Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kinetic Sculpture

I've always been a fan of kinetic art. Some 30 years ago, while visiting San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, I walked into a shop that was filled with so many wonderful creations that I wanted to buy all of them. The only one I could afford was a kinetic clock by Gordon Bradt with six men moving its gears, which I bought as a gift for my parents. Unfortunately, when I made it back to that area a decade later, the shop was gone and -- while I've come across marvelous kinetic art in many places, including the St. Louis Magic House -- I've never seen any place quite like that store.

That memory came flooding back when I saw this remarkable kinetic sculpture by Scott Weaver. He used over 100,000 toothpicks to build a tour of San Francisco that includes most of the city's landmarks, with multiple pathways revealing different locations...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Final Table #117: Online Poker Update

Today on The Final Table show, we continued our coverage of the aftermath of the online poker shutdown with guests:
  • Oskar Garcia, a correspondent for the Associated Press, who has covered the developments in this story since before Black Friday, including the reaction of brick-and-mortar casino owner Steve Wynn;
  • John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, who explained how the shutdown will affect the efforts to get online poker legislation passed in Congress. John also answered criticism that has sprung up in online forums and blogs about whether the PPA is representing players or the online sites that have helped fund it;
  • Steve Day, an executive at PokerStars, who revealed for the first time that the cashier has re-opened so that US players can now get their money out of their accounts.  Steve explained the procedure, how long it will take, how your tournament tickets will be converted to cash, what happens to your Frequent Player Points, why Americans can't just take a weekend trip to Canada and start playing online again, and whether US players can win prizes by playing freerolls on (as opposed to cash games and tournaments on, where they are now banned).
The fact that PokerStars players can now withdraw their money is a big deal, and we're waiting to hear whether Full Tilt Poker will follow suit.  Meanwhile, Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet are involved in a lawsuit that's been filed in Antigua against the US government, via the World Trade Organization, claiming it had no right to freeze funds, seize domains, and take any action against online poker sites that are housed in other countries.

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

Here's the Fortune magazine op-ed by Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesar's Entertainment, about getting online poker legislation passed, which we mentioned in today's show.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Talking Funny

The single funniest question I've heard this year was, "Did he do the whistling?"

Chris Rock asked that question on the HBO special, "Talking Funny," in which he sat down with Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis CK for a rollicking hour about the art and business of doing stand-up comedy. There's no way I can relate the context of Rock's question other than to say it's part of a discussion of a bad comedian doing a bad song parody on a very off-color topic, but when Rock adds it as a throwaway, the other three laugh hysterically for several minutes. My wife and I had the same reaction -- we had to stop the DVR to catch our breath before continuing.

The entire show is an amazing conversation between four of the best (and, not coincidentaly, most successful) practitioners of the art of standing in front of a roomful of people and making them laugh.

Several times in the special, one of them praised a bit by one of the others, which led to a dissection of why the bit worked or had to be changed or still works (in some cases, years later). During one of those segments, Jerry Seinfeld re-created one of his favorite Louis CK jokes, and when he was done, Louis pointed out that Jerry had adapted it from the original version to one that more closely fit the Seinfeld stage persona. Both were funny, but for different reasons.

My only complaint about "Talking Funny" is that there wasn't enough of it. I'm sure the four of them sat and talked for at least another hour -- and I want to see that, too. Hopefully, Gervais (who produced the show) will share some of that footage with us.

The concept of having funny people talking about being funny isn't new. Paul Provenza has done it on Showtime's "The Green Room," David Steinberg did it on Comedy Central's "Sit Down Comedy," Mark Maron continues to host his "WTF" podcast. This Gervais project is a worthy addition to that list.

He's already announced that, this fall, he'd like to do a similar group discussion with some late-night TV talk-show hosts, including Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien (he asked David Letterman on his show, but Letterman demurred). Perhaps after that he'll bring together some comics who also starred on successful sitcoms (Ray Romano, Kevin James, Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr -- to name a few). There are myriad possibilities for Gervais to explore.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Favorite Request

In the early 80s, before I became a morning show host, I was the nighttime disc jockey at WHCN/Hartford, on the air six nights a week. Evenings were a big daypart for rock radio because, in world of limited media choices, that's when teenagers turned to radio for their shared experience.

Most nights, the phone lines were pretty active and, since I was the only one in the building after the daytime crew had gone home, I answered every call, and that meant a lot of requests. WHCN was a pretty heavily-formatted station, so I didn't have a lot of leeway when it came to which songs I was going to play. That was fine with me, because I was always more interested in what I was going to say between the songs, but occasionally I'd slip in something special for a listener as long as it didn't stray too far from the core of songs that made up our playlist.

The majority of requests were for whatever the most popular rock songs were at the time, along with the usual perennials ("Stairway to Heaven," "Freebird," "Born To Run," etc.). Some nights I'd hear from one guy who was a major Frank Zappa fan. We didn't play any Zappa -- I don't remember there even being a single Zappa album in the station's library -- but he'd call once or twice every week to ask for "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" or "Moving To Montana." I'd tell him the same thing I told everyone, "I'll see if I can get to it," but the playlist remained Zappa-less. That didn't dissuade him, though.  He either didn't catch on that I was never going to play it, or he was convinced that, by calling repeatedly, he'd break me down until I did.  But I didn't.

