Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bright City Lights

We spent last night at Powell Hall, the acoustically-perfect home of the St. Louis Symphony, who performed the score of Charlie Chaplin's 1931 "City Lights" while the movie was projected on a screen overhead. We saw them do this a couple of years ago, with Chaplin's "Modern Times," and we marveled at the experience both times.

The movie itself is a classic, but what made this showing so remarkable was that, after awhile, my wife and I both found ourselves forgetting that there was even an orchestra in the room. That's not an insult to the Symphony or conductor David Robertson. It's a compliment to their ability to synchronize so perfectly with the film. I had to shake my head and look away from the screen a couple of times to remember to look down at the orchestra as they played furiously in the dark, with the only illumination coming from tiny lights atop their music stands.

Orchestras play along with movies all the time, of course, but not the entire score in one sitting. When they're hired to add music to a movie, they do it in individual takes for separate scenes in a recording studio, with digital editing and audio enhancement making everything sound just right. But when a Symphony plays the score at events such as this, there is no second take, no opportunity to fix mistakes, which is the inherent thrill of hearing live music.

Since Chaplin's score is so dense, there were virtually no breaks where the Symphony wasn't playing -- for nearly 90 minutes -- and it was flawless. They deserved the three curtain calls and standing ovation they received last night.

As for the movie, which will be 80 years old next month, it contains one of the best-choreographed comedic sequences ever filmed. Chaplin's Tramp has fallen in love with a blind flower girl who lives with her grandmother. They're behind on the rent and have to come up with the money by the next day or they'll be evicted. Chaplin vows to help, but after being fired from his job as a sanitation man, he's desperate for any opportunity. A local boxer corrals him to come into a gym and fight in a winner-take-all bout, but since the boxer isn't very good, he wants to make a deal -- if Charlie will allow himself to be knocked out quickly and easily, they'll split the prize money. Unfortunately, the cops are after the boxer, who runs away before the match, and is replaced by a big, brooding thug who has no interest in the cash-sharing deal.

What makes all this more remarkable is that Chaplin not only starred in "City Lights," but also wrote, directed, edited, and scored the movie.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Final Table #100: Year In Review

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I reviewed the Year In Poker, including our adventures in cash games and tournaments in St. Louis, across the USA, around the world, and on TV.

We also recapped the poker stories that got our attention this year, from Tom Dwan's multi-million-dollar WSOP bracelet bet to Phil Laak's endurance record to Michael Mizrachi's amazing bookend tournaments this summer. We looked back at the death of legislation to license and regulate online poker, the states that embraced poker (Florida and Pennsylvania), and the ones that fought it (Washington and Kentucky). On the tournament front, we covered the first-ever WSOP Circuit Event at Harrah's St. Louis, the debut of the NAPT, the re-boot of the WSOP Circuit and the WPT, and a breakout year by poker pros Vanessa Selbst and Jose "Nacho" Barbero.

Finally, we made predictions for what to expect in poker next year, including our over/under on the number of players in the 2011 WSOP Main Event.

Before we turn the calendar page, we offer big thanks to you, our listeners, for helping us get to this milestone 100th show. There's more to come!

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

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snow Daze

The postponement of last night's NFL game in Philadelphia made me wince.

This wasn't in DC or Tennessee or North Carolina or another state that doesn't handle snow well. This was in Pennsylvania, a state where both the residents and road crews have been dealing with large snowfalls forever. Governor Ed Rendell said it best:
"This is football; football's played in bad weather. I think the fans would have gotten there, the subways work and the major arteries are still open, and other fans would have stayed home -- but you play football regardless of the weather."
Eagles fans have a reputation for being among the toughest in the league. They would have gotten to the stadium and home with few problems, with the possible exception of snowballs reigning down on the Vikings at some point in the second half when enough beers kicked in. For those who stayed home, the game would have been telecast on NBC, and it would have made good TV. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth would have had a blast calling the action in the snow, and it probably would've been fun for the players, too.

If the NFL is going to start worrying about frosty fields, they're going to have to rethink having their season roll into December with playoffs in January, or hope that no team in the East or North divisions in either conference has any home games between Christmas and the Super Bowl. After all, this is a league that hasn't canceled a game because of weather in more than six decades. Even the infamous Fog Bowl -- with the Bears hosting the Eagles (yes, them again) at Soldier Field in a game that no one could see because of the think blanket of fog that enveloped the field -- was allowed to continue despite the problems for the officials, coaches, and the media up in the press box who couldn't tell what was going on (the players loved it, though).

Sunday's postponement announcement, made about 8 hours before kickoff, when there wasn't a single flake on the ground yet, reminded me of a snowy incident in the late 1980s.

I was the morning man on WCXR/Washington, on the air from 5:30 to 10:00am. On snow days, newsman John Ogle would get calls from the various school districts in the area, and we'd announce closings, cancellations, and delays. We rarely had anything to announce about District of Columbia schools, the largest district in the area, because in an urban environment, there were few school buses to worry about as most kids walked to their neighborhood schools, and they were almost always open. The only white powder that caused a problem in downtown DC in those days was Mayor Marion Barry's cocaine.

The suburban districts were another story, and Fairfax County (Virginia), the largest of those, had developed a reputation for an itchy trigger finger. It seemed as if the superintendent of schools was more anxious for a day off than anyone else.

One particular day stands out. It had been a dry winter, with zero inches of snowfall thus far. But on this morning the forecast was for a cloudy day with a 50% chance of snow that afternoon -- and Fairfax called us to ask that we announce that schools would be closed that day.

When John passed this information to me during a commercial break, I thought he was joking or it might be a hoax, since we hadn't received a call from any other district. He said that the caller from Fairfax had given him the right code (a fail safe we'd built into our system in the pre-internet days), so it was probably legit, but he'd double-check. John called the superintendent at home and he confirmed the information.

We were both stunned. When the commercials ended, I went back on the air with John and the rest of my crew and reported what we'd just learned, adding that in our more than 30 years of combined radio experience, none of us could remember another occasion in which any district had closed schools due to a 50% chance of snow later that day. It was so ludicrous that we couldn't help but mock the superintendent's decision.

The phones exploded. Listener after listener was outraged -- not at us, but at the superintendent. Parents in Fairfax County blasted the guy, complaining that they now had to make other arrangements for their kids for the day while they went off to work. We never heard from officials of any other district, as none of them thought the forecast worthy of canceling school that day.

For the next six months, we never missed an opportunity to joke about Fairfax's decision. If it was raining in the morning, we'd say we were waiting to hear from Fairfax about schools opening late. When Daylight Saving Time started in the spring, we'd wonder if the sky being dark in the morning might affect the Fairfax school day. Listeners got into the act, too -- before responding to whatever topic we were discussing, they'd drop in a question about whether Fairfax schools were open. Recent graduates speculated on how bad the forecast would have to be for them to be asked to start forgetting what they'd learned in Fairfax.

As for the snow, it never came. Not even an eighth of an inch.

Come to think of it, it was a beautiful day for football.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Light Lunch

I mentioned Todd Robbins' off-Broadway show "Play Dead" a couple of weeks ago. Here he is during an appearance on "Theater Talk," a local public TV show in New York, where he demonstrates one of his odder talents by dining on the holiday decorations...

