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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed this week...

  • Don't feel too bad for Ann Curry losing The Today Show. It's not like she's being sentenced to a career at CNN.
  • JP Morgan says its losses weren't $2 billion, but more like $9 billion. Fortunately, their business doesn't rely on being good with numbers.
  • Infomercial pioneer Barry Becher has died, and the family wants his tombstone to include his catchphrase, "But wait, there's more!" (probably etched with a Ginsu knife)
  • US News' Rick Newman says the SUV era is over because baby boomers have stopped pretending to be off-roading daredevils.
  • Interesting interview with Marc Maron about his "WTF" podcast, his comedy, etc.
  • Katy Waldman says there's nothing wrong with noisy female tennis players, so long live the grunt!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Frank Deford, "Overtime"

Frank Deford is a great storyteller and one of America's best-ever sportswriters. I have enjoyed his work in Sports Illustrated and other publications, and I'm a regular listener of his weekly commentary for NPR's "Morning Edition." His new book, "Over Time" is a memoir about his career and the many fascinating sports personalities he's covered. I was so entertained by reading it that I invited him to share some of his stories with me this morning on KTRS/St. Louis, and before I knew it, amidst a background of wind, sirens, and a barking dog, we had talked for over half an hour.

Among the topics we covered:
  • Why it's harder to be a sportswriter now than when he started;
  • Why he thinks Billie Jean King was as significant in changing the culture of America as Jackie Robinson;
  • Why there aren't more Americans among the world's top-ranked tennis players;
  • Why Title IX had an impact far beyond sports;
  • Why Wilt Chamberlain's legacy was forever tarnished by his claim of sleeping with 20,000 women;
  • Why he was labeled a "dirty old man" for his Sports Illustrated cover story on Anna Kournikova;
  • Why he's not going to London for the Olympics this summer;
  • Why he told a documentarian that poker is "a fad";
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Previously on Harris Online...

In Case You Missed It -- SCOTUS Edition

From my Twitter feed...

  • Romney & the Republicans repealing ObamaCare is a fantasy. I said it yesterday morning, David Frum agreed last night.
  • For all the good Eric Cantor's purely symbolic ObamaCare recall vote will do, the GOP might as well proclaim Earth will be a square from now on.
  • PolitiFact has done three fact-checks on response to SCOTUS from Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin & Mitt Romney.

SCOTUS Secrecy

In an organization of 70 people, how did the Supreme Court keep any information about the ObamaCare decision from leaking until yesterday morning? Jim Bennett, former law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy and now a prominent attorney in St. Louis, joined me this morning on KTRS to explain and share some other insider details...

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

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Random thoughts on the Supreme Court's ruling that the individual mandate in the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act (a/k/a ObamaCare) is constitutional, thereby keeping the entire law intact:

I'm glad I'll be able to include my now-eighteen-year-old daughter on our family health insurance policy until she's 26. We'll save money, and she'll be insured. That's better than a lot of young Americans, who until this law couldn't stay on their parents' plans, which made it prohibitively expensive to have health insurance. Most of that demographic went without, figuring that they were young and invincible and would never need medical attention. So they didn't have a regular physician or go for preventive care, until they ended up in an emergency room after a sports injury, a car accident, or their idiot friend's fireworks mishap. Since they didn't have insurance and couldn't afford the exorbitant cost of an ER repair job, those costs were passed on to you and me, the ones with insurance, to the tune of nearly $1,000/year. That was the hidden cost of health care in America. Now, those twenty-somethings (and many older than that) will be forced to have insurance. The more who do, the better for all of us.

There are 835,000 Missourians without health insurance, about 14% of the state's population. In Illinois, it's around 15% (1.9 million). I bet every licensed insurance company would like to have that many new customers -- and the rest of us should want them in the pool, too. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over 33 million Americans who would otherwise be uninsured will have access to health coverage within ten years. Fewer people suffering, no caps on lifetime benefits, subsidies for the poor, and rebates of over a billion dollars from companies that don't spend enough on medical care (as opposed to administrative and marketing costs) -- all part of ObamaCare that don't get nearly enough publicity. Tell me again which of those you think most people are against?

The idea of an individual mandate didn't start with Barack Obama. It began in conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation n 1989, then picked up steam as the right's alternative to HillaryCare, which is how it got onto Mitt Romney's plate when he implemented it as governor of Massachusetts. But once the President embraced the idea, right-wingers had to reject it or renounce their Obama Haters Club membership. Now that neocon Supreme Court hero Chief Justice John Roberts has sided with the four liberal justices and the President, conservative heads are swaying faster than Kim Kardashian in an NBA locker room.

Speaking of the Chief Justice, my radio colleague McGraw Milhaven tweeted this irony this morning: "Then-Senator Obama voted against Roberts for Supreme Court. Now he saves the day for Obama." Addendum: Vice President Joe Biden didn't want Roberts on SCOTUS, either.

Romney says he'll repeal ObamaCare on his first day in office if elected President. Not likely. First of all, most Americans like the parts of the law that have already been implemented, such as the under-26 coverage, and would never want insurance companies to return to discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. In fact, when the public was informed about all the elements of the law (and not just the mandate), most were in favor of it. Besides, Romney can only repeal it if he gets both houses of Congress to go along, and while he'd certainly get the tea-party-infused GOP majority in the House to go along, the Democrats in the Senate would block him even if they lost the leadership (they can filibuster, too!).

I'm laughing out loud at the idiots on Twitter who say they're so upset with the SCOTUS/ObamaCare decision that they're going to leave the US and move to Canada -- apparently unaware that our neighbors to the north have socialized medicine, where everyone subsidizes everyone else's healthcare. I hope they make the move before Election Day.