The truth is that, even if I hosted a show that was all by request, I still couldn't have played every song listeners called for. At night, the WHCN format had room for about 12 or 13 songs an hour (fewer if they were as long as "Roundabout" by Yes, more if they were as short as anything by The Kinks. In an average hour, I answered between 25 and 30 phone calls. So if I guaranteed everyone that I would play their song, it would be impossible to live up to that promise after just a single hour, unless they kept listening all night -- and if I didn't take any other requests.

Quite often, I'd get requests for songs or artists I was going to play in the rotation anyway. If you called for Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello or The Police or Pink Floyd, there was a pretty good chance they were coming up soon. So, in between cuing up the records, playing commercials, reading promotional announcements, and whatever silly bits I could squeeze into the evening (e.g. a weekly parody of "Hill Street Blues), I also recorded every incoming phone call and played back the appropriate ones to help introduce songs and break up the evening. That gave me a chance to ad-lib with listeners, many of whom caught on to what I was looking for and would give me something funny or interesting to use on the air.

If you'd been listening one night in 1982, you might have heard me come out of a commercial break by reading a memo from my boss announcing a brand new contest called "Million Dollar Instant Request Challenge," in which I promised to pay you a million bucks if I didn't play the song you requested instantly. It was a joke, since the phone call with the request was already recorded and the song they wanted was cued up and ready to go, but it made the phones explode with other listeners who wanted to try to stump me and win the money. I waited about 15 minutes before explaining on the air that I had mis-read the memo, and that the boss had called to explain that the challenge was that any listener who paid a million dollars could have any song they wanted played instantly. That slowed down the phone calls, but some of my more clever listeners called to ask how much they'd have to pay to have their request played a minute or two later instead of instantly.

I started referring to my listeners as The World's Most Intelligent Audience, an appellation I also used years later in Washington DC and St. Louis. I joked that I could ask any question on the air (long before the era of Google and Wikipedia) and someone would call in with the answer. I had regulars who told jokes, casual callers who just wanted me to give a shout out to their high school, and young lovers who wanted to hear songs dedicated to their boyfriend or girlfriend -- such as the night I got my favorite request of all time.

I answered the WHCN listener line and a teenage girl asked if I'd play a special song for a special day. Before asking what song she wanted, I asked what the occasion was. Speaking very quickly, she explained that it was the anniversary of the first time she went out with her boyfriend who was the most fantastic guy in the world, and now, a year later, she really loved him and he really loved her and she had just spend an hour on the phone with him when she was supposed to be doing homework but they were both listening to my show and would I please dedicate a song that always reminded her of him?  As I always did, I said I'd try, and asked what the song was.

She replied, "It's called 'Godzilla.'"

The song, by Blue Oyster Cult, was as far from a love song as you could get, yet it reminded her of her boyfriend? This one was going on the air right away.

I hung up the phone, and reached back to the B section of the record library, where I located the album quickly. I cued up the song with one hand while I rewound the tape with the other and, as the previous record was ending, hit the play button, putting our conversation on the air. When she got to the punchline, er, song title, I hit the start button on the turntable and BOC's opening power chord rang out on the airwaves as I doubled over in laughter.

She didn't get a million dollars, but she got her instant request.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Best Book Ever

My all-time favorite book, "The Phantom Tollbooth," will be a half-century old this fall. My parents read it to me as a child, as my wife's parents did with her. We read it to our daughter, and I have given copies to my nieces and nephews so they could enjoy it, too.

In October, the publisher, Knopf, will release a 50th-anniversary edition to mark the occasion, which will include this essay by Michael Chabon, a fellow lover of Milo, Tock, and the rest of that pun-filled classic.

Irish Blonde In A Casino

I don't often post pure jokes here, but my wife heard this one and I liked it, so I'm sharing it with you...

An attractive blonde from Cork, Ireland arrived at the casino. She seemed a little intoxicated and bet 20,000 Euros on a single roll of the dice. She said, "I hope you don't mind, but I feel much luckier when I'm completely nude." With that, she stripped from the neck down, rolled the dice and with an Irish brogue yelled, "Come on, baby, Mama needs new clothes!"

As the dice came to a stop, she jumped up and down and squealed, "YES! YES! I WON, I WON!" She hugged each of the dealers and then picked up her winnings and her clothes and quickly departed.

The dealers stared at each other dumbfounded. Finally, one of them asked, "What did she roll?" The other answered, "I don't know. I thought you were watching."

Not all Irish are drunks.
Not all blondes are dumb.
But all Men...are Men.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Online Poker Op-Ed

Here's an op-ed about the online poker shutdown by my friend Joshua M. Schindler, a poker player and attorney from St. Louis...

Federal authorities in New York targeted three online poker companies last week, handing down indictments accusing their principals of running illegal gambling enterprises. Although these companies have always maintained they are not violating United States laws because poker is predominately a game of skill, and therefore does not constitute gambling, all three companies responded to the crackdown on Black Friday by suspending all real money play on their U.S. web sites. Interestingly, however, the companies targeted by the indictments still accept money from players in other countries, such as Italy, which regulate and license online poker.

