Friday, June 30, 2006

Magicians Chris Korn & Eric Mead

Magicians Chris Korn and Eric Mead were on my show this afternoon, part of my continuing effort to prove that you don't have to see magic to enjoy it. These are two very talented guys -- Chris was on with me a couple of years ago doing terrific close-up stuff. He did the "Mondo Magic" TV series a couple of years ago, and is working on a new one for this fall. Today, Eric did some mentalism on the air -- one trick with a listener, another one with me -- that you'll hear in this segment.

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

Truth, Justice, and The Divisive Way

Wednesday afternoon, while Mark was reviewing "Superman Returns," I mentioned that in the new movie, there's a line that says Superman stands for "truth, justice, and all that stuff" instead of "...and the American way."

I predicted that before the week was out, the right-wing media in this country would jump all over this as more proof of how Hollywood hates America. The only thing that would have made it a hotter topic for them is if it had been printed in the New York Times.

Sure enough, this morning, Drudge has the screaming headline: "EVEN 'SUPERMAN' IS NOT AMERICAN ANYMORE?" with a link to a Hollywood Reporter story about the controversial change, including an explanation from one of the screenwriters (Dan Harris, no relation) as to why they did it:

"The world has changed. The world is a different place. The truth is he's an alien. He was sent from another planet. He has landed on the planet Earth, and he is here for everybody. He's an international superhero."
What he leaves out (but the Reporter doesn't) is that Hollywood blockbusters count on an international audience for a huge part of their box office success. And the fact is, right now, "the American way" just isn't that popular in many parts of the world.

But that won't stop a lot of loudmouths from making this their divisive cause celebre today.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Bridge Naming Lottery

There's debate between Missouri and Illinois about how to finance a new bridge over the Mississippi River, and the two sides are deadlocked. Fortunately, I have the solution.

Sell the naming rights for the bridge -- but not to a corporation!

Instead, sell tickets to the public, draw a winner at random, and that person gets to decide whose name goes on the bridge for the next year. They can name it after themselves, or a family member, or a soldier who died in the war, or anyone they like. After those twelve months, have another lottery, sell more tickets, and name it after that winner. And so on and so on for the next twenty years.

Not only would this answer the money question, it would also keep the bridge from being named for yet another politician. Tom Eagleton has the Federal Courthouse, Buzz Westfall has the Page Avenue Extension, and we don't need anything else named after Ronald Reagan. With my plan, the bridge gets named after some regular, not-famous-at-all man or woman.

I figure we could sell around a million tickets each year. That's not a million buyers, but a million tickets -- we'd have multiple purchases by many people, including: grandparents who want to do something for their grandkids; people who don't know what to get for someone's birthday, baby shower, or bar mitzvah; husbands who don't ever want to be blamed for forgetting an anniversary ever again; and lots of folks who just want their name on something.

Plenty of St. Louisans have already put their name on bricks around the new Busch Stadium, which cost a lot more than these tickets, and no one really notices them except family members who stop to hunt them down. With the bridge naming rights, everyone in town would know your name -- there would be signs aplenty, and every traffic report for a year would mention a backup on the Your Name Here Bridge!

Speaking of bricks, we could do that, too, with a brick walkway across the bridge. We can also sell sponsorships of the flags hanging off the light poles (like the ones on Kingshighway for "The Hill," or all over town when The Final Four was here). Now we'd have even more money rolling in, and never have to think about installing a tollbooth.

So, how much money can we raise?

If we price the tickets at $25 apiece, that's $25,000,000 a year. Over 20 years, we're talking half a billion dollars. Add in the federal money (about $240 million) and you have quite a bridge-building fund, even without Missouri and Illinois kicking in a penny!

What do you think?

Would you buy a ticket? More than one? Is $25 too high? Too low? Would we sell more tickets if there were also a cash prize of, say, $100,000? A million bucks?

I'm open to any suggestions, comments, problems you foresee, or alterations to this plan. Add'em below.

Story of a Mafia Hit Man

Here's my conversation with Philip Carlo about his book, "The Ice Man: Confessions Of A Mafia Contract Killer." It's the true story of Richard Kuklinski, who was responsible for over 200 murders, and claims a direct link to the killing of Jimmy Hoffa and John Gotti's rise to power.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes! Warning: this interview contains graphic descriptions of violence.