Problems In Punditry World

"Those who know don't talk, and those that talk don't know." -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on media prognostications before the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare was announced this morning.
The pundits were wrong en masse, but none of them will be held accountable. I don't mean the ones who thought the health insurance mandate should be overturned, but those who proclaimed it would be. They were wrong, yet you won't hear many of them admit it. Being incorrect is not a disqualifier in Punditry World, but apologizing makes you look weak, and that's not allowed if you want to continue to get the call from TV news bookers.

If could have been worse -- they could work for CNN, which this morning was first to report that The Court had decided that the mandate was unconstitutional. Only problem was that the court decided exactly the opposite. In its zeal to be first, CNN had once again forsaken accuracy, a slightly important component of being a news organization. The Twitterverse quickly picked up CNN's report and spread the misinformation globally within seconds. Somewhere in his grave, Frank Reynolds was shouting, "Let's get it nailed down...somebody...let's find out! Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!"

Fox News Channel blew it, too, probably because their pundits and agenda-runners were 100% sure their team couldn't lose...

The ones who got it right were the folks at SCOTUSblog, which is the resource most of us in the media used to quickly understand what The Supremes had said. Unlike CNN, SCOTUSblog took the time to read and parse the decision and then gave it to us in plain English. Kudos to editor Amy Howe and her team.

Anchor Away

Ann Curry said her farewells on "The Today Show" this morning, struggling to hold back tears after the network essentially fired her. Sure, she's going to continue being paid lots of money to report stories from around the world, but that's just an agreement NBC made with her attorney to make her exit seem a little smoother. The bottom line is, she's been canned.

In her final remarks, she referred to herself as a "ground-breaker," which I don't understand. She's not the first woman to do the job (she replaced Meredith Viera who replaced Katie Couric who replaced Deborah Norville who replaced Jane Pauley who replaced Barbara Walters). She's not the first Asian woman to co-anchor a network news show (that was Connie Chung). What ground did Ann break?

I'm not taking anything away from her reportorial skills, but the reason she didn't succeed on "Today" is that she didn't exude one of the key qualities necessary for morning TV success -- a sense of humor. You don't have to be a comedian to do the job, but you do have to be able to lighten things up and not be a "serious journalist" all the time. That's not Ann Curry's personality, and it showed, in the same way it didn't work when Katie Couric tried to go the opposite route from morning TV to evening news without enough gravitas. It's why you won't see Matt Lauer sitting in the anchor chair when Brian Williams is away, but you will see Curry there, and she'll be much better suited for that than pretending to laugh at something Al Roker thought was funny.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Robot Never Loses Roshambo

You'd win rock-paper-scissors every time if you could tell what your opponent was putting out just before you had to put yours out, right? That's exactly what this Japanese robot does, thanks to a high-speed vision system that works in a millisecond...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Final Table #178: Brian Rast, David Bach, Matt Glantz

Today on the Final Table, we continue our coverage of the 2012 World Series Of Poker from the Rio in Las Vegas. With the $50,000 buy-in Poker Players Championship having started on Sunday, we have last year's champion Brian Rast (above left), 2009 champion David Bach (above right), and two-time final tabler Matt Glantz -- three of the best mixed-games players in the world.

Brian Rast explains how he decides whether to play a WSOP tournament instead of lucrative cash games (such as high stakes pot-limit Omaha with blinds of $250/500/1000) and gave us an insiders look at what it's like to play in the big games in Macau (where he's been very successful). We also discuss whether it's better to play the first or second day of re-entry events, and why he likes having one in the WSOP.

David "Gunslinger" Bach explains why online mixed games are terrible without US players in the mix, how his psychology degree helps him read other players, why he's so quiet at the table, and his thoughts on having fewer $10,000 buy-in "championship" events for some mixed games (stud, stud high/low, pot-limit Omaha high/low). He also runs down the players he chose for his team in Daniel Negreanu's $25,000 buy-in WSOP fantasy league.

Matt Glantz talks about the final table of the Poker Players Championship not being televised this year, the mix of games he likes to have in cash games, and what poker players can do to bring more people to live games in casinos. We also ask Matt about the death of the Epic Poker League (he was a member of its Standards and Ethics Committee).

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

Sorkin Steals From Sorkin

If you missed the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" on HBO Sunday night, the network is offering it for free on YouTube. But when you watch it, keep an eye out for the classic Sorkinisms that he has used in his previous projects, from "The West Wing" to "Sports Night" to "The American President." Here's a montage of them, assembled by Kevin Porter, who even grabbed a line Sorkin took from Tom Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech for "Philadelphia." Spoiler alert: the final example of Sorkin re-using Sorkin is from his commencement address at Syracuse University, where he's appeared twice and used the same line both times...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Just Answer The Question

Want to see a weasel at work? I give you Michele Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, under questioning by Jared Polis, a congressman from Boulder, Colorado, at a hearing last week...

By the way, Polis is a pretty remarkable guy. Aside from being the only openly-gay parent in Congress, he is a renowned education philanthropist, using the millions he made from co-founding the online greeting card site Blue Mountain Arts with his parents and launching the online floral delivery service Pro Flowers.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

More Homeopathy Nonsense

Brian Dunning dissects a press release from a woman selling a homeopathic aid for pets who suffer from anxiety during thunderstorms. Even a little bit of analysis shows that neither she nor her product are what she claims, but are as ridiculous as everything else from the world of homeopathy:

Her results should speak for themselves, so it doesn’t really matter who Dr. Kirsti Seskal is. But I was curious nevertheless, since she’s “internationally recognized”. If so, that would be quite a trick; for Google’s record of the entire Internet does not contain even a single reference to that name. But let’s see what she presented at the AVMA conference in St. Louis. The 2011 conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association was indeed in St. Louis (the 2012 conference in San Diego has not yet taken place as of this writing), and we can check the online notes for this conference. Unfortunately, neither the Search, the Table of Contents, the Sponsors, nor the Author Index contain any mention of Kirsti Seskal or HomeoPet. This is not an encouraging start to our evaluation of the press release. Perhaps she was merely an attendee walking around and handing out flyers, which I suppose could be described as “presenting the results of a study”.
Read Dunning's entire piece here.