For years, American politicians from both sides of the aisle have sought to clarify the status of online poker. Initially, brick and mortar casinos as well as many labor unions opposed online poker because they feared that an increase in online play would cost people jobs in Nevada. This was the attitude of people like Senator Harry Reid until just recently. Now, however, Reid believes that online poker will cure the ills that have befallen Nevada. And Senator Reid isn’t alone. Political opposites such as Ron Paul and Barney Frank also support regulating online poker, as do a majority of major casino operators, such as Steve Wynn and Caesars Entertainment, both of whom initially opposed legislation.

With support growing among elected officials and established casino operators, legislation almost passed in Congress at the end of 2010 that would have legalized, regulated and taxed online poker. Unfortunately, the legislation was taken off the table because of other issues, including the fight over the continuation of the Bush tax cuts.

However, as dust settles from yesterday’s political debates, it is worth asking why politicians from both sides of the aisle supported the legalization of Internet poker in 2010. The answer, simply put, is that many politicians have come to understand that millions of people want to play poker online, and that if regulated and taxed, such play will generate billions of dollars of tax revenue at the federal and state level.

Today, as the debate in Washington increasingly focuses on finding the right mix of spending cuts and new revenue streams to reduce the federal deficit, the regulation and taxation of online poker deserves another look. In fact, given the long term fiscal position of the United States, legislation on this issue is inevitable.

And that is why the indictments infuriate me and why I appeared on the Final Table radio show recently to chide President Obama for the Department of Justice’s action in New York. I am disheartened because the Department of Justice accomplished nothing by the indictments except to delay the implementation of much needed legislation.

Unfortunately, there is still plenty of ignorance on these issues among the general public. For example, my comments on the radio prompted one listener to accuse me of being a Tea Party Fox News wannabe pundit. Lest the listener be concerned, I am not negotiating with Fox to replace Glenn Beck. In fact, I generally support the Obama Administration, and until the indictments last week, I did not understand the anger which appeared to fuel the Tea Party. But, these indictments, and the raw emotion which they invoked in me, do make me more sympathetic to the Tea Party, and make me realize how the government can take a simple problem, and make it so complex that it will take years to unravel and solve.

Yet, even with the current mess created by the indictments in New York, the contours of a broad solution are not difficult to discern. After all, there is a growing consensus that Internet poker should be regulated and taxed, and there is a growing need for the tax revenue it is bound to generate. While it is less likely that there will be any easy agreement over the fate of the current online poker giants, such as PokerStars and Full Tilt, whose operations were targeted by the feds last week, possibilities for compromise do exist. Although the law in this area is unclear, I believe PokerStars and Full Tilt will prevail in the courts. But even if their legal position is ultimately vindicated, the indictments on Black Friday have already demonstrated that their U.S. business strategy, which was based on a belief the feds wouldn’t shove, was a bad read. Therefore, a fair solution in the industry would banish PokerStars and Full Tilt from the U.S. market for a year to allow their competitors, who played it safe and didn’t ante up, to gain some customers and level the playing field.

I applaud both Mr. Bharara and the leadership of PokerStars and Full Tilt, in putting aside their differences over the indictments and working quickly to insure that customers who had money with these sites could get their money returned. This agreement also returned the domain names to these companies to allow customers outside the United States, where online poker is legal, to continue playing. Hopefully, Absolute Poker will reach a like agreement. However, these agreements are only one step, and a small one at that, in the right direction. The law in this area is unclear and the unintended result of the indictments is that thousands of people who depended upon online poker for their livelihood now are among the ranks of the unemployed, and millions of Americans lost the right to engage in their hobby of playing poker online.

A legislative solution cannot be achieved without true leadership. President Obama must step in and ask Attorney General Holder to stay legal proceedings, which would undoubtedly be acceptable to the poker companies, to allow the legislative process to run its course. This would have the added benefit of allowing Mr. Bharara and his office to focus their resources on more pressing matters, such as prosecuting those people who created the housing disaster and working to thwart domestic terrorism.

And what does the President get out of this? For starters, he gets the thanks of millions of American poker players, helps create thousands of new jobs and generates billions of dollars of additional tax revenue which can be used for things such as a High-Speed Rail system. What do the Republicans and Tea Party folks get? They prove that they care about the rights of average Americans to engage in their hobby without the interference of the government. The states will benefit as well, as they will get desperately needed revenue which can be used for a myriad of things, perhaps even rehiring teachers who were laid off because of depleted local and state revenue. And finally, we, the American people, will actually get to see a government and a judicial system that respects our individual liberties and functions the way they should.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Final Table #116: Online Poker Shutdown

Today on The Final Table show, we discussed the shutdown of the three largest poker sites -- PokerStars, Full Tilt, and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet -- after the indictments handed down Friday by the Department of Justice.