Here's a conversation I had with Todd last year, in which -- among other things -- he explains his ability to devour light bulbs.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ricky Responds

The Wall Street Journal got such a huge response to Ricky Gervais' essay about why he's an atheist that they asked him to respond to some readers' questions and comments. Here's the followup.

If you haven't seen his Gervais' "Out Of England 2" standup special, it's running on HBO all month and is nearly as good as the first one, which was terrific. One of the extended bits involves a children's book about the biblical story of Noah, which Gervais completely dissembles.

While I'm going on about Gervais, I might as well add his movie, "The Invention of Lying," to my Movies You Might Not Know list. It's a brilliant satire about a society in which everyone tells the truth all the time, often brutally so, until Mark Bellison (Gervais) lies to his mother on her death bed about what will happen after she dies. Nurses and a doctor (Jason Bateman) overhear his story and, because there's no such thing as fiction in their world, believe every word he says. Soon, Bellison has hundreds of people outside his apartment building who want to know more. His friends (Jennifer Garner and Louis CK) encourage him to share his "knowledge," so he makes up more lies about The Man In The Sky, and presents it to the assembled multitude Ten Commandments-style, with pizza boxes as his tablets.

Unfortunately, I can't embed that scene here, but it's on YouTube (caveat: the user who posted it added a silly intro and outro, but ignore that and enjoy Gervais' simmering frustration with the questions from the crowd -- and imagine the echo in his head as he wrote the responses to the Wall Street Journal readers!).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Durst Dose

Will Durst, still one of America's best political comedians, has compiled his Top Ten Comedic News Stories Of The First Decade Of The 21st Century.

Final Table #99: Antonio Esfandiari

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with Antonio Esfandiari, who just won the WPT Doyle Brunson Five Diamond Classic against one of its toughest final tables ever (and where he pulled off a monster bluff against Vanessa Rousso). We also discussed how he ended up in a new movie with Bruce Willis and 50 Cent ("Setup"), some of his wacky prop bets, what we can expect in the new season of "High Stakes Poker" (he recorded a session last week), and stories from his Las Vegas nightlife.

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

Play All You Want

The other night at the poker table, one of the players was telling the guy sitting next to me about all the freebies she'd received in the mail from the casino. They'd sent her coupons for free meals, free hotel rooms, etc. He said she must play the slot machines a lot. She confirmed that she did, and had been having a lot of luck recently at the slot machines in the high-roller room, winning a few big jackpots -- $12,000 and $19,000 and $50,000.

Surprised by her good fortune, he asked if she used her player's card in the machine. That's a card that players can use to earn those freebies, called "comps," from the casino. This process is not unlike the early stages of dating. The more time and money you invest, the more you're going to be loved. That doesn't mean you're going to win, but the casino is going to encourage you to keep coming back and playing, and those freebies are the enticement.

Using a player's card is simple. When you sit down at the slots, you insert your card in the machine, and it tracks your play. The same thing goes on at table games like blackjack, craps, and roulette -- you hand your card to the dealer and the floor man enters your information into their computer and notes how much you're betting and how long you're there.

In the poker room, you can swipe in at the table to earn credits, but because you're not playing against the house and the casino doesn't make as much money from you as it does from the slot and table game players, the comps for poker players are much lower. Still, regulars can run up a few free lunches or dinners each month. All of this is voluntary, a system you may opt into, but if you prefer to play anonymously, no one's going to force you to even get a card in the first place.

When the winning woman confirmed that she did put her card into the machines, the guy next to me said something like, "I bet you won't keep winning, because they know how much you've won already and they don't want to keep paying you off."

Like most conspiracy-theory arguments, this one has no basis in logic.

Casinos have no need to rig the machines, because they already have the edge. By law, they have to post signs that tell you the average return on their slot machines. Let's say it's 95%. That means that if you give them $100, they'll give you $95, and they'll make that deal as many times as you want. The reason people are willing to accept that proposition is because of the possibility of winning so much more -- jackpots in the tens of thousands, like this woman did.

In business terms, the casino doesn't care whether you (as an individual) win big. In the long run and over the huge player pool, it has the advantage -- even if it's as little as 1% on some table game bets -- and is going to make money as long as lots of people keep coming in and gambling. It would never do anything to risk that mathematical edge. If any casino were found to have rigged its games to keep specific players from winning (or continuing to win), it would be horrible for business, not to mention the trouble that would rain down from the state gaming commission.

The challenge for all casinos is keeping customers' perception in line with that reality, and keeping them coming through the doors. They don't do that by ripping players off. They do it by offering the opportunity to win and have some fun while trying to do so.

The math does the rest.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Online Speed Test

Want to see how fast your internet connection is? Here's a site that tests it for free and displays results in about thirty seconds.

Monday, December 20, 2010

They Die

Garry Trudeau was giving a speech recently to promote the 40th-anniversary compilation of "Doonesbury" strips, and told a story about the difficulties his syndicator had in the early days getting some newspapers to carry the comic. It seemed that the older generation of editors and publishers couldn't relate to what he was drawing and writing, didn't like his sensibilities, and refused to put "Doonesbury" in their papers.

When Trudeau expressed his frustration to his editor, Lee Salem, and John McMeel, co-founder of the syndicator, they reassured him with two simple words: "They die." It meant that, as time moved forward, these older stuck-in-the-past gatekeepers would move on and leave the decisions to their younger, hipper colleagues, who were more likely to approve of "Doonesbury." Eventually, that did happen, and the strip became one of the biggest successes in comics history.

I thought of that story over the weekend when the Senate debated -- and finally passed -- the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. It's another milestone for civil rights in the US, but not everyone is on board.

Right up to the end, there was John McCain leading the opposition, claiming this would do "great damage" to the military, harm "battle effectiveness," and deter some Americans from pursuing a career in the military. In doing so, McCain has taken his final step into irrelevancy. He's not dead, but his politics are so old and out of touch with current events, that he might as well be.

The generation of soldiers now serving our country has grown up with gays in their schools, their dorm rooms, and their peer groups. They've seen lesbians in movies and on television who are just as normal (or odd) as everyone else. They have -- for the most part -- stopped judging someone as an aberration just because of their sexuality. And they know that, even under DADT, they've been fighting alongside gay servicemembers in their own units every day.

As for McCain's prediction that the repeal of DADT will dissuade some people from joining the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines, that seems like a good thing to me -- a lesson to those bigots that our society and our military are progressing whether they like or not, and if they don't want to be a part of it, we'll get along just fine without them.

McCain's remarks sound eerily similar to those of Gen. Clifton Cates, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, who claimed, "Changing national policy in this respect through the Armed Forces is a dangerous path to pursue as it effects [sic] the ability of the Military Establishment to fulfill its mission."

Cates wasn't referring to gays serving openly in the military. He spoke those words in 1949, because he strongly disagreed with President Harry Truman's plan to integrate the military. Under Cates, the Marines were the last branch of our armed forces to permit blacks to serve alongside whites. Unfortunately, his bigotry lives on in the Corps, reflected in recent remarks by Gen. James Amos, the current Marine Commandant, who fears that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly could pose a "deadly distraction on the battlefield."

