Saturday, August 30, 2014

Squeezed On A Plane

There were two stories this week week about scuffles on airplanes after a passenger wasn't happy about the person in front of them reclining the seat. In both cases, things got out of hand enough that the pilot had to make an emergency landing and have the troublemakers removed from the flight. In both instances, it was the person in the seat behind the recliner that was made out to be the offender.

But they're wrong.

First, we have to stop using the word "recline" for this action. Anyone who has ever sat in a recliner knows that reclining involves more than leaning. Airplane seats do not recline -- if your recliner at home only tilted back a couple of inches, you'd return it to the store -- nor do they make anyone more comfortable. But they do violate the personal space of the person behind you, particularly if the tray table is down.

As a tall person, I run into this situation often when I fly. The airlines have crunched the space between seat rows so much that, if I don't get an exit row seat (with a couple of extra inches of room), I'll spend the entire flight with my knees uncomfortably pressed against the seat in front of me. And if that person reclines, I'll be able to feel their kidneys with my kneecaps.

On a flight a few years ago, I politely asked the guy in front of me not to tilt his seat back, and he immediately became upset at my "outrageous" request, responding that he had paid for that seat and had the right to recline if he wanted to. I told him that while he had the right, I hoped he'd be courteous enough to respect my right to not be in pain. He blew me off, so I asked again, and he raised his voice enough to make a flight attendant stop serving drinks to other passengers to come over and see what the problem was.

Before I could say anything, he complained to her that I wouldn't let him tilt back, and she turned to me, saying stiffly, "Sir, he has the right to recline his seat." As if that settled the matter, she turned back to the drink cart, but not before I replied, "I know he does. I'm just asking him not to be an asshole!!" I didn't press the matter any further, because it was obvious I wasn't going to win the battle and Mr. Courtesy ahead of me couldn't care less about the discomfort he was causing.

He reminded me of people who stand up in concerts without regard for the blocked view they're creating for those behind them. Or people who do nothing to quiet a raucous and noisy child in a restaurant. Or someone carrying on a loud cellphone conversation in a crowded space. They just don't care about the negative impact they're having on everyone else.

Solving this problem is an easy one -- airlines must immediately remove the tilt function from all seats. Or install a "no assholes" section.

A Reporter's Exit Video

There's a video getting lots of online play of reporter Lisa Desjardins on her last day at CNN in DC, in which she laments the closure of the network's Capitol Hill bureau due to staff cutbacks while she steals a bunch of office supplies (and a first aid kit off the wall). It's gone viral, I suppose, because lots of people who lose their jobs want to take a shot at the boss before they're gone. I'm sure Desjardins thought the concept was hysterical when she recorded it.

It's not. As I watched it, all I could think about was her next potential employer seeing it and decided not to hire her based on it. It reminds me of all those videos people have posted on Facebook in the last decade in which they're doing something they'll regret later, from a drunken night out to some harsh words for their own boss to dissing an ex to doing something else that qualifies them as one of my Knuckleheads In The News®.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/29/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a woman with a hairball problem, an ice bucket challenge victim, and disorderly conduct from the back seat.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 8/29/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "What Are They Talking About," "Labor Day Multiple Choice," and "Brangelina's Exes." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Best Breaking News Report Ever

From the folks at The Onion...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/25/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a bad way to call off a wedding, a naked bank robber, and cocaine implants.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Cars Talking To Cars

Google may be working on a car that drives itself, but Debby Bezzina is working on cars that talk to each other. As she explained on my KTRS show, the idea is to have vehicles share information about their location, speed, etc. to help avoid accidents and keep traffic patterns more consistent. She's also working on having cars get data from roadways, so you'd know if there was a detour ahead, or how long you have until that green light changes, or what speed you should maintain to guarantee no red lights.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • I'm very excited about The Emmys. I'm up for Best Use Of The DVR Fast-Forward Button By A Man In A Recliner.

Leonard Maltin's Final Movie Guide

Leonard Maltin has been publishing movie guides for more than four decades, but the one that comes out next week will be his last. He'll still write movie reviews, but they won't appear in print any longer. On my KTRS show, I asked him to explain why he's making this business decision, how he got his first book deal way back in 1969, and how his taste in movies has changed since then.

By the way, Leonard's 2015 edition contains more than 16,000 movie reviews, and there are 10,000 more (pre-1965) in his Classic Movie Guide.

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Harris Challenge 8/22/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "The Emmy Awards," "Names In The News," and "MTV Video Music Awards." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/22/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a truck pulling a tree, a lost bag of money, and a woman desperate to visit her boyfriend in jail.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

SNL & The 2008 Election

I'm looking forward to reading the updated version of Tom Shales/James Miller's oral history of "Saturday Night Live," timed to coincide with the upcoming 40th season of the show. The original covered 1975-2000, and the new material covers the years since then.. There's an excerpt in The Hollywood Reporter centering on the 2008 election, especially the skits with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton and ex-cast-member Tina Fey returning to play Sarah Palin:
Seth Meyers, head writer-castmember: The "Russia from the house" line? That was not [in the] first draft. I believe I'm going to give credit to [writer] Mike Shoemaker for that line. That was the thing about those sketches — you were constantly carrying them around and reading through them for whoever you could get to listen, and people would just constantly pitch jokes.

Lorne Michaels: You could see perception changing completely. It's [Jon] Lovitz as [Michael] Dukakis going, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." Or Chevy [Chase] as Gerald Ford going, "I was told there would be no math." The audience that was suddenly watching Sarah Palin wasn't necessarily the SNL audience. Tina crossed over. It made her a huge star.

Sarah Palin, guest: I think SNL is egotistical if they believe that it was truly an effect on maybe the public debate about who should lead the country in the next four years.

Amy Poehler, castmember: Playing Hillary and Sarah Palin was an indication of women taking center stage in politics in a way that I hadn't been able to experience in my time there. My first show was two weeks after 9/11 happened, and for the first three or four years of my time there, we could barely do anything political. Everyone and everything was so tender, and we had lost Will Ferrell as our [George W.] Bush. Everything was so bad; the news was so bad. There was a lot of pop-culture stuff, and getting to finally do really deep political parody at the end of my career there felt really satisfying.
If Palin truly believes that Fey's impersonation of her didn't negatively affect the public perception of her, she's dumber than I thought. To this day, a great many people believe that lines Fey spoke in those sketches actually came out of Palin's mouth.

