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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Don't Vote, Morons!

This is the best piece on American elections I've read in a very long time. I say that because I agree with every word of it. It's written by Nolan Dalla who, in addition to being media director of the World Series Of Poker, is a prolific writer who has started blogging regularly. You have to read the whole thing, entitled "Our Leaders Are Elected By Morons," but here's an excerpt:

Morons are often easy to identify. They don’t read books. They don’t read newspapers. They don’t watch news shows. They can’t bothered with any complex details about any issue whatsoever. For these people, everything has to be reduced to the equivalent of screaming “amen” at a church revival.

Occasionally, some news does manage to penetrate their skulls, so long as it airs on Entertainment Tonight or SportsCenter. They know more about the life of a Kardashian or the starting quarterback of their favorite football team than anyone who holds elected office. They don’t spend a single second thinking about issues, but they have an opinion on just about everything.

They’re the first to start chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” whenever an American athlete competes against someone from another country. They’re the first to gloat that “America is the greatest country in the world,” even though they’ve never actually traveled overseas. They’re the first to attack anyone who dares to question the conventional view of America’s role in the world, equivocating dissent with treason. They think of themselves as true patriots.
In reality, they’re phonies and frauds. And, they’re dangerous.

I have a message for all these morons who lack political conviction and who are void of anything that could possibly be construed as a personal philosophy. Listen carefully. My message is this — DON’T VOTE!

I swear. I will have more respect for you for sitting this one out rather than pretending that you really care. If you can’t spend as much time thinking about the future of your country as deciding what you’re going to order off the lunch menu at the Olive Garden, we don’t need you cluttering up the lines on election day and diluting the end results with your ignorance.

In Case You Missed It -- GOP Convention Edition

From my Twitter feed...

  • The secret service agent he played in "In The Line Of Fire" would've thrown himself between Clint Eastwood, the podium, & the chair last night.
  • After Romney and other GOP speakers praised the late Neil Armstrong, I loved Tom Brokaw's comment that putting men on the moon was a HUGE government project, which created a lot of private business opportunities.
  • Did Clint Eastwood get his idea for interviewing an empty chair from Piers Morgan on the night Todd Akin didn't show up?
  • CBS is using Abe Lincoln's anti-slavery line "A house divided against itself cannot stand" to promote "Big Brother." Stay classy, Tiffany network!
  • NBC delaying the Olympics by a few hours was nothing compared to GOP efforts to delay progress by a few generations.
  • I only saw a few minutes of the 2012 Mitt Romney Games on NBC last night, but they looked like the most boring Olympics ever.
  • CNN can't even treat a story correctly when it has to do with CNN!
  • If you're an online poker supporter, note that both Romney & the GOP platform demand a ban on all internet gambling.

Nine Misses

I thought I posted this last weekend, but now see that I didn't, so here it is...

On Friday morning, a disgruntled ex-employee of a clothing store shot a former co-worker near the Empire State Building. Then he put his gun back in his briefcase and walked away. A witness alerted the cops, who confronted the shooter, who raised his weapon. The officers responded by firing 16 shots at the man, killing him. But nine of those police bullets ended up in innocent bystanders.

Here's why I bring this up.

Gun extremists love to claim that if more people had guns, we'd all be safer. When there's a murder like this one, or a mass shooting like the one at the movie theater in Aurora, they always claim that if there had been gun-owners on the scene, they could have stopped the mayhem. They've seen all the movies and TV shows where the villain fires off hundreds of rounds that somehow miss the hero, but he/she squeezes off one shot and kills the enemy -- and they think they can do the same. But they can't.

At the Empire State Building, we had two police officers who were trained in how to use a weapon, and more of their shots missed the target than hit it. Yet the NRA would have you believe that you need a gun so you (who will have a lot less firearms training than a police officer) can always shoot the bad guy. Imagine how much more carnage would have been created in that packed movie theater if a dozen gun-owners had started firing wildly during the melee.

I'm not one of those who thinks no one should have guns, but I detest the lies and propaganda and fear-mongering by the gun lobby, which has effectively convinced so many Americans that they must own a weapon for self-defense. The worst part is that most of those who buy a gun never get any training in how to use it. Isn't it odd that, before you're issued a license to drive, you have to prove proficiency behind the wheel, but anyone can buy a handgun and carry it around with no training whatsoever?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Clint vs. Twitter

Tomorrow morning, no one will remember a thing Mitt Romney said tonight at the Republican convention. But they'll all be talking about Clint Eastwood's Crazy Comedy Chair routine, which almost blew up Twitter with comments. A few of my favorites:

  • Erik Malinowski: If Clint ends this bit with "The Aristocrats!", I swear I'll vote for Romney.
  • David Axelrod: That screaming you hear backstage is poor Clint, when they told him Mitt wants U.S. to stay in Afghanistan INDEFINITELY.
  • Tom Brokaw: Clint Eastwood became huge star as a man of few words As a surprise guest on the Tampa stage he had too many words (I say as a friend)
  • Howard Kurtz: There is a reason conventions are scripted. Clint's empty chair act weirdest convention moment I have ever seen.
  • Roger Ebert: Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic. He didn't need to do this to himself. It's unworthy of him.
  • Lawrence O'Donnell: Clint's Republican family values: he has fathered more children out of wedlock than he has from his marriages.
  • Wendell Pierce: Clint is funny. Obviously not vetted. Condemns lawyers and politicians. Clint, Mitt is both.
On that last point, Clint may have forgotten that the first Republican to become president was also an attorney and a politician. But that guy turned out to be a loser who didn't do much. His name? Abraham Lincoln.

Incidentally, Eastwood doesn't exactly match the current conservative profile -- he's pro-life and pro-gay-marriage. But as with much of what he (and other speakers have) said, the GOP crowd at the convention isn't concerned with facts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What's Your Major?

Now that my daughter has started college, people keep asking me what she’s going to major in.  The answer is she has no idea, and I think that’s absolutely fine.  When you’re 18, it’s okay not to know what you’re going to do with your life, because you have plenty of time to figure it out.  I’ve told her to take her core classes and some electives for the next two years and then decide what field she wants to pursue.

Even after she graduates, there’s no guarantee her major will have anything to do with the job she moves into, and there’s no reason she has to stick with only one occupation, either.  I went to college planning to be a computer scientist, but ended up with a career in radio.  My wife majored in criminal justice, but ended up working in TV and now has an office job.  My mother was a chemistry major, but has spent the last half of her life as a librarian.  My father worked in advertising and didn’t become a teacher until he was 41 years old.  If you had asked any of us at 18 what we were going to do with our lives, we couldn’t have guessed.

