Thursday, May 30, 2013

Before Before Sunrise

My wife and I consider "Before Sunrise" one of the most romantic movies ever made, and loved its sequel, "Before Sunset," too. We introduced our daughter to them when she was old enough, and she counts them among her favorites, as well. We're all looking forward to the third film, "Before Midnight," which opens here in a couple of weeks and is dedicated to Amy Lehrhaupt.

Who is that? She's not an actress, writer, producer, cinematographer, or key grip -- but it's safe to call her the spark. According to Forrest Wickman, Lehrhaupt is the woman who writer/director Richard Linklater spent several hours walking, talking, and flirting with one night when he was in his twenties. The evening (which ended at dawn, thus the original title) served as the inspiration for "Before Sunrise" -- so much so that Linklater even told her during that night that it would make a great movie.

And it did. Sadly, she died just before he started filming with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Solar Impulse

Earlier this month, I spoke with Bertrand Piccard, one of the founders and pilots of Solar Impulse, the plane that runs completely on solar power, after he had flown from San Francisco to Phoenix on the first leg of a multi-stop journey across America. Last week, the team completed the second leg, with Andre Borschberg (the other founder and pilot) flying Solar Impulse from Phoenix to Dallas. With their next stop in St. Louis in the next 7-10 days, Andre joined me on KTRS to discuss the project, the details of his trip, and the challenge of flying solo for 20 hours (without autopilot).

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

Not So Remote

I've had the same Proton clock radio on my nightstand for about 20 years, but I recently replaced it because I also have an iPhone I need to recharge every night, and I was tired of the cord I'd used for 7-8 years which plugged into the wall. Since both my wife and daughter have iHome units, I finally broke down and bought one, moving the sturdy old Proton into my office.

The iHome does everything I want, but there was something in the box I can't imagine ever needing -- a remote control. For a clock radio? How far away am I going to be from this device that I'll need a remote? We don't have a Hugh Hefner-type gigantic bed that's big enough to have different zip codes, so it's not that much of an effort to roll over and turn off the alarm in the morning. Even if I did have a bed that big, why would I have the remote more readily available than the clock radio?

I mentioned this to a friend, and he said that he keeps his alarm clock across the room, so that when it sounds in the morning, he has to get out of bed to turn it off, which makes it more unlikely that he'll hit snooze and crawl back under the covers for 10 more minutes. I understand that, but doesn't a remote defeat that system? If the alarm clock is across the room, but the remote is on your nightstand, that would make it easier to turn it off, fall back asleep, and be late for work.

There's an obvious need for remote controls for a television that's across the room, because I'm old enough to remember a time without them, when you had to get up from your couch to change the channel and stand there until you found something worth watching (or, if your household was like mine, your parents told you to get up and do it -- we served as their human remotes).

But for an alarm clock? I'm holding out for a remote-controlled stapler.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tweet Of The Day

After John McCain made a secret visit to Syria to meet with some of the rebel leaders, I saw this on Twitter from a user named LOLGOP:

Has history not proven that John McCain just needs to meet someone for a few hours to know for sure if he or she is fit to lead?

Alice Cooper and James Randi

In 1973, Alice Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies" tour included illusions created by James Randi, who also appeared onstage each night to play several roles, including the executioner who chopped off Cooper's head with a guillotine. At DragonCon 2012, the two old friends reunited to share memories of that tour...

[thanks to Jim Walsh for the link]

Monday, May 27, 2013

More Hassle, Less Security

I was about to get on a Southwest flight from LaGuardia back to St. Louis last week when the gate agent announced, "The TSA will be doing a secondary ID check, so please take your ID out and have it ready as you board." Great, I thought, more security theater.

This was the process every passenger had to follow: hand your boarding pass to the gate agent, who scans it to get the little "ding" that means you're supposed to be on that flight. Then you step into the jetway, where you hand a bored TSA officer wearing latex gloves (?) your ID, which she looks at for a second before allowing you to pass. That's it.

What did that accomplish? All this procedure did was verify that everyone boarding the plane had a driver's license or passport. I had more scrutiny from a bouncer when I was 17 and used a fake ID to get into a bar. There was no effort to match the name on the ID with the name on the boarding pass, which had already been collected before we got to the TSA officer.

As I have so often in the past in my travels, I wondered whether anyone from the TSA ever flies like the rest of us do -- no line-skipping, no badge-flashing -- so they can see the nonsense they put passengers through but serves no rational purpose. I'm not a nervous flier and I don't worry about terrorism, but I can see an utter lack of logic in what the TSA does as it creates more layers in its security facade.

Don't Put Your Lips Together And Blow

My wife and I recently went to The Fox Theater to see Jerry Seinfeld, who is back in top form. The place was packed and in a good mood from the moment opening act Chuck Martin (who has written for "Arrested Development" and other series) hit the stage. Martin did fifteen very funny minutes -- perfect for an opener -- then brought out Jerry, who opened by sincerely thanking this town for its early support of "Seinfeld."

He told us that when NBC looked at the city-by-city ratings info in the first months, New York and St. Louis were the only two places with big audiences -- way above the rest of the country -- and that network executives figured that if midwesterners liked the show so much, perhaps it had more than the strictly northeast appeal they feared. So, if it weren't for viewers here, "Seinfeld" might not have stayed on the air (and he probably wouldn't have become a billionaire).

