If you like trivia, check out my other site, THE HARRIS CHALLENGE, and play every weekday!

Monday, August 31, 2009

District 9 From Outer Space

I'm just back from seeing the best sci-fi movie in years, "District 9," and have to rave about it.

Not everyone in the theater loved it. In fact, a few people walked out, moaning that the movie wasn't what they expected. Let's see -- an original story, cleverly told, in a place we've rarely seen on screen (Johannesburg, South Africa, giving it a nice apartheid allegory), with a hero you're not sure you should root for, greedy political and paramilitary villains, and great special effects. If that's not what you want from a sci-fi movie, you've gotten too used to the pablum that Hollywood usually spits out.

So, what should you expect from "District 9"?

If I told you it was about aliens who come to earth, hover their mothership over a major city, then get involved in a battle with the local forces before a final attempt to get home, you'd think it sounded like a dozen other humans-vs. aliens films. It's more than that.

If I told you it was about a group that lives in shacks in a militarized slum zone where poverty and crime wreak havoc among the underclass, you'd think it sounded like a thriller tinged with political commentary. It's more than that, too.

If I told you it was the documentary-like saga of an office bureaucrat promoted to unlikely leader who finds himself in a biological battle for power, weaponry, and -- let me stop myself right there, because I don't want to tell you too much instead of just urging you to experience "District 9" yourself.

True, the cast includes no one you've seen before, and there are a couple of scenes that are so gross I had to turn my head away for a few seconds and would certainly keep me from allowing my 15-year-old daughter to see the movie, but those small points are not enough to keep me from recommending it to you. In a world where originality is scarce, where every comic book character becomes a worn-out franchise, where every action movie is over-hyped into an event, "District 9" stands apart.

My only request for the creative team behind the movie is that they not let themselves be talked into making "District 10."

Ode To Forgetfulness

Mack and Jamie were a clever comedy team that I first noticed in the 1980s when they seem to pop up on TV regularly. They did quite a few Carson show appearances, and had their own syndicated series ("Comedy Break") for a year or so. I don't know what happened to Jamie, but Mack became a contributor to a morning radio comedy service distributed by Premiere, writing and performing sketches and song parodies. He's still at it, as reader Michelle Nicotera discovered when she came upon this...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

More Movies You Might Now Know

The movies I'm adding to my Movies You Might Not Know list have two things in common: Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who are among the top film actresses of this decade.

The two co-star in "Sunshine Cleaning," in which Adams is a single mom struggling to make ends meet by cleaning houses for a living. She's having an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn), who suggests she try a new business venture: cleaning up grisly crime scenes, which is much more lucrative than your ordinary vacuuming and dusting job. She recruits her sister (Blunt, the reigning Actor Who Must Appear In All Movies) as her partner, and gets her father, Alan Arkin (every year's model of the Actor Who Makes A Movie Better), to keep an eye on her son. That quartet gets nice support from Clifton Collins Jr. as a one-armed janitorial-supply salesman, Mary Lynn Rajskub as the relative of one of the victims, and a one-scene shot by the always reliable Paul Dooley. All in all, a nice small film with a solid emotional center.

"Charlie Wilson's War" stars Tom Hanks as a Texas congressman who loves women, booze, and power, who makes it his personal mission to fund Afghanistan's defense against the Soviet invasion, circa 1980. He's pushed into that role by Julia Roberts as a wealthy woman with a vitriolic distaste for communists and the ability to raise lots of money for the cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman nearly steals the movie out from under those two superstars as a CIA operative with tons of knowledge but no panache. Adams plays Wilson's crisply efficient congressional aide, and Blunt has a small role as the daughter of another wealthy Texan. With a script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by Mike Nichols, the movie is perfectly paced and tells a story not widely known about how, by funding the Afghan effort to repel the Russians, the US was simultaneously laying the groundwork for the problems we now face in that region.

Check out the entire Movies You Might Not Know list.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Retail Stinks

Because of my back problems, my wife and I needed a new bed, so we went to Macy's last night. As is our tradition, I had her do the reconnaissance work a few days ago, visiting various stores, narrowing down the choices, and then bringing me in for the actual purchase. She's the shopper, I'm the buyer.

I hadn't been in a department store in a very long time, and had forgotten about the smell. It's not bad, it's not pungent, but it is a distinctive scent that attacks your nasal passages as soon as you open the doors, in a way that says, "you have now entered the world of retail -- prepare to part with your money."

We glide past the makeup counter with its bored sales women, who spend their free time seeing how many different products they can apply to their own faces before the mirror screams in pain. I wonder if any customer has ever said to them, "I want to look just like you!" Now that Tammy Faye Bakker and Heath Ledger are dead, I doubt it.