I’ve told my daughter the next four years may be the only time she can afford to live in New York City (while I’m paying the bills), so she should enjoy it and make her college experience about learning new concepts, embracing new adventures, and becoming more independent.

Some good grades wouldn’t hurt, either.

Road Trip Day 9: Atlantic City Boardwalk

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

There are distinct parts of Atlantic City. Borgata is in the Marina district with some other high-end casino/hotels. The famous boardwalk is several miles away, overlooking the beach on the Atlantic Ocean.  It is Atlantic City’s version of the Las Vegas strip, but with more sleaze and less polish.  I want to get some exercise, so I decide to go over there and take a walk for an hour to see if the boardwalk scene has changed since I was last there some 15 years ago.

It hasn’t changed a bit.  The streets that lead to the boardwalk have added some name-brand outlet stores, but a lot of dilapidated and broken-down homes and apartment buildings line the way, as well.  Up on the boardwalk, between the casinos, the ambiance is still pure carnival, with arcades and rides on the Steel Pier and rows of shops selling low-rent souvenirs, discount t-shirts, salt water taffy, funnel cake, pizza, hot dogs, soft-serve ice cream, and cheesesteaks.  Everyone looks bored, as if the long, hot summer has worn them out.  There are storefronts offering psychic readings and several that just say “massage,” with women in the doorway trying to get potential customers to come inside.  I notice they’re only beckoning to men, which makes them seem even sordid than they did at first glance.  Since I always try to keep my vacations disease-free, I pass.

I wonder if I’ll come across any businesses exploiting “Boardwalk Empire,” and sure enough, I spot Nucky’s Photo Studio, named after the scummy character Steve Buscemi plays on the HBO series.  I’m surprised there isn’t a strip club named after the Bada Bing from “The Sopranos.”

Turns out there is a strip club on the boardwalk, but its not named after a TV show, and its fa├žade is surprisingly discreet.  Unlike Vegas, where strip clubs advertise on billboards and cab tops, sex is not very out in the open in Atlantic City.  Perhaps it’s because the town wants the beach and the boardwalk to be family-friendly. Whatever happens here is more likely to get in the car and drive back to your suburban subdivision with you, so you’re better off getting some flavored crushed ice in a paper cone than a lap dance from a stripper in a g-string.

As I continue my walk, dodging pedicabs and the world’s most fearless seagulls, I come upon the part of the boardwalk where the Sands Casino used to be.  I have fond memories of staying in cheap rooms there on my trips up from DC many years ago and didn’t know that it was gone, replaced by a park with a giant fountain. It had a people-mover that took you right into the casino, but the building that served as the entrance is now a substation for the AC police department. One of the cops tells me that the Sands was imploded about 5 years ago.  I guess my comp points aren’t good anymore.

Nearby, I pass Bally’s Casino, with signs promoting a revue called “Legends In Concert” with pictures of Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Madonna impersonators, who to my eye don’t look all that much like the stars they’re supposed to be imitating.  There are other signs advertising Bally’s “Dealertainers.” I don’t go inside to see, but I’m guessing they are dealers also dressed up as famous people, but without any singing or dancing ability. Or maybe they’re the understudies, the “Legends” minor leagues.  Because you want to be dealt a 20 in blackjack and be beaten by a five-card 21 from a dealer who looks like Fat Elvis and sounds like Snooki.

I turn around and walk up to the Taj Mahal, which is now part of Donald Trump’s empire, so I’m not going to spend a nickel there.  I could tolerate his blustering arrogant nonsense once, but the political bullshit he’s spewed over the last few years have put him on my Always Avoid list.  However, I do want to see what’s happened to the Taj poker room, which used to be the best on the east coast (it was featured in the movie “Rounders”), but has lost a lot of business since Borgata opened and the good games moved there.  The room is still huge, but only about 10% full.  I check the sign-in board to see what they’re playing -- all small buy-in games, mostly limit hold’em ($2-4) and stud ($1-5).

Unlike virtually every other poker room I’ve ever been in, the Taj has very few players under 30 years old.  The reason? Atlantic City is one of the few places in America that still plays a lot of stud poker, a game that was left behind in the last decade’s gold rush of televised and online poker. Variants of seven-card stud and five-card draw were the only games most people knew for a long time, but most of us have long since moved on to no-limit hold’em (which looks better and is easier to understand on TV) and pot-limit Omaha.  Those who stuck with stud have found their player pool severely diminished, and the average age of players at the Taj looks to be about 70. For that reason, I’m sure the games start in the morning when they wake up and don’t go very late into the night.

Since I wouldn’t sit down at one of Trump’s tables even if they had a game I wanted to play, I check the Bravo Poker Live app on my iPhone and see that Borgata is about to start a $5-5 PLO game.  I head for my car and drive back.  When I get there, the game is full, so I play $5-10 NLH for an hour until a seat opens up.  Around 10pm, when the game gets short-handed, I get up and leave the game a winner (third time in three sessions) and head up to my room to do some writing and watch “The Daily Show” cover the Republican convention.

I expect that to be a Trump-less experience, too.

Mileage thus far: 1,356.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Yes! I bet Romney minus 1500 delegates and he covered! Where do I go to collect?
  • Now considering a prop bet on who Thursday's mystery guest at the Republican convention will be. What's the line on a Jesus/Reagan hologram parlay?
  • Remembering Neil Armstrong, first man to take a phone call from a quarter-million miles away. Oh, and plant some damned cool footprints, too.
  • Gaffe Of The Day: NBC News Reports Death of Astronaut Neil Young. That's one small step for a Southern Man.
  • Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford popped the question to his Argentinian mistress. They'll honeymoon in the Appalachians.

Road Trip Day 8: Atlantic City

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

With our kid safely delivered to her dorm, it's time to say goodbye to the other women in my life.

Mom is the first to leave, headed to her last day at the public library where she's worked for 21 years as a reference librarian -- after another 21 years as a high school librarian and media specialist! Not many people get to have two complete careers in one lifetime and retire from both on their own terms. I hope that when she gets to work her colleagues have something special planned as a send-off, because she deserves plenty of accolades for her contributions. At 88 years old, Mom is a remarkable role model who still lives by herself with no assistance, has her wits about her, and lives a full life. She has good genes passed on by her parents, which I hope I've inherited (and passed along to my daughter).