Also on Harris Online...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Lost His Car on "Pinks"

After talking with "Pinks" host Rich Christensen yesterday, I got a call this afternoon from Todd Tosto, who raced his car last night, and lost -- to his brother Tim!

This was a classic Camaro vs. Firebird battle, with guys who spent years and years and tens of thousands of dollars on their vehicles. Unfortunately for Todd, according to the "Pinks" rules, Tim is not allowed to give or sell the car back to him -- he has to put it up for auction on eBay!

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Should A Hitter Pitch?

Late Thursday night, Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was seen hitting his wife outside their hotel in Boston. Saturday afternoon, Myers was allowed to take the mound as the starting pitcher against the Red Sox. What kind of message does that send?

As Dan Shaugnessy wrote in the Boston Globe,

It's just plain wrong. It's an embarrassment to baseball and an embarrassment to the Phillies. At the very least, Myers would have been better off if he'd been sent home to start counseling with his wife. Or maybe someone in authority could have condemned domestic violence -- in the generic sense. Instead all we got was ``the game must go on" -- 36 hours after a man was arrested for beating his wife.
When I talked about this on my show yesterday, several listeners lambasted me with comments like Don's:

People are innocent until proven guilty. I suspect that Mr. Myers IS guilty, but reprehensible crime or not, he has not been PROVEN guilty. I'm happy for all of us that talk show hosts and callers do NOT constitute a judge and jury. People in this country who have been accused of a crime and released on bond are free to go to work and do whatever they do for a living. Clearly he should not get special treatment because he is a celebrity (although OJ did), but neither should he be convicted without a trial.
I replied:
And what do you do if his case never makes it to court, probably because his battered wife refuses to file charges? We may be looking at a classic case of Battered Woman Syndrome here, since she's the one who bailed him out Thursday night, even though witnesses had heard here screaming, "I'm not going to let you do this to me again!" Do you just let it go? What you would do if you were his employer and he was about to go out and represent your company in the spotlight of public opinion.
Take it off the baseball field and into corporate America -- if Myers were an executive who was scheduled to make a huge sales presentation to a major client right after news came out of an incident like this, do you put him front and center at the meeting? I doubt it very much. This wasn't just an incident that took place behind closed doors, with a he-said-she-said accusation. This took place in front of other people, who were so horrified that they called 911.

There needs to be counseling, someone needs to check into the home situation to see if Kim Myers needs help extricating herself from an ugly situation, whether Brett Myers' performance is being affected by whatever the hell is going on, why a 6'4" 240-pound professional athlete is hitting a 5'4" 120-pound woman, etc.

I'm not convicting him of the crime and sending him to prison, I'm saying he shouldn't have been allowed to pitch a mere 36 hours after the incident, and that by doing so, the Phillies showed that they don't care about domestic violence and its victim. Shame on them.

Update 6/27 5:09pm
Myers just announced that he's taking a "leave of absence" so he can "concentrate on this matter and make plans for whatever assistance is appropriate." He admitted that his behavior was in appropriate and apologized.

Phillies team president tried to do some image-saving:
"We abhor such violence and recognize that it is a very serious problem affecting a substantial number of victims, particularly women, across the country. If we have been guilty of delay in expressing these sentiments, we are sorry."
I'm guessing the team will be writing a large check to some battered-women's shelter or cause soon.


This afternoon, I talked with Rich Christensen, host of the TV show "Pinks," in which guys drag race their custom vehicles, and the winner gets the other guy's car (the pink slip being the title paperwork they have to hand over).

I watched an episode of "Pinks" this weekend on the Speed Channel -- no, I didn't know there was such a channel until a couple of days ago, either -- and was immediately taken with the storyline of these two guys who have invested so much time, energy, and money in these vehicles, and then risked losing them in a best-of-five drag race format. Each show has new racers, new vehicles, and new storylines. I don't know why one of the major networks hasn't picked up this show yet.