Tech War

NY Times tech columnist David Pogue writes about the hate mail he gets from readers when he reviews a piece of software or hardware, and wonders how something so inanimate and commercial can get people so worked up:

In politics, scientists describe a communication theory called the hostile media effect. That’s when you perceive media coverage of some hot topic to be biased against your opinion, no matter how evenhanded the coverage actually is. In electronics, though, that effect is magnified by the powerful motivating forces of fear.

When you buy a product, you are, in a way, locking yourself in. You’re committing to a brand. Often, you’re committing to thousands of dollars in software for that platform, or lenses for that camera, or e-books for that reader. You have a deeply vested interest in being right. Whenever somebody comes along and says, in print, that there might be something better – well, that’s scary.

In that case, you don’t just perceive the commentator to be putting down your gadget. He’s putting you down. He’s insulting your intelligence, because that’s not the product you chose. He’s saying that you made the wrong choice, and all of those thousands of dollars of apps and lenses and books were throwing bad money after good. He’s saying you’re a sap.
Pogue's full piece is here.

Prepare To Die

When movie heroes are about to dispatch the villain, they often utter one final, iconic phrase. Here's a montage of those NSFW cinematic gems (and the special-effects laden carnage that follows)...

Reproducing Stupidity

Nona Willis Aronowitz on a disturbing study that shows the effect of abstinence-only sex education not teaching young Americans the truth about birth control:

A new Guttmacher study quizzed 1,241 sexually active young adults between 18 and 29 about contraception, asking them to choose "true" or "false" for basic statements like "all IUDs are banned from use in the United States" or "condoms have an expiration date." More than half of young men and a quarter of young women received a D or F on the quiz. Six in 10 underestimated the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

Unsurprisingly, the more young people knew about birth control, the less likely they were to have unprotected sex. And it's not as if the ones forgoing contraception are ready to become parents: 69 percent of the women and almost half of the men claimed to be "committed to avoiding pregnancy." A full 40 percent of them agreed that birth control really doesn't matter -- "when it is your time to get pregnant," they agreed, "it will happen.” In other words, a significant number of young people's "commitment" to remaining childless involves crossing their fingers, not wearing condoms or swallowing pills.
Her whole column is here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

There's No U In Team

I didn't know until today that my college's baseball team had been in the College World Series, and frankly, I was shocked. Not because I didn't think they were good enough, but because I didn't know the school -- now known as Stony Brook University -- even had a baseball team.

When I went there in the mid-1970s, I was aware the school had a basketball team (then called the Patriots) because they made it to the Division III Final Four and we carried the games on the campus radio station where I worked, WUSB. I don't think we carried any of the other games during the season, but somehow a couple of the student broadcasters convinced the administration to let them go to Rock Island, Illinois, to call the action. I got the honor of running the board to keep the broadcast on the air from our studio in the student union, which is the only way I would have paid attention to the game at all (they lost in the semi-final).

In my time at Stony Brook, I was happy to be at a school where no coach was being paid more than the professors. It was a campus full of marijuana and mud (from the constant construction of new buildings, including the imposing medical center), with no fraternities or sororities, and an academic emphasis on math and science. Not exactly a school that high school jocks were looking to be recruited by. I went there to learn to be a computer systems analyst, but a 3-hour physics lab I was forced to take at 8am on Monday mornings (when most college students are still in the midst of REM sleep) soon convinced me to switch to media studies and I spent the majority of my time in the radio station.

Lots of people maintain a college connection for their entire lives, continuing to root for their schools' teams long after they've graduated, even if they've moved to other parts of the country -- there are Notre Dame fans in Florida, Michigan fans in Maine, Mizzou fans in Texas, etc. They refer to the teams in the first person, as in, "We're going to kick Oklahoma's ass this weekend!" Those alumni even give money to their alma maters, a concept which is completely foreign to me. I have many good memories of my Stony Brook experience, but the university stopped getting money from me the day I drove off the campus, and I haven't paid attention to anything that's happened there in the 34 years since.

So you can imagine my surprise when the university's baseball team (now known as the Sea Wolves) made headlines, and then to find out it has also fielded championship teams in basketball and lacrosse in the last few years. All this from a school where the only athletic activity most of us cared about was throwing around a Frisbee and hitch-hiking to Tuey's bar in East Setauket to see Foghat.

Any day now, I expect to hear they've finished the construction and cleaned up the mud.

The Book Of Polls

What does it say about our presidential election that, according to a new Gallup poll, 18% of Americans say they won't vote for a Mormon candidate, but 43% of respondents don't know that Mitt Romney is Mormon? It says that a huge number of people aren't paying attention to the race yet, despite the overkill on talk radio and cable news outlets. It also means that any poll on the subject is moot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Don't Bet On This

The Las Vegas Sun carried this photo and story online earlier this week:

Before we specify what this statistic is based on, the odds of it happening are 3 billion to 1.

Those are the odds against a roulette wheel hitting the same number on seven consecutive spins. But that did happen, or certainly appears to have happened, at the Rio at 8:32 p.m. Monday as pro poker player Jeff Romano took a photo of a roulette wheel display screen showing the No. 19 hitting on seven straight spins. The string was broken when the wheel landed on 15, then hit 19 once more for a run of eight 19s in nine spins.