At 10:30am, I drive my wife to LaGuardia for her flight home to St. Louis, because she has to get back to work, too. Now alone for the first time in a week, I head south to Atlantic City, which I haven't visited in about 15 years. I'm going to stay and play at Borgata, which didn't even exist the last time I was there.

The Google Maps app tells me the 150-mile drive should take about two-and-a-half hours, but it doesn't factor in traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or worse, the wicked storm that rolls in as I cross the Verrazano Bridge onto Staten Island (toll: $13 one way!!!). For the next 3+ hours, the rain pours down, limiting visibility and slowing traffic to 40mph on the Garden State Parkway.

I decide to make the trip music-free, opting instead for several interview podcasts I downloaded and saved for this week: KCRW's Elvis Mitchell with Louis CK, NPR's Dave Davies with Frank Langella, and reruns of Fresh Air's Terry Gross with Mike Birbiglia and the late Phyllis Diller and Gore Vidal. I also check in with the state's dominant talk radio station, New Jersey 101.5 (where I filled in during Christmas week many years ago), to spend some time with midday host Dennis Malloy and the talented afternoon team of Deminski and Doyle.

Naturally, the rain tapers off just as I pull up in front of Borgata just at the four-hour mark. I hand over my car to the valet and go to check-in, where I ask the clerk if there's a better rate than the $149/night I booked in advance. She calls Customer Care to ask and, after listening for 15 seconds, turns to me and says, "They can give it to you for $209/night." I point out that $209 is more than $149, to which she replies, "Oh, right. Never mind." Let's change the name of that department to Customer Don't Care.

She gives me the key and I go upstairs to find a very nice room, which I don't plan on spending a lot of time in. I unpack, then head down to the casino to find the poker room and see how long the list is for a pot-limit Omaha game. Once there, I'm impressed by the size, number of tables, and comfortable spacing. Too many poker rooms jam the players in, but Borgata seems to get it right. Unfortunately, there's only one PLO game going right now ($5-5 blinds). Fortunately, there's a seat open.

In a couple of hours, I've made a nice profit and get up to meet Matt Glantz, a poker pro who appeared twice this year on my Final Table Poker Show. He was a regular in the high-stakes mixed games here for a long time, but recently signed an endorsement deal with Parx Casino in Philadelphia (which I may visit in a couple of days) and helped move the big games there. Matt happens to be on vacation with his wife and kids a few miles away on the Jersey shore and is nice enough to break away to have dinner so we can catch up.

Matt explains how the casino industry in Atlantic City is in serious trouble, not just from the recession, but because it is no longer the only gambling destination in the region. For a very long time, there was no place to gamble legally in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, or West Virginia, (in the 1990s, I used to make the four-hour trip from DC several times a year just to play stud at the Taj Mahal and craps at the Sands), but that has changed as each mid-Atlantic state (except Virginia) has allowed casinos to open. That has siphoned a huge amount of business away from Atlantic City, from which it will never recover.

This has always been a town with an identity crisis. While it has the casinos and boardwalk and a pretty good beach, it also has one of the worst ghettos in America (something that no one here ever talks about) set off by several giant wind turbines on the inland side, an odd site against the constant billboard ads for casino entertainment and buffets.

Even though the Borgata poker room isn't as packed as it used to be, it's still pretty busy, so after dinner, as Matt returns to his family vacation, I return to the PLO game, locking up another profitable session before the game gets short-handed at 2am and I rack up my chips.

Back in the hotel room, I'm annoyed to discover that I'll have to pay $14.95/night for wi-fi access -- a pet peeve of mine since hotels that cost a lot less throw that service in for free -- but there's nothing I can do about it, so I cough it up, then check my e-mail and browse the web for awhile before calling it a night.

Mileage thus far: 1,348.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Road Trip Day 7: New York

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

It is finally Move-In Day. My daughter is nervous and excited as we make our way into Manhattan. Fortunately, traffic isn't too bad, and we make the 26-mile journey in exactly one hour.

When we get to the building she'll live in, the school's staff is out in large numbers to make sure everything goes smoothly. They guide us to a curbside space where we can unload all her belongings to the sidewalk amidst hundreds of other freshmen and their families. She goes to check-in and get her room key, while my wife stands guard over the multiple suitcases and boxes, and I drive around the corner to put the car in a garage. Normally, on a Sunday, I'd play the parking game, looking for a spot on the street within a few blocks. But with 670 kids moving into her building alone -- not to mention the others in the neighborhood -- I choose to spend $16 bucks on a guaranteed space in the garage.

When I get back, the line hasn't moved much. The building only has three elevators and, despite dozens of upperclassmen volunteers guiding everyone, there are only so many families that can move in at a time. We were expecting this, so we wait patiently. A couple of times, volunteers stop by to greet my daughter and ask where she's from. When she says "Missouri" they look at her as if she'd said "Istanbul." Hey, it's only a thousand miles away!

After a half-hour, we finally drag the bags and boxes into an elevator and up to the 9th floor, where we're greeted by an RA (Residential Assistant, an upperclassman who gets a free room in exchange for being the point-person for all these freshman). She points my daughter to her room. Her two roommates are already inside and, since they've already gotten to know each other online via Facebook and Skype, they all hug and say how great it is to finally meet in person. There's a bit of a debate about the beds, because there's a bunk bed and a single bed. The girls want to separate the bunk bed, but there's a bit of a geography problem in figuring out how to fit three beds, three dressers, three desks, a microwave, and a refrigerator in the room. At the same time, everyone's unpacking, although I'm trying to get at least my daughter to go a little faster because it's oppressively hot in here.

That's right, there's no air conditioning in the building, and with the three of them plus parents (and one brother), not to mention the humidity, the room is warm enough to cause sweat to pour out of every pore on my body. The oscillating fans each of them brought helps a little, but not much. My daughter doesn't seem to mind, though, as she has had a huge smile on her face since the moment we walked in. Still, for her sake, I hope autumn arrives soon.

After an hour, everything's unpacked except for some winter clothes she can't fit in her dresser or closet, so she leaves them in the duffel bag we'll take back to Grandma's, which she can retrieve later in the semester when the time comes. One of the roommates goes off to find her boyfriend in his dorm, while my daughter and the third girl walk with us to the main building to get her official university ID. My wife and I are thrilled to see the two of them form an immediate bond, talking and giggling all the way.