Perhaps Amos should find some of the African-Americans who served as proud, brave Marines during the Korean War, the first conflict involving a fully-integrated US military, and ask what they would have thought about being considered distractions. Then let's see John McCain look into the eyes of blacks who served with him in the Navy during the Vietnam War while he tells them they caused great damage or reduced battle effectiveness.

The average age of the US active duty force is 28. For those currently serving -- who wear the uniform to fight for Americans of every race, religion, gender, and sexuality -- they must look at the older generation, represented by Amos (age 64) and McCain (age 74), and know that those ancient obstacles to civil rights progress will continue to fall.

Because they die.

Casino Columbo

Last week on my Final Table poker radio show, we talked about the heist at the Bellagio in which an armed man in a motorcycle helmet got away with $1.5 million in chips -- not from the poker room but from the pit where the table games are. We wondered how a guy was allowed to walk through the casino wearing the helmet the whole time, and how he would cash in the high-denomination chips, which almost certainly have RFID tags embedded in them.

Mark Evanier has another take on the heist. He sees it akin to the plot of one of those mystery shows Universal produced for NBC in the 1970s, like "Banacek," "Ellery Queen," or "Columbo." Here's his plot for that episode.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bowie & Bing Redux

In 1977, there was an odd mix of musical styles when David Bowie made an appearance on Bing Crosby's "Merrie Olde Christmas" TV special. After some quick banter, the two performed "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy," which continues to get airplay on lots of radio stations three decades later.

The legend of the show is that Bowie had agreed to sing with Crosby, but did not want to do "Little Drummer Boy." So writers Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Buz Kohan wrote "Peace on Earth" for Bowie to sing as counterpoint to Bing's take on the 1957 Christmas tune. The two singers rehearsed for less than an hour before rolling tape. The song became even more infamous because Crosby died between the time they recorded the duet (in September) and its air date (in November).

For some reason, Will Farrell and John C. Reilly have decided to do a virtual note-for-note remake of that moment in television history (except for the final :30)...

That must seem odd for a lot of Farrell's fans who've never seen the original...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bill Of Rights Day

Today is the 219th birthday of the greatest document ever written -- The Bill Of Rights.

It would be nice to say that most Americans know what's enumerated in the Bill Of Rights, but they don't (including elected officials who swear to uphold the Constitution Of The United States but are rarely fluent in its contents). If you're among them, try reviewing them now and then thanking James Madison for starting the ball rolling.

My friend Chris Bliss has spent several years trying to get a national Bill Of Rights monument. He's received approval for one at the Texas state capitol, and is still raising funds to make it happen. Meanwhile, he has helped erect one in a town square in Montezuma, Iowa, and will next build one in Everett, Washington. He explains his cause on the website,
The origin and significance of the Bill of Rights is barely even taught in our schools; and its 10 Amendments are even more rarely publicly displayed. Not until 2008 was there a single permanent display of the Bill of Rights anywhere in America, and there is still not a single major public celebration of this remarkable document.

This is not just a matter of neglecting our history. The concepts developed in the Bill of Rights have much light to shed on our current dilemma. The free exchange of ideas is not just essential to civic discourse; it also produces the innovations that drive prosperity. Checks and balances, designed to limit concentrations of power and their abuse, also promote transparency and accountability; the lifeblood of free markets. The right to bear arms and the presumption of innocence both put the government on notice as to who is the master and who the servant in our Republic, as timely a message today as ever.
What too many forget is that the BOR is not a list of rights granted to Americans by our government. You were born with those rights and didn't need any document or official imprimatur to earn them. To the contrary, the BOR is a list of restrictions placed on our government ("Congress shall make no law...") regarding those rights.

Unfortunately, although the US still stands well above much of the world when it comes to these freedoms, our rights are constantly under attack, as Tim Lynch points out, so we must be eternally vigilant and protective of them.

On the bulletin board above my desk, I keep the Security Edition of the Bill of Rights. It's made of sheet metal and lists the text of all ten amendments, with the 4th amendment highlighted. Dean Cameron created the Security Edition for use when you fly -- you stick it in your shirt pocket, and when the metal detector beeps and the TSA agent tries to confiscate the card-shaped item you're carrying, you can ask him if he is literally taking away your rights. You can order yours (or the non-metallic luggage tags for those who don't want the hassle) here.

2010 Movie Mashup

Because you didn't have time to see all the movies released this year, here they are in a six-minute mashup...

More Facebook Fallacy

Ten days ago, I wrote about the mistakenly-reported "fact" that five hundred million people are on Facebook. Despite what multiple media organizations report, the number is nowhere near correct.

Yet, in naming Mark Zuckerberg its Person Of The Year today, Time magazine helps propagate this hyperbole: "For connecting more than half-a-billion people and mapping the social relations among them (something that has never been done before)...."

Whether Zuckerberg deserves the title is arguable, but the lack of simple fact-checking by Time's writers and editors is deplorable. Unless, like Lesley Stahl on "60 Minutes," they believe that because their own organization has a Facebook page (several in fact), it qualifies as "people."

On the other hand, this means that you and Zuckerberg now have something in common -- you're both been named Person Of The Year (you received the honor in 2006).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Final Table #98: Online Poker Bill Update

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I updated the possibility of Congress passing the online poker bill before the lame duck session closes at the end of this week. John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, joined us to explain why it seems unlikely, what the obstacles are, what it means for online players if the bill is not passed, and whether there's a chance it could still become law in the next Congress.

Other topics we discussed:
  • whether antes in cash games should affect the size of your pre-flop raises
  • Daniel Negreanu's reputation as a calling station on high stakes TV cash games;
  • the amateur on "The Big Game" who got up $140,000 and then folded the next 53 hands in a row -- including pocket aces;
  • a daring early-morning heist at the Bellagio that raises more questions about their security.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Have An iBand Holiday

Who needs real instruments when you can play Christmas music on your iPads and iPhones? I don't mean downloading mp3 files from iTunes and listening to them -- I mean playing songs using the Apple products as virtual instruments, like the North Point Community Church's iBand...

[thanks to Tom Gray for the link]

Monday, December 13, 2010

There's No Place Like Dome

This was, without a doubt, the coolest video shot at any NFL stadium yesterday. It's the Minneapolis Metrodome roof collapsing under the weight of too much snow. It was several hours before anyone was scheduled to show up for the game, but Fox's cameras were already in position and caught this remarkable footage...

The good news is that no one was hurt. The bad news is the Vikings and Giants have to go to Detroit tonight.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Is That Movie About Poker?

Recently, I was in a casino with posters on the walls from movies about poker or which had significant scenes revolving around a poker game. They had "Rounders," "The Sting," "California Split," "Casino Royale," "Maverick," and the one above for "The Cincinnati Kid."