The display screen lists the most recent 16 numbers on which the ball lands on a roulette table. Four of the numbers in Romano’s photo are 20, meaning that in this particular stretch, two numbers were landed upon 75 percent of the time. The string started with a green zero, followed by 20-20-23-5-20-20, then the run of 19s.

The the odds of the 19s hitting seven times in succession as 3 billion to 1 (the original version of the column cited incorrect odds as being 14 billion to one, which statistics experts have since noted were far longer than the single number 19 hitting seven times in a row). Contacted this afternoon to ask for verification of the event and if the wheel has since been tested to make sure it is properly balanced and calibrated, Caesars Entertainment officials had not yet learned of the event.

We’re awaiting word on what is certainly one of the rarest documented roulette runs in the city’s history.
I don't buy it. If that mathematically improbable event had occurred, Caesars officials would certainly know about it -- that kind of anomaly gets attention in a casino.

Also, in the photo, there are a couple of empty seats at the roulette table. If the same number had come up so often, it would absolutely have drawn a crowd. I've been at enough craps tables to know that when a shooter goes on an extended run of passes, it brings both spectators and more gamblers, just as when a blackjack player goes on a streak and turns a small amount of chips into a huge stack. If 19 had come up that often in a short time span, a lot more people would have gathered to bet on it. People want to be where the action is, so why aren't they around this gaming miracle?

In general, those display screens were responsible for increasing the amount of money bet on roulette wheels, because the general public doesn't understand the concept of independent chance. There is no statistical correlation between what happened on the last roll and what will happen on the next roll. Like the dice on a craps table, the roulette ball and wheel don't have a memory, unlike a blackjack shoe where a card-counter can know whether there are more high cards or low cards left in the deck. But when people look up and see that the number 7 or 13 or 28 hasn't been landed on in awhile -- or that 19 has been hit twice in the last ten rolls -- they plunk down their bets (unaware that the house's edge on roulette is among the highest in the casino).

So what really happened? The Rio was very likely running some diagnostics on their equipment, placing the ball instead of spinning it, making sure the numbers posted properly, and perhaps vetting some new croupiers to ensure they made the right payouts and collected bets quickly. In other words, it wasn't a 3 billion to 1 shot. It was only a test.

If I were a gambling man, I'd bet on it.

Inducting An Old River Dog

Trivia Question: Which former "Saturday Night Live" cast member is in the Baseball Hall Of Fame?
Answer: Bill Murray.

OK, it's not the national one in Cooperstown, but the Hall Of Fame of the South Atlantic League, where Murray has been an owner of the Charleston River Dogs since 1984. Here's the speech he gave at Tuesday's induction banquet...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Letterman and Baldwin

David Letterman doesn't do a lot of press, but he sat down a few weeks ago with Regis Philbin for an hour on CNN (in the Piers Morgan wasted slot). While it's always fun to see the two of them together, it was a completely superficial conversation.

The other interview he's done recently was for Alec Baldwin's "Here's The Thing" podcast, and it's a much better and deeper discussion, as Baldwin gets Letterman to open up about how he's not really that involved in preparing each night's "Late Show," the restrictions that NBC placed on him when he started doing "Late Night" in 1982, and what his early career in radio and then as a television booth announcer were like. He also explains how he found success as a standup almost immediately after leaving Indiana to move to Los Angeles, and somehow parlayed that into his debut on Johnny Carson's show just three years later.

You may know some of these stories, but hearing Letterman tell them in the first person makes for a good listen. Here's the link.

As I write this, Baldwin is appearing on Letterman's CBS show to promote Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love." But first they have to discuss Baldwin's encounter with a paparazzi (paparazzo?) yesterday, a story blown out of proportion by the tabloid media, which inspired Paul Shaffer to play him on with Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" -- a nice touch that had both Letterman and Baldwin laughing. By the way, Baldwin's also in "Rock Of Ages," which bombed at the box office this weekend, which may explain why there's no mention of it tonight.

House Hunting

When I was growing up and watching movies on TV with my parents, I was always amazed when they were able to name some of the lesser-known actors in the background or in cameos. I was impressed with and inspired by their vast cinema knowledge, to the point where I now do it with my wife, often to the amazement of our daughter.

This afternoon, she and I were watching "As Good As It Gets," a movie I hadn't seen since its initial run in 1997. Aside from the terrific lead performances by Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear, it was interesting to see that the supporting cast included Cuba Gooding Jr., Yeardley Smith, Skeet Ullrich, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and a very young Maya Rudolph as a cop with no lines. But I was also proud to spot Peter Jacobson and Lisa Edelstein -- who years later would work together on "House" -- as a couple that Nicholson insults into leaving their table in the restaurant where Hunt is a waitress...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Final Table #177: Dennis Almost Wins A Bracelet

Today on the Final Table, we continue our coverage of the 2012 World Series Of Poker from the Rio in Las Vegas, with an extended analysis of Dennis winning $372,895 with his second-place finish in the WSOP Seniors Event yesterday.