Joining us for complete analysis of this story were Eric Morris (publisher of Bluff magazine), Donnie Peters (Live Reporting Manager for Poker News), and attorney Josh Schindler. We talked about:
  • what the indictments mean for online players
  • whether we'll see more players in casino poker rooms now
  • the impact on big tournaments like the WSOP
  • which TV poker shows are canceled and which will continue
  • the shutdown's effect on other poker media
  • whether we're likely to see online poker legislation in Congress and state legislatures
  • and much more.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Update: as this podcast was being posted, the US Attorney's office announced that it is allowing PokerStars and Full Tilt to regain their dot-com domains. This will allow US players to get money out of their online poker accounts, but they still can not play in online cash games or tournaments. The sites may use those domains for their business outside the US.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cleaning Her Curse And Purse

A con artist in Orange County, California, has been arrested for stealing $200,000 from a victim by claiming to be a psychic who would protect her from a curse she inherited while inside her mother's womb. The victim drained her bank account and IRA, bought the scammer $30,000 in gold, and ran up over $100,000 in debt on credit card accounts. Details here.

While I'm glad to see that this criminal is being prosecuted -- and hope she not only gets jail time but has to make restitution to her victim -- I can't help but wonder when people will stop falling for crap like this.

Tip: if someone tries to pull something like this on you, tell them that they could make so much more money -- a million dollars from the James Randi Educational Foundation, if they just prove they have psychic or paranormal abilities!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Defending Offense

Dick Cavett has posted an op-ed piece about political correctness and the desire by some network execs to never let anything on the air that might offend someone.

The problem, of course, is that there's always going to be someone offended by something. The key is to ignore the few objections and keep the quality content flowing, regardless. When management allows one or two crank cases to affect what goes out on the air, the performers and the audience both suffer.

A decade ago, while doing my midday show on KTRS/St. Louis, I discussed a Washington Post story about a deaf couple at Gallaudet University that wanted to have a baby -- but they wanted that child to be deaf, so it could grow up in the same culture they were part of, and were exploring ways to make that happen. I was astounded by this narcissism, and said so at length, which led to some very interesting conversations with listeners who wanted to chime in on the story.

Somehow, my comments ended up on an online bulletin board for the deaf, but like a bad game of operator, someone who mis-heard the show had posted bad information about what I'd said, and my words were twisted to make it seem like I didn't want deaf people to have children at all. Within a couple of hours, a local group that advocates for the deaf had contacted the station's General Manager and insisted that I apologize. They threatened to picket the radio station unless I retracted my remarks.

When the GM told me about this reaction, I laughed out loud as I explained how wrong they'd gotten it. I also told him to call their bluff and let them come picket outside our windows, while I called the local TV news outlets to have them send camera crews over. I loved the idea of them walking around in a circle with signs saying "Deaf people don't listen to Paul Harris!!"

Unfortunately, the GM didn't want any controversy (on a talk radio station???), so when I refused to apologize for something I hadn't done, he quietly wrote a check to the deaf advocacy group, which made them go away. I wish that manager had been like another boss I'd had earlier in my career, a guy who knew how to support his air talent.

It was 1984, and I was doing mornings at WHCN/Hartford when Dan Hayden, the Program Director, popped his head in to say that he wanted to see me in his office when my show was over. When 10am rolled around, I walked down the hall, sat on his couch and noticed a major frown on his face. I knew that the ratings weren't due that day, and even if they were, we were consistently pulling big numbers (although probably not in the deaf demographics), so I wasn't worried about that.

I asked Dan, "What's up?" He looked at me very seriously and said, "I haven't gotten a complaint call about your show in at least two weeks. Do something about that."

That's the kind of manager you want when you're producing a thousand hours of live, ad-libbed morning radio every year. He knew that the number of people we entertained each day was far greater than the few who were offended by something we said.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Online Poker's Black Friday

The poker world was shocked today when the Department of Justice announced indictments against the top executives at the three leading online poker sites -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Ultimate Bet/Absolute Poker. The sites are going to fight back with a slew of lawyers, but by this evening, they had all stopped allowing Americans to play for real money, causing some panic and a lot of questions about what happened and what's next.

Rather than rehash the basics here, I'll direct you to Poker News, which has a good summary of the FAQ.

Several people have asked if Dennis and I are going to do a special edition of our Final Table show tonight, and the answer is no, we'll wait until our regular Tuesday broadcast, because we're waiting to see what develops in the next couple of days. We don't want to engage in idle speculation about the effects of the government's actions, both short- and long-term.

