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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Best Thing I’ve Read Today

From Popular Science, a story about one weird animal...
Really, almost everything about platypuses defies how we think about most mammals.

They do give milk to their babies, but unlike almost all other mammals they don’t have nipples. Instead, they essentially sweat out their milk from pores along their stomachs. The platypus has a bill kind of like a duck, but it’s really more of a hard snout. Their nostrils are on top of the snout, the mouth on the bottom, and oh yeah, they also sense their prey by detecting electrical fields. They literally close their eyes, ears, and nose when they dive underwater and go mainly on electroreception.

It also has some bonus bones in its shoulder not found in any other mammals, and rather than having its legs mounted beneath the body, its appendages spring out from the sides like a reptile. That means they also don’t swim like other mammals, who tend to use all four limbs. Platypuses let their back legs dangle—even though they, too, are webbed—and propel themselves entirely with the front feet, steering with the tail.
Read the full piece here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

Have You Been Paying Attention? That's the question I ask every Friday as the week-ending category for my topical trivia game. Test yourself right now at HarrisChallenge.com!

Movie Review: "The Death Of Stalin"

The death of a world leader is an odd subject for a comedy, particularly when the man in question was a brutal dictator who ran his country with an iron fist. But that's what Armando Iannucci, who also created the HBO series "Veep," gives us with "The Death Of Stalin."

The movie is a satire about the scramble for power by the higher-ups who wanted to replace Josef Stalin after he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1953. The two main rivals were Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, and Lavrenti Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale. They are supported by Jeffrey Tambor (as the dopey second-in-command who rises to the top temporarily) and Michael Palin (a member of the committee who had been marked for assassination by Stalin but gets a reprieve), among others. The mostly British cast makes no effort to speak Russian or even a bad Russian accent a la Jennifer Lawrence in "Red Sparrow," so there's very little need for subtitles.

Buscemi is simply great as then-minister-of-agriculture Khrushchev, and has real chemistry with Beale as his adversary, the head of the secret police. The rest of the committee comes off like a Keystone Kops version of a Greek chorus.

There's some sharp satire in "The Death of Stalin," as well as some silliness. There's a very funny sequence with Paddy Considine (star of the wonderful but under-seen 2002 Jim Sheridan movie "In America") as the director of a broadcast of a live classical music concert that goes fairly smoothly until Stalin himself calls and asks for a recording of the show -- which doesn't exist. And you wouldn't want to be one of the doctors called in to examine Stalin's corpse because to declare him dead might be akin to signing your own suicide note. Much of the comedy is very dark, indeed, with slapstick scenes played out in the foreground while people are brutally shot or tortured in the background.

I have mixed feelings about the movie. While I loved the cast and Iannucci's sometimes-breathless pacing, I felt like I'd fallen into a British farce that was missing a few slamming doors and curious butlers. I can't quite recommend that you spend money to see "The Death Of Stalin" in its arthouse run, but you might want to add it to your Netflix queue or find it on DVD, where it should be available in a few months.

I give "The Death Of Stalin" a 5 out of 10.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

As I Tweeted

  • Questions I haven't heard anyone ask in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story: if Trump is so concerned about saving and creating American jobs, why did his campaign hire a British firm to help with his election campaign? Aren't there companies in the US that can unethically access user data?

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is A Bullet Took Them Down. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

I'm Lying, But Please Sign Here

I was headed into the public library when a guy outside asked, "Sir, are you a registered voter?" I knew where this was going. He had a petition or two he'd like me to sign.

I had recently added my name to the list of Missourians who want to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana, and to another that would raise the minimum wage. Getting enough signatures on any petition wouldn't be enough to turn it into law, but would get it on the ballot for a public referendum later this year.

The library is a common place for these petition requests. I told the guy that yes, I am a registered voter, and asked what the petitions were for. He replied that one of his petitions was "to preserve historical monuments" and the other was "to protect freedom of speech at work."

Those one sentence summaries sounded like pure right-wing bullshit, but I wanted to take a look at the wording on the clipboards, just to be sure.

The petition "to preserve historical monuments" reads:
Do you want to amend the Missouri Constitution to require that certain historic memorials of any age on public property, such as statues, names of schools, streets, bridges and buildings named or dedicated in honor of any historic conflict, entity, event, or figure, may not be removed, renamed, or otherwise changed in certain ways unless provided by law?
What it doesn't say but really means:
We have statues and stuff named after leaders of the Confederacy, and we don't want anyone to take them down or rename them, as they have in many other cities and states, regardless of how offensive they are. We're proud of our racist past -- and present.
The other one, "to protect freedom of speech at work," has nothing to do with your First Amendment rights and everything to do with yet another attempt to hurt unions. It reads:
Do you want to amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that the freedom of speech protects every worker from being forced to join a union (labor organization) or pay a fee to a union in order to gain or keep a job?
This is part of the conservative Right To Work agenda that has set unions back tremendously in this state and others. It seeks to allow workers to reap the rewards of collective bargaining without having to contribute to the organizations that negotiate them. Those pushing this as a "freedom of speech" issue are deflecting from the true agenda -- corporate America and billionaires trying to gain even more of the power in the workplace by conning working women and men into believing it's in their best interests, when it clearly isn't.

