of old white guys.
Will Americans turn on these bad predictors and hold them accountable for being so incorrect? Will right-wing media outlets stop hiring them? There's as much chance of that as there is of Mitch McConnell throwing his hands in the air and proclaiming, "I didn't accomplish job one of making Obama a one-termer, so now I guess John Boehner and I will put aside our differences with the President and work to fix America's problems."

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

In Case You Missed It -- Obama Victory Edition

From my Twitter feed on election night...
  • I'm very happy that Obama won again, looking forward to Congress working with him now. Okay, that's the funniest thing I've tweeted tonight.
  • If you'd told me as a kid that today a man named Barack would beat a man named Willard for prez, I'd have guessed we were playing Mad Libs.
  • A coalition of voters large enough to win the White House? Mitt Romney didn't build that.
  • Nate Silver: 44 for 44. Sheldon Adelson: 0 for $50 million. Should've bet on FiveThirtyEight at the Venetian sports book.
  • Scott Pelley: "The next Congress will have the same makeup it has now." Bob Schieffer: "And the same approval ratings as small pox."
  • Big lesson tonight for future GOP senate candidates -- under no circumstances should you ever say the word "rape." For any reason.
  • I have won the exact same number of elections as Linda McMahon, and I spent $100 million less than she did. Money well spent.
  • Ironic we have to wait for results from south Florida, where 80% of voters had dinner at 4:30pm and went to sleep before polls closed.
  • I've wondered all year how under-represented the youth vote was, since they don't have landlines for pollsters to call and annoy them on.
  • Romney loses both of his home states (MI & MA), & won't win his car elevator state (CA), either. What state is Rafalca's stable in?
  • Romney-Ryan lose MA and WI. Obama-Biden win IL & DE. Last time a Pres/VP ticket lost both of their home states was McGovern-Shriver '72.
  • No matter how much Jennifer Granholm yells, Current TV's coverage still looks like a public access channel. Keith Olbermann was right.
  • What are the chances that *anyone* knows that there's election coverage on AXS TV anchored by Dan Rather? Exit polls say it's exactly 0.0%.
  • In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin could become the first openly gay senator. If you don't count Larry "Wide Stance" Craig.
  • My polling place allows an odd version of early voting. I cast my ballot for Malia Obama in the 2036 election vs. one of Rand Paul's sons.
  • Missouri may look like an entirely red state but we just re-elected a Democratic governor & senator. Got meth?
  • Winners tonight: Obamacare, gay marriage, marijuana, Sesame Street, Nate Silver, candidates not afraid to do Letterman, and Americans who aren't old white men.

The Nation Will Still Stand

I have tried for several weeks to write an extended essay on the vitriol that passes for political discussion in this country, the effect it has on the electorate, and why it's completely irrelevant to how America truly is, has been, and will be as a nation.  For some reason, I haven't been able to forge it all into a cohesive piece, but my bottom line message was/is that, despite who we elect as our leaders, life in this country doesn't change on as grand a scale as we're led to believe.  Regardless of what the fear-mongers want you to believe (entirely because it advances their agenda), the republic will not fall if the guy you voted for doesn't win the White House.

Well, it turns out that Matt Taibbi wrote what I couldn't. His entire piece is worth your time, but here's an excerpt:

Years from now, when we look back at these last days and weeks before this 2012 election, what we're going to remember is how intensely millions of Americans hated during this time, how many shameless and dishonorable lies were told as the race tightened (we scratched and clawed at each other like sewer rats over every absurd factual dispute, finding ways to shriek at each other even over things that by definition are nobody's fault, even over acts of God like Hurricane Sandy) and how reflexively people on opposite sides of the race disbelieved each other and laid blame at each others' feet over just about every issue, important or (more often) not.

People who live in other countries, who grew up in the third world or live now in terminally wobbling mob states of the ex-Communist variety, they must look at our behavior now in election years and think we're crazy. You have to have lived in a country with real problems and real instability to realize this, but life doesn't change too terribly much in America no matter which party wins the presidency – not real change, the way people in the rest of the world understand real political change, i.e. in terms of reprisals and collapsed currencies and assassinations and other such disasters. For most of us, our day-to-day lives won't change a lick no matter who wins tonight. If we just turned off our cable channels and stayed off the net, it would take months, maybe years, for most of us to guess who won.