There are a few things that are certain, however:

  • All those young poker pros who are making their living playing online poker are going to have to find another way to support themselves. I hope that means they bring their action to brick-and-mortar poker rooms, which is where I've always preferred to play. It'll be interesting to see if those who have specialized in multi-tabling (playing several screens at the same time) can sit still for a single game at a single table.
  • The closure of the sites means that attendance at this year's World Series of Poker Main Event will be way down because, in the last few years, some 20-25% of the players (and 100% of the winners since 2003) have gotten there via online satellites.
  • Pressure will be ratcheted up on Congress to pass a law that licenses and regulates online poker, finally setting up a legal framework that keeps the government from interfering with how Americans spend their recreational dollars, while establishing a system to tax the sites' profits and create some much-needed revenue at both the state and federal level.
  • None of this means the end of poker in the United States. The game has been around for over a century, and will continue to be played by tens of millions of Americans in casinos, basements, retirement communities, college dorms, and at the kitchen table.
There's one interesting bit of media fallout to watch. Full Tilt Poker is the primary sponsor of "Poker After Dark" on NBC. PokerStars is the primary sponsor of "High Stakes Poker" on GSN and has its own shows, "Million Dollar Challenge" and "The Big Game," on Fox affiliates across the country. ESPN garners a huge amount of revenue from both sites for its coverage of the World Series Of Poker. Now that those sites have barred US players, it seems unlikely that they'd continue to spend the marketing dollars necessary to sponsor those shows. Can those networks find replacement sponsors elsewhere? If not, poker on TV may have to take a hiatus until the legal climate is cleared up.

Last year, during the lame duck session of Congress, there was a bill floated that would have begun the process of regulating online poker. One of its provisions was the existing sites would have to cease operating for a specified blackout period, after which certain operators would be licensed and the online action could resume. That bill never got out of committee, but the DOJ's actions effectively mean that the blackout period began this afternoon.

Classic Rock WCXR

From the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, I was the morning man on 105.9 WCXR, the classic rock radio station in Washington, DC. We had a lot of success thanks to a crew of very talented people in every aspect of the station, both on the air and behind the scenes. The product coming out of the speakers was always great, the sales force brought in a ton of money, and we were very active promotionally -- all important elements in building and maintaining a successful radio brand.

Paul Altobelli, who was the music director for a few years, just dug up this TV commercial, which I think ran for several months in 1990 or 1991. I don't remember who did the creative, but the ballsy announcer was our production director, Dan Alexander (now heard as the voice of WLS/Chicago).

Grape Expectations

I haven't consumed alcohol in a very long time, but my wife will have an occasional glass of wine.  She's not very picky about it, usually settling for a not-so-expensive bottle at home or a glass of house wine when we're at a restaurant.  On the other hand, we have friends who consider themselves real wine connoisseurs.  They go to wine tastings, bring back exotic wines from their travels, and go through the whole routine of sniffing, swirling, and scrutinizing.  When we're out to dinner with them, they'll spend ten minutes reviewing the wine list, carefully considering all the options, before making their decision. 

They never choose the cheapest option.  I'm sure that, in their minds, an inexpensive bottle can't possibly be any good, or it would cost more.  I wouldn't be surprised to discover that restaurants keep very few bottles of their cheapest vintage in stock, knowing that wine drinkers believe price is in direct proportion to quality and don't want to come off as ignorant about which wines are best.

I can't wait to show them the results of some research done by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, which shows that most people can't tell the difference between a cheap supermarket brand and a more expensive "quality" wine.  In a blind taste test, they only guessed right 50% of the time, the same as if they'd done it by chance. 

Our friends, the wine connoisseurs, will no doubt argue that they have a more sophisticated palate and can certainly tell the difference in quality.  They'll go on spending the extra cash to get a wine they consider better, though I'll bet the price always influences their decisions -- which is what the industry is counting on.  I'm not saying that when they go to wine tastings they should just drink out of the slop bucket a la Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," but they should be more aware of the psychology of wine pricing.

What's funniest to me is that some of these friends only developed their wine snobbery as they became older and more successful and had more money.  In college, when we were all broke, they had no problem consuming a 99¢ bottle of Liebfraumilch.  Of course, in those days, quality didn't matter.  If it said "wine" on the bottle, it was good enough.  The goal then (like mine with a 99¢ six-pack of Schmidt's beer) was not to choose a beverage that soothed the palate, but one that got you drunkest fastest -- and preferably had the same effect on someone of the opposite sex.

Maybe Dr. Wiseman can work on that as his next research project.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cold Calling

Lately, I've received quite a few calls on my cell phone from people who ask, "May I speak to the owner of the business?"

I'm not surprised that my number popped up on some call list, probably shared by one of the companies I've done business with in the past, or through some larger database of corporations. I'm not naive enough to expect that, in the information age, no one could find me if they wanted to.

What I wonder about is how effective these calls are. I've never done sales or cold-calling, so I don't know, but the percentages have to be very, very low.

First of all, I know 99%+ of the people who call my cell phone.  In the digital age, I don't even see their numbers -- I see their names, because my iPhone knows who's in my Contacts list and tells me who's calling.  If no name appears, I'm already wary of taking the call.

Secondly, if they were calling a larger company (there's no smaller company, since I'm my only employee), would the request to speak to the owner work? Do business owners regularly take unsolicited calls from unknown sources?  If it's a big corporation, good luck getting through the front lines.  If it's smaller, like my one-man operation, asking for the owner is a big tipoff that you have no idea who I am or what I do, and I'm nothing more than a name and number on your screen.  That makes it extremely unlikely I'm going to give you any slack, even if I have some downtime in a busy day.

