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.

Wacky Airport Security

If you've flown anywhere in the last few years, you've seen the signs at the checkpoints that warn you against making jokes about security. Apparently, those rules don't apply if you're a TSA officer, in which case you can "prank" passengers by pretending to find a bag of cocaine in their luggage. Worse, other TSA officers knew he was doing it, but did nothing and told no one.

My suggested punishment: daily body cavity searches for the offending officer.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Final Table #92: Brandon Steven, WSOP Bubble Boy

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked about the November Nine, the last men standing in the World Series Of Poker Main Event, who will return to the table this weekend to play down to the winner, who will get around $9 million. Since Dennis was part of the original November Nine in 2008, he gave some perspective on what the players have to endure this week before the cards are in the air, while I provided details on you can follow the final table action online.

Our guest, Brandon Steven, just missed being part of this year's November Nine. He's the Wichita car dealer who was knocked out of the Main Event in 10th place. Although he earned more than $600,000 for his deep run, he explained why he still hasn't gotten over it. We also discussed what it was like in those nearly six hours before he got knocked out, went over some big hands he played, and analyzed which of the November Nine has the best chance of winning it all (and who will likely be the first one eliminated). Brandon will be hosting his fifth annual charity poker tournament this weekend to raise money for the Genesis Foundation -- an event Dennis will take part in, along with two other Team PokerStars Pros, Joe Cada and Victor Ramdin.

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

A Simple Request

Over the weekend, VP Joe Biden and other professional politicians of both parties gave speeches and asked Americans to urge their fellow citizens to vote tomorrow by knocking on doors, making phone calls, and giving folks a ride to the polls.

On behalf of all of us who already know what election day means, I'm begging you to not bang on my door or call to remind me. I'm an adult, so I know how to vote, and all you're doing is annoying me.

Want to get more people to vote? Follow the points in a column I wrote ten years ago on How To Modernize The Election Process.

While I'm on an election riff, I'd like to see a major media outlet compile clips of all those pundits and political experts who are making predictions about the various races, and then go back after the votes are counted and see who got them right or wrong. Then, hold those who blew it accountable by banning them from ever being allowed to do it on camera again. At least give us a scoreboard like all the NFL pre-game shows do, showing us the record of how their prognostications turned out.