From there, he was off and running for ninety minutes of good, fresh material, with the classic Seinfeld attention to verbal details -- the cadence, the words choices, the timing -- that make him one of the all-time great standup comedians.

There was only one small distraction, and that was a guy a couple of dozen seats away from us who, instead of merely laughing and applauding when he liked a joke, insisted on whistling. Not the casual, around the house kind of whistling you might do when a song is stuck in your head and you're not in a humming mood. This was the two-fingers-in-the-mouth loud whistle you use to hail a cab during rush hour. It was piercing and shrill, totally inappropriate for an indoor venue (and if you're sitting close enough, annoying as hell at an outdoor event, too).

Certainly, there are times when whistling in public is appropriate:

  • You're performing "Whistle While You Work" in a stage production of "Snow White" -- and you're a dwarf;
  • You're pretending to be a construction worker watching Christina Hendricks cross the street;
  • You're performing Billy Joel's "The Stranger";
  • You're part of a flash mob acting out scenes from "Bridge On The River Kwai";
  • You're in a referee's uniform, actually officiating a game (not working at Foot Locker);
  • You're a teapot, and the water is boiling.
But in the confines of a crowded theater, when all of our attention is focused on the clever, funny guy onstage, a whistle like that from the audience is only slightly less unsuitable than yelling "fire."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

It's Not A Bomb, It's A Science Experiment

A few weeks ago, a Florida high school student named Kiera Wilmot got in trouble for conducting a science experiment involving aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner in a water bottle on school grounds. Her experiment was hardly a bomb, but officials applied the usual ludicrous zero tolerance policy -- not only was she expelled from school, but she faced felony charges for possessing a weapon on campus and discharging a destructive device.

It reminded Homer Hickam of the kind of trouble he got into as a kid. Homer wrote a book about his days as a young rocket enthusiast called "Rocket Boys," which became a movie titled "October Sky," starring Jake Gyllenhaal. His youthful science fun led him to a career as a NASA engineer, and when he heard about Kiera, he decided to help her out.

Today on my America Weekend show, Homer explained what he did for her, why her story touched a nerve, and why schools shouldn't treat students' curiosity as criminal. We also discussed Homer's new novel, "Crescent."

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 5/26/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a napping response from Morgan Freeman, a clever baseball promotion, and 10,000 crickets. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

The New Drone Policy

Today on my America Weekend show, retired Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap (now a Duke University law professor) discussed President Obama's new policy regarding drone strikes. I asked him what the impact will be for both us and our enemies, why we're better off having the military handling the drones instead of the CIA, and whether this policy is an attempt to set the rules for other nations as they begin to use drone technology.

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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Alan Sepinwall's TV Revolution

Several months ago, I talked with TV critic Alan Sepinwall about his book, "The Revolution Was Televised." Now that it's out in paperback, I invited him to my America Weekend show for another discussion about the shows that have changed TV in the last decade.

We began with "Mad Men," which I watch each week but have been baffled by this season, often turning to Alan's recaps on to understand what's happened on each episode. Then we discussed "Breaking Bad," which will conclude this summer, and my concerns that its finale will be as frustrating as those of "Lost" and "The Sopranos" (two other shows he writes about in the book). I also asked him if, since so few of these revolutionary shows air on the Big 4 networks, they are out of the quality-TV game forever. And we discussed the impact of Netflix, whose resurrected "Arrested Development" will begin streaming tomorrow.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 5/25/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a motion to abstain from abstaining, a snow cone vendor who has to go, and a duck in a speed trap. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Taking Anti-Vaxxers To Court

If you don't have your child vaccinated against diseases like measles and mumps but bring him/her to school, where they infect my child, I should be able to sue you. So says medical ethicist Art Caplan, one of my guests today on America Weekend. We discussed how many kids go un-vaccinated because of parents who are uninformed, what the law says about their exposure, the danger to babies and pregnant women, and how important "herd immunity" is.

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

Rapid-Response Crowd-Funding

Dave Boyce is the Customer Experience Officer of Fundly, a website that helps launch and run rapid-response crowd-funding campaigns for relief after disasters like the ones that hit Oklahoma this week. Today on America Weekend, I talked to Dave about how donors can ensure that they are supporting legitimate charity campaigns, where their donations are going, and how they will be used.

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

Harris Challenge 5/24/13

Play along with my Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "Piano Players Not Named Liberace," "Memorials," and "Screen-O Tarantino." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Blame It On The Lord

After posting my previous piece about Wolf Blitzer invoking divine assistance while interviewing an atheist who survived the Oklahoma tornado, I remembered a song the Reduced Shakespeare Company did in "The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged)," which toured 4 continents in 1999-2000. It's called "Blame It On The Lord," sung by Dee Ryan as Joan Of Arc (words by Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin, music by Nick Graham). The entire soundtrack is on iTunes, but here's the song I'm referring to.