Once the official paperwork is completed, we say goodbye to the roommate and take our daughter to one final lunch at a really good diner I know in the neighborhood. We're served by a middle-aged Greek man named George who has obviously been a professional waiter for many years -- the kind of guy who doesn't have to write down anyone's order, yet manages to get every detail correct. He sees her college ID and says, "I'll give you 10% off because you're a student. Where are you from?" When she tells him, he replies, "St. Louis? I used to live in Houston!" As if that's the next town over. The meal is delicious and I over-tip George for taking such good care of us, the capper on a prototypical New York diner experience.

On the way back to the dorm, we pass a grocery store and ask if my daughter wants to pick up a few things. She demurs, but when I remind her that I'll pay for it, she heads inside for some cereal, soy milk, and a snack for later. We amble the few blocks to her building, where's there's still a line of students and suitcases waiting to move in.

Unable to access the elevators in the midst of this madness, we take the stairs -- all nine flights. My pores return to DefCon 1. Once we make it to her room, we wish her roommates well and then it's time for the Big Goodbye. We linger for several minutes, hugging, taking final photos, and saying lots of supportive stuff. I thank my daughter for spending the last week with me on the road and she says it was a special experience for her, too. Though there was a promise of No Tears earlier in the day, we all turn out to be liars.

As she turns to join her roommates and begin her independent life as a college student, we trek down the nine flights and walk around the corner to retrieve my car and return to Mom's.

Mileage thus far: 1,196.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Road Trip Days 5 and 6: New York

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

While staying at my mother's house, I'm serving as her IT guy, installing Flash on her iMac, fixing some problems with her e-mail, updating the apps on her iPhone, and getting her comfortable enough to use Siri.  She's eager to learn but frustrated by the technology, and none of her friends is savvy enough to help her, so I'm happy to play the role of Genius Bar Guy. Even with my limited knowledge of Mac hardware, it's easier to do while in the same room than from my home a thousand miles away.

We spend most of Day 5 hanging around the house and winding down from the four previous busy days.  In the evening, we show my daughter the movie version of "A Chorus Line."  I remembered hating it when it first came out in 1985 -- especially Michael Douglas as the director -- but it seems better now for some reason.  The only other cast members we recognize are Audrey Landers and Janet Jones (still looking fantastic a year after "The Flamingo Kid" and not yet Mrs. Gretzky), but there are some terrific dancers in the ensemble whose careers never got much bigger than this movie.  It serves as a perfect companion piece to "All That Jazz," which I showed her last weekend.

On the morning of Day 6, I make a food run to Waldbaum's grocery store, where I worked 37 years ago.  At the time, the place seemed pretty big because there weren't a lot of "super" markets, but now it seems awfully small -- less than half the size of the Dierberg's we frequent back home.  I approach the deli counter, where I spent so many hours that summer filling requests from women 3 times my age to "slice it leaner."  I remember it always being busy, but today there's only one guy working and one customer ahead of me.  Of course, she fits the stereotype of those women, asking for "two very thin slices of nova (lox), a small container of the chicken salad, but only if it has walnuts and grapes in it" and on and on.  The clerk does a very good job of not rolling his eyes at her, as he's no doubt used to it by now (as I was after about a week behind the counter).  When she's done, I order a few things quickly and get out of there.

I head back to Mom's house to drop off the groceries, then drive to LaGuardia Airport with my daughter to pick up my wife, who couldn't take time off from work to spend a week with us on the road, but is flying in to help with dorm-move-in-day tomorrow.  We're happy to be back together as a family, and I'm happy to have her to take charge of any last-minute shopping for college.  They head to Target while I lay down for a couple of hours.

I find myself reflecting on how far we've come in the last 18 months, through three previous road trips to scope out potential colleges, through the applications process, through her early-decision acceptance that lifted a huge burden off her shoulders, to gathering the funds to pay for all of this. My daughter's been texting back and forth with her two roommates-to-be, who she's been in touch with all summer after meeting online.  They've already connected via Facebook and Skype to discuss who's bringing what, and now she's coordinating the move-in time for tomorrow.

I have a feeling she won't get much sleep tonight, as the reality of starting college is hitting her.  My wife and I have our own anxieties, which we're doing a pretty good job of keeping to ourselves, but we're also excited for the adventure my daughter is about to undertake.

We're almost there.

Mileage thus far:  1,144.

Road Trip Day 4: New York

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

My daughter is sleeping in what was my bedroom as a teenager, and I vividly remember a summer morning many years ago when my mother knocked on the door at 10am and asked, "Are you going to sleep all day?" I responded, "I would if you'd stop banging on the door!" After getting up early the last three days, I'm happy to let my 18-year-old sleep as late as she wants, which turns out to be noon.

Of course, my mother and I have been up for hours, so we're ready for lunch. At her granddaughter's request, Mom whips up a batch of her special challah french toast (secret ingredient: vanilla!) in a cast-iron skillet she's had for 50 years. For some reason, food tastes better out of that pan than any other -- probably because everything she's cooked in the last half-century has seeped into the iron, just as some of the iron has gotten into the food.

After we eat, we drive into Queens to visit the American Museum of the Moving Image, which is full of cool stuff about movies and TV. The centerpiece is an exhibit called "Behind the Screen," which fills two floors. It showcases the makeup artists, set designers, costume designers, sound technicians, camera operators, etc., and includes many samples of their work, like aliens that Rick Baker created for "Men In Black 3," design sketches for Hannibal Lecter's cage in "Silence Of The Lambs," wigs made for Robin Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire," and lots of vintage equipment going back to the earliest days of movie-making. There are also video montages, including two great ones by Chuck Workman -- the Oscar-nominated "Precious Images," which he compiled for the Director's Guild Of America in 1986, and "Words," which he did the following year for the Writer's Guild Of America, featuring famous lines from over 200 movies and TV shows.

The exhibit also includes an interactive component, where we played with the audio from famous movie scenes, dubbing our voices for one of the actors' in an ADR studio, changing the sound effects like a foley artist, even providing a different musical score. And we browsed a section full of merchandise that was sold as a tie-in to "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" (like the oddly-shaped C-3PO Tape Dispenser above).

We don't have time to see everything in the museum, so we don't stop to watch the Dick Tracy serials from 1938 or a 1980 "Muppet Show" episode with Loretta Swit, but we do check out the display in the lobby, "We Tripped El Hadji Diouf: The Story of a Photoshop Thread." It's a collection of doctored animated GIFs of Senegalese soccer player El Hadji Diouf being clobbered by an invisible opponent, originally posted to SomethingAwful.com. Some very clever stuff.