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

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Storm Over Cell Phones

The story was all over the media yesterday. They quoted an item in the British Medical Journal that warned against using your cell phone in a thunderstorm, because it increased your chance of being hit by lightning.

The headlines on cable news channels went to the typical fear hype, making it sound as if your cell phone was a magnet that made you the most likely target for a lightning bolt -- you shouldn't even carry one, let alone use one, during a thunderstorm, or you risk death!

Unfortunately, that's not what the BMJ article says.

It tells the story of a London teenager who was struck by lightning while talking on her cell phone in a park during a thunderstorm. But it explicitly says that it's not clear what role, if any, her cell phone played in her injuries. It then goes on to highlight the rarity of any such injury, and added that, although possible, doctors have no way of knowing if the cell phone worsened the girl's injuries.

In other words, the stories that were being told got it completely wrong.

It wasn't until after I debunked this on my show yesterday that others became a little more cautious in their reporting. CBS newsman Lou Miliano did a piece including comments from meteorologists and other scientists who pointed out that the girl was hit by lightning because she was standing outside in a park during a thunderstorm, not because she was on a cell phone. Others pointed out that there isn't nearly enough metal in a cell phone to attract lightning.

That's not quite the same as Dr. Emmett Brown figuring out a new way to know where and when lightning will strike so he can get 1.21 gigawatts into the DeLorean time machine.

Sounds like a perfect experiment for Adam and Jamie on an upcoming "Mythbusters." In the meantime, it would be nice if there were a little more science and reason and a lot less panic and fear-mongering among the rest of the news media.

Spelling Blahs

Upon seeing Aaron Spelling's obituary this morning, it occcured to me that he was responsible for more TV series that I never watched than just about anyone else.

That speaks to two factors: 1) how prolific he was at making TV (take a look at this rundown on IMdB) and 2) his talent for making a lot of schlock -- and I'm not just talking about Tori -- from "The Mod Squad" and "The Rookies" to "Dynasty" and "TJ Hooker."

Much of it achieved hot-show-of-the-moment status during its run ("Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills 90210"), or served as a place for multiple has-beens to appear in an ensemble together as guest stars ("Love Boat," "Fantasy Island"), or has been turned into a bad big-screen movie ("Starsky & Hutch," "Charlie's Angels," "SWAT").

Spelling was proof that making successful television is not the same as making quality television. But too often, those who are responsible for the latter only hit the creative bullseye once or twice and then are never heard from again. Spelling specialized in getting the darts into the board so often that flops like "San Pedro Beach Bums" and "B.A.D. Cats" and even the incredibly bad Lucille Ball comeback vehicle he produced in 1986, "Life With Lucy," didn't count against him in the Hollywood hierarchy of hitmakers.

That's something, I suppose, but it's not necessarily good.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Marie Gonzalez Can Stay

A nice story about an illegal immigrant today.

This afternoon, I talked with Marie Gonzalez. You may remember last year when Marie's parents (who came to the US in 1991 on a six-month visitor's visa and never left, getting some bad legal advice about staying and becoming citizens) were deported to Costa Rica. Marie was allowed to stay on a one-year deferment to finish high school and attend Westminster College in Missouri. That deferment deadline would have been June 30th, but this she afternoon called my show to report that the Dept. of Homeland Security had just granted her an extension for another year.

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

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no way for Marie to begin the legal process of staying permanently -- until Congress passes the Dream Act, permitting students who have lived in the US five years or more (even if they're here illegally) to become citizens. In the meantime, Marie won't see her parents for a decade or so, because they're barred from re-entering the US, and if she goes to Costa Rica to visit them, she won't be allowed back in, either.

Most arguments against illegal immigrants quickly boil down to "build a fence and secure the border!" But the truth is that there are tens of thousands of immigrants who don't come across the US-Mexican border -- instead, they come here legally on visas as students, visitors, or workers, and then they don't leave. In Marie's case, it's not fair to hold her responsible for what her parents did when she was only five years old. If the immigration debate could ever turn reasonable -- and there's no chance of that in an election year -- then the focus could be on real solutions for real people, rather than political rhetoric.