It's Not A Miracle, It's Architecture

During CNN's coverage of the damage from the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, Wolf Blitzer interviewed a woman holding a baby who had managed to escape. Blitzer asked, "I guess you got to thank to the lord, right?" The woman paused and looked at her child as Blitzer asked again, "Do you thank the lord for that split-second decision?" The woman answered, to Blitzer's utter surprise, "I'm actually an atheist."

As Mark Joseph Stern points out on Slate today, Blitzer's ridiculous question is part of the standard playbook for reporters covering disasters. Everything good that happened is a miracle thanks to divine intervention, but there's no blaming a deity for the rampant destruction:
Thanking the Lord for deliverance just doesn’t make any sense. Any God powerful and attentive enough to save survivors’ lives should also be powerful and attentive enough to stop the catastrophe in the first place. It’s insulting, futile, and distracting from the reality of natural disasters to inject your god into a calamity like Oklahoma's.

Not that most public figures are hesitating to do so. #PrayforOklahoma began trending on Twitter soon after news of the storm spread, attracting contributions from Chris Christie, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Vick. President Obama proclaimed that “our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma,” and Gov. Mary Fallin requested “lots of prayers.” (Fortunately for the survivors, she wasn’t too busy praying to set up an actual disaster relief fund.)

In a country as religious as the United States, calling for prayer is almost always a popular move for politicians. But the trend extends into what should be fact-based news broadcasting. A reporter for KFOR, examining the footage of a razed school, noted that “we pray [the faculty and children] were somewhere else.” (They weren’t; seven children perished.) Even the anchors at the Weather Channel, normally a good source for solid meteorological reporting, repeatedly sent their prayers to Oklahoma on Monday night. And while interviewing Ben McMillan, a storm chaser who used his EMT training to rescue 15 people from tornado rubble, Erin Burnett on CNN exclaimed, “Thank God you were able to help them!” (Shouldn’t she be thanking McMillan?)

The word “miracle” also stalks post-tornado reporting. An ABC feature noted that although the tornado hit two elementary schools, Briarwood and Plaza Towers, it caused casualties at only Plaza Towers. How, the newscaster asks, did Briarwood end up with this “miracle ending”? (The families and friends of the seven children who died at Plaza Towers would not consider this ending really all that miraculous.) The answer to the newscaster’s question lies not in a deity but at least in part in design. Neither school had a safe room. But Briarwood had a large, open-air space between its four classroom pods to which children and teachers crawled as the roof caved in. Plaza Towers had no such space, and when the school collapsed, children were crushed. That’s not a miracle: It’s architecture.
Read Stern's entire piece here.

Don't Give My Child The Measles

With reports of a new measles outbreak tied to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, Art Caplan argues that if my kid gets sick because you didn't take care of yours, I should be able to sue you:

If you know the dangers of measles or for that matter whooping cough or mumps, and you still choose to put others at risk should you be exempt from the consequences of that choice? I can choose to drink but if I run you over it is my responsibility. I can choose not to shovel the snow from my walk but if you fall I pay. Why should failing to vaccinate your children or yourself be any different?

When the subject is vaccines a tiny minority continue to put the rest of us at risk. We are willing to let them choose to do so without penalty. That should change. If I know you or your kid made mine sick because you chose not to vaccinate then you should bear full responsibility for the harm you knew or ought to have known could happen.
Read Art's entire column here. He'll be on my America Weekend show this Saturday to discuss this topic.

Richard Wiseman's Balls

The new video from Richard Wiseman's Quirkology collection...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ray Manzarek of The Doors

Ray Manzarek, keyboard player for The Doors, died of cancer in Germany today at age 74. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray a few times, and have dug up one of those conversations from my archives.

It was May 7, 2007, when Ray and I talked about The Doors and his new band, Riders On The Storm, in which he was touring with Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger. We discussed the rift (and lawsuit) between Ray and Robbie and their former bandmate, drummer John Densmore, who refused to let them use the name The Doors or allow their music to be used in commercials.

I also asked Ray if he'd ever be a mentor on "American Idol" or allow Doors music to be performed on that show, what it was like the first time he heard one of his hits on the radio, how he felt about rappers and others sampling bits and pieces of Doors songs, and who influenced him in becoming a rock and roll keyboard player.

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

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Knuckleheads In The News® 5/19/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a complaint about a wormhole, an anteater mystery, and a thief locked in her own getaway car. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Remembering Ambassador Chris Stevens

Amidst all the noise about the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September, it occurs to me that there's very little talk about the four men who died there, including Ambassador Christoper Stevens. So, today on my America Weekend show, I talked with Austin Tichenor -- who had known Stevens since high school -- about his career in the foreign service, why he liked working in the hot spots of the mideast, and the politicization of Stevens' death and attacks on his personal life.

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

Tichenor is an actor, director, and playwright, most notably with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, for whom he's written eight stage comedies, reducing American history, the Bible, all the great books, and the complete world of sports. He devoted an episode of his popular RSC podcast to his friend Chris Stevens last fall -- you can listen to it here.

Why Do Political Groups Get Tax Breaks?

As conservatives complain about the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, one question I haven't heard asked is why these politically active organizations get a tax break in the first place. So today, I asked Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center For Responsible Politics, which has been monitoring the amazing flow of money into our political process -- from both sides -- in the last few years.