I wasn't in the mood to argue with the guy, so I told him I'd pass and handed the clipboards back to him. Then I made a mental note to write about this as a heads-up to others who might blindly sign the petitions because they are fooled by the language, which is right out of the Frank Luntz playbook.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Best Thing I've Read Today

Remember those geniuses who said having two outlet malls in the valley wouldn't sign a death warrant for Chesterfield Mall? The place is almost a ghost town, and is now up for sale -- at a discount. This single paragraph in Brian Feldts piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece says it all:
Chesterfield Mall has an appraised value of $12.4 million, according to research from Trepp, a provider of data to the securities and investment industries. The appraisal is down drastically from $286 million in 2006. The mall has an appraised value on file with St. Louis County of $36 million.

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is Food Fight. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Facebook Tarnished

Facebook has been in the crosshairs of critics for quite a while, and the news this week of a Trump-connected behavior-modification firm getting its hands on private details of fifty million users hasn't helped. Mark Zuckerberg and his team have a lot to answer for, including how Facebook was used by Russian organizations to manipulate public opinion before -- and after -- the 2016 election. Aside from the political outcries, there is probably some shareholder scrutiny for the company to endure.

I'm not what you'd call a power user of Facebook, but I've noticed other problems with the service.

In the last few months, I've received more Friend Requests than ever, and many of them are obviously bogus. FB seemingly makes no effort to verify that its accounts belong to real people (or companies), which is why you should always dismiss its claims to have two billion users, or whatever the latest number is. I have no objection to it counting product marketing accounts, like those for Oreo, or Lowe's, or Greetabl. The problem comes in when the accounts some Friend Requests come from are clearly not what or who they purport to be.

I know a middle-aged guy who is single, good-looking, and dates younger women. His Facebook friends list is littered with dozens of very attractive females. I was impressed that he knew them, even casually -- until I started getting Friend Requests from many of them, too. There's always a photo or two of a woman, always showing cleavage, often in a bikini or other skimpy wear. Sometimes her picture is accompanied by a photo of an iconic place like the Taj Mahal (she's never in the picture, of course). I've even gotten Friend Requests from different accounts that had a picture of the same young woman! That's because these aren't real Facebook account holders. The photos come from free stock image companies -- their credits are in the file tags of the photos.

In each instance, her "friends" are all male, and there is no information about the woman -- no hometown, no occupation, no job -- or if there is, it's always from someplace I've never heard of that likely doesn't exist. Sometimes, the woman's name also has a man's name under it, or a different woman's name in parentheses. No real human does that.

It's nearly impossible for this person-likely-to-be-a-bot to have any interest in me, so I always deny the request and report it to FB as spam. Even if I accidentally accept their Friend Request, I'll never see anything they post, because I don't follow them (or pretty much anyone, except close friends I know in real life). But that doesn't stop them from coming, every single day.

The other bot problem I've encountered is the automatic posting of comments that lead you to spam sites. For instance, last week, I casually mentioned the movie "Black Panther." As soon as I hit the Post button -- and I mean immediately! -- there were comments from bots offering links to sites where you can illegally download or watch the movie for free. I didn't click on any of them, but tried deleting several, only to have new ones pop up instantly, like a game of Whack-A-Bot.

Facebook got its original boost from college students and other young people freely posting about their lives online. It was a brilliant idea that inverted the idea of using websites to gather information. Instead, Facebook users are the ones providing the content, which the site then re-purposes to its other users, whose data it gathers and sells to third-parties including advertisers.

That's all well and good, but in doing so, Facebook should have taken more responsibility for monitoring who was using its resources, and how. And don't hand me the excuse that it can't possibly manage the content and usage habits of hundreds of millions of accounts. That's the whole Facebook business model.

Oh, and the younger demos that kick-started Facebook's early success? They're long gone, ceding the site to their parents' and grandparents' generations. Millennials have moved on to Instagram and Snapchat (though the latter has lost a lot of luster after Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, both major influencers, dissed it publicly and suggested their followers stop using the app entirely)

Facebook is going to have to get control of how its vast reach is being abused, and soon. I can't be the only Facebook user who runs into these problems, and yet the company doesn't seem to be making any effort to deal with the persistent infestation of bots. Or if it is trying, it is failing miserably.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is They Died In March. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Concert Review: Graham Nash

Graham Nash may be 76 years old, but he still looks great (with a silver mane of hair) and sounds great, too. He's able to hit the high notes that a lot of other rockers can't at his age. When he brought his Intimate Evening Of Songs and Stories to the Pageant on Sunday night, my wife and I were both glad we went.

One of the best things about a Graham Nash show, other than his voice, is that you can understand all the lyrics, even in the songs you've never heard before. He played a few of those, sprinkled among classics from various stages of his career. From his partnership with Crosby and Stills, he opened with "Wasted On The Way" and "Marrakesh Express," then went back to that songbook later for the beautiful and haunting "To The Last Whale,” “Cathedral,” and "Lady Of The Island" (from their first album). He also touched on his years with the Hollies, singing "Bus Stop" and a medley of "On A Carousel" and "Carrie Anne." From other songwriters, he threw in The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" and, in the encore, Buddy Holly's "Everyday," sung in perfect three-part harmony with guitarist Shane Fontayne and keyboardist Todd Caldwell. Those were the only two musicians on stage with Graham (no drummer), which helped give the concert a more intimate feel, particularly in a 2,000-seat venue like The Pageant.