Here's something else Palin is quoted as saying in the book:
If I ran into Tina Fey again today, I would say: "You need to at least pay for my kids' braces or something from all the money that you made off of pretending that you're me! My goodness, you capitalized on that! Can't you contribute a little bit? Jeez!"
I hope she's kidding, but if she's serious, she has no sense of proportion, because no losing vice presidential candidate has ever capitalized on their brief moment of fame more than the ex-governor of Alaska.

By the way, the revised "SNL" book won't be released until September 9th, but you can't pre-order it on Amazon because it's published by a division of Hachette, which the online retailer has gone to war with, refusing to sell any of its books until it gets a bigger piece of the pie.

Read the full Hollywood Reporter excerpt here.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Cliff Schecter asks, "Why isn't the NRA defending Ferguson's blacks?"

Somehow, the NRA seems to have missed the whole thing with the SWAT teams and the tank-like vehicles and the snipers and the LRAD sound cannon and the tear gas and the rubber bullets being trained on unarmed Americans. Not a peep from LaPierre on this extended assault on citizens of Ferguson, at least that I can find.

If I were suspicious of their motives -- and I am -- I might point out that when I visited their 9 acres of militarized gun-fun also known as their convention in Indianapolis, I saw fewer black faces than in your average episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard." I'd also point out that LaPierre blows just about every tune he knows on his dog whistle, when warning his membership of the horrors confronting them during this period when violent crime has fallen to its lowest level in a generation.
Read Schecter's entire piece here.

From My Twitter Feed

  • Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy at Michael Brown's funeral on Monday. Doesn't he qualify as an outsider?
  • TV and radio news outlets have to stop saying, "There's always more information on our website." No, there isn't, and you know it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

No Ice Bucket Challenge

My wife and I make donations to non-profits, not because it's cool, but because we believe in their causes. But you will not see video on this site of me pouring a bucket of ice over myself as part of the Ice Bucket Challenge -- not because I don't think you should give money to worthy causes, but because I agree with Will Oremus of Slate:

It’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.
Read his whole piece here.

Thank You, Don Pardo

I didn't know Don Pardo, who died yesterday at 96. I never interviewed him, either. My only connection to him is that Pardo was the announcer on the original "Jeopardy!" when my mother was a contestant on the show in 1967 (I wrote about it here). Everyone knew his name because host Art Fleming would start every show with, "Thank you, Don Pardo!"

Pardo was the only person besides Bob Hope to get a lifetime contract with a television network, NBC, where he served as a staff announcer for six decades. That job doesn't exist any longer. There's no one sitting in a booth all day and night waiting to read station identifications, commercials or news bulletins (I wrote about that profession here and here). Now it's all pre-recorded.

Pardo, who voiced the opening for "Saturday Night Live" for all but one season, kept doing it after retirement, first flying in weekly from his home in Arizona to 30 Rock to do his small piece of the show (the opening, which ran 1:20, and a plug for next week's host and musical guest, which ran :10). Then he convinced Lorne Michaels to let him record his part from home, which is how he continued as the show's announcer through last season.

Michaels will have to find someone new to take over this fall, but he won't be able to simply choose someone from the in-house roster at NBC, because there's no such thing anymore. Sure, there's plenty of voiceover talent available, but Pardo was the last in a long line of guys who were literally the voice of television.

"SNL" honored Pardo on-camera in 2008 for his 90th birthday (video here), so I'm sure the show will take a moment to remember him when it returns this fall. Perhaps they can include the time he helped host Frank Zappa perform "I'm The Slime (Oozing Out From Your TV Set)" in 1976.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Kenneth Chang writes about Duke biology professor Sonke Johnsen, who studies deep-sea animals that use transparency to make them invisible to predators:

An eel larva is almost flat, and its see-through body is almost featureless except for the bones. “These guys can actually absorb some of their nutrients through their skin, so I don’t think there’s much of a gut,” Dr. Johnsen said.

But transparency can complicate life in other ways. Transparent creatures near the surface could be sunburned, not only on the skin but inside, too. To protect themselves from ultraviolet light, “these guys basically have suntan lotion in their transparent tissues,” Dr. Johnsen said.

But that then allows predators with eyes sensitive to ultraviolet light to see them after all. “There’s this evolutionary arms race,” he said. “I call it ‘Fry or die.’ ”
Read Change's full piece here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

More Thoughts On Ferguson

At lunch today, my friend Andy offered an interesting observation on the Ferguson story, which I'll paraphrase: in the United States of America, change is not brought forth by fighting in the streets -- change is a result of voting for our leaders or via the judicial process. He's right, which is why protesters should stop chanting, "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!"

You don't want justice now. Our justice system works slowly. Sometimes it gets things wrong, but speeding it up won't help. Fast justice is the way it worked in the old west, where someone suspected you of stealing his horse, and the next day you were hanging from a rope.

Justice takes time. Investigations take time. Is everyone who does something bad prosecuted? No, and those who are prosecuted aren't always found guilty, even if they committed the crime (sometimes they're found guilty when they haven't, too). But demanding that prosecutors reveal what they know, and that they race to an arrest or indictment before they've compiled all the facts (or a version thereof), is not the answer. The volume of the mob in the street must not be a factor.

Witness testimony, notoriously unreliable, must be vetted. Science, in the form of forensic pathologists and others must play a role -- but releasing bits of information, from a partial autopsy or the unrelated videotape of a shoplifting, can easily taint the memories of witnesses and increase the heat under public's emotions and turn a simmer into a full boil.

There are plenty of Americans who have armed themselves, not out of fear of other Americans, but because they think the government is coming to get them. I wonder what they've been thinking as they watched the heavily armed SWAT teams and snipers rolling down West Florissant Road in Ferguson in armored vehicles.

Do the open-carry advocates think that if the government was really after them, they'd be able to take it on? Have they not seen the tanks and MRAPS, not to mention the aircraft (manned and unmanned), that make up the government's arsenal -- now even at the local level? And don't hold Cliven Bundy up as an example of a rebel rancher who made the government stand down. If federal agencies wanted him and his followers dead, they'd be dead, no matter how many white supremacists showed up.

Speaking of white supremacy, how different would this story be if two-thirds of Ferguson were white, and all but a few of the cops were black? Think the conversation might be a little different?

The biggest problem in Ferguson last night was not the peaceful protesters, but the looters and anarchists out to make trouble, to force a confrontation. I doubt that the National Guard's presence will change that, and because I'm old enough to remember the Kent State shootings, I worry that the presence of more armed personnel may end badly.