Monkey Man

Reuters reports on a Monkey Man:

Thousands of people are flocking to an impoverished Indian village in eastern West Bengal state to worship a man they believe possesses divine powers because he climbs up trees in seconds, gobbles up bananas and has a "tail."

Devotees say 27-year-old villager Chandre Oraon is an incarnation of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman -- worshipped by millions as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion.

Tucked away in a hamlet in Banarhat, over 400 miles north of Kolkata, the state capital, devotees wait for hours to see or touch Oraon's 13-inch tail, believing that it has healing powers.

Doctors said the "tail" -- made up of some flesh but mostly of dark hair -- was simply a rare physical attribute.
When I saw the story, I sent it off to James Randi, who I thought would enjoy it and might be able to shed some light on it. He replied:
Paul, while I was in the Philippines some years ago, I met a doctor who told me that in the Islands, about one in eighteen boys is born with a vestigial tail, which is snipped off (ouch!) immediately at birth. It’s usually very tiny and unobtrusive, but it’s really there.

Reminds me of the "sacral spot"phenomenon in Japan. My Japanese neighbors in NYC expressed to me their concern about an egg-shaped purple spot that their newborn son Kelvin had just at the "tail position." It looked like a bruise. I asked around, and found that a small percentage of Japanese males are born with this, especially if they trace their families to Hokkaido, the northern island, where the Ainu people originate. Sure enough, this father had Ainu forebears. Usually, by the age of 12, the spot fades away…

Ain’t nature grand…?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cancelling AOL

Vincent Ferrari just wanted to cancel his AOL account, but ran into a customer service rep who gave him the runaround. Fortunately, Ferrari recorded the whole encounter. He joined me this afternoon to play it and explain what happened afterwards. You won't believe this audio, and the reaction he got -- apparently he's not the only ex-AOL customer who had this problem.

Listen to the conversation here.

Embassy View of Iraq

For anyone who blames the media for not giving an accurate representation of what's going on in Iraq, here's another source. It's a cable from the US Ambassador in Baghdad to Condoleeza Rice, describing conditions there and for the Iraqis who work with the Americans at our embassy. As you read it, remember that this is unfiltered feedback from our top diplomat in Iraq directly to the Secretary of State, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Not only is it indicative of the infrastructure and societal problems that haven't been solved, but it also points to an increase in the religious extremism that I have worried will become the power base in Iraq, thus germinating exactly the kind of anti-American seeds we don't need growing there. This, at the same time the Taliban is on the rise again in Afghanistan.

Why is this aspect of the conflict never discussed?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Missile Shield

A report today says that, in response to North Korea claiming they have the capability to launch a missile all the way to America, the US has activated our anti-missile shield!

The whole concept of an anti-missile shield sounds very Wile E. Coyote, like it's made by the people at Acme. Frankly, I don't believe we even have such a thing. It sounds as if we're playing a Corbomite Maneuver game with the North Koreans, like six year olds on the playground:

NK: "I'm gonna launch one of my missiles and have it land in your country."
US: "Well, I have a shield that will stop your missile before it hurts us."
NK: "Yeah? My missiles are so strong they'll go right through your shield."
US: "No they won't, because I have a special protector layer for my anti-missile shield, like a shield shield."

Why didn't we turn on the shield before? If it works, why haven't we had this thing in the ON position all along? Not activating it until there's a possible threat is like having a home security system, but not turning it on until you hear a noise outside the living room window. Were we that sure no one was going to break in while we ran out for a quarter-pounder?

Maybe we didn't throw the massive switch to ON before now because it would really run up our electric bill. You know what it's like in the summer, with the air conditioning running all the time. Gotta save a few pennies where you can, so you keep the missile shield off until we really need it.

Or maybe the reason it hadn't been activated previously is that we bought the thing but, like most other men, we never read the instruction manual -- so it took us a long time to get it put together correctly and figure out how it works and how to turn it on.

I feel safer already.

Mitchell Fink, "Last Days of Dead Celebrities"

This afternoon, Mitchell Fink told some great stories from his book, "The Last Days of Dead Celebrities."