So all this freaking out and vicious invective-trading looks nuts from the outside: it looks like we're making up reasons to hate and fear each other, summoning the language of violent civil unrest with a hedonistic zeal that only people who haven't experienced the real thing could possibly enjoy.

Take Elections Away From Politicians

David Frum agrees with me that elections must be taken out of the hands of local politicians and converted to a nationwide standard instead:

Here's what doesn't happen in other democracies:

Politicians of one party do not set voting schedules to favor their side and harm the other. Politicians do not move around voting places to gain advantages for themselves or to disadvantage their opponents. In fact, in almost no other country do politicians have any say in the administration of elections at all.

In no other country, including federal systems such as Germany, Canada and Australia, does the citizen's opportunity to vote depend on the affluence and competence of his or her local government.

In every other democracy, the vote is the means by which the people choose between the competing political parties -- not one more weapon by which the parties compete.

The United States is an exceptional nation, but it is not always exceptional for good. The American voting system too is an exception: It is the most error-prone, the most susceptible to fraud, the most vulnerable to unfairness and one of the least technologically sophisticated on earth. After the 2000 fiasco, Americans resolved to do better. Isn't it past time to make good on that resolution?

In Case You Missed It -- Election Day Edition

From my Twitter feed...

  • Took me 22 minutes to vote this morning. Only complaint: not enough touch-screens, too many paper ballots. Isn't this the digital age?
  • This is the first election my daughter has voted in, which means she has never voted for a white guy for President.
  • Sad knowing that at the end of the day, when votes are counted, we'll still be stuck with an ineffective Congress of the same old weasels.
  • I love this Election Day Fun Fact: Last time GOP won WH w/o Nixon or a Bush on ticket? Hoover 1928. [from Al Kamen]
  • This pic is going around. Does no one else notice the country with the highest percentage for Romney? [from Phil Plait]
  • A list of some of the excruciating things we endured in the 2012 campaigns. [from Howard Kurtz]

Romney's Inside Straight

Over the weekend, I compared Nate Silver's forecast of Obama's 80% chance of victory to a hold'em poker hand, where you're all-in pre-flop with aces vs. kings. You're a heavy favorite, but one time out of five, you're going to lose.

On his blog today, Silver has increased Obama's chances to 92%, and uses his own poker analogy:

All of this leaves Mr. Romney drawing to an inside straight. I hope you’ll excuse the cliché, but it’s appropriate here: in poker, making an inside straight requires you to catch one of 4 cards out of 48 remaining in the deck, the chances of which are about 8 percent. Those are now about Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the Electoral College, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.
As any poker player knows, those 8 percent chances do come up once in a while. If it happens this year, then a lot of polling firms will have to re-examine their assumptions — and we will have to re-examine ours about how trustworthy the polls are. But the odds are that Mr. Obama will win another term.

Three Post-Election Wishes

I wish that all the partisan pundits who have made multiple proclamations on TV and radio about what will happen on election day, and turn out to be wrong, were banned from making any media appearances for five years. I'm not talking about pollsters sharing data or journalists reporting on actual information. I'm referring to those talking heads networks and local stations use to fill time in panel discussions or similar circle jerks on the air, from newspaper columnists to radio talk-show hosts to the "consultants" media outlets make deals with who are nothing but political hacks, some still employed by a party or candidate, or some who blew it so badly last time that no one else would hire them (e.g. Steve Schmidt, the genius who ran John McCain's 2008 campaign, chose Sarah Palin as the running mate, and now does lousy analysis for MSNBC). They are hardly objective, and rarely right, so when they blow it, fire them and lose their phone numbers!

[Update 11/7/12 7:59am...here's a graphic showing which pundits called the presidential race so wrong they should be banned from ever making a public prediction again]

I wish that all campaign ads had to be submitted to a Truth Clearinghouse before being allowed on the air. When a candidate makes claims about their opponent that are blatantly false or mostly misleading, media outlets aren't allowed to refuse or censor them, but someone should have that power. I don't know exactly who would make those decisions, but I'd nominate Bill Adair and his team at Politifact to handle the national races, and then find non-partisan journalists and professors of political science to look into the statewide and local ones. We'll never get rid of all the negative campaign commercials, but the Truth Clearinghouse would help clean up some of the garbage spewed on the airwaves, at least.