After two hours, we leave the museum to drive into Manhattan to have dinner with my brother, who has come up from DC by train for a couple of meetings before heading home in a few hours. We meet him at John's Pizzeria in the Broadway theater district. Mom chose it because it would be convenient for him, and it has gotten positive reviews in Zagat's. I've never checked Zagat's before, but based on this single restaurant experience, I must have different tastes than the people who review for it. Dinner at John's is nothing special. Parking around the block in a garage for two hours, however, costs us $20 (with a coupon!). The cost of living (or visiting) New York is simply ludicrous.

My brother leaves to catch his train south, and we begin our drive back out to Long Island. This part of the trip reminds me why I could never live in the New York area again -- the traffic is just too much of a pain in the ass. In St. Louis, I'm used to getting from my house in the suburbs to anywhere I need to be within 25 minutes. In Manhattan, you can't even get across midtown in that amount of time. I wonder how my daughter will adjust to all the congestion and noise of living in the big city.

All of that excitement begins in a few days. For now, after helping Grandma take a couple of trash barrels out to the curb, she has to finish an essay for one of her professors by midnight (yes, there's homework before the college year even begins!).  Naturally, we're sound asleep before she's done.

Mileage so far: 1,110.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • In a funny piece, Alan Zweibel is surprised to find he's exactly what the producers of a commercial want him to be.
  • Robert Reich on Mitt Romney's Lying Machine.
  • Small-minded religious zealots try to block a production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's satirical show "The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged)."
  • Former state senator Jeff Smith explains why there are so few moderates and progressives left in Missouri.
  • 29 political factoids you didn't know -- including the one about candidates challenging children to arm-wrestling.

Woody Allen & The Moose

After I mentioned this routine in the previous entry, reader Rick Shaffer found video of it from 1965...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Road Trip Day 3: PA, NJ, NY

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

I've gotten us up early today (5:30am) so we can finish our last 7-hour stretch before rush hour hits New York.  We get dressed, pack everything up, and walk down the hall for the Comfort Inn's complimentary continental breakfast.  Like similar motels, it offers what I call make-your-own "lobby waffles," along with some odd-looking egg discs in a chafing dish, cereal, fruit, juice, coffee, and various kinds of bread.  My daughter makes herself a waffle while I grab an English muffin and banana.  Also having an early breakfast are a half-dozen men who all look alike, from their long hair to their work shirts and oil-stained jeans. I don't know where they're headed, but based on their clothing, I predict we're going to have an easier day than they will.

We load up the car and I get in the driver's seat as we head east on US-22 with the sun in our eyes.  There's a lot of ground fog this morning that creates odd vistas as we move through the Allegheny Mountains.  At times we're in the midst of the fog, while other times we've climbed high enough to see it below us in a valley.  The green hillsides look beautiful, and I think about people who complain about overpopulation and overcrowding -- there's no evidence of it here, just open spaces full of trees for miles.  The only problem that's apparent in this part of the country is a bad gypsy moth infestation on thousands of branches and limbs.

To go along with the good mood, my audio choice is Woody Allen's stand-up album from the mid-sixties, which we both love.  In fact, my daughter knows his Moose routine by heart and recites it along with him, which makes me laugh even harder.  After that, I give her a lesson in Bob Dylan's career with some songs from his seminal years and then tell her the true-life story behind "Hurricane."

After a rest area stop, we change seats and, since she's behind the wheel, I treat her to two albums by her favorite group, The Beatles -- "Rubber Soul" and the "Help!" soundtrack -- all the way through.  We sing our way across the Appalachians on I-80.

We encounter road crews a few times, which reduce the two lanes to one, but for the most part, we've been cruising across the country (along with large numbers of over-the-road truckers) without any real backups.  In fact, we hit 1,000 miles on the odometer before we have to deal with a major traffic problem, but when we do, it's a doozy.  We're in New Jersey and approaching the George Washington Bridge -- we can see the skyline of Manhattan from here, so she's getting excited -- when everything slows to a standstill.  For the next hour, we crawl along at an agonizing pace.  The plan is that, when we get to the other side, we're going to take the Cross Bronx Expressway over to the Throgs Neck Bridge, then down to the Long Island Expressway. But I have a very bad feeling about this jam, so I put on WCBS Newsradio 88 in time to catch a traffic report that there's been an accident involving a motorcycle on the Cross Bronx and all three lanes are closed.  At the last minute, I tell my daughter to make a quick right turn onto the exit for the Harlem River Drive.  She's nervous because this is the first time she's driven in New York City, but I assure her we'll be fine as we head south to the Triboro Bridge (or, as it's now known, the RFK Bridge).

To make her feel a little less anxious, I find Sinatra singing "New York, New York" on YouTube and play it loud, followed by Liza Minelli's original version of the song.  Knowing this will be her home for several months -- the city, not this stretch of road -- she smiles, sings along, and has me take a photo of a sign welcoming us to The Empire State.  Once we're over the Triboro (dammit, that was its name my whole life, so that's what I'm still gonna call it!), we take the Grand Central to the LIE to the Astoria Parkway exit, because we have to make a stop at Bagel Oasis, home of the best bagels I've ever tasted.  We get a dozen, and some cream cheese, and a package of Yodels as a treat.

Back in the car for the last few miles of our trip, I choose one last bit of silliness from my music collection -- a half-dozen Heywood Banks songs, including "18 Wheels on a Big Rig," "Toast," and "Pancreas."   Then we continue east several exits to my Mom's house, where we're going to spend a few days (and eat a few pizzas) before moving my daughter into her dorm room.  Grandmother and granddaughter are thrilled to see each other, and I'm happy to have had these three mostly-stress-free days together before the big college adventure begins.

I'm also looking forward to resting up for a few days before I have to start the long drive home alone -- but I have some interesting plans for that, which I'll share with you soon.

Mileage thus far:  1,058.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Road Trip Day 2: OH, WV, PA

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

As we did yesterday, we hit the road at 8:40am, taking I-71 northeast out of the Cincinnati area. Forgetting to get water before departing, we stop after a half-hour at a rest area.  My daughter's very conscientious about recycling, so the plastic bottles from the previous day are still on the floor of the car.  She sees a sign at the rest area that says "Recycle Ohio!", but notes that there aren't any recycle bins anywhere nearby.  So the old bottles go back in the car, and we get a couple more for today.  Our road-snack-bag also contains a big box of raisins, a bag of goldfish crackers, some peanut butter, and a couple of packages of M&M's that my wife snuck in as a surprise.  With all the important food groups covered, we pull back onto the interstate.