We talked about Warren Zevon going public with his terminal illness and Arthur Ashe trying to keep his AIDS diagnosis secret, the last week of John Ritter's life as seen through the eyes of his close friend Henry Winkler, Tupac Shakur foreshadowing his own death in his music, Lyle Alzado going to his grave believing that steroids had caused his brain cancer, and why John Lennon didn't sleep with Yoko Ono on the last night of his life.

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

Cops Get Phone Data From Brokers

Last December, MSNBC's Bob Sullivan came on my show to expose how your cell phone records are for sale online and elsewhere by over 100 private companies (listen here).

Today, AP's John Solomon reported on new developments in this attack on our privacy. Law enforcement agencies at every level (local to federal), are using those companies to gather that data without warrants or subpoenas. This is not the same as the NSA domestic spying, which supposedly targets terrorism suspect -- this is much more far-reaching.

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

Tomorrow, Congress is going to begin two days of hearings into the propriety of these companies gathering our private data (which goes well beyond just phone records) in the first place. Ironically, the execs of the data brokers will likely take the fifth -- they want the protection of the US Constitution at the same time they're violating our right to privacy. There has to be something illegal about this, but that's not stopping either the cops or the companies from doing it, usually through the most sordid means. It would be nice to have the private records of a few congressmen be made public and see how they like it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

You Don't Know Old

In America, we define a place as having been around for a really long time if the sign outside says, "Established 1953."

If you want older than that, you go to...

  • Wrigley Field, which hosted its first baseball game in 1914.
  • The Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.
  • The spot here in Missouri where Lewis & Clark started their expedition in 1803.
  • Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where our nation was essentially born in 1776.
But if you want really old, you go to England, where they do old like it's going out of business. I'm not just talking about the Tower of London and the other royal stuff. I'm talking about been-around-forever parts of the basic landscape.

Want an example?

Last week, on vacation, we had lunch at The George, a pub in Wiltshire, England, that has been open for business on the same spot since 1361.

Thirteen sixty one! We're not talking antique, we're talking ancient. A hundred and thirty one years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Five hundred years before our Civil War. That's 645 years of lunches, washed down by who-knows-how-many pints of room-temperature ale, or mead, or grog, or whatever they drank in the 14th century.

This place was so old that the newest part of it was a well that was dug in the back patio -- some time in the 1700s. In England, that's recent enough that the warranty on the well is still valid.

And oh, that food. What was the last time you said to anyone, "Hey, let's go out for British food tonight"? The British do have great names for their food (Bangers & Mash, Bubble & Squeak, Toad In The Hole, Trifle, Yorkshire Pudding, and Spotted Dick) and for their pubs (in one day, we passed the Rat & Parrot, the Pig & Whistle, and the Cock & Bottle), but let's just say that the natives aren't preparing culinary treats that will rival those of their European neighbors on any list of great meals.

When you're in the big cities, you have the choice of all the world's cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, French, etc.), but when you're in the English countryside, the menu is going to include lots of things baked into pies -- not for dessert, but for the entree, and that's not all bad. I had some great Harvester Pie (chicken, ham, potatoes, and other vegetables) and my wife loved her Shepherd's Pie. There are also plenty of "takeaway" shops selling pasties, which are not an edible erotic treat, but essentially a hand-held pie pastry filled with steak and potato, or cheese and bacon, or any combination of ingredients.

Still, when you're sitting in a pub that's been standing in that spot since 200 years before Shakespeare was born, you don't expect to find contemporary bar food -- there's nary a chicken Caesar wrap or nacho platter or coconut beer shrimp in sight.

Just like in the Old Days.


Some stories and observations of the week I just spent with my family on vacation in England:

We may share a common language, but that doesn't mean our words and phrases are always similar. For instance, an elevator is called a lift, a truck is called a lorry, and there seems to be no word in the UK for air conditioning.

Like their French neighbors, the English stubbornly resist investing in air conditioning, regardless of how hot it gets. The decision was probably made by the same people who refused to serve cold beer or put ice in a glass of soda. They live at room temperature, regardless of whether that temperature rises into the 90s, as it did last week.