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

Mark Pendergrast on Coca Cola's History

Mark Pendergrast has recently updated his definitive history of Coca-Cola for its third edition (now out in paperback) and joined me today on America Weekend to talk about it. Among the new details is what he claims is the original recipe for Coke, which did contain some cocaine elements. We also talked about the company's battle against efforts to curtail soda sales in schools, its relationship to the obesity problem, and its ongoing war with Pepsi.

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

The AP vs. Justice

Last week, the Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had secretly seized phone records from AP reporters and editors after they ran a story last spring about the CIA quashing an Al Qaeda plot to blow up a passenger jet. Today on my America Weekend show, I talked about these revelations with Susan McGregor, assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. I asked her what effect this will have on the right of a free press to report on our government, the impact on the use of anonymous sources, and whether a federal shield law would have helped protect the reporters and editors in this case.

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

In this conversation, I reference an earlier interview with Robert Greenwald about his documentary on the Obama administration's "War On Whistleblowers." You can listen to that interview here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Nina Blackwood on MTV's Early Years

When MTV launched more than 3 decades ago, it not only introduced America to a channel showing music videos all day and night, but to the first five VJs -- Nina Blackwood, JJ Jackson, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter. JJ died a few years ago, but the surviving four have collaborated on a book called "VJ: The Unplugged Adventures Of MTV's First Wave," and Nina joined me today on America Weekend to talk about it.

We discussed when she knew the channel was a hit (since they couldn't watch in New York, where they taped their segments), why there were so many British bands on the air at first, and whether any of her colleagues' stories in the book surprised her. She also revealed the real reason MTV didn't play Michael Jackson's videos in the early years -- it wasn't racism.

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

No Breast Test For Her

After Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the NY Times revealing that she had a double mastectomy earlier this year for preventative reasons, there were all kinds of reactions, including lots of women vowing to talk to their doctors about breast cancer warning signs. That's a good thing, but it turns out there's a lot more to the story, so today on my America Weekend show, I turned to Florence Williams (author of "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History"), who explained why she's not following in Jolie's footsteps.

You may be stunned, as I was, to hear that Florence's decision has nothing to do with Angelina, and everything to do with patents on your genes and insurance company policies.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Eric Deggans on the Network Upfronts

This week, the TV networks held their "upfronts," the dog-and-pony shows they put on in New York for advertisers as a way to introduce them to the series that will air this fall -- in the hopes of getting the agencies to buy commercial time to support them. This is the first chance TV critics have to see them, too, so I invited Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times to join me on America Weekend to find out what he thinks of what the networks will try to get onto our screens later this year. We discussed:

  • whether any show made him say, "I gotta watch that!";
  • the return-to-TV of Robin Williams, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Michael J. Fox;
  • how competition has increased with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all creating content; and
  • which network is most desperate and thus the most new series.
You earn bonus points if you can tell me the significance of the music I used to open this segment.

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

Deggans is the author of "Race Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation."

Knuckleheads In The News® 5/18/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a man who cut off his own junk, an airline passenger who won't stop singing, and a pilot locked out of the cockpit. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Take Your Kids To The Park

Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids wants you to take your kids to the park today -- and leave them there. Not forever, of course. Just long enough for them to play without your supervision.

And by "play" I mean: Stand around, get bored, wonder what to do, wish there was an Xbox around, feel hungry, feel a little too hot or cold, feel mad at mom for not organizing something "really" fun, like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, feel bad all around, realize the other kids are feeling bad too, and then—in desperation—do something.

Start a game of tag. Or basketball. Or fairies versus witches. And suddenly, those bored kids who were desperate to go home don't want to go home at all. They want to KEEP playing— with any luck, for the rest of their childhoods.

Playing is that powerful. It's addictive. It's what children have done since the beginning of time...till about a generation ago, when we decided, as a country, that letting kids go outside on their own is just "too dangerous."

Do you know how many kids play outside on their own these days? One study I read said that in a typical week, the number is down to six percent. That's kids ages nine to 13—the sweet spot for goofing around and, incidentally, becoming independent. But instead of exercising their bodies and minds and ability to organize ANYTHING on their own, including a couple hours of free time, most kids are either supervised in leagues or stuck inside, usually with a screen.
Lenore's full piece is here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Harris Challenge 5/17/13

Play along with my Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "Star Trek True Or False," Landmark Supreme Court Decisions," and "Famous Non-Musical Duos." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

My First Vegas Trip (part 3)

This is part 3 of the story of my first trip to Las Vegas during Christmas week, 1988. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

I expected to be impressed by the poker room at Binion's Horseshoe, but was disappointed as soon as I walked in. The place was dirty, the low ceilings kept the smoke hovering over everything, and the chips were filthy. Still, this was considered the place to play, and I'd never considered poker a game of hygiene, so I approached a floor man, who put me on the list for a couple of games, then pointed me towards the poker buffet. In those years, the Horseshoe put out a lunch and dinner buffet for its poker players. Nothing extravagant (that day the entree was corned beef and cabbage), but the food was good -- and free. Along with all the action on lots of tables, I was beginning to understand why the room was packed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a stud game where it was clear who the good players were and who the tourists were. Not wanting to seem like one of the latter -- the fish the local sharks feasted on every day -- I played tight but paid close attention. After an hour or so, I could tell who the grinders were, the players who were there every day, making enough to pay the mortgage and car loan and other expenses. It was clear they were better than the players I'd sat with in Atlantic City, most of whom were weekend warriors playing the same way they did in their home games and leaving without most of their money.