As far as the media goes, they were close to useless Sunday night. The TV cameras will always be pointed in the direction of the brightest light, because they need pretty pictures, but with reporters kept in a "media holding area," they were too far from the action to offer a valid perspective. Worse were the TV correspondents who stayed inside their cars with the vents closed because of the tear gas, so they could only tell us what was happening within a few feet of their vehicles.

Still, I'm amazed that law enforcement continues to threaten the media with arrest or worse. There was the now-infamous moment last night when a guy shooting video for a livestream was told by a cop pointing a rifle at him, "Get that light off or you're getting killed with this!" There's no circumstance under which a reporter should be threatened with bodily harm by law enforcement while covering a story. Did that cop not understand that he would immediately become the story, that the video would go viral in seconds? Do the cops who arrested the reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post last week have no command orders or training in how to handle the media?

It's one thing to take on a line of anarchists throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks. It's another to expose your overzealous lack of professionalism to the Twitterverse.

Read my earlier piece on Ferguson here.

Best Thing I've Read Today

My friend Phil Plait answers the question, "Which weighs more, five pounds of helium or five pounds of cheese?" But first, he has to figure out how to weigh the helium...

This question is an old variation on the riddle, “What weighs more, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?” The answer is neither: They both weigh a pound. But I remember hearing this riddle when I was but a wee lad, and being momentarily baffled. We humans sometimes confuse weight and density; lead is very dense, but a pound’s a pound the world around. A pound of feathers would take up a lot more space, but it would still weigh a pound.

But in the case of Jenny’s question, we get even more confused. After all, helium floats! If you had a balloon full of helium, and tried to weigh it on a scale, it would float away. If you could somehow tie it to the scale -- and you had a scale with the decidedly odd characteristic that it could measure numbers less than zero -- it would say the balloon has negative weight!

But that’s not really the case. Here’s the answer: A balloon filled with five pounds of helium would weigh exactly the same as a five pound block of cheese.

How can this be? Ah, let me explain.
Read Phil's full explanation here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Random Thoughts on Ferguson

I haven't written anything about the last week in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, but I've been collecting a long list of thoughts on the subject:

The most amazing part of this story is that there's no video of the incident. Last month, a plane fell out of the sky into an open field in Ukraine -- and someone caught it on video. The shooting in Ferguson took place in the middle of the day, in the middle of a busy street, in a populated area. How could that go un-recorded?

This case screams for every police car and/or officer to have a video unit recording everything they do and everywhere they go. In towns where those units are used, complaints about police brutality have dropped -- and the cops got better evidence to use against suspects. Ferguson does have two such video units, but they haven't been installed yet. It's a shame there wasn't one on Officer Wilson last Saturday, for it might answer a lot of questions.

Without that video, none of us knows exactly what transpired between the officer and the teenager. So far, three witnesses have said that Wilson shot Brown while he had his hands up and was unarmed. The police say that Brown attacked the officer in his patrol car and tried to get his gun. Would a witness who agrees with the police story ever come forward in Ferguson? Not likely, unless they planned on leaving town. Forever.

Optics are important: It was a good move to put Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson out front as the public face of police -- not just because he’s black, but because he’s from North County. I'm not saying he's done everything right, but his tone and approach are very different from what the white men who run the police departments in Ferguson and St. Louis County have been doing and saying publicly. If things go well, you’re going to hear Ron Johnson's name in positive terms for a long time, and I won't be surprised if he ends up in political office at some point.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson may or may not be a good cop, but he's a horrible communicator. He proved it Friday by releasing Officer Wilson's name and the surveillance footage of Michael Brown in the convenience store without notifying Captain Johnson or Governor Nixon. Since they were by then heavily involved in keeping Ferguson secure, they should not only have been notified, but should have been standing with him at the press conference at which he made the announcement. Perhaps Jackson was afraid that they would talk him out of revealing the convenience store robbery story, which he wanted to release to take some of the heat off of Officer Wilson -- he claims it was because of media FOIA requests, but there was nothing impelling him to make that information public so quickly.

Since Chief Jackson later admitted that, at the time the officer encountered Brown in the street, Wilson didn't know Brown was a suspect in the robbery, what difference does it make? Of course, in that encounter on the street, Brown also didn't know that Wilson wasn't stopping him for the robbery, and that may have played a factor in what did go down. Regardless, stealing some cigars from a store is not a criminal act worthy of the death penalty.

One of the most disturbing images to come out of Ferguson this week was the military-like presence of law enforcement on the streets of an American city, complete with tanks, SWAT snipers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and mine-resistant vehicles. I've lived in St. Louis County for 15 years and have never heard a story involving a mine or an improvised explosive device in this area. This isn't Fallujah, after all. But those officers looked more like soldiers ready for war. And why were they wearing camouflage on Wednesday night? There's not a lot of dense vegetation in Ferguson for them to blend in with.

Part of the back story in Ferguson is the way it (and other small municipalities among the 93 in St. Louis County) uses traffic tickets as a major income stream. There are some cities whose police force only exists to hand out tickets on I-70, I-55, and I-270, so it can justify its own existence and bring cash into the city's coffers. That means pressure on officers to make more stops and write more tickets, and the racial dynamic of a majority-white police department vs. a majority-black population absolutely affects who gets stopped and ticketed most often in those towns.

My wife and I went out to dinner Thursday night to celebrate our 31st anniversary, and while the meal was wonderful, we were surprised that the restaurant wasn't even one-third full. I asked the manager and a waiter if the place was struggling, and they both told me that, no, they've been pretty full, but business had dropped off this week due to people being afraid to go out because of the Ferguson story, a complaint they'd heard from other restaurateurs in various parts of town, as well. That's part of the collateral damage of this story -- the way it's affecting businesses more than 10 miles away, in an upscale part of town. If there's a fearful reaction here, what must it be in other parts of the country (and world) when they see these images from Ferguson all day and night on newscasts and Twitter? This story may have a rolling impact for months to come if it keeps visitors from coming to St. Louis -- including St. Louisans.

I feel for people in Ferguson who are not part of the story, but are being affected by it nonetheless. Imagine having to keep your windows closed on a beautiful summer evening -- which we had for most of the week -- because the smell of tear gas is wafting through the air every night. It was so bad that people in Gaza (!) were tweeting advice on how to deal with tear gas to residents of Ferguson. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that several of them have decided they've had enough and want to move somewhere else, but what has all of this done to the value of their houses? Think you could sell your property in Ferguson for anything approaching a reasonable price now?