Though I've seen "The Cincinnati Kid" several times, I'd never seen the poster and did a double-take when I spotted it because something seemed wrong. Besides the fact that the guy looks nothing like Steve McQueen, you can't tell by looking at the poster that the movie is about a poker player. While the story does include his relationships with Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret (who are included in the poster illustration), the central plot is that The Kid (McQueen as Eric Stoner) sits down with The Man (Edward G. Robinson as Lancey Howard) for an epic game of five-card stud which ends with one of those only-in-a-movie hands. Also at the table: Jack Weston and Cab Calloway, plus railbirds including Rip Torn, Karl Malden, and Joan Blondell.

It's great stuff, but the poster gives you no idea what to expect. Even that tagline, "He'd take on anyone, at anything, was only a matter of who came first" doesn't make any sense except as a weird sexual-pun. McQueen's Eric Stoner is a loner and a gambler, but he's made his reputation as a disciplined poker player who is very careful about his opponents and the venue.

Compare that to the poster for "Rounders," which clearly features Matt Damon and Edward Norton holding playing cards and poker chips. You have an idea what you're getting there, and the movie delivers so well that it's credited by many current poker pros as the tipping point that made them want to play the game.

One last thing regarding another of the movies mentioned. "California Split" stars Elliott Gould and George Segal as two guys who like card rooms and race tracks, and culminates in a big cash game in Reno where Amarillo Slim Preston is one of the players. It gets the degenerate gambler life right but, unfortunately, it's a total bore.

Directed by Robert Altman, it has lots of his trademark overlapping dialogue, which worked so well in "M*A*S*H," but not so much here. And while it's a little bit interesting from a nostalgia perspective to see the haircuts and clothing of 1974, the pacing drags and drags. Slogging through "California Split" is like sitting in a poker tournament for hour after hour without getting any decent cards and never winning a hand -- you can't wait for the torture to be over.

But at least the poster give you an idea what the movie's about...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Skeptical Shermer

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and contributor to Scientific American, explains why people continue to believe weird things, and discusses atheism, evolution, free markets, climate change, and more with Reason's Tim Cavanaugh...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Monday Night Lennon

Thirty years ago tonight, millions of Americans learned from Howard Cosell that John Lennon was dead. Cosell made the announcement towards the end of a Dolphins-Patriots game on ABC's "Monday Night Football" -- and I missed it.

At the time, I was the Program Director and morning co-host at WRCN, a rock station in Riverhead, New York. That Monday was a typical day for me, starting at 5am and lasting late into the afternoon before I went home. I had some dinner, then settled in front of the TV to watch the game. Sometime around 10:30pm, I was too tired to watch any longer, so I climbed into bed and quickly fell asleep.

My alarm went off Tuesday at 5am. Before getting out of bed or turning on the radio, I rolled over to the phone, as I usually did, to call our overnight guy, Freddy Wilkes, to ask him if he wanted anything from Jeski's, the deli I always stopped at to grab the newspaper and some breakfast. When Freddy answered the hotline, I could tell by his voice he was upset. I asked what was wrong, and he said, "You haven't heard?" "No," I said. He took a deep breath and said, "John Lennon was shot and killed last night."

I didn't ask Freddy to repeat it. I knew he wasn't kidding, and I knew he was emotionally worn out from dealing with this on the air since midnight. I hung up the phone, skipped the deli, and made the 12 minute drive to the station in 9 minutes. Just as I arrived, so did Don Brink, the other morning man and voice of sanity at the station. He didn't say hello. The first thing out of his mouth was, "I think I know where the Paul McCartney interview is. I'll pull that, you get any other audio you can."

We did, and from then until 10am, we barely spoke to each other off the air, because we were too busy on the air -- playing nothing but Beatles and Lennon music, taking phone call after phone call from bereaved fans, reporting on the crowd that had gathered around The Dakota, sharing our personal memories, and discussing the impact Lennon had on us and the world. Listeners who had heard the news from Cosell thanked him, while others explained how they, too, had been asleep and were first hearing about it from us.

At 10am, Malcolm Gray took over for his midday show with more of the same, a nonstop tribute to the murdered Beatle. I went into the production studio, where Don and I cut up clips from all the audio we'd used that morning for Malcolm and the other jocks to intersperse in their shows. Since we were an ABC Radio News affiliate, I arranged for their correspondents to call in with updates from Manhattan and other places. Someone (I don't remember who) thought of calling some local record stores, where the owners reported that they were quickly selling out of everything that Lennon had ever recorded. As the only "album rock" station in the market, listeners spontaneously showed up in the WRCN parking lot (not an easy thing to do, since our studios were out of the way, being next to an abandoned movie drive-in with no sign out front). They stood around with car doors open and radios blasting, sharing their sorrow as they cried and sang along to the music we played.

Sometime around 3pm, it became clear to me that the on-air team had everything under control and I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I left. As I drove home, I realized I hadn't eaten anything that day, but I wasn't hungry -- the emptiness in my stomach wasn't from a lack of food.

When I got home, I turned on the TV, where the three networks were covering the story. As I sat down to watch, I was overcome with exhaustion and emotion and I started to cry. I suppose that adrenaline had kept me going all day without a chance to think about what Lennon's death meant to me, but now the floodgates were open and I sat there with tears streaming down my face for several minutes.

The phone rang occasionally with questions from other WRCN staffers about when we should go back to our regular format (we didn't, for two days), whether we'd carry a special message from Yoko Ono (we did, via the network), how we'd handle the moment of silence she was going to ask the world to observe later that week (with solemnity and respect), and on and on. Friends also called to say they'd been listening and liked what they'd heard, or just to talk.

Eventually, again, I drifted off to sleep, only to get up early the next morning and continue covering the story with our rock and roll community.

It didn't occur to me until today, three decades later, that I've never seen the footage of Cosell's alarming announcement on "Monday Night Football." We had the audio of it from ABC Radio the next morning, but since there were no VCRs or DVRs or YouTube in 1980, when you missed a live TV event, you didn't get a second chance.

Thankfully, ESPN's "Outside The Lines" did a piece this weekend about how ABC got the scoop -- one of their local news producers had been in a motorcycle accident in Central Park and just happened to be in the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital when Lennon was brought in and later pronounced dead -- so I finally saw how it was handled on the air, and behind the scenes.

The best part of this is the tape of Cosell and Gifford discussing, during a commercial break, whether they should hold off on telling the audience until a potential game-winning field goal had been kicked, or even do it at all. It is Frank Gifford who insists that Howard Cosell not wait to make the announcement that reverberated around the world...

Final Table #97: The Online Poker Bill

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I had a comprehensive discussion about the online poker regulation and licensing bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to pass in the last two weeks of this lame duck session of Congress.

In our in-depth analysis, we explained:
  • the 15-month period in which no online poker sites will be allowed to operate in the US;
  • which sites could be licensed to operate after that period, and which might have to sit in a "penalty box" for another year after that;
  • how online players in some states may never be able to play legally;
  • how the sites and the players will be taxed
  • how big tournaments like the WSOP and televised poker shows like "High Stakes Poker" will be affected;
  • what this means for poker in general in both the short-term and long-term;
  • and much more.
While a new draft of the bill is still being revised, this is the latest information on what could happen if the online poker bill is attached to other major legislation, passed by congress, and signed by President Obama -- which could happen in the next 2 weeks.