This was long before the internet and TV had made the best poker players celebrities. I'd read Al Alvarez's classic "The Biggest Game In Town," so I knew the names Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, and Nick The Greek, but I didn't know what any of them looked like, and I was too involved in my own game to see if there was any true high-stakes action going on. Besides, I've never been a star-chaser.

I played into the evening, then left to see what the other downtown casinos looked like. If I thought those strip hotels were old-school, they were modern compared to the dinosaurs in this area -- the Golden Nugget, the Four Queens, Lady Luck. The players in these places seemed more desperate, the waitresses older, the restaurants uninviting, the staff bored. Frankly, I'm amazed they're still around in the 21st century.

The rest of my weekend was filled with more walking, more poker, too much craps, and my first Vegas show -- Crazy Girls, the revue at the Riviera with elements of burlesque, including a comedian, dancers, topless showgirls, and a water act with female swimmers doing moves in a giant clear tank years before Cirque Du Soleil's "O." That was also the first time I saw someone slip some money to a maitre d' to get a better seat ("Yes, sir, right this way" to a table near the front). I sat in the back and just took it all in.

As I boarded my flight home, I knew I'd go back to Vegas, and have been there many many times since. I've watched the strip explode with theme resorts featuring volcanoes, dancing fountains, the New York skyline, the Eiffel Tower, singing gondoliers, and massive amounts of traffic. I've stayed on the strip, off the strip, in big hotels and little efficiency apartments -- more than a dozen places in total. But on occasion, my thoughts turn to that first trip to Sin City, when I learned that very valuable lesson.

Stay away from the 99¢ buffets.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

My First Vegas Trip (part 2)

This is part 2 of the story of my first trip to Las Vegas during Christmas week, 1988. Read part 1 here.

The Riviera casino was just like the places I'd played in Atlantic City, so I didn't waste my time there. My plan was to walk down the strip and walk through as many other casinos as possible, starting with Circus Circus, which was across the street. This may have been one of the first Vegas destinations to target families. True to its name, it had performers working the trapeze or high-wire or juggling or tumbling way above the casino floor. An act would come out, do their stuff for ten minutes, get some applause from a small crowd watching from the ramps leading upstairs, and then things would quiet down until the next act appeared 20 minutes later. It was clear the circus aspect was just a gimmick to get you in the door, and when the performers weren't doing their thing, the casino wanted your attention -- and money.

After the first act, I wandered through a large arcade nearby, a place for families with young kids to spend their money on pinball and video games before they were old enough for the adult games downstairs. It had the same cheesiness as a traveling carnival, without the tattooed Tilt-A-Whirl operators.

As I made my way back downstairs, I walked over to the poker area, where there were a few low-limit stud games. The floor man told me he had an open seat in a $1-2 game, so I sat down to see what Vegas poker was like. As with most daytime games in Atlantic City, the average age of the players was 60 or so. I was half that age so, of course, the dealer welcomed me with, "How much do you want, kid?" I gave him five $20 bills. He gave me eighteen red $5 chips, five white $1 chips, and a roll of dimes.

A roll of dimes? The only time I'd seen actual coins in play at a poker table was at a home game, when the stakes were literally nickels and dimes. I looked around the table and realized everyone had dimes in front of them. "That's for your ante, kid. Put a dime out there," the dealer explained. Half of the players shook their heads, while the other half took a drag on their cigarettes.

That was one of the bad things about playing poker in those days -- the smoke. If your seat happened to be between two smokers, you were doomed to suck secondhand smoke for as long as you sat there. There were ashtrays on the table and, quite often, a player would have one cigarette dangling from his lips while another one was burning in the ashtray. Years later, when I'd moved to St. Louis, I discovered a little $5 plastic fan I could bring with me and place on the table to keep the smoke away while playing. Sometimes, I'd point it right at another player's cigarette in the ashtray to make it burn faster. One of the many ways poker has improved in the last quarter-century has been forcing the smokers to leave the room to light up.

I only played that stud game at Circus Circus for about an hour -- I don't remember if I won or lost, but it wasn't much of a swing either way -- because I wanted to do more exploring. Since those two bites of runny eggs at the Riviera buffet hadn't satisfied me, my next stop was Slots Of Fun, right next to Circus Circus. I wasn't going to drop a single coin in a slot machine, but they had a sign offering a giant foot-long hot dog and a beer for $1.99. Sounded good to me -- the right price, and they tasted pretty good, too.

As I walked down the strip, I hit the classic venues with names I knew from afar -- the Desert Inn, the Stardust, Caesar's Palace, the Tropicana, and the Sands (where all of my comps and goodwill from Atlantic City meant nothing because they were run by two different companies). I noted the places I wanted to play later, but for now I was happy to be a tourist. After a couple of hours on my feet, I grabbed a cab to downtown Las Vegas, home of Binion's Horseshoe, the then-home of the World Series Of Poker, where legend said the best players gathered every day.