Along the way, Graham told the stories behind some of the songs, including how a stop at the US-Canada border at the end of a CSNY tour had led him to write "Immigration Man," and how his dope dealer in Hawaii had once bet him $500 that he couldn't write a song before heading to the airport for a flight to Los Angeles, where Graham was due for a recording session. The dealer lost the bet when Graham quickly penned "Just A Song Before I Go." Considering that two-minute tune became the highest charting song in CSN history, Graham explained that if he knew it was going to be that popular, he would have written a better song.

He has written plenty of great songs, including the simple tune he came up with while living with Joni Mitchell, "Our House," as well as the closer, "Teach Your Children," which he dedicated to all teachers, everywhere.

One last note. On the way in, there were a couple of people going down the line asking people to sign petitions to make medical marijuana legal in Missouri. This is an issue that, if they get enough signatures, may become a referendum on the ballot this fall. I hope these activists are doing this before every show at The Pageant, but this one seemed like an easy sell, considering the average age of Graham Nash fans. Most of us were smoking weed recreationally 40 years ago, but now that we've grown up, we need medical marijuana for all our Medicare aches and pains!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is Movies Based On Movies. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Theater Review: "Born Yesterday"

Stepping into an iconic role is always risky. When the audience knows the original, there are bound to be comparisons. Judy Holliday became a star in 1946 with her powerhouse performance as Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday." She reprised the role in the 1950 movie version, for which she won an Oscar, and woe unto any actress who has had to follow in her footsteps.

The good news is that the actress who plays Billie in the St. Louis Rep's production of the play pulls it off. Her name is Ruth Pferdehirt (I joked to my wife that it's a stage name -- her real name is Debbie Pferdehirt), and she ably fills Holliday's shoes as the character evolves over the course of two hours.

Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock, played by Andy Prosky, son of one of our favorite character actors of the last generation, Robert Prosky. Harry is a junk dealer who has built his business and become a self-made multi-millionaire, mostly by muscling aside the competition and steamrolling anyone and anything that gets in his way. Now he's in DC to bribe a senator and get legislation passed that will make it easier for him to continue amassing more wealth.

Harry has brought Billie along, but he's worried she'll say or do something wrong, so he hires a local journalist, Paul Verral (Aaron Bartz), to give her a little bit of culture. That turns out to be a big mistake. As Billie wisens up about the ways of Washington, she also falls for Paul, and that can't be good for Harry.

As played by Pferdehirt, Billie isn't stupid, she's ignorant -- she doesn't know what she doesn't know -- but she has a thirst for knowledge. Much of Pferdehirt's performance is lifted directly from Holliday's, including all the business during the classic gin rummy scene, when you can't take your eyes off her. Prosky is just as full of bluster as Broderick Crawford was in the movie, but Bartz isn't quite the stud that William Holden was as Verrall.

Still, the cast is solid, the laughs come regularly, and "Born Yesterday" still resonates with its talk of corruption and the power of the rich to run our government at the expense of the people.

By the way, if you haven't seen the 1950 movie, rent it and watch it with your daughter. I'm proud that mine enjoyed it so much she can quote from the script. For instance, when Harry yells, "Shut up! You ain't gonna be tellin' nobody nothin' pretty soon!" and Billie replies, just as loudly, "DOUBLE NEGATIVE!"

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Best Thing I've Read Today

Talk about a mic drop.

In the final four paragraphs of Julie Bosman's piece in the NY Times about the candidates for governor in Illinois, she writes about this interaction between Republican Jeanne Ives and Democrat Chris Kenney...

At a bipartisan candidate forum in Chicago in January, Ms. Ives addressed the issue of gun violence.

“And you know how you’re going to solve it? Fathers in the home,” she said, as the audience booed.

Perhaps most offended was Mr. Kennedy, who was 4 years old in 1968 when his father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated.

“Well, I wish I could agree with you. I didn’t have a father in my life. Somebody shot him,” he said, as audience members clapped and rose to their feet. Mr. Kennedy then walked off the stage and left the building.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

It's the end of the week, so the topical trivia category is Have You Been Paying Attention? Test yourself, then share your score and challenge your friends at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

I See Red Tape

I have spent far too much of this week dealing with paperwork on behalf of my mother. She's 93 years old and suffers from dementia, so doing her taxes and paying her bills and managing most of life outside her assisted living facility is simply impossible.

While my brother deals with the medical side of her situation -- a not insubstantial matter in and of itself -- I'm handling the financial stuff, including gathering information for our accountant to work up her tax returns, as well as handling the influx of invoices from medical providers and explanation-of-benefits forms from insurance companies.

I'm not surprised when there have been mistakes made, mostly with inputting her various account numbers. Those I can correct relatively easily with just a phone call. But then there's the monster that is Medicare. It is a wonderful program that alleviates the financial distress most seniors would find themselves in without it. I'm impressed by how they seem to smoothy handle all the claims, pay the providers, and pass on the rest to third-party insurers who cover much of the rest of her costs.