The day starts out sunny and clear, but dark clouds appear as we move east to re-join I-70 and we hit a couple of rainstorms.  As my daughter dozes off, I turn on WLW (the first terrestrial radio station I've listened to on this trip) to catch the news, then use the Tuned In app to get the live CNN feed.  The Todd Akin story is still creating buzz, but I can only take it for a little while before I switch to some 70s R&B on my iPhone.  I have to fight the urge to sing along with the Spinners on "Rubberband Man," because I don't want to awaken the sleeping teenager next to me.

After three hours and a couple of hundred miles, I'm getting hungry and looking for a place to have lunch.  There's a roadside sign for Schlepp's Family Restaurant, which seems perfect for a couple of people schlepping from state to state.  I wake up my daughter as we pull off the highway.  Schlepp's is a typical small town place with a diner-like menu and a whiteboard that lists today's specials, including the vegetable of the day: lima beans.  Right there you know that the place doesn't serve a young clientele.  All of the people in the world who eat lima beans on purpose were born before the Korean War.  My suspicions are confirmed as I look around the room and notice that I'm the only adult in the place who's not drawing social security.

The waitress comes over to take our order and I ask "Where are we?"  She replies, "Morristown, Ohio."  Opting not to get a big plate of lima beans, my daughter orders a grilled cheese sandwich, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. I ask for a chef's salad and a Pepsi.  These are the kinds of foods that are nearly impossible to screw up, no matter where you are, but we're pleasantly surprised to discover that they're really good. It occurs to me that Schlepp's is the kind of place that probably has good homemade desserts, so I ask the waitress to bring me a slice of apple pie.  She suggests I try the caramel-walnut-apple pie.  I do, and it's even better than I hoped.  I leave her a generous tip and we get back in the car.

My daughter's driving now as we head out of Ohio, through Wheeling, West Virginia, and into western Pennsylvania.  The goal is to go around Pittsburgh before spending the night in the town of Blairsville, PA, chosen simply because it's on the way and not near any big cities.

Before we get there, I decide we should make a stop at Keystone State Park, off US-22.  It's a large recreational area with a lake where you can rent boats. It's only 3pm and the weather is beautiful, so we're looking forward to dueling kayaks.  Unfortunately, when we get to the boathouse, there are plenty of boats tied up on the shore, but not many people -- not a good sign.  Worse is an actual sign on the rental shack that says they're only open Fridays-Saturdays-Sundays.  I'm confused about why they wouldn't be open every day during the summer.  My daughter points out that the school year may have already started (like it has in St. Louis), so there probably isn't enough demand during the week.

We're very disappointed, but drive around the park until we find its "beach area," a small part of the lake that has been roped off for swimming.  There are at least a couple hundred people here -- including families with kids (no school?) -- but the thing that grabs my daughter's eye is a building that houses Di's Ice Cream, which promises 24 different flavors of soft-serve.  She offers to buy us each a cone, and we spend the next hour wandering around the lake while licking like crazy to keep the ice cream from dripping onto our hands.  Our disappointment about the boats fades as we laugh and talk and enjoy the sunshine.

On the way out of the park, I see a road sign for two nearby dams, the Loyalhanna and the Conemaugh, both maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Thinking my daughter has never seen a dam, I suggest we go check one of them out.  She reminds me that we'd taken her to the Hoover Dam several years ago, but agrees this might be interesting.  We drive about 20 minutes before pulling into the parking lot for the Loyalhanna Dam, where there is only one other car.  Hoping it's not closed, too, we walk into the visitor's center, but don't see anyone behind the counter.  I ask out loud, "Anyone here?"  Down the hall to our right, a park ranger pops his head out of an office with a look of extreme surprise, as if he wasn't expecting to see another human being all day.  Once he recovers from his shock, he gives us some brochures and tells us about the fishing and camping opportunities nearby.  I think we made his day just by showing up.  We accept all his information, but all we're interested in is looking at the dam and taking some photos.  He says that's fine and thanks us for coming.

As we amble down to the base, I exhaust my entire knowledge of dams in about 85 seconds, although I do get to use the word "sluice," which doesn't come up every day.  We note that the water level is very low on both sides of the dam, no doubt because of the drought that has so negatively impacted the entire country this summer.  When we climb back up to the parking lot, the ranger waves to us from his car as he calls it a day.  We wave back and decide to do the same.

We drive back to US-22 and check into the Comfort Inn, where we hang out for a couple of hours before we're hungry again.  Opting not to have a big Italian meal at the place across the highway, we head up the road a couple of miles to Dean's Diner for something simple. This place fits the bill.  Its entire menu (burgers, sandwiches, meatloaf, and deep fried pickle slices!) fits on a paper placemat, along with ads for local businesses, including one that sells ice cream from the Penn State Creamery.  I can't help but wonder if the school should have changed the name after the Jerry Sandusky scandal -- or have they added a new flavor called the Sandusky Shower Special?

After dinner, we head back to the motel, watch a little TV, and call it a night, knowing we have to get up really early tomorrow morning so we can finish the last leg of our trip before rush hour starts in New York.

Mileage thus far:  709.

Road Trip Day 1: MO, IL, IN, OH

This is a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York -- and my return trip, too. Read all the entries here.

I've been looking forward to this ride all summer, because we haven't taken a long car trip together since we moved from DC to St. Louis when she was four -- the biggest difference this time is that she can share the driving. It's just the two of us, and we've spread it out so we don't have to be in the car more than six or seven hours a day.

After spending the weekend packing enough stuff to get her through the next 17 weeks in the big city on her own, we pull out of the driveway at 8:40am with her behind the wheel. The plan is to avoid rush hour and downtown areas as much as possible, but we can't help but get caught up in the Poplar Street Bridge construction backup for a few minutes as we pass over the Mississippi River into Illinois.

Having taken this route before, I know that the first few hours of our voyage will be the most boring. There's nothing but farmland on both sides of the road for a very long time. The middle of Illinois is so flat you can look in any direction and see all the way to the horizon -- I tell my daughter to keep an eye out for Europe in the distance.

One of the things I'm trying to do on this trip is add to my daughter's rock and roll knowledge with the large amount of music I keep on my iPhone. From the passenger seat, I'm going to play deejay and tell some stories. She's already a huge fan of the Beatles, Springsteen, and others, so today I decide to introduce her to The Who's second rock opera, "Quadrophenia." I try to explain the plot to her, but realize quickly that I don't actually know the whole story. Turns out it doesn't matter nearly as much as just listening to the band play classics like "The Real Me," "Doctor Jimmy," and the masterpiece finale, "Love Reign O'er Me." She knows the latter, so I tell her to listen past Daltrey's powerful vocals, Townshend's guitar, and Entwhistle's bass and instead concentrate on what Keith Moon's doing with the drums. It's one of the great performances ever captured on vinyl and I play it at the appropriate volume: all the way up.