I wish that losing candidates in local races had to go through their entire precinct and remove every campaign sign put up by either side. Not their staff, not their volunteers, not their campaign advisers -- the candidates themselves have to pull up stakes on every median or lawn, and they have to do it before election week is over, or face a substantial fine.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Making Voting Easier

It's ludicrous that there's no national standard in how we cast our votes, with policies often at the whim of partisan officials trying to game the election the same way they gerrymander congressional districts. We end up with some states that only allow you to vote in person on election day, other that only allow you to vote by mail, and others that allow early voting.  In some places, a photo ID is required, in some places it isn't, and in some places it may or may not be required based on the latest ruling from a judge after one side or the other has made a federal case out of it.

The lines for early voting in Florida and Ohio stretched for blocks this weekend, with people in line for six hours or more.  That's a lot of people who wanted to cast their vote, who shouldn't have had to forego a day of work or family time in order to exercise their constitutional right to participate in representative democracy.  Shame on the municipal authorities who have made it more frustrating than it needs to be.

I wrote a piece about simplifying elections after the 2000 presidential election debacle.  Unfortunately, no one heeded my suggestions.  With some modifications a dozen years later, here's what still needs to be done:

First, we shouldn't have to gather everyone in the community at the same polling place community to cast our votes. You should be able to vote online or at any public election kiosk anywhere in the country for a full week before election day. That way you don’t have to rush home from work or a kid's soccer game or a business trip to try to beat the closing time (cuts down on absentee ballots, too!).

Online voting would involve registering ahead of time to get a secure login and password -- just like you use to purchase items from Amazon or any retailer in the cloud -- then the system would know who you are and what your electoral options are.  You'd fill out the ballot digitally on your laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone, submit it, and get right back to the more important things in your life, like posting photos of your pet eating a shoe on Facebook.

How will the kiosk know where you live and what district your vote counts in? In many states (e.g. Missouri), the driver’s license has a metallic strip or digital code on the back -- just like on credit cards. Under my plan, you swipe your license in the kiosk reader, and it instantly knows where you live and what you should vote on.

With the online-or-kiosk concept, you can vote anywhere, anytime, and it all gets applied to the proper precinct, with no results ever released until the last ballot is cast on election day.  This has the wonderful side effect of completely screwing up the exit polls (although they seem to do that themselves very nicely).

Using modern voting methods would cut down significantly on waiting time at the polling places and make the voting process faster, too.  No one should have to spend a half-hour in line just to vote. We have better things to do with our time, like camping outside an Apple store waiting for the iPad Mini to go on sale!

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about my revolutionary electoral scheme:

Q: We can’t trust computers. What if some teenage hacker changes the software and Jimmy Kimmel becomes President?
A: We now live in a world where you can go to Sri Lanka and access your US bank account at an ATM over a secure line and withdraw money in an instant! I think we can develop a secure system for your vote. Incidentally, those machines that now count the punch cards ARE computers.

Q: What if the results are so close someone demands a recount?
A: Each kiosk or online voting app retains its own statistics internally as well as feeding them down the secure network, backing itself up after each ballot is completed. It also eliminates the worst "American Idol" contestants in the background.

Q: How do we pay for all this technology?
A: In the long run, digital elections would be cheaper than maintaining, storing, and buying all the old voting machines, which are only used 2-3 times a year.  If we still need funding to subsidize the costs, we can turn to the same corporations who pay huge fees for the naming rights to every stadium and arena in the country, who would gladly pick up the costs if their logo could appear on the ballot screen.

Q: Come on, Paul. Elections are supposed to be about the people’s choice, not some cheap sponsorship opportunity for some company.
A: Good one, Mr. Citizens United! We certainly don't want corporations involved in our electoral process, because all that money might have a negative impact, and I'm glad that can never happen under our current system.

Q: If people are having trouble with punch cards, how the hell are they going to figure out your touch-screen kiosks or internet voting deal?
A: I’m not suggesting you have to do something complex like program your VCR in order to vote. All you have to do is apply pressure with your finger to a screen. Besides, we’ll always have a certain percentage of the population -- let’s say it’s 10% -- who can’t figure out how to vote correctly, no matter what method we use. So why not upgrade it for the other 90% of us? For the one out of ten who have trouble with both punch cards and touch screens, let them go to a simple voice vote. At noon on election day, they open their windows and scream their candidate’s name. Loudest response wins.