I'll tell you that part of the story tomorrow in part 3.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My First Vegas Trip

The first time I went to Las Vegas was Christmas, 1988.

We were living in DC at the time, and while I played poker in home games, the only place I could go to gamble legally was Atlantic City. I made the four-hour drive several times a year to spend a weekend walking the boardwalk and playing craps at The Sands (where they comped my room and dinner at an their excellent steakhouse) or poker at the Taj Mahal.

At the time, the Taj was the poker room on the east coast. A decade later, it would be featured in the movie "Rounders." This was long before the poker room and the explosion of no-limit hold'em, when stud was the game everyone played. To this day, I consider stud the toughest form of poker because, to be good at it, you have to pay attention to so much -- especially the cards that are folded by the other players. In hold'em, you have to read the players, but in stud, you have to read the players, the cards they're playing, and everything that's been thrown away, too.

I always took Christmas week off from my morning radio responsibilities, and this year I decided to see what Vegas was like. My wife had no interest in going, so I got on a non-stop America West flight from BWI to McCarran at around 9pm on Christmas Eve. I slept most of the way until I was awakened an hour outside of Vegas by the flight attendants singing Christmas carols over the PA as midnight approached.

That was the last indication I had that it was Christmas. As I walked off the plane, I noticed there were no holiday decorations among the rows of slot machines in the terminal. This was apparently a city where Christmas was just like every other day in a different world. Outside, I found one of the shuttle buses that go to the hotels on the strip and sat with my eyes wide open taking in the lights and sights.

Vegas had not yet grown into its mega-resort era -- the Mirage wouldn't open until a year later, and there were no Bellagio, Aria, Wynn, or Venetian. The shuttle dropped me off at The Riviera, an old-school casino on the strip's north end that came cheap with my airline package. If I wanted the schlocky Vegas experience, this was a good place to start. I wanted to go out and explore right away, but I was exhausted, so I took a few pictures of the neon lights of the strip through my hotel room window, then nodded off around 2am.

When I awoke, I made my way to the 99¢ breakfast buffet (I told you this was 25 years ago!) and made my first Vegas discovery -- you can't eat well for a buck. I took two bites and pushed the plate away. Ah, well, let's go see what this town is like.

I'll tell you more of the story tomorrow in Part 2.

Jimmy Kimmel Upfront

This is the week the TV networks hold their "upfronts," presentations for the ad-buying community to let them see the new fall shows and try to get them to buy commercial time on them. For the last 11 years, the ABC upfront has included an appearance by Jimmy Kimmel, who does nothing but blast his network and the others, as if it's a roast -- and he's not only funny, he's right on the money. A sample:

Every year we tell you we have a dozen great new shows that people are going to love, and you give us millions of dollars and we put them on and most of them suck, but here’s what’s crazy: Next year you’ll come back and do it again. Every year I wonder, what is wrong with these people? Someone needs to talk to them about their spending! Then it occurred to me, maybe this is a good place for me to sell some of my shit. This is an HP printer, inkjet color copier – $20, no power cord. I’m also selling a Palm Trio cellphone, Verizon, $40. Works pretty good. I’ve got three parrot cages available – make me an offer. And finally, this Bud Light Golden Wheat neon sign – classes up any place, yours for only $175.

But that’s not why we’re here. The reason we’re here is because you are about to invest billions of dollars in a network that rolled a 400-lb. comedian off a diving board last week.

This is an interesting time in television history. It’s a time of great change. We’re seeing more diversity than ever before. ABC has a big hit with the first show in almost 40 years on which the lead actor is an African-American woman, and at the same time more and more traditional white male characters are being portrayed as morally ambiguous, dangerous, and self-destructive villains – Walter White on "Breaking Bad," Don Draper on "Mad Men," Matt Lauer on "The Today Show." The list goes on.

And yes, it’s true, every year our audience does get smaller. To which I say every year Apple products get smaller and nobody has a problem with that. One of the shows previewed today was written by a 3rd grade class – your challenge tonight is to figure out which one it was.
Here's the full transcript.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Seth Meyers Mistake

Quick, name something funny that Seth Meyers did on "SNL" (not including the "Really?" segments with Amy Poehler).

If you can't come up with anything, you're not alone -- and yet NBC announced yesterday that Meyers will take over its "Late Night" show when Jimmy Fallon takes over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno early next year. The Leno replacement saga has been worked over plenty, and I think Fallon will do a good job behind his desk because he has established himself as passionate about presenting a fun TV show every night.