The Brits are either completely immune to the heat, or have given up complaining about it. One English guy explained that it only gets really warm for a few months, so why bother? Being a Carrier dealer there must a lonelier job than being the Maytag repairman. The good news is that they don't have nearly as much humidity as we do. The bad news is that, from the hotel room to the tube (subway) to virtually every other place we went, it was sauna time.

Speaking of the tube, we were surprised not to see a lot more security at the stations and on the trains, since it has been less than a year since last summer's terrorist bombings. Apparently, Londoners moved on with their lives very quickly, as we noticed no additional police presence or any security measures that slowed down the flow of people using one of the best mass transit systems in the world.

Like many older cities -- the ones where subways were built and used long before the passenger car became the most common form of transportation -- London is easy to get around by tube and bus. There's no class warfare at play, as everyone of every stature uses them to get around. If not, there are the ubiquitous and not overly pricey black cabs (which have more leg room than some stretch limos), whose drivers can find any destination in London.

But on the street, there's an even bigger difference -- smaller vehicles. In the entire time we were there, I didn't see a single SUV, nor a pickup truck of any kind, even in the English countryside. This was very odd, coming from a nation where the SUV became the suburban gold standard, and the Ford F-150 remains one of the most popular vehicles of all. The reason may be simple -- the price of gas, which hovers around $7.50/gallon.

We took our turn on the road in a rental car, which meant driving on the wrong side of the road. That takes a little getting used to. At first, you're concentrating as hard as you can, giving the task 100% of your attention -- no cell phones, no talking to passengers, just keeping your eye on where you're supposed to be and remembering that the left lane is the slow lane. Then, after 15-20 minutes, you just go with the flow of traffic, thankful that you got a car with an automatic transmission so you don't have to shift gears with your left hand.

I was amazed to see that the British do not use the metric system on their highways. When the speed limit sign said "50," I thought that was 50 kilometers per hour, which I knew equals 30 miles per hour. But that couldn't be the highway speed limit! Then we saw a sign telling us that the next exit was coming up in "1m" and knew that couldn't mean one meter! So for all that fussing we did in the 1970s about refusing to convert to the metric system, here are the Brits using our system or measurement (for distance, at least -- you still buy gas by the liter).

The one thing that truly flaps those unflappable Brits is the World Cup. While we were there, England played its first two games of the tournament, and the entire nation went into a spasm. We were in Liverpool when they played their second game, against Trinidad & Tobago, and were shocked to see the streets literally empty. Everyone was either watching the game at home, or at the pub, or on one of the huge outdoor screens the BBC had set up in some downtown locations. Everything else looked like a ghost town.

We don't have anything that approaches that on a national level. Sure, St. Louisans all paid attention when the Cardinals were in the World Series, but that didn't shut down other parts of the country. Nor did all of America rally behind any of our Olympic teams (the 1980 Miracle On Ice was a bigger deal in the past tense than in the present tense). But for the countries that care about the World Cup, there is nothing more important. Nothing.

I watched some of the end of that second game on TV and saw England score its first goal, breaking a scoreless tie some 84 minutes into the game. From our hotel room, we could hearing the roars and cheers of the England fans in a pub a block away. They went berserk for quite awhile.

What I found most interesting was the reaction of the Trinidad & Tobago players. They looked like the game was over, as if they were thinking, "With the score 1-0, they've amassed such an insurmountable lead, we can never come back and win this thing now, so why bother trying?" They looked more defeated than Michael Dukakis on Election Night 1988.

Or maybe it was the heat.

I'll have more on our trip to Britain over the next day or two, including lots of Beatles stories from London and Liverpool, and the story of my night in a London casino's poker room.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Worst Movie Sequels

Kevin Williamson lists the Worst Movie Sequels Ever, and he's right about every single one [thanks to Gary for the link].

Bill Engvall & The Thunderbirds

Bill Engvall was on my show just before I left for vacation, and told a story so funny that I had to post it as soon as I got back. It's about his adventure flying with the Thunderbirds. I have gotten more requests for this show segment than any other in a long time -- you'll see why when you listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Also on Harris Online...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America

This afternoon, I talked with Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America about the case of Lt. Ehren Watada, who has refused to go serve in Iraq because he's opposed to the war -- not all war, just this war. We also discussed the VA losing personal data on 26 million veterans, the death of Al-Zarqawi, and the Haditha scandal.