We ride the escalators to the third floor -- my wife leads the way, knowing that without her as my guide, I'll be drawn genetically to either the electronics or sporting goods area -- until we find the bedding department and its sole occupant. The salesman has the same look Kevin Costner did when he spotted his first Lakota Sioux in "Dances With Wolves," just thrilled to see another human being who might communicate with him. We explain what we're there for, a pre-winnowed choice between two beds, which I'm here to audition. Whichever one feels best to me is the one we'll buy.

My decision takes all of 90 seconds, and then the action swings back to my wife, who has heard there's a sale starting in a few days, and could we get that price today, and when can we have it delivered, and do we want this outer cover that comes with a warranty and seems to be the bedding equivalent of undercoating on a car.

Boom! We're done with the purchase and paperwork in mere minutes. As the sales guy hands me back my credit card and explains the details to my wife -- he knows who his customer is -- I sense some remorse in his eyes. It's not that he's made a bad sale, or that he's not proud of the products in his store. It's that we're likely to be the only people he talks to tonight.

It reminds me of those few other times I've been in a store like this, usually to buy a couple of shirts, and had the place to myself. The staff always looks hungry for any task to relieve their boredom. At 7:30pm on a Thursday, they've already triple-checked their inventory, milked every last bit of small talk out of their colleagues, and gazed longingly at anyone in the vicinity who might need some assistance. I usually take a pair of pants off a rack and leave it on a nearby counter, just to give them something to do.

Having completed our business, my wife and I ride the escalators down to the first floor and out the doors to the parking lot. That's when I see a sign that stops me in my tracks. It says, "Visiting from out of town? Macy's welcomes you! Ask us about services and perks that make out-of-town shopping fun and exciting!"

This is a department store chain with 800 outlets across the country, which in the last few years has swallowed up other stores and turned them all into the same brand, with the same products, with the same interiors. There is exactly zero out-of-town feel to any Macy's store, anywhere. In fact, there's barely any life, let alone fun and excitement.

That's when I realize what the aroma is. It's the smell of desperation.

Visual Fx

Five minutes of great movie visual effects. This is nowhere near a definitive compilation, nor does it include some of the others that advanced the science, but it's fun...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Final Table #30: Humberto Brenes

This week on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I played an interview we did with Humberto Brenes at the 2009 World Series of Poker but hadn't aired yet. Humberto has cashed more than 50 times in his WSOP career, and you've seen him at the final table of several televised tournaments. He explained where his nickname ("The Shark") came from, how poker is expanding in Latin America, and how he has to keep changing his playing style at the table.

Joe "The Poker Coach" McGowan offered another instructional segment on things you should watch for to gain information about your opponents, from the way they fold their cards to the verbal tells that will tip you to the strength of their hand. We also analyzed a hand that Dennis played on Day 2 of the WSOP a few weeks ago.

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

More Sand Art

Since I made a magnificent work of sand artistry by Kseniya Simonova the Picture Of The Day last week, several readers have sent me links to another beautiful piece of sand art. This was done by a Hungarian artist name Ferenc Cakó in 2003 at the Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

One Movie Leads To Another

I was looking for a few more movies to add to my Netflix queue, so I went to their Movies You'll Love page, which uses your previous rentals as a basis for movies they think you might like. Next to each suggested title, it lists movies you've given high ratings to, which led the software to this recommendation. It's all done by a computer algorithm, with no humans involved, and that leads to some odd connnections.

For instance, the first recommendation is "In The Shadow of the Moon," a pretty good documentary about the men of the Apollo space program. I saw it when it came out in theaters, but Netflix doesn't know that. What's odd about this is that it's recommended because I enjoyed "Extras," a very funny series that Ricky Gervais did for HBO a couple of years ago (which, combined with his stand-up special, "Out of England," turned me into a Gervais fan). Great stuff, but a giant leap from the moon documentary.

Next, Netflix recommends that I rent "Les Paul: Chasing Sound," a documentary about the legendary guitarist and inventor who died this week. And why would I like it? Because Netflix knows that I enjoyed "Winged Migration," a phenomenal work that follows several flocks of migrating birds from their own perspective. What it has to do with the man who invented the electric guitar and studio overdubbing, I have no idea.

Other odd pairings: I liked "Seabiscuit," so Netflix recommends "Driving Miss Daisy," a movie that contains exactly zero race horses. The Albert Brooks romantic-comedy "Defending Your Life" leads the software to recommend the Robert DeNiro/Charles Grodin action-comedy "Midnight Run." It somehow finds a connection from "Ghostbusters" to "The Muppet Movie," "Sideways" to "Broadcast News," "Paper Moon" to "Heaven Can Wait."