But I don't get the Meyers promotion for several reasons:
  • He always seems to be trying too hard to sell the jokes on "Weekend Update."
  • Unlike Fallon (whose impressions and sketch work were always solid), Meyers has never done any characters or displayed any skills besides telling jokes -- and that's not enough to carry an hour-long show.
  • He has no edge. The topical humor he does on "SNL" has not only been trumped earlier in the week by every other late night comedian, it's always super-safe.
  • He often starts a "Weekend Update" story set-up with "It was reported this week...", a form of non-attribution attribution that's completely unnecessary. He must be worried that we'll think he's made it up. We don't. 
  • Just because Fallon was successful in moving from the "Weekend Update" chair to the "Late Night" desk doesn't mean Meyers will be. Remember when Chevy Chase tried it and failed spectacularly? How's that Dennis Miller late-night show doing?
  • As head writer at "SNL," Meyers has overseen some of the lamest comedy the show has produced, especially in the political arena where it used to excel. Even if you didn't watch the whole show, you knew the "cold open" would be worthwhile. Not any more.
One of the positives I've heard about Meyers is how good he was when he filled in for Regis Philbin as Kelly Ripa's co-host. In fact, he was considered for the job as Reege's replacement before Michael Strahan got it. But being the guest host on a morning TV show that's run to perfection by producer Michael Gelman is a very different vehicle than having your own late night hour, where the host's sensibility has to infect every element.

What will those elements be? In the statement announcing the move yesterday, Meyers said that no decisions have been made yet about whether the format of "Late Night" will change in any substantial way -- not even whether there will be a house band. So the network bought a show without knowing what it's going to be? NBC would never do that in primetime ("I'm going to do a sitcom, but I don't know what it's about or who'll be in it or what the premise is going to be, and they gave me a commitment for 2 years!"), so why rush into this "Late Night" announcement now? Has there even been a single meeting about content?

While I'm on the subject, this would be a good time for "SNL" to drop the whole "Weekend Update" concept. When it debuted in 1975, its only competition for televised topical humor was Johnny Carson's monologue. In 2013, by the time Saturday night rolls around, every story in the world has already been taken apart comedically by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert -- leaving "Weekend Update" to pick at the carcass and rarely find any meat left.

Meyers has said he loves the Update spots where a cast member sits alongside him as a character doing commentary of some kind. Characters that, you may have noticed, are never given names. This is a trend that goes back to Adam Sandler not bothering to think of a name for "Opera Man" or "Cajun Man." In the Meyers era, you get "Drunk Uncle" or "The Girl At A Party You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With."

Much of the humor in a great character comes from the audience discovering its concept, not by being told in advance, but because the writing is so strong. Must I invoke the names Father Guido Sarducci, Chico Escuela, Dr. Jack Badofsky, and Emily Litella?

Never mind.

The Impact Of Too Much Coverage

A few comments about last week's coverage of the rescue of the women from the Cleveland house where they'd been held for over a decade by Ariel Castro.

The man who was identified as the hero who saved them was Charles Ramsey, who did an interview afterwards that was flamboyant and included several uses of the word "bro." It was picked up by every media outlet, went viral, became Songified, and launched him into even more interviews with TV and radio stations all over.

Even McDonald's got into the act, because Ramsey mentioned he'd been eating their fast food when he heard Amanda Berry's cry for help. The next day, the company tweeted, "We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims and respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey — we'll be in touch."

The implication was that McDonald's was going to reward him for his heroic efforts and try to get some publicity out of it. Unfortunately, they didn't bother to do some basic research on the guy before embracing him, and it turned out that Ramsey was a repeat spousal abuser who had been in prison three times for domestic violence. That doesn't diminish his role in the rescue, but it is the sort of thing you want to know before you align your corporate identity with him.

It also turned out that Ramsey hadn't rescued the women alone. He wasn't even the first person on the porch. That was another guy named Angel Cordero, but he hasn't gotten nearly as much attention because he's not as outspoken as Ramsey -- and he doesn't speak English. Cordero's story has gotten plenty of play on Univision and Telemundo, but except for an interview by a bi-lingual reporter for a Cleveland TV station, he's been all but ignored by the English-speaking media.

On his CNN show "Reliable Sources" yesterday, Howard Kurtz talked with Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from Cleveland about the media's coverage of the rescue of Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and Amanda Berry. One of the best points Schultz made was that the crushing media coverage -- particularly the camera crews doing non-stop live shots from the streets in front of the women's homes and the house where Ariel Castro had kept them chained up -- continued to make them prisoners in their own communities. Here's the transcript:

KURTZ: You didn't want to do this interview this morning at the stake out where a lot of the networks have satellite trucks in front of some of those families' homes. And the reason for that was?

SCHULTZ: Right. Thank you for asking me that. This is my town and these people are in that neighborhood are traumatized by this, as well. And I can't imagine what it is like for these young women and family members if they're seeing all the trucks parked outside the house and outside the homes. And I saw that image this morning, it may have been on CNN of one of the one woman in a hoodie and a neighbor trying to protect her as she runs into her house for the first time in ten years and I thought we're victimizing these women, too. They're in hiding. We can do this better. When you see images like that and when you see tents and cable crews outside these homes what it telegraphs to viewers. What it does is it chips away at our credibility with a public that is already becoming less trustful of us.

KURTZ: Let me stay with that point because I understand that news organizations are there because the journalists have a job to do. You want to shout a question, but this is a heartbreaking case of women who were held in captivity under the noses of neighbors who say they didn't know for ten years. And, now, in effect, the mass media presence there is forcing them to stay behind closed doors. Is that really what's happening?