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

Michael Buble and A Mother's Son

Remember that moment of shock that registered on the faces of everyone who saw Susan Boyle's first appearance on "Britain's Got Talent," when people judged her as a loser before she opened her mouth, but when they heard her, they loved her? Here's something similar.

Saturday night, as Michael Buble was doing a show on ITV1 in England, a woman in the audience came up and tried to get his attention. Buble was clearly annoyed when she said her son had just turned 15, was in the audience, and wanted to be a singer, too -- but Buble humored her by inviting the kid on stage and sticking a mike in his face...

[thanks to Chev Elt for the link]

Monday, December 06, 2010

A Whispered Thanks To Congress

To those who think the United States Congress doesn't pass any important legislation, I present to you the CALM Act. The bill, passed with bipartisan support last Thursday, whose oh-so-clever acronym stands for Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, is meant to keep TV commercials from being broadcast louder than the shows you're watching.

So when you get home from a long day of having your junk touched by government agents at the airport and having your tax dollars passed along to those poor Americans who make more than a quarter-million a year, you'll finally be able to sit down in front of the TV without having the Sham-Wow guy shouting at you any louder than Chris Matthews does.

This will be so much better than the old days, when you had to exhaust the tendons in your thumb by pressing the mute button during commercials, fast-forwarding through them on your DVR, or (mostly for males) using that 2-3 minute window to whip around all the other channels to see what else is on TV that wasn't there during the last commercial break, perhaps squeezing in a scene or two from the umpteenth TNT airing of "The Shawshank Redemption" before returning to see how Mark Harmon will save the day on "NCIS."

Now thanks to the leadership of brilliant lawmakers like California Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-SHUSH), "consumers will no longer have to experience being blasted at -- it's a simple fix to a huge nuisance." The congresswoman will argue that there's a lot of public support for this measure, just as there are a lot of people in favor of stopping restaurants from putting cilantro in everything, but that doesn't make it the job of government. She wrongly believes that, as a federal legislator, it's her role to ensure that while Flo The Progressive Insurance Lady may continue to be annoying, she's not too loud about it.

If only we could apply that same standard to campaign commercials.

Classic Rock Still Rocks

One of the great successes of my radio career was the 5+ years I spent as the morning man on WCXR/Washington, one of the first major-market classic rock stations. The format had been launched in 1985 at WMMQ/Lansing by consultant Fred Jacobs, who brought it to DC in January, 1986 (exactly one day before the Challenger exploded).

The station was an almost-instant ratings success except in morning drive, where it had trouble gaining a foothold in a heavily-competitive daypart against competitors like Greaseman, Donnie Simpson, and Don & Mike. Meanwhile, I was floundering at WIOQ/Philadelphia, a station that was going through a major identity crisis and had clamped down on me just a few weeks after I'd arrived, forcing me to tone down the personality and content I'd succeeded with elsewhere, in favor of a stripped-down more-music approach. I was miserable.

Having met Fred the year before in New York, I knew he liked what I did, so I called him, but he was out. He called me back later that day and said his secretary had given him one of those pink "While You Were Out" message slips with my name and phone number and the one word message "HELP!" written on it. I explained my dilemma and asked if he knew of any stations that need a real morning show, and fast.

As it turned out, he had an opportunity for us to help each other and arranged for me to take the train down to DC (actually, Alexndria, Virginia) to meet WCXR's General Manager and Program Director, Bill Sherard and Doug Gondek. When I hit it off with them, and they assured me they wanted more than just a time-and-temperature-intro-the-songs host, the legal work began to disentangle me from my WIOQ contract. Six weeks later, I made my debut on WCXR.

The next half-decade was a remarkable one for me, the radio station, and the classic rock format, as we grew together to unbelievable heights (at one point, I had a crew of 10 working on my show). I left in 1992 when another station seduced me away with a lot more money and a new opportunity. WCXR's ratings suffered for awhile until it was eventually sold to another company which switched the format to smooth jazz. Ironically, the station has recently returned to classic rock and is trying to recreate some of our earlier magic, with mixed success.

However, classic rock is still thriving -- some 800 radio stations now play some version of the format that Fred created, and he's still helping guide them. Here's his explanation of why it still works.

Play Dead

Todd Robbins' new off-Broadway show, "Play Dead," is described as a scary, magic-filled exploration of death, darkness, and deception. If I lived in New York, I'd go see it, but since I don't, I sent my mother, who does.

She and a friend were in the audience a couple of weeks ago and had a great time, from the moment the lights went down (and Robbins then turned off the red "exit" signs to make the place truly pitch black) to the moment they left. She described it as one of the most fun nights she'd had in the theater in a long time -- and that's saying something considering how many shows she's attended.

I've been a fan of Robbins for quite awhile, and interviewed him last year about the documentary "American Carny," which features him and other performers who have kept alive the sideshow tradition (here's that conversation).

"Play Dead" was directed by Teller, who commuted back and forth to New York from the Rio in Las Vegas, where he still works with Penn. He does a much better job explaining Robbins' show than I ever could. Then again, he's seen it, and I haven't, dammit.

Here's Todd talking about the show, followed by some disclaimers...

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Facebook Fallacy

Tonight on "60 Minutes," Lesley Stahl did another one of her pseudo-journalism stories, a puff piece on "Facebook" and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

In it, she repeated the fallacy that Facebook is "used by 500,000,000 people." If that were correct, one in every 13 humans on the planet would be on Facebook. That's demonstrably false. What Stahl -- and everyone else who spreads that lie -- should have said is that there are half a billion Facebook accounts. Consider that every movie has a Facebook page, as do hundreds of thousands of corporations worldwide (including the one my wife works for). There are Facebook pages for Chex Mix and John Deer tractors and Vaseline and Levi's jeans and Dr. Pepper and a huge number of other products that you can "like" if you're so inclined.

There's also a Facebook page for -- wait for it -- "60 Minutes."

Do all of those commercial endeavors count as people? Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, they may have the right to make political contributions, but that still doesn't make them human beings.

And it certainly doesn't make Lesley Stahl a good newswoman. Here's another example: in the Facebook piece -- which was so superficial it was granted two full segments of the show tonight, while a story about Ben Bernanke, unemployment, and the dire state of the US economy got one segment -- Stahl said she had a "tough question" that she felt she had to ask Zuckerberg.

That hard-hitting query: "How would you grade yourself as a CEO?" Zuckerberg rightly recognized this as a no-win question, so he demurred, but can you imagine Mike Wallace tossing that softball out over the plate for one of his interview subjects?

By the way, there's a Facebook page devoted to Mike Wallace, too.

Previously on Harris Online, I've gotten on Stahl's case about other lame and lazy work she has done. Here's what I wrote about another two-part "60 Minutes" story she did in 2008 about Saudi Arabia's oil. And here's a rant I did on the air in 2007 when she did a piece about forcing fast food outlets to post calorie counts on their menu boards.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

House of Corleone

One of the most famous movie locations of all time is for sale -- the Corleone compound from the "Godfather" movies. In real life, the 8-bedroom house with two fireplaces, a four-car garage and an in-ground pool on Staten Island has been owned by the Norton family for 50 years, but they've put it on the market.