But it only works if you have the required information. If you don't, you're going to bang your head against the wall trying to get it.

Yesterday, I needed to know something about my mother's Medicare account so I could fix a problem with one of her providers. The woman I spoke to at Medicare informed me that, because I haven't been authorized to access Mom's account, the HIPAA law bars her from sharing any of its details with me. I asked, "How do I get authorized?" She replied that if I could put my mother on the phone for 5-6 minutes and ask her some questions, that would do it. I explained that my mother can't concentrate on the same thought for more than 5-6 seconds, let alone minutes, because of the effects of this dreadful disease. I asked if there was an alternate route I could take.

The woman told me to look at a specific page on the Medicare.gov website via Mom's online account, where I could request the authorization form. I told her my mother had never set up an online account, and when I had tried to do it for her, it needed a piece of information I did not have -- the month and year her Plan A coverage began. So, could this woman please provide me with that date? No, I was told, because I'm not authorized.

I knew that would be the answer, but I continued, asking if there is a third option. She said yes, we can send it to the address we have on file for Mom. Since I wasn't sure they had her current address (she's only lived there for a few months), I asked, and of course I was told I'm not authorized to be given that information.

Trying to remain calm, I appealed to this woman's better nature. I told her I understand that the system is set up to protect the privacy of people like Mom (and me and you), but she can't be the only American suffering from dementia who needs help from a family member like me. How does Medicare handle this situation for everyone else? The woman replied that she was sympathetic, but this was the only available procedure.

Finally, I agreed to option three -- send the form to whatever address Medicare has on file for Mom, and I'll somehow get my hands on it, fill it out, and then figure out a way to have her sign it so I can send it back. Presumably, at that point (it may take as long as four weeks), I'll have the authority to talk to other human beings on her behalf.

Meanwhile, don't even get me started on the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the banks, and other institutions whose mud I've been stuck in for days. I spent dozens of hours just going through Mom's filing cabinets to uncover the secrets of her paperwork -- and that was when she was lucid, last summer. I can't imagine how much worse all of this would be if we had procrastinated.

I'm sharing all of this with you not merely as a way to vent my frustration. I hope you'll take it as a warning not to leave such matters until it's too late.

If you have a parent or any family member who is getting up there in years, sit down with them and go over their financial life. Fill out Power Of Attorney forms, write down all the information for their credit cards and bank accounts, plus their utilities, cable company, cell phone provider, pharmacy, doctors, medical equipment suppliers, insurance companies, accountant, lawyer, and anything else you can think of.

From my experience, there will inevitably be one or two that slip under your radar, leaving you to ask months later about some bill from someone you've never heard of. I found things like a medical service that charged her a hundred bucks every quarter (for over two years) because she had not opted out of their subscription plan. She knew nothing about it and drew no benefit for it, but they kept debiting it from her bank account.

Don't wait until your loved one is in such a bad mental state that they can't remember any of this. Do it now.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Random Thoughts

Using our voices instead of our fingers to get information from search providers and elsewhere is becoming more and more common. I recently bought an Amazon Alexa and am amazed at how good it is at voice recognition. I rarely have to repeat myself, and the response is nearly instantaneous. Google's voice search is also excellent. But Apple is way behind. Too often, when I ask Siri a question (on any platform), she either doesn't understand me or can't return relevant data. Even if I asked her to explain Apple's lag in voice recognition with the question, "Why, Siri?" she'd probably respond with a link to the local Y.

Speaking of tech companies, I see that Melania Trump will meet with Facebook and Google to talk about cyberbullying. I notice she isn't going to meet with Twitter, the social media outlet used exclusively by her husband, the man who put the bully in bully pulpit.

My wife and I laughed out loud several times while watching the new Ricky Gervais standup special, "Humanity," on Netflix. It is not for the easily offended, but contains a lengthy chunk on how he has dealt with people offended by his comments in the past. Yes, he's arrogant and condescending, but I'm glad he's gone back to standup, because most of his recent projects ("Derek," "David Brent: Life On The Road," "Life's Too Short") have been remarkably unfunny. I prefer his HBO series "Extras," his 2009 movie "The Invention of Lying," and his two "Out Of England" standup specials.

I've watched every episode of every season of "Survivor," which means I've seen Jeff Probst impose his will on the show more and more each year. I can't think of another reality show host who yells at contestants during challenges as much as he does. Also, each season, I'm surprised when, after four or five episodes, the camera somehow lands on someone I didn't even know was playing the game. She or he has been left out of the edit completely up until that point, while the dominant players got all the attention. I wonder what it's like for those leftovers to watch the show at home with their families and have to remind them, "No, really, I was there, too!"

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is The Ides Of March -- and the bonus category is Space In Your Face. Play any time, on demand, at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

As I Tweeted

  • Headline we’ll never see in America, unfortunately: “Body of genius Stephen Hawking to lie in state in Capitol rotunda as honor for his brilliant work.” That’s reserved for evangelists, not scientists, in this sad society.

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is March Madness -- and the bonus category is History Class. Play any time, on demand, at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Pleasures And Pitfalls Of Interviewing Authors

I wrote recently about how interviewers can do a better job, so it's only fair I talk a little about guests. The best are those who come to the interview with more than just expertise. They must have the ability to tell a story or explain things in simple, common terms.