On the positive side, there have been lots of volunteers stepping in to help clean up the mess made by both looters and protesters. They're out there everyday with brooms and trash bags, picking up the pieces of their city and trying to show the world that the Ferguson they see engulfed in smoke and police lights in not a true picture of their hometown. And kudos to the businesses that have welcomed reporters by giving them drinks, food, electricity, and wifi to help tell their stories -- even when the result may be a negative impression of Ferguson.

One thing the Ferguson story didn't need was outsiders getting involved. There was no need for Al Sharpton to show up and make his usual noise, just as it wasn't helpful when the Missouri chapter of the KKK said it was raising reward money for the officer. I'm sure Darren Wilson's response was something like, "Oh, please don't. I have enough trouble right now."

There are still plenty of unanswered questions:
  • How many times was Brown shot, and in what parts of the body? (updated 10:01pm -- the NY Times reports that a private autopsy shows Brown was shot 6 times, all from the front, including two in the head).
  • How hard is it to hire more African-Americans in law enforcement (only 3 of 53 cops in Ferguson are black, while many other departments in the St. Louis area aren't much above 10%)?
  • If Wilson can prove he was injured by Brown, is that justification for shooting a suspect who might be fleeing?
  • What will Ferguson (and the surrounding area) be like a month from now, when the media and outsiders have departed?
  • What happens if Officer Wilson isn't charged with a crime, let alone convicted?
  • Will anyone be able to repair the rift between police and citizens who had sniper rifles pointed at them in their own communities?
Bob Dylan once wrote, "The answer is blowing in the wind." Unfortunately, in Ferguson, the wind smells like tear gas.

Read more of my thoughts on Ferguson here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Best Thing I've Read Today

Georgetown law professor Paul Butler explains that you have a constitutional right to record video of the police in a public place, so the cops in Ferguson broke the law when they stopped journalists and civilians from doing so:

The law is simple, and it is entirely on the side of the citizen photographers. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of anyone to record police in a public place. The police can place reasonable restrictions on photographers by, for example, not allowing them to enter a crime scene. But they cannot stop people from standing on the street and filming them while they make arrests, detain suspects, or otherwise enforce the law.

If the police see you filming, they cannot force you to turn over your camera. They cannot make you delete what you have filmed. Of course, they can ask you to do any of these things — and the police are very good at making requests sound like orders. But all you have to do is say something like “Officer, I refuse to consent to you to look at my photos.” Then you have the constitutional right to be left alone.

It takes guts to record the police, even if it is perfectly legal. As I often tell my law students, the Bill of Rights is not for wimps. But think of it as an act of patriotism. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, in 2011, the right to video-record the police. The Court stated “Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting ‘the free discussion of governmental affairs.’”

Police should support these efforts. Cameras improve working conditions for the majority of police officers who are hard-working and law-abiding. In jurisdictions where police cars are equipped with dashboard cameras, police misconduct complaints have gone down – along with the taxpayer expenditures to settle them. 
Read Butler's full piece here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Prediction

Something tells me that "Let's Be Cops" will not be the number one movie in Ferguson, Missouri, this weekend.

Harris Challenge 8/15/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "Robin Williams Movies," "They Called Her Betty," and "New Jobs." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/15/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a pilot who needed a hand, an odd request for Siri, and a donut-eating fugitive.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Me, The Press

No, I'm not upset that I've been passed over again for the "Meet The Press" anchor job, because I'm probably a lock for "Face The Nation."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • I have worked at radio stations where I was older than the target demographic, but this is ridiculous -- firing everyone over 35.

More About Robin Williams

Last night, my daughter and I watched the DVD of Johnny Carson's penultimate show. That historic hour still stands as the Best Late Night Talk Show ever telecast, with Bette Midler's sentimental/comic musical tributes and a couple of segments of Robin Williams doing his thing from the guest chair and proving why he was the Best Talk Show Guest Ever.

It was a reaffirmation of Carson's delight in watching Williams work, the respect the latter had for the former, and how each understood what this final showcase meant. In the 22 years since, Williams made plenty of late night appearances with various other hosts, usually to promote his latest movie and -- despite the fact that those movies more often than not were stinkers -- he never failed to deliver a superlative guest spot.

Though he was nominated for several Oscars (and won for Best Supporting Actor for "Good Will Hunting"), it was television that was the only medium that allowed Williams to truly shine. You couldn't prove that by his last series, "The Crazy Ones," but from "Mork and Mindy" through his HBO concerts through his guest appearances with Carson/Letterman/etc., it was only on TV that the rapid-fire talent of Williams was allowed to flourish.

Since his death, much has been written about how Williams was consumed by demons throughout his life. That's nonsense. Calling the problems "demons" makes them seem supernatural, which they aren't. The man had mental health issues, including serious depression, which in the end he was not able to overcome.

I know several people who struggle with depression. Most of them have it under control via medication, but at least one of them still hasn't found the right prescription to fix an out-of-whack brain chemistry that has made daily life very difficult for a long time. There are millions of people dealing with these sometimes-debilitating issues, at every part of the mental health spectrum, and it's a shame that our health-and-insurance system doesn't do a better job making it easier and more affordable for them to get the help they need.

Mark Maron has re-released a remarkable conversation he had with Williams for his podcast in April, 2010. In it, Williams was open about his battles with alcohol and cocaine addiction, discussed the high and low points of his career, explained why he paid comedians he stole jokes from, and towards the end did an extended riff on the inner debate he had with his conscience when he considered suicide. It wasn't a comedy bit -- it was a fascinatingly honest glimpse into how troubled Williams was. Well worth a listen.

One last thing. I just read a report that Williams' daughter, Zelda, has abandoned social media after she received "cruel and unnecessary" messages about her father's death. One of the continuing problems of online life is having to deal with the sort of idiots who would anonymously take potshots at a woman in mourning over the loss of her father. Stay classy, internet!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Best Thing I've Read Today

Jason Linkins nails it with his media analysis of why "Meet The Press" won't be any better with Chuck Todd as moderator than it's done with David Gregory in that role...