The $2.9 million asking price doesn't include the stone wall and gate you saw in the movie, though. Coppola's crew built those and took them down when they left. You don't get to take the cannoli, either.

Here's a member of the Norton family talking about the day the movie production took over his home and neighborhood. The highlight is seeing the cue card Marlon Brando used for one of his last scenes -- when you watch it, you'll clearly see him looking up to read his lines. At the end of the interview, Norton shows cans of home movies his mother took behind the scenes, which he says they may make public for the 40th anniversary of the movie, which would be 2012. Let's hope so.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Final Table #96: WSOP Champ Jonathan Duhamel

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with Jonathan Duhamel, winner of the 2010 World Series Of Poker Main Event, the first Canadian to take that title.

We discussed what led to the big blow-up hand with Joseph Cheong at the November Nine final table, how he played a couple of big hands against Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, who gave him advice on his way to the championship, and how many times he's been propositioned by women since winning the $8.9 million prize.

In our poker news segment, Dennis and I discussed the surprisingly high price that Peter Eastgate's 2008 WSOP bracelet went for on eBay, why major tournaments shouldn't make their main event the last one on their schedule, and whether any online poker site wants Phil Hellmuth as their spokesperson anymore.

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Touching My Junk For The Holidays

Barry Mitchell, the polka master from ABC's overnight news show, sings about the TSA's invasive screening procedures...

Monday, November 29, 2010

War on Willie

Over the weekend, Willie Nelson was busted for drug possession (again) when an officer found six ounces of marijuana on his tour bus.

I'm not sure what the criminal penalties are in cases like this, but it makes no sense to waste the time of police and the criminal justice system by prosecuting Nelson, or even getting on board that bus in the first place. He quickly posted bond, and even Texas isn't going to send him to jail.

So, what was accomplished? The arrest won't act as a deterrent. At age 77, Willie's not going to stop smoking dope, nor are the people around him. The confiscated six ounces makes about as much a dent in Willie's stash as a fat guy dropping one pound on "The Biggest Loser."

It's also not going to stop a single person from acquiring marijuana ("oh, no, they busted Willie, so I have to give up grass!"), since anyone who wants to buy it knows at least one person who can get it for them. I say this as a person who hasn't touched a joint, pipe, or bong in over 32 years, but if I wanted to, I could score some pot in about five minutes.

Meanwhile, the cop that busted Willie works for the US Border Patrol. You'd think they have something more important to do. I hear Lindsay Lohan is planning a trip to Mexico.

Pixar's It Gets Better Message

As part of the It Gets Better campaign, several Pixar employees were remarkably candid has they opened up about how tough life was when they were younger, but how they're glad they stuck around to see how good it could be...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Final Table #95: Why Win The WSOP?

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with Chris Moneymaker about the burden of winning the World Series Of Poker Main Event. The topic came up because of some online comments regarding our discussion last week about whether Joseph Cheong blew up in this year's Main Event because he didn't want the pressure that comes with being the champion. Since Chris has arguably gotten more media attention than anyone since sparking the poker boom by winning the title 7 years ago, we wanted his perspective.

Then Dennis and I recapped our weekend at the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (outside Cincinnati) (where I made the final table of the deep stack event), as we sat down with tournament director Kevin Dawn and poker room manager Thom Krauss, who shared some great stories from his long career in the poker world.

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nutty Labeling

On a Delta flight this weekend back from a poker tournament in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the flight attendant handed out pretzels and peanuts. I took one of each, branded with the airline's logo by the King Nut Companies. Both packages included the printed warning: "Produced in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts."

I understand that we have a percentage of the population that is allergic to peanuts, some to the extent that a mere whiff of peanut dust can send them into life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Thus the warning on products like plain M&M's, which are made in the same factory as peanut M&M's.

But do you really need to put a label on a bag of peanuts that warns people about a potential peanut hazard? Considering that I was in the dumbed-down environment of an airplane, where (by law) passengers are instructed by flight attendants on how to operate a seat belt, perhaps a no-brainer warning is, in fact, necessary.

In that case, please do not attempt to use this blog as a flotation device.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Oh Little Town Of Broccoli

It's that time of year when every city has at least one radio station that dumps its regular format to play nonstop Christmas music. But very few of their playlists include songs played on a vegetable...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Final Table #94: John Racener, WSOP Runner-Up

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with John Racener, the runner-up in this year's World Series Of Poker Main Event.

This was a terrific in-depth discussion, with some serious strategy. John explained how, when it got down to 3-handed play, he was thrilled to see the two big stacks (Jonathan Duhamel and Joseph Cheong) going after each other, a battle that allowed him to sneak into second place and win an extra $1.5 million in prize money. He also analyzed a couple of big hands from that final table, including his ace-king versus Michael Mizrachi's ace-eight, and the hand in which Mizrachi shoved a huge stack with a pair of threes against Duhamel, who called for his tournament life with ace-nine and won the hand.

Among the other topics Dennis and I touched on:
  • Peter Eastgate auctioning off his 2008 Main Event bracelet for UNICEF;
  • Full Tilt following PokerStars' lead and banning any players in Washington state;
  • Whether "Poker After Dark" can help get more players interested in pot limit omaha;
  • Why viewership of the November Nine was down 26% this year;
  • The Hollywood Fall Classic in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which both of us will play in later this week.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Let It Roll

In a high school football game in Washington state last weekend, a punt went about 40 yards in the air and then rolled -- not bounced, but rolled, thanks to high winds -- another 40 yards. The announcer found it "comedical"...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Never To Be Seen Again

After my TV game show post, several readers have asked if I got to see the "Jeopardy!" shows my mother appeared on in 1967.

Unfortunately, there was no technology available at the time that would have allowed us to record the shows and save them for posterity, and the show then aired in the middle of the day, so I would have missed it while at elementary school. Luckily, however, NBC broadcast her episodes in the week that we had a school vacation, so my brother and I could sit with her in amazement in front of our black-and-white TV as Mom kept coming up with correct questions and knocking off competitors.

Sadly, Dad didn't see any of the shows because he was at work, but he has his own TV game show story, which I'll share with you some other time.

A Taxing Question

Those arguing to retain the Bush tax cuts for people earning over $250,000 keep saying that raising the rate will keep small business people from hiring. I'm no economist, but I can do simple math, and that argument doesn't add up.

Let's say you're a small business person who makes -- and we're talking about your personal income here, not your company's income -- over a quarter mil a year. The extra 3% tax doesn't kick in until that level, so you only pay it on everything about $250k. If you earn an extra $100k, you'd pay an additional $3,000. That's not enough to hire anyone. If you earn an extra half-million, your additional taxes would be $15,000 that year -- the equivalent of hiring one minimum-wage employee.

So, your business is doing so well that your gross pay is three-quarters of a million dollars, and the loss of fifteen grand is keeping you from hiring another burger-flipper? No way. At that income level, you spend that much on tickets to the Rams games you don't bother to attend.

What's keeping you from hiring more people is that your business isn't making as much as it did pre-recession. But as the economy continues to regroup, more customers will come in and buy your product, so your bottom line will start looking better, and when demand gets high enough, you'll hire more workers.