I've seen those movies already, and every one is worth recommending, so there's no beef there. And I'm an unabashed Netflix fan, a longtime user of the service. I love having a place where I can find a film library so vast that it includes both hits and obscure titles that I missed during their short theatrical runs, or which never made it to a projector near me.

Still, I wonder why Netflix's algorithmic wizard is giving me those cinematic pointers -- and whether other Netflix customers are getting similarly odd recommendations. So, let's find out. If you're a Netflix subscriber, check your online list and then add your odd movie suggestion combinations to the comments section below.

Want some other recommendations? Check out my Movies You Might Not Know list.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Secret Service Man

Ronald Kessler is stirring up some controversy with his book, "In The President's Secret Service."

When I talked to him on KIRO/Seattle, he claimed that the agency's budget has been cut since being moved from Treasury to the Department of Homeland Security, and that cost-cutting is endangering the life of the President (and others they protect). This, at a time when the number of threats has risen from 3,000/year against President Bush to 12,000 against President Obama.

With the armed nutbags showing up recently outside an Obama speech, and the Southern Poverty Law Center's report on the rise in militias in the US, this is not a time for lax security around the leader of the free world.

We also discussed how he got these agents to talk about the job (what part of secret do they not understand?), what they think of how they've been portrayed in movies like "In The Line of Fire," and which protectees they did and didn't get along with. In that regard, Kessler has some intimate stories about LBJ's affairs, Carter's fake luggage, the Bush twins trying to escape without security following them, and more.

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Drugs and Cops

Peter Moskos says we should legalize drugs to save cops' lives.

The former policeman, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained to me on KTRS/St. Louis that when law enforcement responds to a report of someone selling drugs on a street corner, they might arrest the low-level guy, but the bigger dealer just moves away and sets up somewhere else. Meanwhile, the cop's life is at risk, and we lose far too many of them in our failed War On Drugs.

Moskos argues that the federal government should get completely out of the business of policing drug use, instead turning to regulating and taxing it, as it does with cigarettes and alcohol. That would allow police to concentrate on deterring other crime, and stop filling up our prisons with so many drug users.

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

Child of Polygamy

Susanna Barlow has one father, six mothers, and forty-five brothers and sisters. She grew up in a polygamist family in Utah, part of a Mormon fundamentalist religious sect.

When I talked to her on KTRS/St. Louis, she detailed what life was like growing up with so many people around, the abuse she suffered at the hands of one of the mothers, how they were kept sheltered from the outside world, and how she left that life behind.

Barlow's memoir is called "What Peace There May Be."

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Remembering a TV Pioneer

In honor of the late Don Hewitt, here's an interview I did with him on May 15, 2001, shortly after he published his autobiography, "Tell Me A Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes on Television."

Hewitt, who died of pancreatic cancer today at age 86, was one of the pioneers of TV news -- from directing the earliest newscasts to executive producing "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" to launching the longest-running show in primetime, "Sixty Minutes."

We talked about how he decided which stories ended up on the show, what kind of stories he wouldn't put on the air, and how Ed Bradley suckered Hewitt into a practical joke that would have changed the opening to "Sixty Minutes" forever. He explained why the first televised presidential debate (Kennedy-Nixon, which Hewitt directed in 1960) was a bad night for America, and why political commercials should never have been allowed on TV.

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

Final Table #29: Eric Buchman

This week on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I talked with Eric Buchman, one of this year's November Nine. He's a poker pro who has 9 WSOP cashes and 4 WPT cashes, and will be second in chips when the Main Event Final Table begins play.

When Joe "The Poker Coach" McGowan joined us, we answered an e-mail question about the biggest pots each of us have played in cash games. We also talked with tournament director Ken Lambert, who just finished overseeing the World Poker Open at the Goldstrike in Tunica and is now preparing for the Gulf Coast Poker Championship, which begins September 3rd at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mindset of the Class of 2013

Beloit College is out with its annual Mindset List for incoming freshmen. It was developed as a cultural guide for the faculty about what these students, born in 1991, have in their common knowledge base. Some of the highlights:

  • The Green Giant has always been Shrek, not the big guy picking vegetables.
  • They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
  • Tattoos have always been very chic and highly visible.
  • Rap music has always been main stream.
  • The KGB has never officially existed.
  • Text has always been hyper.
  • They have never had to “shake down” an oral thermometer.
  • The European Union has always existed.
  • Cable television systems have always offered telephone service and vice versa.
  • The American health care system has always been in critical condition.
  • Women have always outnumbered men in college.
  • We have always watched wars, coups, and police arrests unfold on television in real time.
  • Everyone has always known what the evening news was before the Evening News came on.
The full list is here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jake Johannsen

On our anniversary, my wife and I went to one of Jake Johannsen's shows at the Funny Bone here in St. Louis. He's one of our favorite stand-up comedians, who has never failed to be laugh-out-loud funny in the many times we've seen him.