Authors can be good interviewees, because they've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about their subjects. With someone like Dave Barry or John Feinstein or Lenore Skenazy or AJ Jacobs, I know I'm not just getting someone who's knowledgable but, better than that, they have a sense of humor and know how to tell an engaging story, too. They make my job easy.

The ones who make it tough are the ones who either give monosyllabic answers, or who are too busy promoting the book to have a real conversation. They've clearly been told by their publicist to mention the name of the book as often as possible. So, no matter what I ask them, they begin every response with, "Well, in my book The Phlegm Incident, which is available now on Amazon...." I understand that you're here to try to sell some books, but let me -- your host -- handle the blatant promotion. I'll never forget to plug the title and your name. You'll serve your purpose better by engaging the audience with a few well-told anecdotes, or some information they've never been exposed to before.

I've also had instances in which I have asked an author a question specifically designed to lead them into a story I know they tell in the book, only to have them answer, "It's obvious you didn't read my book, or you'd know that...." How presumptuous. You're probably right that I didn't read your entire book before your appearance on my show. That's because it would take me several days to get through every word you wrote, and I don't have that kind of free time considering all the other things I need to consume to fill my head in preparation for a daily talk radio show -- particularly since we're only going to talk about your masterpiece for 10-15 minutes on the air. However, I did glance through the book and the publicist's notes to glean the general idea and to find a few stories worth guiding you towards so that you can entice listeners to buy it and read more. I'm so good at my job that the listeners will believe I read the whole thing when, in fact, I came up with these questions by leafing through your book for less than a half-hour. Now tell the damn story I so professionally asked you to tell!

Sometimes authors come to an interview with a chip on their shoulder. I have a friend who used to be an independent publicist, the kind hired either by small publishers or the authors themselves in an attempt to get some media attention for their work. Even when helping out a writer who'd be lucky to sell a few thousand copies of their book, she'd find them resistant to doing interviews with any media outlet they deemed too unimportant for them. They all wanted to be plugged by Oprah for her book club, or invited to do "Good Morning America" and "Ellen." In their eyes, a conversation with a radio host on a local station in St. Louis was a waste of time. They also had a lot of disdain for the world of bloggers who can serve as a second promotional front. She'd line up some cookbook author to talk with a bunch of food bloggers, one right after the other, and the author would yell at her for not getting her onto Rachael Ray's show. This publicist was very smart about these perpetually unhappy authors and, to her credit, would actually steer me away from those she knew would be bad guests for my show.

My favorite guests were authors who shared stories about a world most of us know nothing about. Caitlyn Doughty has written about working in a crematory and her fascination with death rituals around the world. Molly Bloom was quite open with me about her life running high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles (several years before her book was turned into a major motion picture). Kevin Hazzard told tales about being a paramedic in a dangerous neighborhood. Mike Massimino explained why he was so scared the first time he was launched into space as a NASA astronaut. Shep Gordon talked about hanging out with Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper.

Those aren't subjects you hear about every day. All of them, and thousands more, were a pleasure to talk to. And although I'm no Oprah, I bet I helped them sell a few copies of their books, too.

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is about Forbes' new billionaires list -- and the bonus category is full of fun animal facts! Play any time, on demand, at HarrisChallenge.com

Monday, March 12, 2018

No Garbage In

One of the nice things about no longer having a radio show is I don't have to keep up with pop culture events that I don't care about. I used to have to watch all sorts of stuff simply because I needed to know what was going on and talk about it on the air. But not any more.

Now, I consume a lot less news, which means less stress about the latest outrageous tweet by the Ego In Chief or yet another personnel change at the White House. I refuse to be sucked into the vortex of all-day-all-night non-news programming on cable that serves as nothing more than the basis for filling every second of airtime with panels of arguing pundits.

But that's not all:

  • I happily paid zero attention to the OJ Simpson non-confession special that Fox aired Sunday night;
  • I have no idea which are the top teams in March Madness;
  • I'm not a big fan of comic books or video games that have been turned into movies, so I haven't bothered to see "Black Panther" and won't see the new "Tomb Raider";
  • I couldn't care less about "A Wrinkle In Time" or "The Bachelor" or the reboot of "American Idol," so I'm not wasting my time on them.
Not to worry. I still have plenty of things I am interested in, and they fill up my days just fine. Now, if only I could put my mouth on the same no-garbage-in diet as my brain, it wouldn't just be my mental health that's getting better.

Today's Harris Challenge

Today's topical trivia category is Daylight Showbiz Time. Play right now at HarrisChallenge.com!

Friday, March 09, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

Have you been paying attention this week? Prove it by taking my Harris Challenge online right now! It's just as much topical trivia fun as the old radio version, now on demand every weekday.

Movie Review: "Gringo"

David Oyelowo has proven his dramatic chops in "Selma," "A United Kingdom," and "Queen of Katwe." Now he shows some of his lighter side in the dark comedy thriller, "Gringo."

Oyelowo plays Harold, a middle-manager for a pharmaceutical company run by his friend Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron). Harold is married to Bonnie (Thandie Newton), a not-very-successful interior designer who has spent them into near-bankruptcy. Harold gets hints that something suspicious is going down at the company, and that he might be out of a job soon, but his old buddy Richard assures him everything's fine. Of course, it isn't.