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

David Sirota "Hostile Takeover"

Here's my conversation with David Sirota about his book, "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Government, and How To Take It Back." We dug into some myths, lies, and half-truths about issues like health care, energy prices, and whether the minimum wage should be raised. I also asked him about his experiences with corruption when he was a Capitol Hill staffer -- he took shots at politicians on both sides of the fence.

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Stop The Text Madness!

Last night, on the way home from work, my cell phone rang. Since my wife and daughter were supposed to be on a flight at that time, and were going to call me if something had gone wrong, I assumed that's what the call was about. It wasn't.

Instead, it was a text message from Cingular telling me how I can do more text messaging. This is a big moneymaker for them and is hugely popular with people about half my age, although I have sent a few text messages myself. But the one they sent me amounted to nothing more than a junk message, the equivalent of spam e-mail, or a telemarketing call interrupting dinner.

Fortunately, their message included information on how I could opt-out of receiving such messages from Cingular. All I had to do was send the word "stop" to number 3711, and that would be the end of it.

Or so I thought.

I sent the "stop" message, put the phone away, and continued home. Exactly eight seconds later, my phone rang again. This time, I was sure it was my wife calling to tell me the flight was delayed. Nope. It was another text message from Cingular! This one said, "We received your text message, thank you!"

I know this was done automatically with no direct human involvement, but someone had to program the equipment to do that in the first place. The thinking being, I suppose, "The customer won't believe that we're not going to bother him again unless we bother him again to tell him we won't bother him again."

The temptation was strong to reply to their message with a few pithy comments of my own, but since that would undoubtedly have caused yet another incoming text volley, I surrendered, temporarily, opting instead to share the story with you, here.

I expect a comment to be added by Cingular any second now.

Another Movie You Might Not Know

New to the Movies You Might Not Know list: "The Tao of Steve," with Donal Logue as an overweight, underachieving kindergarten teacher who has come up with own philosophy on how to be cool a la Steve McQueen.

Okay, that description doesn't do the movie justice in the least, but there's a huge "I like this loser" factor at work with his character, and the supporting cast is fun.

Bill Colby on The Right To Die

Here's my conversation with Bill Colby, who was the attorney for Nancy Cruzan's family in the first right-to-die case heard at the Supreme Court. He fought the state of Missouri so Nancy's parents could remove her feeding tube when she was in a persistent vegetative state. Bill's new book, "Unplugged: Reclaiming Our Right To Die In America," discusses that case, the Terri Schiavo debacle last year, and related cases (e.g. Christine Busalacchi).

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

Bill also is a Senior Fellow with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, whose website offers information on all sorts of end-of-life matters.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Charged Up Again

A followup to Friday's story about charging devices.

Yesterday, I bought a second external hard drive to back up the hours of audio files I've accumulated and want to archive. Like the first one, this drive is made by Western Digital, so you'd think that the same cables could be used for both drives.

You'd be wrong. Sure, the USB cable fits just fine, but the power cable has a completely different configuration!

Why?? Maybe they've updated it in the six months since I bought the other drive. Or maybe they have a new cord-and-charger supplier. Or maybe someone in one division of the company isn't talking to the other guy in the other division.

Regardless, they haven't made it simple for the consumer -- and I thought that's what the new 21st-century business paradigm was supposed to be about.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Spelling Bee Geography Problem

We've been longtime fans of the National Spelling Bee in my house. For the last several years, we would record the daytime ESPN telecast and watch it that evening, amazed at not only the knowledge but also the poise that these champions have. So it was nice to see the whole thing time-shifted and given primetime exposure on ABC Thursday night, where viewership reached about eight million.

My daughter, who is quite a speller herself, was really into it -- these are kids her own age getting to show off their smarts. In a world where what you accomplish with your body gets so much exposure and praise on television, it's nice to see kids getting acclaim for using their brains. And considering the vicious attacks against public schools that have passed for commentaries on American education, it was especially nice to see public school students doing so well in the Bee.

I do have one complaint, however.