TV Puzzle Solver

Last week, Caitlin Burke solved a "Wheel Of Fortune" puzzle and won a lot of cash and prizes. That's not usually a big deal, except that Caitlin solved the puzzle when only one letter was exposed.

How did she do it so quickly and with so little information? It turns out that Burke is a both a "Wheel" fan and an inveterate puzzle-solver.

Anyone who's a regular viewer of game shows knows not just the basics of how they work, but the systems underlying the puzzles, prices, or questions. That's why my wife and I love "Jeopardy!" and sometimes guess the answers just from seeing the category names. We know the rhythms the writers use, how to spot the key words in the clues, and that we'll never be able to answer anything about Shakespeare or opera (although I've been known to randomly shout out "Pagliacci!").

Even with our knowledge of how "Jeopardy!" works, we're not good enough to go on the show. That honor in our family still belongs to my mother, who was a four-day champion back in 1967 when Art Fleming and Don Pardo did the show (the Final Jeopardy answer she didn't know: "T stands for this in Booker T. Washington's name"). The cash she won is long gone, as is the "Jeopardy" home game she received, but I think she still has the other prize, Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia, on a shelf upstairs in my old bedroom.

As for Burke, what she did goes way beyond a "good feeling" or being familiar with the tricks of the "Wheel Of Fortune" puzzles. As a viewer since childhood (she's now all of 26), she looks for patterns and applies word-recognition tricks when she's playing at home, so once she was on the set, all she had to do was wait for her opportunity -- and hope that the contestant next to her didn't beat her to it.

That's how Terry Kniess beat "The Price Is Right" with a perfect Showcase Showdown bid, and how Michael Larsen won so much on "Press Your Luck" that the network changed its rules!

None of them did anything illegal or immoral -- they're not Charles Van Doren, and they didn't rig the game. They just studied and studied until they and nailed it.

Of course, none of them had to ask, "What is Taliaferro?"

Here's more on how Burke stunned Pat Sajak and solved her puzzle.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Jon Miller Story

When I heard that ESPN has dumped Jon Miller as the play-by-play man for Sunday Night Baseball, I thought back to a day in the late 1980s.

At the time, I was the morning man on WCXR in Washington, DC, and Jon was the voice of the Baltimore Orioles. Since DC didn't have a major league team (they barely have one now!) and Baltimore was only a 45 minute drive away, lots of Washingtonians considered the O's their team. In March, 1988, I convinced station management to let me go to Florida to broadcast from Orioles spring training. To my utter surprise, they said yes and made the technical arrangements.

After we finished our Thursday show in the WCXR studios, I flew down with newsman John Ogle and we checked into the team's hotel. The Orioles' PR guy met us and said he wasn't sure if any of the players would be up that early (we were on 5:30-10:00am), but manager Cal Ripken Sr. had agreed to stop by the show and he'd see who else he could line up. That's when a guy in a ridiculous floral print shirt, dark sunglasses, and an O's hat walked over and said, "I'm always up early on game day, so I can come down and spend an hour with you."

I knew that voice immediately. It was Miller. I was so happy I almost told the PR guy not to book anyone else, because I wanted to spend as much time as I could with Jon. Sure enough, on Friday morning, he came down to our broadcast setup in the lobby around 7am -- and didn't leave until 9am. He talked about baseball in general and the Orioles in particular. He talked about the process he went through every day to prepare to do play-by-play (it was clear he put in 100% for every game, even in spring training). He did impressions. He introduced songs. He took phone calls.

I looked through my audio archives but, unfortunately, can't find that show. If I do dig it up, I'll post it here as a podcast. But take it from me, Miller was, in short, one of the best guests I've ever had and one of the most naturally gifted broadcasters I've ever heard.

Later that day, he allowed us to come up to his broadcast booth at the ballpark to watch him work. I thanked him again for generously spending so much time with us and told him he was welcome back on the show anytime. To my delight, he honored us with several visits over the next few years, all by phone.

I know this sounds like an obituary, which it isn't. Miller is still well-employed as the radio voice of the world champion San Francisco Giants, so we won't have to host a fundraiser to help him pay the mortgage anytime soon, but I can't fathom why ESPN decided to let him go.

They won't find anyone better.

Ken Levine, who took time off from his career as a sitcom writer/producer ("Cheers" and "M*A*S*H" are just two of his credits) to become a baseball announcer, worked with Miller in the O's booth. To see what he has to say about ESPN's boneheaded move, click here.

Mourning Morning Glory

I'm not sure why, but I saw the new movie "Morning Glory" today. I probably went because I'm a sucker for movies about broadcasting (the business I've spent my entire adult life in) and, more specifically, behind-the-scenes in television news, an industry my wife used to work in. The two titles that stand as far and away the best of the genre are "Network" and "Broadcast News." "Morning Glory" has more to do with the latter than the former because it's also a romantic comedy, but it's no competition for either.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky, producer of a low-budget early morning TV news show in New Jersey. Whoa, wait a minute, what? The fact checker in my brain sent out a red alert because, in the real world, there are no broadcast television outlets in the Garden State -- viewers in the northern part of the state watch the New York stations, those in the southern part of the state watch the Philadelphia stations. It doesn't matter, though, because we're out of NJ soon enough as Becky is fired from that station and ends up across the Hudson River in New York City as new executive producer of the IBS network's morning show, which runs a distant fourth behind "Today," "GMA," and "that thing on CBS, whatever it’s called."

On her first day, Becky fires the male half of the morning team and sets about convincing legendary evening news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to take the chair next to Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton). While Keaton pulls off the Diane Sawyer role very smoothly, Ford plays Pomeroy (or the character was written) as a cross between Tom Brokaw, Charles Gibson, and a man with a severely impacted colon -- no humanity, no sense of humor, just pure bitter bastard -- and that's not what we want from Harrison Ford.

From there, the plot is entirely predictable and finishes with a character pulling a complete personality reversal for no reason other than to bring the story to a happy ending. Despite McAdams' cuteness and likability, Keaton's solid silliness, some scene-chewing from Jeff Goldblum, and nice supporting work from John Pankow (Paul Reiser's brother Ira on "Mad About You"), I walked out of "Morning Glory" feeling the same way I do after watching any of the actual morning TV news shows -- wondering why I'd gotten so little out of the last two hours.

As for the reaction of someone in the industry, read this piece by Shelley Ross, who was the only female executive producer of a real morning news show in almost 25 years ("Good Morning America").

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Final Table #93: Main Event Finale w/The Grinder

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked about the finale of the 2010 World Series Of Poker Main Event, which played out this weekend at the Rio in Las Vegas, as the November Nine was whittled down to this year's champion, Jonathan Duhamel. Since Dennis was there, he offered some first-person observations of the heads-up resolution of the second-largest poker tournament ever, which started with 7,319 players, as well as the Poker Hall Of Fame inductions of Eric Seidel and Dan Harrington.

We were joined by Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, who finished 5th to bookend a remarkable WSOP that began with him winning the $50,000 buy-in Player's Championship and boosted his career tournament earnings into poker's all-time top ten.