As I've previously explained, none of these Sunday shows get impressive ratings as a general rule. And that's because their audience is basically limited to three groups of people: Beltway insiders, really old people, and people who have become immobilized on a semi-permanent basis and are thus unable to reach their remote controls and change the channel.
Then Linkins compares "Meet The Press" with the newest Sunday topical show, which just happens to be hosted by a comedian on HBO...
One of the best things that has happened to broadcast news this year is the advent of HBO's new show, "Last Week Tonight." "Last Week Tonight" was advertised in a shaggy-dog sort of way, with its host -- former Daily Show correspondent and fill-in host John Oliver -- explaining what a poor job the show was going to do at keeping up with the newscycle and reporting the news. Then it debuted, and instantly demonstrated that what they'd always intended was to do a better job then everyone else. (The fact that it is, technically, a "Sunday show" is not a coincidence.)

The speed with which "Last Week Tonight" has surpassed nearly all comers in terms of quality should really alarm people. It explains without being condescending. It gets "inside" the story without fronting like an "insider." It treats the audience as people who are capable of handling the material, while remaining concerned enough about the matter to show its audience things they don't already know. And then they really report the facts that have remained occluded. This is one of those enterprises where the secret, hidden information is actual information and not some pundit's exercise in counter-intuition.

Of course, it helps that "Last Week Tonight" is also screamingly funny. This is something that "Meet The Press" would definitely be better off never, ever attempting, ever. But it's not jokes that that are getting people to stick around and watch 16 minutes on nutrition supplements. It's the purpose. It's the fact that the show wanted to have a point. It's the fact that the producers and writers and host visibly put in the work. And it's the fact that they convincingly demonstrate real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an "insider" operating under a veil of savviness.
Read Linkins' entire piece here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams

In response to the shocking news of his suicide, there are lots of people sharing Robin Williams stories tonight, remembering his movies, his TV work, or seeing him in concert.

My memories of him range from being amazed at his breakout HBO debut performance at the Met to his multiple improvisations with an audience member's scarf on "Inside The Actor's Studio" to his appearance on the penultimate Johnny Carson show to laughing from the front row of the Universal Amphitheater as Robin, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg hosted the first Comic Relief event in 1986 (I wrote about that event here).

But one of my fondest memories of Williams came a few months before that. My wife and I were working in New York City, and had become fans of Chicago City Limits, an improv group that performed at the Jan Hus Theater at 1st Avenue and 74th Street. We went to see them several times, and on one occasion, just after intermission, a cast member announced that they had a special guest who wanted to play some improvisation games with them -- and out walked Robin Williams.

It had been a few years since "Mork and Mindy," and his movie career was stuttering along. For every "World According To Garp" or "Moscow On The Hudson," there was a "Club Paradise" or "The Survivors," and we were still a few years away from his career blasting off when Barry Levinson gave him the showcase role as Adrian Cronauer in "Good Morning Vietnam."

Still, everyone in the room felt the jolt of electricity upon his entrance and knew we were in for something special. Here was one of the quickest minds in the history of comedy, and he was going to play with the talented members of this troupe (I can't remember all their names, but that's Carol Schindler with Williams in the photo above).

As you'd expect, he ran amok, but instead of turning it into The Robin Williams Show, he was very respectful of the other performers, setting them up for clever bits, supporting them wherever they took the scenes, taking off on tangents and then bringing it home, and clearly enjoying himself immensely (as were we).  He wasn't there to plug anything, he just dropped by and gave a master class in making stuff up.

That second act was supposed to be about 45 minutes, but Williams and the cast stayed onstage and played for nearly 90 before the theater had to be cleared so the audience for the late show could be admitted. As we filed out, buzzing about what we'd just seen, those in the incoming queue looked disappointed that they'd missed out on something special.

A few months later, I took some improv classes at CCL, and asked a couple of cast members about that night. They told me that none of them had ever met Williams before, but when he'd called and said he was in town and would like to come over and join in, they couldn't resist -- they were as excited as the audience at what transpired that evening.

Not many performers would have had that impact then, or now. Then again, Williams was unique in his skills. Few comedians -- including his idol and mentor, Jonathan Winters -- could be as outlandishly funny in some roles but turn around and play as dramatically straight as he did in "Awakenings" and "Good Will Hunting" (for which he won an Oscar).

I never again got to be in the same room as Williams, and was disappointed that he didn't choose better movies to make in the last decade and a half, but I'll always remember that spontaneously spectacular night he appeared at Chicago City Limits.

Woody Allen's Mistaken Magic

Being a Woody Allen fan does not mean liking everything he does. The man makes a movie a year, and no one could keep up that pace and create a cinematic success every time. While his early movies like "Play It Again Sam" and "Sleeper" gave way to classics like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," his output lately has been only so-so. For every "Midnight In Paris," there's a "To Rome With Love." For every "Blue Jasmine," there's a stinker like his latest, "Magic In The Moonlight."

The latter disappointed me as both a moviegoer and a skeptic, since the plot revolves around a world-famous magician who also has a reputation as a debunker of all things paranormal. Allen sets the movie in the 1920s, a time when Harry Houdini was spending the last years of his life exposing spiritualists and other fakers. Allen's hero (Colin Firth) is asked by a friend to go to the south of France and investigate a young woman (Emma Stone) who claims to be psychic and has her hooks into a wealthy widow who believes in that sort of nonsense.

Stone is both cute and talented; she plays the ingenue well. The problem is that her scam is paper-thin, yet Firth, the so-called expert in these matters, can't seem to punch a hole in it. Instead, he starts falling for her beguiling ways, despite the difference in their ages (what a shock to find an older man/younger woman romance in a Woody Allen film!). Worse, he starts believing her nonsense, too. He is so taken in that he changes his mind and declares her paranormal activities authentic -- something no true skeptic would ever do after simple observation but without double-blind testing.

I could hear James Randi, our generation's leading debunker (whose Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge still stands), screaming at the screen all the way from his home in Florida. Because even the most casual viewer can see how the scam is being pulled off, when it is revealed, it is anti-climactic.

The only reason I was glad to get to that point was that it meant that this claptrap was almost over.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Lucy Teitler went to the world's preeminent hackers conference and tried her best not to get hacked:

Before I arrived at the Rio Hotel for Defcon, the giant Las Vegas hacker convention that tends to draw digital mischief-makers by the thousands, I received some simple but startling advice: Do not, under any circumstances, use the free conference wifi. Don't access anything on your phone that has a password that you don't want other people to find out. And, to be extra safe, bring a burner laptop.