Several hours earlier, Jake joined me in the studio at KTRS/St. Louis. Because he's been my guest so many times, we never discuss before the show what we're going to do, preferring to improvise our way through more than a half-hour of various topics. This time, the conversation ranged from ponzi schemes to parenthood to the piece of plastic bag that is melted onto the top of everyone's toaster to why he's on Facebook and Twitter to which airports are best to be stuck in to how to take advantage of potential disasters to why bad weather always makes people run out to buy milk.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes! You'll find his tour dates on Jake's website.

Ridley Pearson's Killer Summer

Ridley Pearson is one of America's best crime novelists, a helluva storyteller, and part-time member of a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders (with Dave Barry, Steven King, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, and other authors).

When we talked on KTRS/St. Louis, he told his story of attending Woodstock, which led to a discussion of which kinds of bands can give a good performance in a venue that large. Then we got into his latest book, "Killer Summer," a heist novel revolving around a sheriff in Sun Valley, Idaho, and some bottles of wine that may (or may not) have been owned by Thomas Jefferson. We also discussed Ridley's upcoming collaboration with Dave Barry -- the fourth in their "Peter and the Starcatchers" series -- and another soon-to-be-published book in his "Kingdom Keepers" series, for which he was allowed exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to Disneyworld.

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

A Bad Case of Asteroids

A few days ago, NASA announced that they don't have the funding to track all of the asteroids that could hit the Earth and wipe out life as we know it. Today on KTRS/St. Louis, I asked my friend Dr. Phil Plait, the astronomer and author of "Death From The Skies," about the possibility of such an "extinction event" and why we're not doing more to monitor these space threats.

We also talked about Phil's other role, as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and his battle against the anti-science ignoramuses who don't want children to be vaccinated.

Listen, read Phil's Bad Astronomy blog, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Sand Art

This may be the most stunning piece of art I have ever seen created. Kseniya Simonova won "Ukraine's Got Talent" last week with her sand artistry, in which she portrays Germany's invasion and occupation of her homeland during World War II, which took the lives of one in four Ukrainians. Her work is so powerful that it brings the judges and the audience to tears, and then to their feet...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dara Torres

Dara Torres is an Olympic champion. She was the first swimmer to compete in five Olympic games. She has 12 medals, including 4 gold, and the three silvers she won last year in Beijing -- at age 41, as a new mother (let's see Michael Phelps do that!).

I talked with her on KTRS/St. Louis about what it was like to be in the Olympic Village with athletes less than half her age, how tough it was to get back in the pool to train after giving birth, and whether she could keep up with Phelps when he sat down to eat those huge meals.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Monitoring Militias

The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled new information on the rise of militias in the United States, and says they're at a peak not seen since the 1990s.

Today on KTRS/St. Louis, Mark Potok (director of the SPLC's Intelligence Center) explained who these militia members are, how their numbers have increased since President Obama took office, how they thrive on conspiracy theories and fear, and why there is again reason for concern over what their paranoia might turn into. Remember that most Americans considered these guys to be harmless fringe groups in the early part of the last decade -- right up until the Murrah Federal Building was blown up by one militia-loving extremist named Timothy McVeigh. With authorities around the country reporting a uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda, is the US close to another terrorist attack from within?

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

Don't Take The Bad Acts, Man

On this 40th anniversary of Woodstock, I talked with David Comfort (author of "The Rock and Roll Book Of The Dead") about some of the performers there and their far-from-great stage appearances.

Comfort said that while the crowd may have been having a wonderful time in the mud as CSN, Santana, and others launched their careers from that stage, some of the legendary acts were nothing shot of atrocious. He described in detail the condition that Janis Joplin was in, thanks to booze and drugs, and how Jimi Hendrix was almost as screwed up by the time he hit the stage on Monday morning to a crowd that had thinned out to only 30,000.

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

Leiber and Stoller

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are one of the greatest songwriting teams in history. I would have put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if they had written nothing but "Stand By Me." But their list of hits also includes, "On Broadway," "Young Blood," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion #9," "Poison Ivy," "Kansas City," and so many more.