So, when I don't recognize the caller's number and they start with that "speak to the owner" question, I always reply, "What are you selling?" This throws them off the script they're prepared to read. Sometimes they follow up, "Are you the owner?", in which case I tell them that whatever they're selling, I'm not interested, but I would like to be placed on their Do Not Call list.

The vast majority of the time, that ends the conversation, often with them hanging up quickly, as they have other random phone numbers to call. But yesterday, the woman at the other end asked, "How do you know you're not interested if you don't even know why I'm calling?"

My answer: experience.

Side note:  you can put your phone number on a Do Not Call list fairly easily.  You can sign up via the National Do Not Call Registry

You should also do it with the registry in your state.  Unfortunately, state legislation hasn't kept up with technology, so if you only have a cell phone and no landline, you may not qualify.  Also, by law, the list can not include business numbers, so if you use your cell phone for business (as I do), you're doubly screwed.  In Missouri, call 866-289-9633 or use this online form.  For other states, click here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Final Table #115: Greg Raymer & Ari Engel

Today on The Final Table radio show, we wrapped up our coverage of the 2011 World Series Of Poker Circuit Event in St. Louis.

Greg "Fossilman" Raymer joined us at the feature table to talk about the WSOPC Main Event we all played in (which was down to its final 4 while we were on the air). Since the final table of one Ring Event last week contained two brothers, and another one included two best friends, we talked about whether playing against someone you're close to can affect your strategy. We also talked about an odd hand played on Day 2 of the Main Event involving two big stacks.

Our other guest was poker player/trainer Ari Engel, who played in several Ring Events here, cashing in one. He explained how he helped prepare Joseph Cheong for last year's November Nine, the most important strategy he advises his students to use, and whether -- at age 28 -- even he has to work hard to keep up with players much younger than him.

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet made a lot of great movies, but was a very boring speaker.  My wife and I saw him interviewed at the Smithsonian about 15 years ago.  I'd been looking forward to it because I counted many of his films among my all-time favorites, but we almost walked out.  I couldn't believe that a man who could tell stories so well on the big screen had so few anecdotes to share and couldn't talk about his techniques and accomplishments without inducing yawns. 

Imagine a whole evening like this:

Still, that doesn't reduce the brilliance of Lumet's movies, including "Network," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Verdict," and so many others.   Lumet directed 4 actors and actresses who won Oscars for their performances, and 13 others who were nominated. You can't do that without being able to explain your vision to your cast. He was also the quintessential New York filmmaker -- even more so than Woody Allen, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorcese -- in the way he used the streets and the neighborhoods of the city as a character integral to each story.

Two things Lumet did with his cameras are stuck in my memory, both of them about drama in confined quarters.  I recall seeing "Fail-Safe" for the first time and marveling at how his camera stayed on Henry Fonda, just sitting there listening, as Larry Hagman interpreted for the unseen Russian premier at the other end of the phone. It was just the two of them in a tiny room in a bunker beneath the White House, trying to avert nuclear war.  Lumet used extreme close-ups, which drew us even further into the personal drama these two men were experiencing.

The other was the way he used various lenses to both open up and close in the jury room in "12 Angry Men."  In some shots, you can feel the claustrophobia as the tension builds, again with Fonda trying to convince his peers that the young man on trial was not a murderer.  Lumet seems to bring the walls in right behind the actors as the arguments grow more heated and Lee J. Cobb's temperature keeps rising.  We went to see a production of "12 Angry Men" at the St. Louis Rep a couple of years ago and, while everyone onstage was fine, the open space diffused the situation, rendering the story much less effective than Lumet's screen version.

Lastly, a recommendation: if you didn't see Lumet's last triumph (at age 83), "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead," put it in your Netflix queue right now.  It's a dark story of desperation, with a stellar cast led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke, and Albert Finney -- but do yourself a favor and don't read any more about it, because the plot is best experienced without even a tiny spoiler.

Is "Lie To Me" Honest?

After the movie "All The President's Men" was a hit, interest in journalism schools increased. "LA Law" debuted on TV, law school admissions went up. After "ER," the same thing happened for medical schools. "Silence Of The Lambs" created an interest in people who wanted to be criminal profilers. "CSI" created a boon in crime scene investigator wannabes. Similarly, the Fox series "Lie To Me" started a wave of fascination with the ability to tell whether someone's being honest just by reading their faces and bodies. But, says ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro (himself an expert in non-verbal tells), it's not as easy as Tim Roth makes it look.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Random Thoughts

The Comedy Awards, which aired tonight on Comedy Central, deserves an award of its own for being the least funny awards show since The Funeral Homes Institute Honors.

One of the benefits of not having a fulltime radio show any more is not having to watch and pretend to care about "American Idol" just because I have to talk about it the next day.

Last week, on the verge of a federal government shutdown, the GOP again showed its real stripes by pushing its rigid social conservative agenda -- the economy's bad and we must focus on jobs jobs jobs, so we have to stop funding Planned Parenthood clinics. Um, what??