We discussed how the strategy was different for this event, which drew the largest single-day starting field in WSOP history with 4,128 players. Dennis explained why he tried not to play big hands against Hoyt Corkins at the final table, how he pulled off a bluff earlier in the tournament when he knew another player was steaming, and what he thought of Allyn Jaffrey Shulman's technique of either folding or shoving her way to victory.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Final Table #176: Mike Sexton, Linda Johnson, Marco Valerio

Today on the Final Table, we continue our coverage of the 2012 World Series Of Poker from the Rio in Las Vegas. Our guests include:
  • Mike Sexton, Poker Hall Of Famer best known for his work on World Poker Tour telecasts, who cashed in two events he played simultaneously at this WSOP;
  • Linda Johnson, another Poker Hall Of Famer, who helped change a policy regarding bathroom access for female players at the Rio;
  • Marco Valerio, the man behind QuadJacks.com's live updates from the WSOP and the new database he's put online that helps players learn more about their tournament opponents.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Just Tell Me What Time It Is, Please

As I was walking down the street one day, a man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, and I said, "Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so I can't imagine why. We've all got time enough to cry." -- Chicago
I must have played that song hundreds of times during my disc jockey years, but I never gave a thought to the lyrics until I heard it in my car yesterday and realized that the guy singing it is a complete jerk. I ask you what time it is and you give me that response? You can't imagine why I want to know what time it is? How about because I have to be somewhere at a certain time and I want to make sure I'm not late, that's why.

I'll grant you that 1970, when Robert Lamm wrote the song, was a different era, with some young Americans so unattached from the divisive world they lived in that time and place seemed irrelevant. But I was in junior high school at the time, and if my watch stopped, I might not be on time for Little League practice, which was extremely relevant to me!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Another Movie You Might Not Know

I expected "Contagion" to be a gruesome horror story about a disease that ravages the earth's population. What I got was a thoughtful thriller about scientists racing to solve the mystery of a virus that seemingly appears out of nowhere and within days is killing people in Hong Kong, Chicago, and Minneapolis, before spreading in a few weeks to much of the rest of the world.

Director Steven Soderbergh can make great movies ("Out of Sight," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," "Ocean's Eleven" ) or he can miss the mark badly ("Solaris," "The Good German," "Ocean's Twelve"). With "Contagion," he's back to the bullseye. I'm not going to spoil any part of the plot, but the movie interweaves stories involving scientists at CDC and WHO (Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould, and Jennifer Ehle), regular folks affected by the virus and the accompanying global panic (Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Sanaa Lathan), and a blogger who spreads conspiracy theories and misinformation (Jude Law). That's a pretty solid cast, and Soderbergh wrings every ounce out of them to make us feel the frustration, anger, and fear of people facing death from an enemy too small to see. In that, there are echoes of Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain."

Although "Contagion" made about $75 million at the box office, I missed it on the big screen, and since you may have, too, I'm adding it to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

Cheap and Quiet and Fee-Free

I have written about hotel experiences several times on this blog, from the soap and towels to the not-so-safe safe to hallway noise to why I don't want the room cleaned every day. Ken Levine has a column today full of his own rants about hotels, particularly all the hidden charges they slip into your bill, which must be costing them repeat customers.

On my recent Vegas trip, I avoided a lot of those extra fees by staying at Extended Stay America. I got a one-bedroom efficiency with a living room/kitchen with full-sized refrigerator, toaster, and microwave, plus lots of parking right next to my room (I always rent a car in that town because I like to play in different poker rooms, get some food and beverages from the supermarket a couple of miles away, and not have to ride in cabs with drivers whose mission is to convince me to go to a strip club they're getting a kickback from).

Extended Stay doesn't have daily maid service (which I don't need), restaurants, a casino, or anyone bothering me. In fact, the only employee I ever saw was the guy at the front desk when I checked in, which meant no bellman or doorman with his hand out. There were none of those hidden charges, either -- no resort fee, no charge for wi-fi or local phone calls, no mini-bar -- and the price was less than $60/day.

I've recommended this place to lots of poker players who've liked it, too. We're not going to spend all that much time in the room, anyway, so we don't need luxury accommodations with features we won't use. I figure that the more of us who stay there, the better chance it'll be quiet in the morning, because none of us are up and out before 10am!

Here's the link.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Refreshed But Not Refreshing

The programmers who write code for really good pieces of software, or apps, or websites, must constantly improve their products once they become popular. That includes updates to work out bugs, or for security reasons, or in response to feedback from the public. Unfortunately, all too often, those programmers think their product needs a completely new look, so they overhaul it and, in so doing, ruin it.

The latest example is bit.ly, a website I've used to shorten the URL of pages I link to or tweet about. Unlike other URL-shortening sites (like tinyurl or goo.gl or is.gd), bit.ly allowed users to add other text and then send it as a tweet. I used it as a one-stop for almost everything I posted to Twitter.

Now, the geniuses at bit.ly have changed it so much that, while the service is still free, it's no longer simple. They don't provide click-through data on their front page. They've decided that bookmarks should now be called "bitmarks." They've taken away the box where you could enter the text of your tweet. All in all, they've taken a beautiful, clean service, and turned it into something that doesn't offer the best features of its previous version.

So, I've switched to HootSuite, a site/app that has its own built-in URL shortener and allows users to not only add text to links, but also to schedule tweets to post at a later time. Twitter and Facebook (you can post status updates from Hootsuite, too) don't have that feature built into their sites, nor did bit.ly. I find it useful when I write a new column or post a new podcast in the middle of the night but want to promote it to the daytime audience as well. Hootsuite offers other features, including click-through analytics, and the ability to monitor all of your social media feeds in one place, in a nice simple format.

For now. Until the software engineers decide it works too well and must be ruined.

There's also been a change to Blogger, the Google software I use to write and post everything on Harris Online, and it, too, is for the worse. In an attempt to streamline it, they have made Blogger more unwieldy and difficult to use, and removed features like embedding Amazon Associates codes. Plus, it adds line breaks where I don't want them and ignores many I do want.