They joined me on KTRS/St. Louis to talk about their remarkable half-century careers and their autobiography, "Hound Dog," named for the song they wrote for blues artist Big Mama Thornton, which was turned into a huge hit by Elvis Presley -- without their knowledge. When you listen to the interview, you'll shake your head in amazement about how they found out about it.

We also discussed how they wrote a lot of early crossover hits for black artists at a time when they were not played on white radio in the US, how they made money in an era infamous for royalties and other rights not going to performers and writers, how they were forced to write "Jailhouse Rock" and other songs on a strict deadline, and how they were the first to introduce strings into an R&B arrangement with "There Goes My Baby."

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I Say It Here, It Comes Out There

Yesterday at President Obama's town hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a person in the crowd complained that creating a public option like Medicare would break the private insurance industry: "Who can compete with the government? The answer is nobody." Obama replied, "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? It's the post office that's always having problems."

Sounds like someone at the White House has been reading my column.

Lego My Spinal Tap

Coleman Hickey created this Lego version of Spinal Tap performing "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," complete with Nigel Tufnel body surfing the crowd. The band liked it so much that they showed it on tour this year but, according to the NY Times, when the DVD of those concerts was being produced, the folks at Lego wouldn't grant permission for their little plastic men to be used, on copyright infringement grounds. However, they've done nothing to force the video to be pulled off YouTube...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Final Table #28: Two Months Two Million

Tonight on my poker radio show, The Final Table, Dennis Phillips and I talked about the new ESPN online show, "Inside Deal," which he appears on this week. We also discussed which of this year's nominees for the Poker Hall of Fame deserves to be inducted (and who shouldn't have been nominated in the first place), NBC's new heads-up poker show "Face The Ace," and how a dealer was caught stealing from the big game at the Bellagio.

We brought in The Poker Coach, Joe McGowan, to dissect a hand I played a few days ago in which I flopped top set and tried to get all of my opponent's money. Then Dani Stern, one of the guys on G4's new poker reality show, "Two Months Two Million," joined us to talk about what it was like to be part of the foursome that spent the summer in a huge Las Vegas mansion playing poker and playing the town.

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

Three-Card Jamy

In 1993, CBS News did a "48 Hours" segment on three-card monte games in Times Square, which the city of New York was trying to cut down on. Reporter Richard Schlesinger went with a hidden camera to see a few of the many guys pulling the scam, and then got some insight from my friend Jamy Ian Swiss about how it works and how you can never win. Jamy, one of the top sleight-of-hand magicians in the world, knows quite a bit about street cons, and gave Schlesinger both a demonstration and a lesson.

By the way, if you're in LA and know someone who can get you into the Magic Castle, go this week and see Jamy performing in the Palace of Mystery.

Monday, August 10, 2009


The internet economy continues to fascinate me. There are sites and services that have become hugely popular, but haven't been able to translate that popularity into cash flow.

Take Facebook. It claims 250,000,000 members, yet nowhere near the income that matches its ubiquity. If not for the infusion of money from investors and venture capital funds, the company might fold under its own weight. Skype has become the brand for VOIP phone calls and video connections but, if it hadn't been bought by eBay, probably would be in the same financial boat (even now, eBay is struggling to come up with a way to generate income with it). Twitter is enjoying the brilliant spotlight of a mega-hit application, but because it's free to use, where's the money?

Some developers of these sites and services try to hang on until they can find a buyer or investor with deep pockets, but that call doesn't always come, and when the money gets tight, they have to turn out the lights.

One such site announced this weekend that it has stopped offering its services. The site is tr.im, a URL-shortener that's become useful to those who use Twitter, where space is at a premium because of the 140-character limit, making it necessary to cut down long URLs for links. Tr.im hardly had the field to itself. Sites like tinyurl.com, memurl.com, and doiop.com do the same thing, and apparently, the Twitter community has shown a preference for yet another one, bit.ly.

That was bad news for Nambu Network, the company behind tr.im. This weekend, the service was replaced by this announcement on their website:

"tr.im is now in the process of discontinuing service, effective immediately. Statistics can no longer be considered reliable, or reliably available going forward. However, all tr.im links will continue to redirect, and will do so until at least December 31, 2009. Your tweets with tr.im URLs in them will not be affected. We regret that it came to this, but all of our efforts to avoid it failed. No business we approached wanted to purchase tr.im for even a minor amount. There is no way for us to monetize URL shortening -- users won't pay for it -- and we just can't justify further development since Twitter has all but annointed bit.ly the market winner. There is simply no point for us to continue operating tr.im, and pay for its upkeep. We apologize for the disruption and inconvenience this may cause you."
How much longer will bit.ly be around? No one knows, but if you have a lot of money you won't need anymore, or a way to generate revenue from a service they're literally giving away, I'm sure they'd like to hear from you -- to avoid being tr.immed forever.