Since I am not Batman, I do not have a burner laptop. My only laptop, a Macbook from 2007, should probably be someone’s burner by now, but it’s not.

So I do what I can: I turn off the wifi on my computer before I arrive at the hotel. I change the settings on my phone so that wifi, Bluetooth and cellular data are all turned off. That eliminates the temptation to check any of my password-protected apps, since I can't access the Internet anymore. My phone isn't a smart phone anymore. I know it's just psychological, but it actually feels lighter in my hand, like a corpse that's lost the apocryphal 21 grams of the human soul. It's not a honing device anymore. It doesn't know me now. It's just a piece of metal. The only internet I access (for reading up on the Russian Billion-Password Hack, for instance, or how not to get hacked at Defcon) is the plug-in Ethernet from the secure press room. So I’m okay. I think.
Read her full piece here.

I'm Saying Never

You know the expression "Never say never"? Here's a starter list of phrases that will never be used to describe me:

  • He enjoyed being surrounded by large crowds of drunken people.
  • He loved every second of every "Sharknado" movie.
  • He was one of the world's greatest soccer enthusiasts.
  • He was an early adapter of many Microsoft hardware products, particularly The Zune.
  • He never missed a moment of the Monday 8am physics lab in his freshman year of college.
  • He couldn't get enough of debates about how to achieve peace in the Middle East.
  • He enjoyed working on actuarial tables in his free time.
  • He once got stuck on a roller coaster that stopped in the middle of a ride.
  • He yearned to spend more time in the deep south.
  • He once considered a career as a clergyman.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Harris Challenge 8/8/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "In The Early 80s, They Caught A New Wave," "Movie Sequels," and "Multiple Choice Week." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/8/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include maggots on a plane, crop-dusting a marching band, and a drunk teacher.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Poker Stories: Weekend At Bellagio

Another in my occasional series of poker stories.

The Bellagio poker room is still one of the best places to play in Las Vegas. I just spent the weekend there, and was happy to see that they've opened it up a little and removed a few tables, so it's not as cramped as it used to be. The action is always good, and I rarely had to wait more than 15-20 minutes to get a seat in a $5/10 no-limit game.

More and more poker players have moved to Vegas recently, so it's common to sit down and find yourself among several grinders who play there all the time. But Bellagio gets a large number of poker tourists (I guess I qualify as one), and they're the ones who feed the games -- which is why those local pros show up in the first place. It can be a delicate balance finding a table with the right mix of players to make it profitable.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot more women playing poker this weekend. Not too long ago, I could go an entire session without a female opponent, but this weekend there was always at least one, and occasionally as many as three women at each table. That's encouraging, and I hope that trend spreads across the country to break down the male dominance of the game (unfortunately, the WSOP Main Event is still 97% male, a figure that hasn't changed in a decade).

One of the things I don't like about playing at Bellagio is that cash is allowed on the table -- you don't have to convert your $100 bills into chips to play. The problem is that this makes it more difficult to know how much your opponent has in his/her stack, forcing players to constantly ask, "How much are you playing?" When it's all in chips (as it must be in St. Louis), it's relatively easy to look over and get a rough estimate of what you're up against.

Bellagio also doesn't have drink holders on its poker tables. Instead, the waitress brings your drink and places it on a napkin next to your chips. Remarkably, I haven't seen many spills, but it's unusual that they even risk it after all these years.

The first time I went to Bellagio, around 2001, I was still playing limit hold'em, in which you can only bet a fixed amount at any time. For instance, if the stakes are 10/20, then you can bet (or raise) ten dollars in the first two rounds of betting (pre-flop and on the flop) and twenty dollars on the next two (turn and river). In those days, Bellagio ran a 9/18 game, which seemed like odd amounts. I asked a supervisor why they didn't just make it 10/20 and he explained that the players liked to see massive pots of blue $1 chips. I looked over at the game, and he was right, the pots looked huge. If they played it at 10/20 with red $5 chips or orange $10 chips, the pots would be mathematically bigger, but the perception would be that they were smaller and thus less fun.

In those days, I played in the 20/40 limit hold'em games in St. Louis, which became famous as some of the best in the country. There were always three or four tables, with a waiting list, and lots of action. As most people do when they travel to Vegas, I wanted to play a little higher than normal, so I got a seat in a 30/60 game.

This wasn't even close to the biggest game spread at Bellagio. In the high-limit area, there were a couple of 60/120 limit hold'em games in progress, as well as some higher-limit stud and Omaha games. Meanwhile, a group of top pros, including Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Jennifer Harman, and others, were playing a 400/800 mixed game (a combination of various stud, draw, and hold'em variations) in Bobby's Room, the special area set aside for high-stakes games. In 2014, the stakes in that room go much higher -- it's not unusual when some deep-pocket player comes to town for the pros to play at the nosebleed stakes of 2000/4000.

That night, I asked a Bellagio dealer whether they all got to deal in Bobby's Room or it was limited to a select few. She explained that those tables were on a rotation just like all the others, but that most dealers didn't like working in there because the high-stakes pros, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in front of them, were miserable tippers. She also explained that the players often had proposition bets going on every hand, which sometimes involved their hole cards, which they'd insist on holding onto even after they'd folded the hand. That could make it tough to keep track of who was in and who was out, not to mention the fact that there would often be $10,000 chips flying back and forth to pay off those side bets that had nothing to do with the main pot. All in all, she said, dealers would rather work a lower-limit game where the players are having fun and tipping generously.

I had a good few hours and was up quite a bit in the 30/60 game, so I figured I'd take a shot at the next step up the ladder. I wandered over to put my name on the 60/120 list, which already has seven or eight players waiting ahead of me. I never got the chance that Friday night, but I came back the next day and had another good session in the 30/60 game, and again went over to add my name to the 60/120 list. But the supervisor told me he couldn't do that, because on Saturdays, they played 80/160. That was too high for me, and I knew it. Stepping up to 30/60 wasn't much of a stretch, but I didn't have the bankroll for 80/160.

Similarly, this weekend I thought about stepping up to the 10/20 no-limit game, but when I went to check it out, they were playing 10/20/40 no-limit, a markedly bigger game, and I noticed a bunch of really good players sitting at the table. One of them was Jeremy Ausmus, who won $2.1 million when he finished 5th in the 2012 WSOP Main Event, not to mention several hundred thousand more in other tournaments since then. Why jump into that pool of sharks, when the water was fine where I already was?