I'm not resistant to change. If I like your product and you make it better, I'm with you. Yet I wonder if the software engineers who come up with these "improvements" actually use their own products as we do. If they did, they'd know that what they've done hasn't helped. It may be a matter of self-preservation -- to justify their jobs, they must constantly develop new ideas and show their bosses how they've made things better. While these overhauls may achieve those career goals, they hurt the user experience.

Google keeps warning that all users will soon have to use the updated Blogger interface instead of the classic version. That's a mistake right out of the consumer product history book -- or maybe everyone at Google (and bit.ly) is too young to remember New Coke.

Tweet Vegas

From my Twitter feed...

  • In 2009, I complained about the public toilets at the Rio flushing while you're still seated. In 2012, they're still stuck on the "pre-mature ass bath" setting.
  • I rarely come to Vegas w/o getting dim sum at Ping Pang Pong at the Gold Coast. Still the best har gow & shiu mai in town.
  • Caught a few minutes of The Queen's 60th thing on TV. She's super-rich & famous for doing nothing. In the US, we call that a Kardashian.
  • Dear Mitt: you're wrong that all you have to do this year is get 50.1% of the vote. If that were true, Al Gore would've been president.
  • In Trump's world, evidence-free claims against Obama are the absolute truth, but against the Miss USA pageant, they must be outrageous lies.
  • I see that Shawn Parker is launching another site where users think they're the customers, when in fact they'll be unpaid content providers.
  • On Southwest flights, it's fun to look at those boarding last and think, "Please don't sit next to me, fat guy!" To which I say, "Quit staring at me!"

The Newsprint Stain (cont'd)

[a followup to yesterday's column]

I have always loved newspapers, and still receive the print edition of the New York Times at home.  It remains a great paper, with plenty of compelling content to page through each day, and I appreciate the effort of all the people whose efforts get it to me.  I'm not speaking of the journalists who create the content, but the personnel who literally bring me the paper.

In my youth, I delivered the afternoon newspaper in our apartment complex after school, with two baskets attached to the back of my bicycle.  I enjoyed my role in distributing information to the masses, although I always hated collection day, when I'd have to knock on all those doors to collect 55¢ for a week's worth of papers.  Many times, there was no one home and I'd have to make a return trip or add it to the next week's bill -- or worse, I'd be greeted by the loud growl and bark of a tenant's dog, which never failed to scare the crap out of me.

There are no more afternoon print editions, so the delivery job now belongs to adults who work in the middle of the night to pick up the papers from the local distributor, who had them trucked in from the local printing plant, where someone had to keep the ink and paper flowing amidst the noise of those giant presses.  Then the delivery guy has to bag them and spend a couple of hours driving in the dark to toss the papers into driveways and stuff them into slots and fill those sidewalk coin-operated vending boxes, all before the rest of the world wakes up.  I've come home from many late-night poker sessions to find the paper sitting in my driveway at 4am and said a silent "thank you" to whoever our delivery person is (I've never actually seen him/her).

In a world of free information everywhere, the cost of gathering the news and physically handing it to the end-user is an incredibly old-fashioned and very expensive way to tell people what's going on their world.  Publishers are struggling with this dilemma every day.

They can hear the dog barking on the other side of the door and it's scaring them, too.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Final Table Show #175: WSOP Coverage with Donnie Peters

Today on the Final Table, we're both at the Rio in Las Vegas for the 2012 World Series Of Poker. Donnie Peters, live reporting manager and senior writer at Poker News, joined us to talk about some of the big stories from the WSOP's first week, including:
  • A controversy over forcing players to verbalize their actions at all final tables;
  • Another controversy involving players who illegally re-entered this weekend's $1500 No Limit Hold'em event by buying in twice on the same day instead of playing separate days;
  • The failure of the ChipTic system, which was supposed to help track the stacks of every player;
  • How smaller-than-expected fields and spreading the tournaments out into three rooms has lowered the overall energy level;
  • Andy Bloch and Cory Zeidman winning their first-ever gold bracelets;
  • Mike Sexton cashing in two events that ran simultaneously while he ran between them.
We also discussed our short-lived runs in a couple of bracelet events, and then offered strategies from our playing experience in many single-table sit-and-go tournaments that are the best value at the WSOP -- from how to change gears from beginning play to middle play to end play, how to get even more value via last-longer bets, and why and how you should chop the prize money when you get down to two players.

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

Note: over the next few weeks, you'll hear Final Table Show interviews we've recorded with more than a dozen poker pros at the WSOP, including Maria Ho, Matt Glantz, Mike Sexton, David Bach, Shannon Shorr, Brian Rast, Phil Collins, Matt Affleck, and Cory Zeidman.

True Lies

The website PolitiFact analyzes claims by politicians and partisan members of the media to determine whether they're presenting facts or falsehoods. Which political party tends to tell the truth more often, and which party gets the dreaded "pants on fire" designation for outright lies?  Take a quick look at these graphs.

The Newsprint Stain

There's been quite a bit of dismay and hand-wringing in the media world since the daily newspaper in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune, announced it was cutting its print edition to only three days a week. The bottom line is, like many other newspapers, they no longer have enough readers to allow them to charge advertisers the kind of prices that justify printing the paper every day.  The staff (which has been reduced as revenue dropped) will continue to report the news all week via the paper's website, but readers will have to go get it instead of it being delivered to them.

Yesterday, there was a rally to support keeping the 7-day print edition, which drew all of 300 people. There were more people than that at my daughter's high school when she performed in "Diary of Anne Frank."  I'd be willing to bet that a portion of the rally-goers were folks who like the idea of a daily newspaper, but don't actually subscribe to it themselves.

In St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch is likely to take this same route, and we'll hear the same moaners and teeth-gnashers decrying the loss of a beloved institution. They'll ignore the fact that the P-D is already more a pamphlet than a newspaper, and rarely qualifies as a must-read, even online.  I just scanned the stories on its website and didn't find one item interesting enough to make me click on it.