No one will ever re-make a Russell Brand movie. Not because they're classics, which they aren't, but because they never should have been made in the first place.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Extreme Shepherding

Samsung hired a group of Welsh shepherds to create something special for a commercial. This one went viral several months ago, but I missed it, so thanks to Dennis Hartin for sending me the link...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

When Harry Met Sally 2

There's a scene in Robert Altman's "The Player" where Buck Henry is pitching "The Graduate 2" to the head of a movie studio. It was an inside joke in an industry that, too often, was so desperately short on creativity that all it could think of was remaking its own classics.

Thus "The In-Laws" with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin became "The In-Laws" with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. "Arthur" with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli became "Arthur" with Russell Brand and Jennifer Garner. There were lame sequels to clever originals like "City Slickers" and "Men In Black." There re-imaginings, shot-for-shot remakes, and on and on. The prefix "re-" should have been re-tired.

Now, along come Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner to poker fun at one of the re-conceiving of one of their cinematic gems...

Final Table #114: Pat Walsh & Mori Eskandani

Today on The Final Table radio show, we broadcast live from the lobby of Harrah's St. Louis, where the 2011 World Series Of Poker Circuit Event is taking place. It has already set records, with the two largest poker tournaments in Missouri history over the weekend and lots more action to come all week, leading up to the Main Event on Sunday.

Our first guest was Pat Walsh, the St. Louisan who recently won the $10,000 buy-in Big Event Shootout at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles. Pat is also one of the top pot-limit Omaha players in the country, so we discussed the high-stakes games he plays and how he learned PLO strategy.

Our second guest was Mori Eskandani, who produces more hours of televised poker every year than anyone else. We discussed the decision to replace Gabe Kaplan with Norm McDonald as host of "High Stakes Poker," whether we'll see any PLO on "Poker After Dark" this season, and the process for choosing the field of 64 players for the "NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship" (which will air over six Sundays beginning April 17th).

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

Monday, April 04, 2011

Poker Weekend

I've been saying for months that the poker economy continues to expand, and here's some proof.

On Friday, the first big event at the World Series Of Poker Circuit Event at Harrah's St. Louis shattered a record as the largest poker tournament in Missouri history -- 843 players. The old record was last year's opener at 675. That was also exceeded by the Saturday noon tourney, which had 710 entrants. The table where I started had no local regulars, so we drew lots of out-of-towners. That's a good thing because everyone in St. Louis knows how I play already.

Unfortunately, I didn't go deep enough in either of those events. My total tourney winnings at this WSOPC so far come to $30 because I swapped 5% with a friend who min-cashed Friday. My results in cash games are a different story, and there are more of those, too. This year, Harrah's added 10 extra tables outside the poker room to handle the overflow of cash games -- and they still weren't enough for the crush of players.

On Sunday afternoon, I played in the Seniors Event. To qualify as senior, you have to be over 50 years old, although in the current world of hotshot young poker pros, they might want to lower the age to 25. Older players tend to not be as aggressive as the new breed, so there wasn't a lot of bluffing or three-betting. In fact, no one at my table did either of those for the first two hours. Well, almost no one. I guess I was the young gun in that crowd.

It was a little weird being in a poker tournament where 99% of the players were older than me. Must be how Joe Cada felt.

One last quick item. On Saturday, as I walked through the horde of poker players, a guy walked up, extended his hand and said, "I bet you don't remember me." I replied, "You win!"

If you're going to be at the Circuit Event at Harrah's, be sure to look for our Final Table merchandise (hats, sweatshirts, and t-shirts) in the WSOP Gift Shop!

Amarillo Slim

Poker legend Amarillo Slim flew in on Saturday evening to take part in the World Series Of Poker Circuit Event at Harrah's St. Louis. Dennis Phillips and I had a chance to talk with him for our Final Table show a couple of summers ago -- he had so many stories that we broke it up into separate shows over 4 weeks which you can listen to here -- so I went over to say hello. He was here to play the Omaha 8 and HORSE tournaments on Sunday and Monday, but I talked him into coming into the poker room to play in a cash game that night for a couple of hours. When I told the young floor person that Slim was here, he said he didn't know who that was, so I enlightened him.

In 1972, Slim won the second WSOP Main Event ever held, one of seven titles he's claimed -- although he only has 5 bracelets because there weren't any such prizes for the first two. He was inducted into the Poker Hall Of Fame in 1992. He and Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts were a legendary crew of poker players who traveled around Texas and Oklahoma for over two decades, before there were any legal poker rooms in America. They'd play in bars, back rooms, and anywhere anyone had cards and money. He recounted some of those stories, and others from his adventures as a pool hustler, sports bookie, and prop bettor in his book "Amarillo Slim In A World Of Fat People." He told me that there's a deal to make a movie of his life with Nicolas Cage, directed by Milos Forman, but it's moving forward very slowly.

Part of the reason may be a story from just a few years ago that made him a pariah in the poker business. I won't go into the details, which involved a heinous claim that stemmed from an ugly custody dispute, but I will say that the principals later recanted their claims against him (read Nolan Dalla's piece about it here). Brunson, his lifelong friend, said he's put a quarter up for every nickel anyone wanted to bet, for any amount, that Slim was telling the truth. Others who know him have privately told me the same thing. It's a shame that a man who was the first poker pro to become a household name (thanks to a dozen appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson") and who was there at the creation of the World Series Of Poker is no longer treated with respect and admiration by those who've followed in his footsteps, although he did get a nice round of applause from those who recognized him (he's hard to miss with that snake hat!).