So, as I did in 2001, I stuck with the game I was comfortable in, had a good time, didn't spill my drink -- and made sure to tip the dealers.

Hero Of The Day

Raymond Burse is the university president who took a $90,000 pay cut so employees who make minimum wage could get a raise to $10.25/hour.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Check out Adam Higginbotham's story of the day a Nevada casino discovered that someone had installed a gigantic bomb inside the building, and the reaction of the experts and cops who raced to disarm it after reading the ominous ransom letter that accompanied it:

Do not move or tilt this bomb, because the mechanism controlling the detonators will set it off at a movement of less than .01 of the open end Ricter scale. Don’t try to flood or gas the bomb. There is a float switch and an atmospheric pressure switch set at 26.00-33.00. Both are attached to detonators. Do not try to take it apart. The flathead screws are also attached to triggers...WARNING: I repeat do not try to move, disarm, or enter the bomb. It will explode.
Read the story here.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Donald Trump has sued to remove his name from Atlantic City casinos. Who can we sue to remove his name from all media, including Twitter?
  • Guy at sports book Sunday: "Can I get down a bet on the first half of a preseason NFL game?" Clerk: "No. Do you think we're idiots?
  • Just heard Santana's version of "She's Not There" on iTunes' RetroFM channel. Bet there isn't an FM rock station that still plays that.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

Eight hours ago, this appeared on the USA Today Twitter feed:

#BREAKING Stocks fall further at the open as Russia-Ukraine fears grip markets; Dow down around 50 points.
It's the phrase "fear grips markets" that caught my eye, because it's completely out of proportion to what actually happened. Now I have to step into my alter-ego as Mr. Perspective to call bullshit on that claim by The Nation's Newspaper.

Before the markets opened today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 16,430. A drop of 50 points is about 0.3% of that figure. That's not unusual. Even if you add a zero and the drop was 500 points, that's only 3%. Neither of those circumstances, certainly not the way the markets opened today, qualifies as being gripped by fear of anything -- except fear-mongering by a media outlet. Your portfolio (or, more likely, your IRA or 401k) was completely unaffected and you had nothing to be afraid of.

For too long, news outlets have been obsessed with reporting the Dow's figures throughout the day (e.g. every hourly network radio newscast), as if they mean anything to average investors. Worse, they don't offer any perspective on how insignificant these increases and decreases are. Of course, if the DJIA were to drop a thousand points in a day, then you'd have a real story and could bring on all the phony-baloney analysts to explain what happened (they wouldn't have a real answer, but they'd have all sorts of theories, none of which they'd be held accountable for).

By the way, when the markets closed today, the Dow was up almost 14 points, which is less than 1%. I guess that whole Russia-Ukraine thing is over. Or at least the fear-mongering regarding it is on hold.

Until tomorrow's crisis, which will also have little effect on the Dow, if you keep things in perspective.

Picture Of The Day

In 1997, an episode called "Subway" aired in the seventh season of NBC's "Homicide." The plot revolved around a man (Vincent D'Onofrio) who became pinned between a subway train and the station platform. Because of the way his body was twisted, he only had an hour to live, and in that time Andre Braugher's character tried to find the person who pushed D'Onofrio to his impending death. The story was based on an episode of HBO's "Taxicab Confessions," in which a cop described a similar situation that happened in real life in New York City.

With that as prologue, here's yet another real life story of a man stuck between train and platform -- from this morning's rush hour in Perth, Australia. As the man boarded, his foot slipped into the gap and he couldn't pull it back up. Fortunately, the train didn't pull out of the station while he was stuck. Instead, station personnel told everyone to step off the subway car and help push on the side of the train to lift it off him...(note: there's no audio on this video)...

Watch Logic Fail

I stopped wearing a watch over a decade ago when I got my first iPhone. I always considered watches a single-use utility, not jewelry (which I don't wear, either), so they outlived their usefulness to me once I had a multiple-use device that provided the same information. That day, I put my watch in a drawer and haven't looked at it since.

I remember when my parents gave me my first watch. I was probably about six, and putting it on my wrist made me feel a lot older. All day long, I hoped that someone would ask me what time it was so I could show them what I was wearing, complete with a Speidel Twist-O-Flex watch band. But four decades later, that special feeling was long gone.

The other day, I found myself, ahem, killing time while waiting for a friend outside a fancy watch store -- the kind that caters to people whose view of watches is diametrically opposed to mine, and they're willing to pay big bucks for them.  I glanced at the wares through the window. 

The craftsmanship was undeniably beautiful, but what caught my eye was a series of watches with Roman numerals on them, and I noticed that on the face of each, the number 4 was represented by IIII instead of IV. Not only had I taken four years of Latin in high school, but I vacationed in Rome earlier this year, and I knew that's not how the Romans did the four.

After a minute, a well-dressed salesman walked out of the store to greet me. In these extremely upscale strips of stores, I always think the employees must spend most of their day very bored, because there are rarely any customers inside. Every time I pass one, the person on duty is standing around doing nothing, with no one to talk to, let alone assist in the purchase of some ridiculously expensive item. So the watch salesman either saw me as a potential mark or at least another human being he could converse with.

He asked if I had any questions, and I said I was curious about the IIII. He explained that it was a common practice in the industry known as "the watchmaker's four," used because people might confuse IV with VI. That made no sense to me, as I have seen watches that have no numbers on them at all, and any adult who has ever seen an analog clock could still tell when one of the hands was pointing at the 4, rather than the 6. I don't know anyone who ever showed up ten minutes late for a meeting and used that excuse.

I also pointed out that the IV vs. VI claim didn't hold water because these watches used IX for 9 and XI for 11 -- why weren't they worried that people would confuse them? The salesman replied that there are watchmakers who use VIIII ("the watchmaker's nine") for that reason, but this designer chose to only use the watchmaker's four.

Then he went into super-sales mode, trying to convince me that these watches not only kept perfect time (which my iPhone also does), but looked beautiful on the arm and were also very good investments. On the last point, his pitch was, "When you die, what will you have to pass along to your children that's really valuable? Certainly not your iPhone, which goes down in value every year while these grow in worth." 

I resisted the urge to say something snarky ("My daughter will get my prized collection of ballpoint pen caps that I once chewed in seventh grade"). Instead, I told him he was very good at his job, but I would not be buying any of his products. Fortunately, that's when my friend showed up, so I excused myself.