Truth is, most local news is worthless, whether it's in print or broadcast.  I recently had a discussion with a local radio manager, in which I said that there's no need for that station to do newscasts outside of morning drive because there isn't anything going on that's worth the time. It's not like they have a full-time news-gathering organization that's breaking stories and investigating corruption every day.  Most radio news operations consist of one person scanning the wires and other news sources (local TV, websites, etc.) and then re-purposing that content on the air.  Their newscasts consist of lots of police-blotter stories and minor political squabbles that affect exactly none of their listeners.  Anyone who wants to know "what's happening now" can find it elsewhere.

What's really sad about the demise of newspapers is that it's their own fault for giving it away for free online in the first place. The concept was to sell advertising for the online edition which would replace revenue lost from decreased print subscriptions.  But advertisers aren't willing to shell out the same amount of money for internet-only compared to the hard copies, so revenue hasn't shifted from one distribution method to the other.  Newspapers needed to charge online readers for their product from day one, before we all got used to getting any information we want for nothing.

Some papers are figuring out ways to cut down on free access while increasing online revenue, but it's a tricky dance to perform without losing readers. The worst part of this bad economic model is all the employees who are being squeezed out of the big dailies and finding few places to continue their careers in an industry that's teetering on the precipice.

It'll take more than 300 people at a rally to change that.

I'll have more on this subject tomorrow.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Sitting Down For A Standup (cont'd)

In response to my piece two weeks ago about the first Comic Relief USA event, where everyone gave Jerry Lewis a standing ovation except me, Steve McMahon e-mails:

I checked out the 1980’s Jerry Lewis video on YouTube. It does have a guy front and center not standing UNTIL he is elbowed by a woman as if to say, "don’t you know that is Jerry Lewis," and the guy stands up. It is the same as the George Carlin clip – you can see the same guy in the crowd scene. So, did you stay seated the entire time and this is a different front row non-stander, or is the memory slipping? It does not matter, as you are dead on. He looks down and the woman, in my opinion, notices and tells you to get up, which may be even better than you recalled.
First of all, the video is labeled 1980, but that Comic Relief concert was in 1986.  Second, the woman was indeed our WYNY Radio contest winner (Kathy), but the guy she nudged was her boyfriend, not me. I'm the guy in the blue satin HBO jacket to his right, and I remained seated the entire time.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Some More Magical Than Others

There are 2 magic shows in Vegas that are worth your time and money. The one I saw tonight wasn't one of them, but first let me tell you about the other two.

First is the Mac King Comedy Magic Show. I first met Mac over a decade ago when he was working comedy clubs, and not long after was happy to hear that he'd inked a deal to do his act at Harrah's, where he still performs five days a week at 1pm and 3pm. Unlike many of the other magic acts in town, Mac works solo and small -- his close-up stuff surprises me every time I see it, and his banter with audience volunteers is a crash course in clever comedy. He doesn't have any tigers or elephants or other large animals appearing out of nowhere, although there is one goldfish and a handful of Fig Newtons. I've recommended Mac's show to dozens of people who have all thanked me later -- without a single complaint. He's always out front after the show, so if you go, tell him I sent you.

The other recommendation is Penn & Teller at The Rio, although you have to check their schedule because they're often off performing elsewhere or working on other projects. I've seen these guys do their stuff in various forms for over 25 years, so whenever I bring someone to their show, I'm usually asked if I know how they do certain tricks. I always say that even if I had an idea of what was going on, I'd rather not know the details -- magic is a lot less fun if you know how the tricks are done. I prefer to be awed at both the skill and the result. That applies tenfold to the routine P&T have closed their show with forever, the Double Bullet Catch, in which they each catch (in their teeth) a bullet shot by the other across the stage with a .357 Magnum. I'm always astounded and never want to know even an iota of how they do it. Penn & Teller also meet the audience in the lobby after every show, where you'll always hear people surprised to find out that Teller talks.

Vegas used to have another very good magic show when Lance Burton performed at the Monte Carlo. I first went to see Lance because Penn recommended him to me, saying, "His opening sequence contains the finest sleight-of-hand work you'll see, and you know how big a compliment that is, because I work with Teller." What followed were 90 minutes combining big, sometimes-schmaltzy spectacle and delicate close-up magic. Lance was especially good with kids he plucked from the audience, including my daughter, who was invited up to help make Elvis The Parakeet disappear from his cage. Lance hasn't announced a new show or venue, but when he does, it'll be on my must-see list, I'm sure.

That brings us to the man I saw tonight, David Copperfield. I was familiar with Copperfield's many TV specials, including those featuring his "death-defying" stunts and gigantic illusions. I'd never been a fan, but recognized that he had quite a skill set, and was curious to see what his live show, in a continuing run at the MGM Grand, looked like.

One thing Copperfield proved long ago is that he knows how to play to the camera. So, in his theater, he does close-up for people plucked from the audience, which the rest of us can see on three large screens on and around the stage. In those bits, he plays only to the camera, complete with his trademark eyebrow lift and smoldering smirk of self-awareness. He does the magic well, and is a smart enough showman to incorporate modern technology into other parts of the act, with one routine involving an e-mail sent to the entire audience that includes a prediction about some supposedly random people and events that take place in the open. Copperfield pulls off a few big illusions, too, opening the show by materializing on his motorcycle in a previously-empty box on stage, making a classic car appear out of nowhere while surrounded by audience members, and seeming to walk through a giant fan.