I was happy to have Slim sit down next to me in a pot-limit Omaha game, with my friend Andy Newman on the other side, and gratified that he remembered the time we spent together a couple of summers ago. At 83 years old, his movements are slower, and he had trouble seeing the cards on the board, but he happily engaged in conversation, shared stories, signed autographs, told jokes, and answered Andy's questions.

One of those was about Amarillo, where Slim still lives. Slim looked over and said, "It's the same as it's always been. Even the population never changes. Every time a woman gets pregnant, a man leaves town."

After a couple of hours, Slim and I got involved in a hand where I turned a straight and put him all in. He called with a pair of aces and I had him drawing dead. He smiled, shook our hands, and headed up to his hotel room. The next day, he was right back in the midst of the action, where he's always been.

Heck On Wheels

On a stretch of back road yesterday, I came upon a long line of people on motorcycles enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. They weren't exactly the local chapter of Hells Angels out looking for trouble, though.

This was a bunch of middle-aged, overweight motorcycle riders -- some couples straining the shock absorbers on the same bike -- old enough that their enthusiasm for the two-wheel lifestyle was probably kick-started (bah-ding!) by the movie "Easy Rider." For some, their dream was once "Born To Be Wild," aimlessly roaming the country doing drugs and following The Grateful Dead. Now their reality is paying the mortgage and remembering to take Lipitor every morning.

But aside from their paunches and gray ponytails, they had one more thing that set them apart from the anti-establishment attitude and screw-the-man mindset of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson in that movie.

These bikers were all wearing reflective orange safety vests.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Pigasus 2011

Congratulations to Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV-ready doctor who is the only person to win a Pigasus two years in a row. Pigasus is the award from the James Randi Educational Foundation bestowed on those who promote pseudo-science, quackery, para-normal nonsense, etc. As far as I'm concerned, Oprah Winfrey and ABC News deserve to share Oz's Pigasus for giving him the TV platform he so richly does not deserve.

Other 2011 recipients of Pigasus Awards: CVS Pharmacy for continuing to sell homeopathic medications, NASA engineer Richard Hoover for claiming there's life on meteorites, televangelist Peter Popoff for his "supernatural debt relief" infomercials, and Andrew Wakefield for continuing to propagate the vaccines-cause-autism lie.

Details on this year's Pigasus winners are here.

Want to help the battle by joining the forces of skepticism and critical thinking? Click the button below and become a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Albert Brooks' Anthem

I'm a longtime fan of Albert Brooks, the comedian/filmmaker behind "Lost In America," "Defending Your Life," and more (he was also the voice of Nemo's father Marlin in "Finding Nemo," a driven network reporter in "Broadcast News," a campaign worker in "Taxi Driver," and Goldie Hawn's doomed first husband in "Private Benjamin").

In the early 1980s, his movie "Modern Romance" was on HBO after midnight about four nights a week for three months straight. I was doing nighttime radio then, and my routine consisted of finishing my show, going to a bar with some friends to drink and fail at picking up women, then end up back in my townhouse, where my roommate and I would inevitably turn on the TV to find "Modern Romance" playing. It didn't matter where we came in, we always watched it to the end, often saying the lines with the characters and picking up small bits of business Brooks had inserted that we'd missed on one of the previous dozens of viewings.

Brooks joined Twitter a couple of days ago at the behest of his publisher to promote his book, "2030: The Real Story Of What Happens To America." Coincidentally, last week, I introduced my daughter and niece to a bit he did in his standup days about rewriting the national anthem. It appeared on his 1972 "Comedy Minus One" album (one of only two he released and both now out of print), and he also performed it on some TV variety shows.

One of those was "The Flip Wilson Show" on NBC, where Brooks did two segments. In the first, he appeared as the world's worst ventriloquist with his dummy, Danny. For his second spot, Brooks did the anthem routine.

For anyone who remembers the original bit, you'll notice that he's left out Hal Carter, the 75-year-old whose version of the anthem sounded just like "The Star Spangled Banner" with lyrics changed to "While we stand here waiting for the ballgame to start, let's give thanks for our homes and our two-car garages. Let's give thanks for TV...." In Hal's place, there's another unnamed guy who mumbles for a few seconds before the next auditioner appears.

While the bit always slays me, my favorite part of this video is a subtle technical move. One of Brooks' auditioners is being backed up by a bunch of kids, who are imaginary because he's doing this comedy routine as a solo. But when he casually asks, "can you see the kids?" the cameraman pans just a little bit as if to show us the invisible backup singers. Then he catches himself and reframes on Brooks. A minor gaffe, but it made me smile.

So, from a time when primetime TV included variety shows with professional performers who were paid for their services, and those few years before he abandoned his standup career to do short films for "Saturday Night Live" and longer feature films for Hollywood, here's Albert Brooks at the piano...

Previously on Harris Online...