Diner At 30


In 1982, I went to see "Diner" with three friends at Cinema City in Hartford, Connecticut. We were all single guys in our early twenties, and there weren't many movies about us.  Sure, there were plenty targeted at us, but none that were about us.  "Diner" was about us.  When it ended, and the lights went up, we stood up and looked at each other as if we were the characters in the movie and did what they would have done -- went to get something to eat while sitting around a table talking about nothing in particular.

I've seen "Diner" at least a dozen times since.  Even showed it to my teenage daughter this summer.  She enjoyed it, but I realized in watching it with her that she couldn't connect to it the way I did.  There's something unique in the relationship between guys that Barry Levinson captured perfectly in his script, in the process inventing a new kind of buddy movie.  It also introduced me to Ellen Barkin, with whom I remained obsessed for about a decade.

In the new issue of Vanity Fair, S.L. Price celebrates the oral history of "Diner" on its 30th anniversary:
Made for $5 million and first released in March 1982, "Diner" earned less than $15 million and lost out on the only Academy Award—best original screenplay—for which it was nominated. Critics did love it; indeed, a gang of New York writers, led by Pauline Kael, saved the movie from oblivion. But "Diner" has suffered the fate of the small-bore sleeper, its relevance these days hinging more on eyebrow-raising news like Barry Levinson’s plan to stage a musical version—with songwriter Sheryl Crow—on Broadway next fall, or reports romantically linking star Ellen Barkin with Levinson’s son Sam, also a director. The film itself, though, is rarely accorded its actual due.

Yet no movie from the 1980s has proved more influential. "Diner" has had far more impact on pop culture than the stylistic masterpiece "Bladerunner," the indie darling "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," or the academic favorites "Raging Bull" and "Blue Velvet." Leave aside the fact that Diner served as the launching pad for the astonishingly durable careers of Barkin, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, and Timothy Daly, plus Rourke and Bacon—not to mention Levinson, whose résumé includes "Rain Man," "Bugsy," and Al Pacino’s recent career reviver, "You Don’t Know Jack." "Diner"’s groundbreaking evocation of male friendship changed the way men interact, not just in comedies and buddy movies, but in fictional Mob settings, in fictional police and fire stations, in commercials, on the radio. In 2009, The New Yorker’s TV critic Nancy Franklin, speaking about the TNT series "Men of a Certain Age," observed that “Levinson should get royalties any time two or more men sit together in a coffee shop.” She got it only half right. They have to talk too.

What Franklin really meant is that, more than any other production, "Diner" invented … nothing. Or, to put it in quotes: Levinson invented the concept of “nothing” that was popularized eight years later with the premiere of "Seinfeld." In "Diner" (as well as in "Tin Men," his 1987 movie about older diner mavens), Levinson took the stuff that usually fills time between the car chase, the fiery kiss, the dramatic reveal—the seemingly meaningless banter (“Who do you make out to, Sinatra or Mathis?”) tossed about by men over drinks, behind the wheel, in front of a cooling plate of French fries—and made it central.
Price's full piece -- a great read -- is here.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Statistically Speaking

Nate Silver, a brilliant statistician whose must-read FiveThirtyEight blog appears in the New York Times, says President Obama is an 80% favorite to win the electoral college on Tuesday. He based it on a proprietary formula which combines state polls, national polls, and other data to winnow it down to a single prediction.  Silver's numbers have pointed towards Obama's re-election throughout the year.

Naturally, right-wingers (who hate math almost as much as science) dismiss Silver's stats, despite the fact that, he correctly called 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 presidential race, as well as the winners of all 35 Senate races. Those attacking Silver act as if he's guaranteeing an Obama win, which he isn't.

In a profile on "Sunday Morning" today, after Silver repeated his 80% figure, CBS correspondent Martha Teichner asked him, "Are you absolutely convinced that Obama will win?"  Silver replied, "Oh, no. I'm convinced that if offered even money I would be happy to bet on Obama. I would need a pretty good price to bet on Romney, two-to-one wouldn't do for it for me. Three-to-one might." Teichner then went on to compare Silver's number with those of a 7-11 coffee cup poll and which candidate's masks sold more for Halloween, anecdotal nonsense which is neither scientific nor relevant.

What is relevant is understanding what Silver's number means.  As a poker player (like Silver), I know that an 80% chance of victory is about where you are when you get all the money in pre-flop in hold'em with a pair of aces versus a pair of kings.  And I've seen the opponent spike a king often enough to know you shouldn't stack your winnings until they're pushed towards you, but that shouldn't stop you from being all-in and letting the cards & chips fall where they may.