Here's one thing I wish I had said to the sales guy. If I were to buy a watch, I would want it to be: a) a helluva lot cheaper than the ones in that store; b) able to fulfill its single purpose both reliably and consistently. 

And consistency does not include making up your own rules for Roman numerals.

DVR Alert

You might want to set your DVR to record Penn and Teller's "Fool Us," which is airing this summer on Wednesday nights on The CW (channel 11 in St. Louis). The series originally aired three years ago on British TV, hosted by Jonathan Ross. The concept is simple: magicians do their tricks for an audience that includes Penn and Teller, and if they can't figure out how it was done, then the performer is flown to Vegas, where they get to do it as part of the P and T show at The Rio.

What I like about the show -- aside from the fact that all of these illusionists are really good -- is seeing Penn and Teller describe some element that they think was the key to the trick. This isn't like those Masked Magician specials that aired a decade ago on Fox, with a hack named Valentino exposing how tricks are done. P and T do it in a way that the magician knows what they're talking about, but we don't. Most of the time, they get it right, and the magician admits that he hasn't fooled them, but a few times, they can't guess it or got it wrong -- like with Mathieu Bich on the show that aired last week...

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Great Guac And A Lost Seat Belt

I spent this weekend in Las Vegas (stories to come), culminating with a terrific meal with poker historian Nolan Dalla and his wife, Marietta, at the Mexican restaurant El Segundo Sol, where we had a wonderful two hour conversation and the best fresh guacamole I've ever tasted.

That title used to belong to the guac at Dos Caminos, a place in the Palazzo. I ate there a few times several years ago, but haven't been back since I started boycotting Palazzo and its sister property, Venetian, after learning they are the only two non-union casino/hotels on the strip, owned by Sheldon Adelson, who has used his billions to support extreme right-wing political candidates. Nolan won't set foot in them, either, and while our staying away hasn't caused a measurable dip in Adelson's bottom line, at least he's not getting any of our principled dollars.

After we ate, Nolan dropped me off at McCarran Airport for my 6:35pm Southwest flight. What I didn't know until then was that the flight had been delayed, first to 7:45pm, and then to 8:30pm. Fortunately, McCarran has free wifi, so I spent a couple of hours catching up on news I'd missed over the weekend and replying to some emails.

As we lined up to board around 8:15pm, the gate agent made an announcement I'd never heard before, apologizing that the flight would have to be delayed again because they couldn't find a crucial piece of equipment -- the captain's seat belt buckle -- and they couldn't take off without it. How do you lose a seat belt buckle on a plane that just flew in? A few minutes later, the agent reported that they were also unable to find a replacement buckle, so another entire airplane was being flown in from Los Angeles, but wouldn't be here and ready for another hour.

You might have heard the loud groans from my fellow passengers at your house.

Everyone else went to sit down and wait again, but I remained in place, mostly because I just couldn't sit anymore, knowing I'd be on my butt for several more hours once we finally did get going. Fifteen minutes went by before the Southwest agent -- who did a very good job keeping us informed throughout -- got back on the PA to announce that they had somehow found the captain's seat belt. I think it was wedged in the space between his and the co-pilot's seat. Also found: 53¢ in loose change and some old gum.

So, the boarding process finally began, and we were in the air by 9:15pm Pacific Time, which meant we weren't going to get to St. Louis until almost 2:30am Central Time. I was already exhausted -- no one gets any sleep over a weekend in Vegas -- and began wondering, since there aren't usually flights that late at Lambert Airport, whether there would be a shuttle bus to take me to my car in the long-term parking lot.

When we landed, the terminal was virtually empty, except for a skeleton staff that had stuck around for us -- the cleaning lady, the security guy, the baggage personnel, and yes, to my amazement, the shuttle bus driver. It seemed like the night would end better than it began. Until I tried to exit the parking lot.

Its exit gate is automated, with no personnel in the booth, so you have to pay by credit card. As I approached the gate, there was a woman standing next to her car, looking frustrated. I figured that she didn't know about the credit-card-only policy and was stuck, so I got out to ask, and she told me that the system wasn't processing her card, so she had pushed the emergency help button and was waiting for someone to come open it up for her.

I tried my card, and it was rejected, too. Damn!

At that moment, a guy from the parking lot company showed up and entered the booth. I figured we'd be out of there in seconds, so I returned to my car, but after a couple of minutes, the gate still hadn't opened for her because he couldn't get the system to process her plastic manually. She told me he could accept cash while the electronics were down, but she didn't have enough money.

I thought she was going to ask to borrow some from me, but instead she said that if I had cash to pay for my exit, she'd move out of the way and let me go. I did, so she did, and when I approached the booth to pay my $28 charge for four days of parking, the display showed the amount she'd have to pay -- $112. I did some quick calculation and realized that her car had been in that lot for 16 days.

She'd been away from home for over two weeks and now couldn't get out of the damn parking lot to get home. At least guy-in-the-booth was working on the problem, which he said shouldn't take more than a couple more minutes. I offered to help in some way, but she demurred, thanked me, and seemed resigned to her short-term fate in the long-term lot.

So, I paid my way out of there and, finally freed from the enclosure and having not lost my seat belt, headed home to collapse into bed at 3:15am.

Missouri State Penitentiary

My wife and daughter and I recently drove to Jefferson City to take a tour of the old Missouri State Penitentiary. The prison closed in 2004 (when a new one opened seven miles down river), but has a history dating back to 1836, and we were lucky enough to have as our guide Mike Groose, a former warden of that facility who knows pretty much everything that ever happened there. He told us so many great stories that I invited him to share some of them on my KTRS show, and in our extended conversation, he discussed:
  • the penitentiary's role in the westward expansion of the US during frontier times;
  • some of the better-known inmates, including Sonny Liston, James Earl Ray, and Pretty Boy Floyd;
  • why the gas chamber had two seats side-by-side;
  • what it was like in "the hole," with no electricity, no light, and no heat or air conditioning;
  • the inmate riot of 1954 and how the guards reacted;
  • whether he could walk through the prison yard as warden without security and get to know the inmates;
  • what he thinks of movies like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Escape From Alcatraz."
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Here's the website for the tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Harris Challenge 8/1/14

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes trivia categories "They're Going To Canton," "Actor In Common," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 8/1/14

My latest batch of Knuckleheads In The News® stories include a swinging prosthetic leg, a guy with big guns, and Laura Skywalker's passport problem. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!