Grinder was very candid in talking about some of the hands he played, including a call with ace-eight when his friend John Racener (who was short-stacked at the time but went on to finish 2nd) moved all-in with ace-king, and another hand where Mizrachi shoved with a pair of threes and got called by Duhamel (also short-stacked at the time) with ace-nine. Grinder lost both of those hands, but also had some big winners, including an unbelievable turn of the cards that knocked out Matthew Jarvis in 8th place. We also discussed the way Joseph Cheong seemed to blow up when it came down to the final three by getting involved with Duhamel in the biggest pot in WSOP history, which crippled Cheong and led to his elimination in 3rd place.

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

Trivia Night

I'll be hosting a huge trivia night for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation's St. Louis Chapter this Saturday night. I've done a lot of these events, and this is always one of the best-attended and best-organized, so I'm happy to do my part once again -- especially since I'm an allergy sufferer. They still have a few tables available. For details, click here.

Guest Apocalypse

I was never a huge Conan O'Brien fan. I didn't think he was horrible, but his show (in its various forms) wasn't must-see or must-DVR material, and my opinion wasn't changed by his TBS debut last night.

I normally don't judge a host based on their first show, but this was far from Conan's virgin TV experience. He's still doing the same stuff he's done for more than a decade and a half -- monologue, desk chat & wacky skit, celebrity interviews -- the same format as all the others, and he hasn't reinvented anything.

Still, even without me as a regular viewer, Conan has no reason to worry. His show will be fine for TBS, which means he won't have a huge audience, but more than they had with sitcom reruns, and he'll probably run for as long as he wants to because the pressure is even lower than it was before he left "Late Night" for "Tonight."

Still, whether I watch Conan will be entirely dependent on his guests, and that's where he's going to have a problem. Sure, his bookers have lined up some decent names for the first week or two, but simple Hollywood math will tell you that the odds of him getting someone great in the chair on a regular basis are quite small.

Blame it on how broad the celebrity-interview landscape has become: Leno, Letterman, Conan, Lopez, Ferguson, Fallon, Kimmel, Daly, and Handler, all in late-night, not to mention the other shows throughout the day (Oprah, Ellen, Regis, The View, The Talk, Rachel Ray, Wendy Williams, Joy Behar, and Larry King). That's more than 85 hours of celeb-focused talk TV every week, and doesn't include Today, Good Morning America and The Early Show, nor Stewart and Colbert, who are less dependent on movie stars and sitcom flash-in-the-pans.

Talk shows like these are relatively inexpensive, but if they're celeb-driven, they risk calamity when there are so few money-in-the-bank guests to satisfy the overwhelming demand. With all those hours to fill, they've had to lower the bar. Instead of money-in-the-bank, the standard has become anyone-in-the-green-room. Pity the poor soul in show business with a new movie, TV show, book, or album who can't find a camera pointed in their direction. Woe to the agent who has to inform her client that the only host that will book him is Charlie Rose.

The industry may soon find that it has reached a sort of Guest Apocalypse in which there aren't enough celebrities to populate all of those shows. You'll know we're near the end when the hosts start showing up as guests on each other's shows.

I spotted a big warning sign of this Peak Guest Level just a couple of weeks ago, on the night that David Letterman spent an entire segment mired in an intimate philosophical conversation with Snooki.

Regis must have been out to dinner that night.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Keith Olbermann's Mistake

The problem with the Keith Olbermann story is not that he broke NBC's rules regarding contributions to political campaigns, nor that he failed to disclose them on the air, nor that he was only doing what many Fox News Channel hosts have done, nor that there's anything close to an equivalency between the two networks.

Olbermann's mistake was being a hypocrite.

If you go on the air and regularly lambaste someone for doing something, as Olbermann has done often regarding Sean Hannity and others at Fox (including the network's owner, Rupert Murdoch), then you can't do the same thing yourself. Olbermann should have known that those donations would become public, so why risk exposing himself?

He has certainly done enough stories about politicians who scream about "family values" only to get caught with a hooker, and preachers who rail against homosexuality until they're caught with a male prostitute, and talk show hosts who demand that drug abusers be severely punished until they're caught using their maid to buy Oxycontin in a brown bag in a Denny's parking lot.

The irony is that in many of those cases, after the hypocrites admitted their "indiscretions" and did a public mea culpa, they returned to their jobs and careers with barely a slap on the wrist. If that's what happens with Olbermann, it will be interesting to see if he changes his attitude on the air.

Regardless, two things should happen, and fast: 1) Olbermann must face up to the hypocrisy, perhaps in a Special Comment; and 2) MSNBC must drop the ludicrous pretense that its primetime hosts are objective news anchors subject to the same rules as Brian Williams and Lester Holt.

Update 11/7/10 9:30pm...MSNBC chief Phil Griffin has announced the Olbermann will return to his show Tuesday night, so the suspension turned out to be nothing more than a long weekend. Whether the network will change the rule, or how the "Countdown" host will handle it, remain to be seen.

Debunking Climate Change Denials

Time and again we've seen that one problem with the internet is its ability to spread rumors and misinformation. Someone sees a story online that fits their agenda, then copies it or links to it without checking to see what the source of that story was, and whether that source has any credibility. More and more you hear politicians and others defending their spreading of lies by saying, "I read somewhere..." or "I saw a story about..." without citing the person or organization that they heard it from.

British science journalist Peter Hadfield, who has worked for the BBC and New Scientist, has done some in-depth reporting on global climate change for years, and is annoyed by deniers who offer no factual basis or reputable source for their claims. Recently, he took on the oft-reported myth that the earth has actually been cooling since 1998, by going back to check on who said it. By doing some simple research, he discovered that once the incorrect information was posted online, all it took was other climate change deniers to repeat the lie often enough that it began to show up in search engines, which caused even more people to claim they had "read it online," and link to it, and on and on.

The problem was that the original sources had gotten the story wrong from the beginning. Watch what it's like when a real journalist does his job...

That's one of the videos Hadfield has posted on his You Tube page, which has become quite popular, about which he writes (and I've left his British spelling intact),
That success, however, comes at a price. It means looking at the science – not scary and unrealistic images of submerged cities. It means accepting the fact that Al Gore is not always right, and he should not be defended when he's wrong. It means acknowledging that while sceptics like Christopher Monckton and Martin Durkin fabricate a lot of their facts, many environmental activists tend to exaggerate theirs.

Of course, the evidence clearly shows that the climate is changing, largely because of man-made gases. And the consequences are likely to be dire. But exaggerating them – and being caught out – is not the way to gain public understanding or trust. As a science journalist I could not, with a clear conscience, report that the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps will drown most of Florida (as Al Gore does in An Inconvenient Truth) without pointing out that this is not likely to happen for thousands of years.

The result of this candour is that a lot of sceptics trust the Potholer54 channel, and appreciate that they are not being talked down to, or badgered or lectured. I do not call them climate "deniers", which presupposes there is some irrefutable truth they are denying. But neither are they truly sceptics. They learn climate science the same way many schoolchildren learn about sex – from other kids. The only difference in the internet age is that the playground got bigger.