After 3 hours, we get off I-70 to have lunch in Terre Haute, Indiana, with Christine, a friend who my daughter has known for 13 years, since Christine was in high school and baby-sat for her. Now my kid is about to be a college freshman while Christine is a professor of music theory at Indiana State University, and I'm thrilled that they still stay in touch.

We meet Christine at the Crossroads Cafe near campus. Over hummus-and-vegetable sandwiches (they're both vegetarians), they catch up with each other -- although in a world where social media makes it easy to know what's going on with friends, there isn't a whole lot of "new" to share. After an hour, Christine has to get back to a class, and we have to get back on the road.

I take over behind the wheel and put Ray Charles on shuffle. We sing "Hit The Road Jack" as loud as we can as we pull back onto I-70. A half-hour later, she's asleep and I'm listening to a podcast of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

We take the I-465 loop to avoid Indianapolis and get on I-74 towards Cincinnati, where we're going to spend the night at my cousin's house. I awaken my daughter as we get off the interstate and head for the suburban town of Wyoming, Ohio, just outside Cincy, where we arrive about 5pm. My cousin, Joel, is out of town at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (where he's been named a Fellow), but his wife Ann -- one of my favorite people -- greets us warmly. We spend the evening sharing stories, and Ann feeds us some wonderful ziti, green beans, salad, bread, and Graeder's black cherry-chocolate chunk ice cream.

After dinner, although it's only 8:30pm, we're pretty exhausted, so we head upstairs to get ready for bed. I take out my laptop to check e-mail and see what's happening online, sure my daughter's doing the same in her room. We're planning to start the second leg of our trip early in the morning, so we each call it a night by 10:30pm.

Mileage thus far:  360.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In Case You Missed It -- Akin Edition

From my Twitter feed...

  • Now that Augusta is admitting women, Todd Akin thinks a "legitimate hole-in-one" is a shot where the cup rejects the ball.
  • Now we know the name of the idiotic doctor Akin based his idiotic rape remarks on -- the guy really believes it!
  • Mitt Romney disavowed what Akin said, but not the doctor who originally said it, who endorsed him and served as his surrogate in '08.
  • Matthew Dowd says GOP leaders aren't calling for Akin's withdrawal because they disagrees with him, but because they fear losing power.

Phyllis Diller's Advice For Comedians

The late, great, groundbreaking comedian (and St. Louis Walk Of Fame honoree) Phyllis Diller died yesterday at 95. In an interview for the Archive Of American Television in 2000, she offered advice for aspiring comics and explained the importance of stand-ups having an attitude...

Monday, August 20, 2012

David Pogue's Proposal Production

David Pogue is the technology columnist for the NY Times, and a contributor to CBS "Sunday Morning." Last week, he proposed to his girlfriend in a unique way:

I made a fake movie trailer -- a thinly veiled version of our love story. I persuaded the movie theater at a summer resort to play it before a movie we went to see. Both of our families were there to see it. I hid a video camera to capture her reaction (it was in a ficus plant next to the screen). Here's how it happened!

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Would media be on the Pussy Riot story this much if the band's name was Tall Trees or something equally bland and un-shocking?
  • I spent 2+ hours seeing "The Bourne Legacy." Now I'm blocking out another 2 hours in which I'll try to figure out what the hell it was about.
  • D.J. Grothe does some digging into eBay's policy change affecting paranormal services.
  • Just showed my daughter Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz." Still brilliant. I'd forgotten what a perfect dancer (with the longest legs) Ann Reinking was.
  • Priceline should make spokeswoman/fake-psychic Theresa Caputo take the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge to prove her claims -- or make it clear that she's not what she says she is.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Todd Akin Fails Biology

Todd Akin is the conservative Missouri congressman nominated by the GOP to run against the incumbent, Democrat Clair McCaskill. Akin is an extreme abortion foe, who last year was one of the House Republicans who voted for a bill (co-sponsored by Paul Ryan) that would allow federal funds to be used for an abortion only in the case of "forcible rape." As if there's any other kind.

Now he's at it again. In an interview aired today on KTVI-TV, Akin tried to explain why he's opposed to abortion even in the case of rape, but in doing so, proved he knows nothing about biology:

"First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
No it doesn't, Todd. The female reproductive system doesn't have some sort of rape-detection expel-the-embryo option. You, however, are yet another member of the anti-science party who doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to scientific matters.

Now I'd like to see a member of the media ask Akin to name the doctors who supposedly gave him that misinformation. Either he's lying -- as Michele Bachmann was about vaccines and autism -- or those doctors should be forced to return to medical school.

Why We Need More Skeptics

These are the remarks I made as the leadoff speaker at SkeptiCamp St. Louis on Saturday, August 18, 2012...

It’s always a pleasure to be in a roomful of skeptics, to look around and see that there are other people who share your views, to realize that you’re not the only rational person in the world.  We need more critical thinkers, more people who insist on proof of outrageous claims, more people who recognize that opinions are not the same as fact, more people who can enjoy supernatural fantasies in a movie theater but know they live in a world where the laws of physics apply, more people who rejoiced in the scientific achievement of landing Curiosity on Mars and wonder why there isn’t more curiosity on Earth.

I was brought up to be a skeptic.  My parents, who were both teachers, taught my brother and me to think for ourselves, not take everything at face value, and question authority.  That’s a bold strategy when you’re the authority figures, as parents are.  I once gave a commencement address where I urged the high school graduates to go out into the world and question authority, and as I was speaking, I could see some mothers and fathers recoiling in horror at the idea.  They were brought up to accept whatever they were told, to shut up and believe what adults said, to suppress the desire to ask why and how.

That’s not the way we’re born, though.  When you’re a kid, you have a natural curiosity, mostly because you don’t know anything yet, and you’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  That’s why kids ask so many questions:  Why is the sky blue? Why does red mean stop and green mean go? Where does the sun go at night? What happened to that man’s hair?  How does paper beat rock?

Or, for you Sheldon-philes, how does lizard beat Spock?