Bond vs. Bond

All six James Bonds at the same card table (ignore the fact that five of them are playing baccarat and one is playing poker!)...

[thanks to Robert Knotbob for the link]

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Valuable Vinyl

I've had John Marshall, the King of Collectible Records, on my radio shows many times in the last 20 years. He has appraised hundreds of old vinyl albums on air for listeners. Considering that these records were just sitting around gathering dust, and were probably bought for less than $10 originally, people were happy to hear that some were worth five to ten times that. Occasionally we've had someone call who had something with real value (worth over $1,000), and we once hit on a record John said was worth over $2,500.

Each time he was on, John and I had a running bet on whether we'd get a call from someone with a copy of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Street Survivors" with the burning cover, the last album the whole band recorded before the fatal plane crash. As John would patiently point out each time, that album sold far too many copies for any one of them to be collectible. The value in collecting anything comes from the rarity of the item, not just because someone died.

One of John's tips for making money in the record collecting hobby is to buy up collections of old albums and singles that people sell in garage sales, yard sales, and estate sales. They'll usually sell you a whole box for pennies per record.

Tim Schloe did just that, buying a collection of 10,000 records for a quarter apiece from the estate of a record collector. Tim hasn't gone through all that vinyl, but he did find at least one that made his purchase worthwhile -- "Greyhound Blues," a 1953 single by obscure Alabama bluesman D.A. Hunt that was one of the first singles from Sun Records (Sam Phillips' label in Memphis that launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison).

Schloe knew he had something special, but didn't know how much it was worth until he put it up on eBay. On Wednesday, that 7-inch piece of vinyl sold for $10,323 to another collector who loves the blues. Now Schloe says he's going to keep searching through the stack to see if he can find something else worth a few bucks.

As for John, he's still doing online appraisals and offering price guides and record collecting kits on his website.

Abbey Road

This morning at 5:35am CT (11:35am London time) marks the 40th anniversary of the photo of The Beatles crossing the street in front of Abbey Road studios, which became one of the most famous album covers of all time. There will be a lot of people there this morning trying to recreate that picture without getting run over by the traffic on the street. You can see the crossing on a webcam set up atop the Abbey Road building.

I've been there a couple of times and was shocked to see that there's no traffic light. Unlike in the photo, the intersection in the St. John's Wood section of London is always busy, with cars and busses zooming through, and they're not happy to see you standing in the middle of the road while a friend takes your picture. They're supposed to slow down for pedestrians in the crosswalk, but after four decades, local residents have lost their sense of humor and find it more annoying than anything.

So you can imagine how much they're loving the crowd of thousands this morning.

Friday, August 07, 2009

We Get The Beep

I had another conversation with NY Times personal tech columnist David Pogue yesterday on KIRO/Seattle. We began talking about Twitter, which had suffered a denial-of-service attack that took the site down earlier in the day -- and because he was sitting in his office autographing 1,500 copies of his new book, "The World According To Twitter," which has just been published.

Then we reprised our discussion about Pogue's "Take Back The Beep" campaign against the cell phone companies, whose recorded instructions on how to leave voice mail are a waste of your time, but a big moneymaker for them because they use up your minutes faster.

You may be part of the problem, if your outgoing message includes detailed instructions on what to do when I hear the beep. Voice mail technology has been part of our lives long enough that you no longer need to tell me, "Please leave your name, number, the day and time you called, a brief message, a good time for me to call you back, your preferred brand of energy drink, a line from your favorite Springsteen song, and the last four digits of your social security number."

Shorten it up and save us some time and money.

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

Mail Delay

The US Postal Service may lose $7 billion this year, which may mean the closing of 1,000 post offices across the country and the elimination of Saturday delivery. Here's a more radical suggestion: we don't need daily residential mail service anymore, so cut it back to every other day.

With e-mail and texting and cell phones, who writes letters anymore? So much of our life has moved online that the only mail I get these days is pure junk, and there's no urgency in getting that to my mailbox, just so I can carry it inside and throw it in the trash. The only mail I get that doesn't get tossed immediately is a magazine or two and the occasional birthday card, and none of that is so time-sensitive that I can't wait a day to see it. Even the few bills that still come with a stamp on them give me enough of a grace period to pay that the delayed delivery would have no impact.

Wouldn't this mean lots of letter carriers and other postal employees being laid off? Yes, but the way the USPS is going, they're going to lose their jobs anyway.