But mostly, Copperfield begs for applause. Not verbally, but by bowing at the end of each trick with his arms spread, the physical equivalent of saying, "Wasn't what I just did incredible and amazing???" The audience tonight never rewarded him with a thunderous ovation, perhaps because, while he's certainly talented and clever, he comes off as so damned needy.

The other problem with tonight's show was that several audience members he chose to help with his tricks were from China, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico, but not fluent in English, so when he gave them simple directions (pick a card, hold it to your chest, hand me the deck) they rarely did what they were told correctly the first time. This is always a challenge for anyone working with "volunteers," and while Copperfield tip-toed around the problem, he was clearly annoyed that it happened so many times in one show. Perhaps that's a problem inherent in working in Vegas, which draws tourists from all over the world, or it may be because Copperfield's specials made him known around the world -- but I've never seen Mac or Penn & Teller (who also bring audience members onstage) have to traverse that linguistic minefield.

There have always been rumors that Copperfield uses plants, people who work for him but pretend to be regular audience members who he just happens to call on. If he's doing that with folks who are English-challenged, it's certainly a good way to deflect that criticism. Whether those stories are true or not is immaterial, frankly. What matters is whether Copperfield entertains and amazes, and he's pretty good on both fronts.

For folks who want to see him in death-defying action, Copperfield shows a four-minute video of a routine he did on TV several years ago involving a straight jacket, burning ropes, and a lot of spikes. Nothing else in the stage show comes close to the exhilaration of that trick, which may explain why, for the rest of the night, he kept doing the hey-wow beg-bow.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Getting 2 Wrong, But 3 Right

I was a big fan of the first "Men In Black" because it had more than just good special effects and an interesting story. It also had wit. When the movie became a blockbuster, there was no doubt they'd make a sequel, and I worried it would fall victim to Billy Crystal-itis, a syndrome I named after what Crystal did with "City Slickers 2."

The first "City Slickers" was a wonderful story about Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby as tourists (along Josh Mostel, David Paymer, and Helen Slater) spending their summer vacation driving a herd of cattle across the plains while overseen by a crusty old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance. Palance did such a good job with his supporting role that he won the Oscar the following year and gave a funny speech that for some reason included one-armed pushups. Crystal was the emcee that year, saw what had happened, and ran with that moment as his theme for the rest of the night in some very funny ad-libs.

The problem was he didn't stop there. When it came time to make "City Slickers 2," Crystal decided to have Palance -- whose character had died before the end of the first movie -- reappear as Curly's brother, and with the entire plot based around him. The movie was even called "City Slickers 2: Curly's Gold." That elevation of a supporting character to a bigger role in the plot (and the fact that Bruno Kirby was replaced by the nowhere-near-as-good Jon Lovitz) sunk the sequel. Crystal took "just enough" and turned it into "too much."

"Men In Black 2" made the exact same mistake. The original included a scene where Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith go to get information from an alien, a talking dog named Frank -- a pug who was cute and funny. So, when it was time for the sequel, not only did the creators bring back Frank, but they increased his screen time, making him Smith's partner in several scenes, and at one point singing "I Will Survive." Director Barry Sonnenfeld recently admitted this was a mistake, and said he'd vowed not to make the same error with the third movie.

He didn't. "MIB3" gets the series back on track. Except for the worm-like aliens at MIB headquarters reappearing in quick cameos, none of the other supporting cast shows up. That leaves plenty of room for the time travel story -- in which Josh Brolin does a perfectly dry impression of a younger Tommy Lee Jones -- and for the movie to return to the original "MIB" concept of good special effects and witty banter.

My only complaint about this one is that my wife and I wasted money to see it in 3-D. I've never been a fan of the technology, and not just because I have to wear the 3-D glasses over my prescription glasses. It's that the effects don't seem that much more spectacular, just an excuse to have pointy objects come hurtling at the screen. The villain in "MIB3," well-played by Jemaine Clement, thwarts his enemies by launching deadly spikes from his hand. Naturally, we get a lot of POV shots of those spikes coming right at us, but they're unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot.

Of course, if Hollywood follows its usual pattern, those 3-D spikes will be elevated from their role as a supporting special effect and become central to the plot of "Men In Black 4: Curly's Alien Invasion."

Voter Fraud Fraud

Scott Keyes has a piece on Slate.com about how Republicans are trying to stamp out voter fraud that doesn't exist. Despite a complete lack of evidence to bolster their argument, they've passed laws across the country to fight this non-existent menace:

Conservatives often note that even if widespread fraud hasn’t occurred, the ease with which voters could misrepresent themselves at the polls warrants stringent preventive measures. Sting artist James O’Keefe has released a number of videos in which people show up at the polls with hidden cameras claiming to be someone they’re not. The fact that most poll workers trust these individuals and hand over a ballot proves, in O’Keefe’s estimation, that we need voter ID laws so people can’t misrepresent themselves.

This view ignores an important point: Regardless of how “easy” it may be to trick an unsuspecting poll worker, it rarely happens. And there is a simple explanation why: Voter fraud is a felony that carries a federal sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If I show up at the polls and pretend to be Michael McDonald, at best, I gain a single vote for my preferred candidate; at worst, I get sent to prison until 2017. Stealing an entire election one vote a time (and risking significant penalties for doing it) defies common sense.

So does the logic that we must prevent any crime that’s “easy” to do. It’s really easy to dump a bucket of water on a policeman’s head. In reality, it doesn’t happen because people don’t want to go to jail. Yet by O’Keefe’s logic, the best way to prevent it would be to ban buckets.
Why does the right keep pushing this issue into legislation? Partly because it fits their agenda of believing nonsense despite a lack of facts to back it up, and partly because they've become really good at disenfranchising groups that tend not to vote for them. Read Keyes' entire piece here.