Political Prop Bet

I blew it at the poker table the other night. Not in a hand, but in a political discussion between hands. I usually avoid the topic, but this time I couldn't resist.

One of the other players, who I know to be a Republican, was looking at some things on his phone and blurted out, "I'd bet any amount of money that Romney gets at least 315 electoral votes." I immediately said, "I'll take that bet for a thousand dollars."

As soon as I said it, I realized I had acted too quickly and confidently. The way to play these proposition bets is to make it seem like the other guy has the best of it and you're not too confident in your side. I'd done just the opposite. In fact, the tone of certainty in my voice had surprised him.

A thousand bucks isn't a huge amount of money for this guy -- I've seen him risk much more than that on a single poker hand -- but he actually seemed taken aback. Demurring, he said, "A thousand? No, that's too much." To which I replied, "You said you'd bet any amount of money!"

He bargained: "I'll take it for $100, if you'll agree to bet another $100 on Obama winning 315 electoral votes." While I think Obama will win, there didn't seem to be any reason to give him an edge, so I countered, "Tell you what. I'll put a hundred each on Romney under 315 and Obama over 270 (the minimum number required to win the presidency)."

He finally agreed, but said we'd just end up splitting it, because he's positive Romney's going to win, even if he doesn't get to 315. I'm sure it will go the other way, because the path to 270 looks much easier for Obama than Romney, who would have to turn things around at the last minute in some of the battleground states, particularly Ohio, which will be the linchpin come Tuesday.

The pundits all say, "It's too close to call." I should have remembered, "It's too soon to call (the bet)."

Friday, November 02, 2012

Harris Challenge

Play along with this week's Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "This Week In Showbiz," "Beatles Lyrics You Probably Know," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News®

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a mugger who returned to the scene of the crime with an unusual request, a woman trying to get home via a garbage chute, and a nation so low on trash it now imports garbage. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Trestle vs. Trucks

In Durham, North Carolina, there's a railroad trestle that's been destroying trucks for years.  There's a sign on the road below warning drivers that the clearance is only 11'8", but dozens of vehicles have ignored the hazard -- including flashing "over height" warning lights -- and ended up with their tops being sheared off, or brought to a complete stop by the trestle.  Jurgen Henn, who has a website devoted to videos of the trestle, says a few years ago the railroad company installed a large steel crash beam in front of it for protection, but there have been so many crashes that they've already had to replace the beam once.

Here's a compilation of some of the trucks that took on the trestle and lost.  You'll notice that they're mostly rental trucks, which means the drivers aren't pros and probably aren't keeping a close eye on the clearance height signs.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Waiting For Marine One

Richard Schiff, who so memorably played Toby Zeigler on "The West Wing," writes about something he noticed after President Obama's inauguration in January, 2009 -- a group of people who didn't depart with the rest of the huge crowd:

These people stayed. Waiting for some thing more than the great evidence of speech and song and universal cheering, tears. What more can there be? A half a million screaming, crying, shivering Americans and huge screens showing this man, this most unlikely citizen, swearing on a book that he will faithfully preserve, protect, defend and uphold our sacred document. Bands played. The man himself made a great speech. Ella sang for god's sake. Couples, strangers hugged, celebrated and made for the buses. But not these frozen few. They just stayed, actually staring at the screen. Some looking high up towards the Capitol Dome. What else could there be? 
"What are you waiting for?" I thought I would just ask. 
"The chopper," said one. 
"The ex-President," said a woman next to him. 
"Bush," said another with a hard look towards me like I should know. 
"Marine One," said a kinder soul. "We're waiting for Marine One. It'll be coming up there. Rising above the dome any minute." 
"Oh," I said. 
She went on: "Just proof. I want proof. I want to see that son of a bitch haul his ass out a here. That's how they go. The old first couple is escorted by the incoming first couple and shove them into Marine One and off they go. See ya." 
She looked back at the dome. So did every one else. Everyone who was still there.
"Proof."
Read Schiff's entire piece here.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • I filled up the tank yesterday with gas that's down to $3.01/gallon in my neighborhood. Goddamn Obama!
  • Photo of hurricane Sandy from a unique vantage point –- aboard the international space station.
  • Best hero story I've heard during Sandy: NY hospital staff carry sick babies down 9 flights of stairs during evacuation.
  • Florida cops in full riot gear raided a poker tournament where no one bet any money and everyone was having fun.