John and Alison

After John Hughes died, several people wrote remembrances of the man and his movies. This is the best one I've seen.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Kurt Anderson "Reset"

Kurt Anderson has been the co-founder of Spy magazine, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a columnist for Time magazine, and the author of two novels. Today on KIRO/Seattle, we talked about his new book, "Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America."

He explained the cyclical nature of our economy and how our current situation gives us a shot at new innovation and a new direction. I asked him about the role of government in resetting the country, whether that might mean a reversal of long-held beliefs (like when it comes to nuclear power, for instance), and what he means by "our values."

Listen, then buy the book, then check Anderson's "Reset Economy" blog, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Hey Paula

"American Idol" lost the wrong judge.

As I wrote in January, Randy Jackson is the one who brings nothing to the show. At least with Paula, we had the chance of seeing a live trainwreck every week. Randy offers nothing but cliches. If he went, we would have seen Paula & Kara team up against Simon, which could have been endlessly entertaining, as he can more than handle them.

As for Paula -- who will never again have a shot at an eight-figure salary -- I look forward to her next project, "Hello, Mrs. Larry."

TV News Payola

After Glenn Greenwald outed MSNBC political analyst Richard Wolffe as a paid lobbyist with a corporate agenda rather than as an independent commentator, David Sirota says CNN is guilty of the same thing -- he calls it payola -- with Bill Schneider.

Exposing a Prankster

The team at The Smoking Gun has posted details on Pranknet, "a network of so-called pranksters who have spent more than a year engaged in an orgy of criminal activity -- vandalism, threats, harassment, impersonation, hacking, and other assorted felonies and misdemeanors -- targeting U.S. businesses and residents."

The Smoking Gun's Andrew Goldberg joined me on KIRO/Seattle to talk about the loser who runs this group while living at home with mommy as he and his colleagues spend virtually all day on the phone conducting their malicious acts. It's remarkable the things they're able to convince victims to do, from stripping naked in fast food restaurants to destroying hotel rooms.

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

Final Table #27: Kevin Schaffel

This week on my poker radio show, The Final Table:

  • Dennis Phillips and I talked with a member of this year's November Nine, Kevin Schaffel, a semi-retired businessman from Florida;
  • Joe "The Poker Coach" McGowan gave advice on the pitfalls of moving down to "easier" games without adjusting the way you play;
  • Bernard Lee joined us to talk about his new ESPN online poker show;
  • and we discussed an interesting new tournament format where you can pick up your chips and leave at any time.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Phil on Paula

Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune was on fire on Twitter last night after Paula Abdul announced that she won't return to "American Idol." Here are his ten best tweets of the evening:

  • How will Idol explain Paula's exit? Does Radar announce her chopper crashed?
  • Paula Abdul quits as Idol judge, wanted promotion to Supreme Court
  • Pete Best to Paula: You are so much better off without them
  • Maybe Paula Abdul will be like George Costanza and show up for work as if she never quit.
  • This just in: Paula Abdul is running for governor of Alaska
  • Paula Abdul -- coming soon to a milk carton near you.
  • Paula by freeway exit with sign: Will tell you you're great for food
  • Think Paula Abdul's resignation was one of Kim Jong Il's demands?
  • Wait till she finds what those meds cost without a health plan.
  • Paula Abdul and Brian Dunkleman are going to have a good laugh about this someday
By the way, you can follow me on Twitter, too, by clicking here.

Stop Motion Life

I don't often highlight a commercial as the Picture Of The Day, but from time to time someone forwards me something so stunning that I have to share it with you. This ad for a camera was created in stop motion by an ad agency that shot 60,000 pictures, developed 9,600 prints and shot over 1,800 pictures again, with no post production...

[thanks to Alan Light for the link]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Joel vs. The Music Industry

Joel Tenenbaum owes the music industry $675,000. That's what a jury decided Friday in the lawsuit the RIAA won against him for downloading 30 songs illegally between 1999 and 2007.

Today on KIRO/Seattle, Joel explained why he insisted on taking the case to court instead of paying the smaller settlement the RIAA initially offered. He also revealed how many songs he really downloaded via Napster, Kazaa, and other P2P providers (it's way more than 30), how he plans to appeal the decision, and what this means for others who have been fighting the record company consortium.

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

Corporation-Invoked News Truce

Over the weekend, NY Times reporter Brian Stelter ran a piece about a truce in the feud between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and FNC's Bill O'Reilly.

Today on KIRO/Seattle, Stelter laid out the history the two news personalities have with each other. Olbermann has targeted O'Reilly for years, often naming him "Worst Person In The World," and commenting on outrageous statements and stories reported on "The O'Reilly Factor." O'Reilly has responded by going after Olbermann's corporate bosses, revealing information about GE's deals with Iran.