SCHULTZ: We had a helicopter. Do you remember that earlier this week? There was helicopter footage of the homes as they were waiting for them to come home. To me, I could not watch that and hear all these so-called former FBI who are experts on these women. The television judges and the speculation got wilder and wilder and all the things that they're supposing these women have gone through. You know, these young women are the ages of my daughters. So I can't help but also come at this as a mother and I was feeling so angry during much of this coverage because it contributed nothing to the discussion of domestic violence and to sexual abuse. It contributed nothing to showing a community, helping a community show support for these women. I understand it's not the media's job to help the community do that, but it's also not our job to be such a corrosive influence while we're here.
Too often, the media's job -- especially the cable news channels -- seems to be nothing more than exploitation without context or real reporting. It's hard to dig up details on a story when all you're doing is standing on the street waiting for your next live shot.

Killer Soda

I don't know what this commercial has to do with the product it's selling, a Czech beverage named Zenonade, but I do know that if it ran in America, it would be forced off the air by protests from a special interest group representing the families of people who have died in plane crashes...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

John Oates

John Oates is a member of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and with his partner Daryl Hall was responsible for 7 platinum albums, 6 gold albums, 34 hit singles, and 6 number one songs: "Kiss On My List," "Maneater," "I Can’t Go For That," "Rich Girl," "Private Eyes," and "Out Of Touch." Billboard Magazine named them the most successful duo of the rock era.

Now Oates has a new project called "Good Road To Follow," and he joined me today on America Weekend to talk about it. I asked him why he's releasing one song a month instead of a whole album, how the music world has gone from concentrating on singles to albums to singles again, what it was like to work with a different co-writer and producer on each song, and where he was the first time he heard one of his songs on the radio.

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

Survivor Finale Controversy

Before you watch the finale of the 26th season of "Survivor" tonight, listen to the conversation I had today on America Weekend with Andy Dehnart, the TV critic at Reality Blurred. Andy explained the behind-the-scenes controversy that has caused the producers to bar one of this season's players from appearing on the live reunion show on CBS. We also discussed why another player had to take down her Twitter account due to fan reaction, and who is likely to emerge as this season's sole survivor. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Alex Madinger on 3-D Printing

Last month, Alex Madinger appeared at a TedX conference in Columbia, Missouri, to discuss his passion for 3-D printing. Madinger was president of the 3-D printing club at the University of Missouri, where he'll graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering next weekend, and then plans to start his own 3-D printing business. Today on America Weekend, I asked him to explain how 3-D printing works, how it makes innovation cheaper, and how it can be used to manufacture personalized products and even human body parts. We also discussed the controversy about making guns with 3-D printers. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 5/12/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a really bad movie theater promotion, a man who didn't like his wife's picnic, and plants that don't grow marijuana. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

James Randi on Sylvia Browne

James Randi joined me on my America Weekend show today to talk about the Sylvia Browne connection to the Cleveland kidnapping story. As you may know, she used her "psychic" powers in 2004 to tell Louwana Miller that her daughter, Amanda Berry (who had been missing for a year at the time), was dead. This week, Berry was rescued -- along with Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus -- from the home of Ariel Castro, who had kidnapped them, sexually abused them, and kept them imprisoned in his home for over a decade.

Browne's prediction was wrong. As usual.

Randi has worked to expose Browne's garbage for over 20 years, in an effort to stop her from providing incorrect information to people at their most emotionally vulnerable points. We discussed that history, how she lie about her track record and still attract believers, and Montel Williams' role in enabling her con game.

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

Previously on Harris Online...

A One-Way Ticket To Mars

Bas Lansdorp wants to send you to Mars -- with a one-way ticket. He's the CEO of Mars One, an ambitious project that hopes to send humans to Mars in 2023 but, as he explained today on my America Weekend show, he's looking for applicants now. In fact, tens of thousands of humans have already applied for the trip. I asked him about the application process, what he's looking for in the first Mars explorers, why there's no return ticket, and how he's going to pay for it.

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

Also on Harris Online...

Race-Based SCOTUS Cases

The Supreme Court is about to issue decisions in two important race-related cases. One is about whether colleges can use race in deciding which students to admit, and the other is about whether the voting rights act has outlived its usefulness. Today on my America Weekend show, USA Today's Supreme Court correspondent Richard Wolf explained the intricacies of the cases, how the justices may vote, and the impact of their potential decisions.

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

Carl Dietrich's Flying Car

Where's my flying car? I have wanted one since I was a kid, and have interviewed inventors who promised to bring one to the market, but still haven't seen one in my neighborhood. So, today on my America Weekend show, I talked with Carl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia, a company that he says will have a flying car ready for consumers in the next couple of years. I asked how it will work, what the safety systems are, how much it will cost, and whether he can sell one to me but no one else, so I can enjoy an uncluttered sky as I fly along in my car. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Here's one of Dietrich's flying cars going from garage to road to sky...

The Effect Of Social Media On Journalism

Ben Adler has a fascinating cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review about the impact on journalism of social media and consumers who decide for themselves what the news is. Today on my America Weekend show, we delved into the topic as I asked him about consumers participating in the distribution of news, the effects of personalizing news, whether click-counts will change which stories get covered, and about the equality of reputation. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!