From there, the plot points just keep on coming, involving a Mexican weed factory, a drug lord with a Beatles fetish (Carlos Corrona), a ransom demand, a mercenary (Sharlto Copley), some adultery, the head of another pharmaceutical company (Alan Ruck), and a young American couple (Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway) who, well, I won't tell you any more -- except to keep an eye out for Michael Jackson's daughter, Paris, in the scene in a guitar store.

Suffice to say that "Gringo" has the kind of layer-upon-layer story that made 80s movies like "Romancing The Stone" click -- just when you think one crisis is solved, there's another character you shouldn't have trusted, another flipped car, another twist, another double-cross. Some of them I saw from a mile away, but for most of them, I was happy to go along for the ride.

Charlize Theron is also one of the producers of "Gringo," and it's nice to see her getting more power in Hollywood (she's been on the executive side for several of her movies, including last year's "Atomic Blonde"). In "Gringo," her Elaine is a ruthless woman who takes no crap from anyone and is even more Machiavellian than her business partner/lover, Richard, played with full gusto by Edgerton (who is also in theaters now with the Jennifer Lawrence flop, "Red Sparrow").

"Gringo" was directed by Edgerton's brother Nash, a former stuntman who maintains a steady action pace without too many lulls, and gets in quite a few laughs, too. Oyelowo plays the humor straight, while remaining a magnetic presence on-screen, and gets full support from the rest of the cast.

One problem the movie has is that the drug lord is referred to a few times as The Black Panther, a reference that drew giggles in the theater. If Ridley Scott could erase Kevin Spacey and seamlessly replace him with Christopher Plummer in "All The Money In The World," Edgerton could have changed a few graphics and subtitles so that his villain had a different name. It's not like he and the producers didn't know their movie would be released around the same time as the superhero box office behemoth.

I enjoyed "Gringo" enough to recommend it with a 7 out of 10.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is Death On Screen. Click here to play now -- it only takes a minute, and you might earn a bonus category! I post a new Harris Challenge every weekday.

Movie Review: "Thoroughbreds"

"Thoroughbreds" is an early contender for the top spot on my Worst Movies Of 2018 list.

It's the story of two rich, spoiled, psychopathic teenage girls who plot the murder of one of their stepfathers. The performances by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor Joy are flat, there are no characters to root for, and no one with any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

There's also Tim, the local loser who gets caught up in the girls' plot, played by Anton Yelchin in his final role before his death. I checked the dates to discover that Yelchin died in June, 2016, which means "Thoroughbreds" (which is dedicated to him) has been sitting on a shelf for over a year and a half. It should have remained unreleased or, even better, unproduced. Blame must be placed on the rookie filmmaker who wrote and directed it, Cory Finley.

By the way, don't be fooled by online reviewers saying "Thoroughbreds" reminds them of "Heathers," the 1988 dark comedy that starred Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannen Doherty. Go rent that movie instead of wasting a hundred minutes with this trash.

I give "Thoroughbreds" a 1 out of 10.

Movie Review: "Submission"

In dozens of movies from "Big Night" to "Devil Wears Prada" to "Julie and Julia" to "Spotlight," Stanley Tucci has always been an actor you can count on. Now he gets another chance at a lead character in "Submission."

Tucci plays Ted Swenson, an author who had some success with his first novel, but hasn't been able to write a followup, so he's teaching creative writing at a small college. His home life with wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) is fine, but he's restless, and one of the young women in his class catches his eye. Angela (Addison Timlin) is smart and feisty, a spark in Ted's otherwise boring day. When she asks him to take a look at the first chapter of a novel that she's writing, he agrees. Surprised and intrigued by the quality of her work, he agrees to read more of it and meet with her privately to discuss it. The relationship is purely platonic at first, but Ted gets drawn in where he knows he shouldn't, and that leads to trouble.

The theme is timely, with all the tales of sexual harassment that have made headlines in the last year. With its older man/younger woman dynamic, "Submission" is a story of sex and manipulation and power -- but whose? Unfortunately, the story beats are too predictable, the college-community characters too cliched, and the ending too pat. I expected more.

I give "Submission" a 4 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

Today's Harris Challenge topical trivia category is Across America -- and if you score enough points in that, you'll get a bonus category about Their Television DebutClick here to play now, then share your score and challenge your friends!

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

TV Review: "Sundays With Alec Baldwin"

Last week, I wrote about podcasts and TV shows that feature long-form one-on-one interviews, with hosts like David Letterman, Mark Maron, Scott Feinberg, Kevin Pollak, and others. This week, we have a new entry in the genre.

Sunday night, after the Oscars telecast finally ended, and ABC cut away so its local stations could do their late newscasts, the network returned to air hour-long sneak peek of "Sundays with Alec Baldwin," a pilot for a series it plans to run later this year.

I like Baldwin, but I wonder whether ABC really thinks people will tune in for a primetime show in which he sits opposite another celebrity and just talks. Thankfully, "SWAB" has no studio audience, so it has the feel of an old Tom Snyder "Tomorrow" show -- complete with a cheap set, minimal graphics, and occasional laughter from the crew -- but that's not exactly state of the art 21st century television. It's more like a podcast. In fact, "Sundays with Alec Baldwin" is really nothing more than his "Here's The Thing" podcast with cameras and lights.