Stelter and I discussed the reality of corporate-owned news organizations being told what to do and what to avoid by those at the top of the company pyramid, how he expects the two anchors to respond to the story on their shows this evening, and whether the feud has affected viewership.

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

Update 8:15pm:Here's how Olbermann reacted to Stelter's piece, and resumed his attack on his arch-rival tonight by urging him to "free yourself from your corporate shackles!!"...

Fish City

Jon Michelson writes:

How good can a video be that is just 5 normal minutes (actually less) on a normal day at an aquarium? This good. Be sure to watch in HD and full screen. Okinawa Aquarium. Boy, the Georgia aquarium must be really huge if it's bigger than that.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Public Options

In discussing a "public option" for health insurance, a lot of critics claim that letting the government compete with private industry will kill the insurance companies. But our history of public vs. private proves them wrong.

Take the post office, which doesn't get the credit it deserves for taking your mail from your house to pretty much anywhere else in the USA in a day or two for the low price of 42¢. Sure, there are snags and lost mail and wayward letter carriers who keep bags of undelivered mail in their basement, but those are aberrations in a government-run system that works pretty well.

Has it killed the private delivery system? No. FedEx and UPS and DHL and other companies still thrive and compete, carrying packages and documents and offering services the post office doesn't. You, the consumer, have a choice. Take the option you prefer.

How about public schools? A free service to America's children which you subsidize. Again, there are problems and opportunities for improvement, but that's what leaves the door open to competition from private and parochial schools. I haven't heard of any of them going out of business recently. In fact, people are chomping at the bit to open up their own educational institutions -- charter schools -- because the private marketplace is alive, despite the public school option. To those who say they don't have kids in public school, so they shouldn't have to pay to educate other people's offspring, I say let's see what happens to your property value when there isn't a good public school nearby.

Look at transportation. Local governments subsidize public bus service, light rail, commuter trains, ferries, subways, and airports. If they don't go where you need to go, or you want to get there on your own, you're free to buy your own private vehicle and drive it wherever you like. When you do, you'll be driving on public roads, maintained with tax dollars, not private highways operated for profit by private industry.

Libraries offer a community a place to borrow books for free, but that hasn't pushed Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon out of business. Before you argue that buying a book from one of those stores means you own it and get to keep it, think about how often you even glance at a book once you've finished it. The library gives you two weeks to read it, and then keep it on their shelves if you ever want to see it again, thus saving you space at home! Libraries also lend movies and music, yet they are no obstacle to the success of private companies like Netflix and the iTunes store, both more popular than ever.

One last example: public safety. Multiple law enforcement agencies operate at every level from local to federal, at no extra cost to you (unless you get in trouble, of course). Most of us are happy to have this service, but if your gated community wants more security, you can hire rent-a-cops, just like the mall does. Meanwhile, have you noticed there's never an argument about the publicly-funded fire department? I suppose there isn't a lot of money in private fire protection, so we're more than happy to have that government-provided crew show up when a blaze breaks out.

I'm not arguing that public services work perfectly or that they're the only way to go -- look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which has no competition, and is on no one's best-run-business list -- but let's acknowledge that there are problems in dealing with private companies, too.

The government option is just that: a choice. You're not forced to use public services to send a package, put your kid through school, get to work, or watch a DVD, but for people who can't afford the private sector, they're thankful they have the public option, and it's not killing private industry. If the same choice were offered for health insurance -- whose cost via the private-only option is eating America alive -- the for-profit insurance industry would not go away.

Too Tired To Play

You know you're too tired to play any more poker when this happens.

I was in a low-limit game at Harrah's last night. It was about 1:15am, I'd been there for a few hours, tripled my stack, and thought I'd play another hour or so before heading home. I was in late position, four people had limped in and I joined them, as did both blinds.

The flop came out and we all checked. The turn card was the king of clubs. This shocked me, because I was 100% sure I had the king of clubs in my hand. I double-checked my cards to see how wrong I was -- I didn't have a king OR a club!

I folded and was in my car minutes later.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Woodstock: The Oral History

With the 40th anniversary of a musical milestone approaching, my friend Joel Makower has just republished his book, "Woodstock: The Oral History."

He joined me to talk about the event and the people who were there, both on stage and in the mud, who shared their stories with him. Joel told an amazing story of how his sister ended up at Woodstock, explained why Pete Townshend bopped Abbie Hoffman in the head with his guitar, and discussed whether there really was a "Woodstock Baby."

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