This is the National Spelling Bee. That should mean the best spellers from this nation. Last time I checked, Canada is not part of the USA. So what was Finola Hackett of Alberta doing in the competition?

Not that she doesn't deserve credit for doing so well (she finished second), but there should be another Bee north of the border for her and the 13 other Canadians who were among the 275 kids competing. Then, have that winner compete with our winner and the UK winner and the Australian winner and the winner from any other English-speaking nation in some sort of International Spelling Bee.

Then they can all struggle with such classic English words as heiligenschein and weltschmertz and ursprache.


In case you were wondering exactly what happened when Saryn Hooks was reinstated after first being told she had gotten the spelling of hechsher wrong, it turns out that other Bee kids in the audience knew she'd gotten it right and went to the judges with proof -- here's the story from a blogger who was there.

Reporters in Iraq

In the wake of last week's incident in Iraq that killed two CBS crew members and seriously injured Kimberly Dozier, CNN's Howard Kurtz addressed the issue of how dangerous Iraq has become for reporters trying to cover the war (more journalists have died covering this conflict than any other war in US history).

On today's CNN "Reliable Sources," Kurtz asked NBC's Richard Engel, who has been in Baghdad for three years covering the war, whether the conditions there are so dangerous that it leads to what some call "too heavy a focus on the violence in Iraq because it's very difficult to get out and cover, you know, what many ordinary Iraqis are doing?"

Engel's answer:

I think it's -- no, I wouldn't say that it is too difficult to go out and cover what ordinary Iraqis are doing. I was just last week at an Iraqi's home. I had to go in through the back door, but I stayed several hours. I was out this morning talking to Iraqi journalists. I was on a military base yesterday.

So we still do get out, and this perception that all the reporters in Baghdad are holed up in the Green Zone, I often -- people tell me that. "Oh, so you live in the Green Zone." They ask me when I meet them. He we don't live in the Green Zone. As far as I know, very, very few journalists actually live in the Green Zone. The vast majority live in what the people inside the Green Zone call the Red Zone. They won't even come here. So to get military officials or embassy officials to come where we are is almost impossible.

So we very definitely are more connected to the Iraqi street, certainly not as connected as we would like, but definitely more connected than certain people who work for the U.S. military, for the embassy are, and I think that's an important distinction. And if we lose that, then I really think it would be pointless for us to be here.
The segment also included interesting insight from Allen Pizzey of CBS and Jane Arraf (former CNN Baghdad Bureau Chief). Full transcript here.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Jeff Cesario Returns

Comedian Jeff Cesario filled in for Jon Macks on my show this afternoon for a very funny segment. He joked illegal immigrants, sports sponsors, working out, Jerry Lewis, and Jeff's new DVD, "You Can Get A Hooker Tomorrow Night." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Charged Up

Gotta give some credit to Martha Stewart. I've never cared one bit about the domestic diva, but earlier this week, she finally brought up something I did care about.

At the Wall Street Journal's "All Things Digital" conference, Sony CEO Howard Stringer had just finished his presentation and opened the floor up to questions, when Martha stood up in the audience and stepped up to the microphone carrying a tote bag. As she addressed Stringer, she pulled out the charger for her camcorder. Then the charger for her laptop. Then the one for her digital camera. Then another one for her cellphone.

That's when she pointed to two of them and asked Stringer, "Why can't this thing be this thing?" In other words, why do we (the consumers) need all these different plugs and cords to charge all of our electronic devices? Why isn't there a single standard?

Stringer tried to get away without answering, but Martha kept pushing him until he said he would look into it, although he admitted, "For the last three years, the most profitable division [at Sony] was the components division."

Let's hope he does look into it, and that other manufacturers hear the complaint, too.

Worse, there isn't even consistency within each company. When I traded up my cell phone from one Sony Ericsson model to another, the old charger and headset didn't fit in the new one. A listener complained to me that she has two Canon digital cameras but the charger for one doesn't work for the other one. That's insanity.

In a world where I can plug both my big living room TV and my small bedside lamp into a wall socket and have them both get the juice they need, why can't this generation of electronic geniuses -- who I'm sure have many of these devices themselves -- come up with a universal charger?