Baldwin mentioned that this pilot episode wasn't supposed to air, but it served its purpose (getting ABC to pick it up) thanks to the presence of his friend Jerry Seinfeld as his lead guest. Seinfeld understands the art of conversation (as he's proven on "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee") and instinctively knows how to steer his answers in an interesting direction. The other guest was another Baldwin pal, SNL star Kate McKinnon, who needs to work on her talk-show-guest anecdote-sharing skills, somewhat of a surprise considering her years in improv and sketch comedy.

But some of the blame for her segment must lay with Baldwin, who too often has a tendency to push himself back into the center of whatever topic he's discussing with his guests. Sure, he's been a movie and TV star for decades, but his role here should be to talk less about himself, focusing instead on extracting the best material from the interviewees. While Baldwin will no doubt rely on other friends for the next few episodes, he must start booking guests he doesn't already have a personal relationship with (or at least those who serve more of a purpose than being props for his opinions and stories).

That's why Snyder and (later) Bob Costas were so damned good at this. As broadcasters first, their passion was not in hogging the spotlight, but in knowing enough about their guests to steer them towards, through, and around subjects that could result in great television. I wish someone at NBC would go back through the "Tomorrow" and "Later" archives and release them online or air them late at night on one of its cable outlets (Bravo? CNBC?), so a new generation could see those long-lost gems. Baldwin (and many others) could learn a few things by studying them and seeing how much time they spent listening.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't see a big enough audience tuning in to watch "Sundays With Alec Baldwin" in primetime. After all, this isn't like his "Match Game" reboot, which found an audience the last two summers with its mix of B-level stars and bawdy humor. "SWAB" is much more of a niche venture, one that Baldwin already tried, on MSNBC in 2013, without much success. If it doesn't work in primetime, I doubt ABC is going to spend the money and effort to produce it for that late-night Sunday slot, which has gotta be among the least-viewed segments of the broadcast week.

That said, I'll probably set the DVR for "Sunday With Alec Baldwin" when it returns, but I predict that I'll be choosy about which episodes I watch, based entirely on who's in the guest chair -- just as I am with "Here's The Thing" and the other podcasts I download.

Today's Harris Challenge

Today's Harris Challenge topical trivia category is What's That Now? -- and if you score enough points in that, you'll get a bonus category about American GeographyClick here to play now, then share your score and challenge your friends!

Monday, March 05, 2018

Random Poker Thoughts

I like when there's conversation at a poker table. The more social players are with each other, the more fun it will be. I've been in too many games where no one says anything for hour after hour -- so boring! Too many of them just plug in their earbuds and shut out the world, barely acknowledging the nine other people sitting nearby. I'll admit that I've done this for short periods from time to time during a long session, but I never start out that way. I'm happy to engage in small talk on any number of subjects -- after all, I used to do that for a living.

On the other hand, I recently played in a game where two players were so engaged in conversation they they never knew when it was their turn to act. Either the dealer or another player had to keep saying, "Sir, it's on you." This slows down the action and, in games where you pay the rake every time a new dealer sits down (essentially renting the seat for a half-hour, rather than having the house take the rake out of each winner's pot), anyone who wastes my time is also wasting my money.

If he has a choice of tables for the game he wants to play, my friend Mark refuses to sit down if there are more than three young players (almost always guys) with backpacks. In his mind, that means they're pros who aren't likely to give him the loose action we all want from opponents. That's why I laughed a few months ago when he and I were on a road trip together and both walked into the poker room wearing our own backpacks because we'd gotten to the hotel too early in the day to check in to our rooms. I doubt any of those young guys looked at us, two middle-aged guys, saw our backpacks and thought, "Uh oh, here come a couple of professional poker players."

Mark also avoids tables where several players have their iPads out, playing Chinese Poker against unseen online opponents on their tablets. I've also seen them reading books, watching Netflix, playing chess, etc. Like the two talkers I mentioned above, these tend to be minimal-action players with no social skills who can also slow things down because they're not paying attention to the game we're all supposed to be playing together.

In some poker rooms (but not in St. Louis), the rules allow players to "run it twice" if one of them is all in. There must be no other pending action, either pre-flop, on the flop, or on the turn, and both players must agree. If they do, the dealer then completes the board once, and then puts out a second set of cards to complete it again. Then the players expose their hands and determine who won with each board. Either of them may scoop the whole pot, or each may win one-half (or smaller fractions if there's a tie). The strategy is used to reduce your variance, particularly in pot-limit Omaha, where people tend to bet a lot when they're behind by have very strong drawing hands with a good chance of catching up and winning.

Running it twice is usually not permitted in smaller-stakes games ($1-3 blinds), but even in mid-stakes games ($5-5 and higher), it can get annoying when it's used too often. First of all, as with the problems I cited above regarding game-flow, it slows down the proceedings, so we get in fewer hands per half-hour. Secondly, I've had opponents insist on running it twice when they were all in for just a few hundred dollars -- one guy even asked if we could do it for $85! I almost always refuse to do so, because for that amount of money, I can handle the variance. I'd feel differently if the pot had $5,000 or more in it. On the other hand, knowing they can run it twice does tend to make many action-loving players push their chips in more readily, and that's not a bad thing.

Last for today: I'm amazed at the number of female cashiers I've seen lately with long press-on fingernails that extend more than an inch beyond their fingertips. It's always awkward watching them stack up or count down a bunch of chips, because they can't come at it from the top -- they have to use a weird side move that seems totally unnatural. I'm surprised the casinos allow it, but I guess as long as the count is right at the end of every transaction it's not a problem.

At least they don't waste my time by doing it twice.

Today's Harris Challenge

Today's Harris Challenge topical trivia category is Political Power People -- and if you score enough points in that, you'll get a bonus category about Pop Music 1969-1979. Click here to play now, then share your score and challenge your friends!

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A Monologue With Spirit

Nick Kroll and John Mulaney absolutely crushed it as hosts of last night's Spirit Awards, a ceremony always held the day before the Oscars to honor people who make independent movies. Their opening monologue had me laughing out loud, with some very clever stuff about the nominees, and lots of #MeToo material about Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey, and the best line I've ever heard about Harvey Weinstein.

Kroll and Mulaney (who did the Broadway show "Oh, Hello" together -- it's streaming on Netflix and is similarly hysterical) have set a very high bar for Jimmy Kimmel to try to top tonight at the Oscars...

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Mini-Concert Review: Steve Winwood

I checked another artist off my Classic Rock Bucket List when I went to see Steve Winwood at the Fox Theatre on Wednesday night.

I've been a longtime fan of his solo stuff as well as his work in Traffic, Blind Faith, and the Spencer Davis group. I'm happy to report that Winwood still has the strong voice that has carried him for more than five decades. I could have listened to him play the Hammond B3 organ all night -- now that Gregg Allman's gone, Winwood may be the last living rock legend of that instrument -- but he was backed by a terrific foursome that added a nice texture to the songs that spanned his career, including "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys," "Empty Pages," "Can't Find My Way Home," "Higher Love," "Roll With It," "I'm A Man," and "Gimme Some Lovin'."

The highlight for me was in the encore, when he came out with an acoustic guitar and performed a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "John Barleycorn Must Die" with accompaniment by flutist Paul Booth and background vocals by his daughter, Lilly Winwood, who had opened the show with half a dozen songs of her own.

I had planned on writing a full review of the concert, but then I read what Daniel Durchholz had written in the Post-Dispatch and realized he had touched on everything I would have, so I'll just link to that.

Another Oscars Challenge

I had such good response to the Oscars trivia in yesterday's Harris Challenge that I've posted more today. Play anytime on my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Harris Challenge Returns!

I'm happy to announce that The Harris Challenge is back!

It's not on the radio -- it's online at my brand new site, HarrisChallenge.com. There will be new topical trivia categories every weekday, beginning with some Oscars questions today.

Please give it a try and then let me know what you think. I'll be tweaking elements based on your feedback, so let me have it. And then keep going back every day!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Movie Review: "Red Sparrow"

Well, the Russians are back -- not just in news about corrupting our elections and social media, but as movie villains, too. "Red Sparrow" plays like an old Cold War movie, full of spies and secrets and seduction.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet. When her career is ended by what seems to be a freak accident, she's recruited by her uncle (a higher-up in the Russian espionage world) to become a student at Sparrow School, where students learn how to seduce enemy agents to get information out of them. The scenes at the "whore school," run by Charlotte Rampling, include nudity of both the male and female variety (including Lawrence), and some sexual situations that helped the movie earn its hard R rating.

Soon, Lawrence leaves the school because she's given a mission involving a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who has a mole within the Russian hierarchy. Her job is to seduce him and get that information, but along the way there are plenty of other characters running through the plot, and a cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Bill Camp, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, and Mary-Louise Parker.

Lawrence gives a brave performance and must have really trusted director Francis Lawrence, who's not related to her, but worked with her on the last three "Hunger Games" movies. She and the other actors maintain their Russian accents pretty well except for a few scenes where they slip.

"Red Sparrow" has the most dense script I've heard in a long time, and I don't mean that in a positive way. The movie is based on a novel by Jason Matthews, and I wished I had a copy to refer to as I watched so I could go back a few pages here and there to figure out what was happening, who's who, and myriad other questions. Will Lawrence uncover Edgerton's secret? Will she defect and run away to America with him? What will happen to her sick mother? Will the torture scene really be that graphic? (Yes, I had to look away for a few seconds.) Will the pace ever pick up or are we going to drag all the way to the finish line?

Unfortunately, most of those questions weren't answered to my satisfaction. By the time it got to the resolution, I didn't care all that much. Matthews wrote two more books in the "Red Sparrow" trilogy, and perhaps the movie producers thought they were launching a new Jennifer Lawrence franchise here, but I don't see that happening. In fact the idea of Jennifer Lawrence anything may be in danger. Her previous three movies ("Joy," "Passengers," and "Mother") were not well-received, and I doubt this one will be. It certainly didn't please me.

I give "Red Sparrow" a 4 out of 10.

P.S. If you want to watch a better movie with a big female star playing a Russian spy, spend three bucks and rent the 2010 thriller "Salt," starring Angelina Jolie.