Those questions keep on coming, and you try to answer them as best you can, but eventually you have to tell your child to stop asking so much because it’s almost time to get on the bus, or go to bed, or do their homework, or whatever.  That’s fine, as long as you don’t suppress that inquisitive nature forever – or worse, start feeding them answers that are nonsense instead of information.

Nonsense can be dangerous, so we need more skeptics to fight back against it.  And don’t assume that just because people are educated, they are immune to nonsense.

In April, the scientist and author Phil Plait, who I’m proud to call a friend, told on his Discover magazine blog the sad story of how, in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives, there had been more than 3 dozen cases of pertussis (whooping cough) so far this year -- 30 of those were under 18 years old -- a remarkably high rate for a disease that's supposed to have become very rare thanks to vaccines.  The problem is the growing number of parents who don't have their children vaccinated, which isn't just a danger to them, but to everyone because it decreases herd immunity. Phil wrote:

This outbreak might shock you, especially considering Boulder is one of the most educated cities in the United States. But in fact, I’ve been wondering if and when something like this might happen here. Denial of the benefits of vaccination is strong in educated areas, like Boulder or Marin County, California — being educated doesn’t mean you get things right, and in fact can make people believe in their own knowledge even more strongly. They go online and find antivax literature which magnifies their own beliefs.  Also, these tend to be more left-leaning areas, and the antivax movement does better there. The result? A little baby, not even two months old, is recovering from a nearly-fatal event that was totally preventable if enough people were vaccinated. Herd immunity would have prevented this whole thing.
And Boulder is not the only place with a pertussis problem.  Steven Salzberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reports that the U.S. is in the midst of the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years, with over 17,000 cases this year.  States like Wisconsin, Washington, and Montana, have seen their pertussis infections increase more than 1,000% over last year – and we have the anti-vax movement to thank for it.

These parents choose to believe nonsense instead of the advice of the doctors who are charged with caring for their children.  As you might expect, some doctors aren’t happy about this trend.

In a Wall Street Journal piece in February, Shirley Wang reported on pediatricians who are so annoyed by these deniers that they have "fired" them, asking them to leave the practice and take their children elsewhere for care. There's an ethical question here regarding the role of a family doctor, but I can understand their frustration. In a busy practice where you're trying to help as many kids as time allows, why put up with parents so hard-headed and sure they know better that no amount of explanation and convincing will change their minds? After all, if they won't take the doctor's advice on something as relatively simple as vaccines, what kind of fight will they put up when it comes to more complex issues regarding their children's health?

Your right to believe nonsense ends when your child needs help.  You can’t allow unfounded fears to drive your decision making. Unfortunately, FDR's famous quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," is still true in America -- and perhaps more so today than ever. We have become a nation of fear-mongers, trained by politicians, media, and authority figures to worry about bad things happening to us and particularly our children. Yet the things that we're supposed to be afraid of are based on anecdotal evidence, not real data. And that hurts kids more than anything else.

In January, on KTRS radio, I spoke with Lenore Skenazy, who has been fighting back against the paranoiac beliefs that keep our children from playing outside, have turned parents into 24-hour watchdogs, and taught those fears to a new generation. Her website, FreeRangeKids.com, is a bastion of relief from a world that says your kids are in danger every moment they're out of your sight (and often when you're looking, too). Here’s what she’s written on the simple subject of Halloween candy:
Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it’s probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.  Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.  That was a wacky idea, but we bought it.

We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: Poisoned candy? Not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection.  As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!  So stranger danger is still going strong, and it’s even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That’s why they don’t let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: “You never know!” The psycho-next-door fear went viral.
We need more skeptics like Lenore Skenazy.  We also need more people to cast a skeptical eye on advertising claims.

Last October, I blogged about a car dealer in St. Louis advertised that, if you bought a Chevy Cruze from him, he'd give you a $300 gas card. In the commercial he said, "that's a free tank of gas every month for a year!" Something about that claim seemed wrong to my skeptical brain, so I ran the numbers and it turned out that, while the Cruze is a fuel-efficient vehicle (its Eco model supposedly gets 42mpg), the math was wrong.

The Cruze comes in five models, four of which have a gas tank with 15.6 gallon capacity. The smallest (Eco) has a 12.6 gallon gas tank. At $300/year, that's $25/month. At the then-current price of $3.15/gallon, that's not even 8 gallons/month, let alone a full tank. The only way the gas card value works out is if you drive less than 300 miles/month every month all year.  I'm not saying the Cruze isn't worth buying, nor that $300 in gas isn't worth something. But if that dealer couldn’t do the math on this correctly, you might want to double-check all the numbers on your sales contract when you buy a car from him.

Speaking of math, I want to share a casino story with you. Casinos are not exactly a hotspot of critical thinking, but I spend time in them because I play poker recreationally.

You can find me a couple of times a week in the poker room at Harrah’s. It’s an environment where players who understand and apply both math and psychology skills will do better in the long run, despite the element of luck. That’s what sets it apart from all the other gambling opportunities in the casino, where instead of playing against people, you’re playing against the house, which has a built-in edge that’s designed to take your money over the long haul.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with playing blackjack or craps or roulette or the slots for fun, as long as you understand that the percentages are not in your favor.  But casinos know that most people have no idea how things work, but instead make their gambling decisions based on superstition, or the graphics on a screen, or because they won on a certain machine last time.  Here’s an example:

I often see people sit down at a bank of five video poker machines.  Each of them has a display on top that tells you what the average payout percentage is from that machine.  One of them says 98.98%. Another says 99.11%. The others say 99.17%, 99.58%, and 99.8% respectively. I have watched people walk up to those machines and purposely choose to sit down at the one that promises the lowest payout percentage.  Maybe they don’t see the display, maybe they don’t understand it. But a skeptical mind would ask, if it’s available, why don’t you sit down at the one that’s set for the highest payout percentage?

Of course, even at 99.8%, that’s still no bargain. I’m tempted to approach someone playing that machine and offer them a deal – if they’ll give me a $100 bill, I’ll give them $99.80, and I’ll do it for as many bills as they want to give me.  No one would accept that deal from me, but they sit down and play that machine – or ones with much lower average payout percentages – every day.

Here’s another example.

Several years ago, someone had the brilliant idea to add a display at each roulette table that shows the numbers that have won on the previous ten spins.  That simple invention increased roulette income significantly because customers would check the prior numbers before placing their bets. Sometimes, a number hadn’t come up in a while, so they’d place chips on that. Or they’d bet on a number that came up twice in the last 5 spins, figuring it was the “hot” number. Or they’d see that the last two spins were red and figure the next one will have to be black.  What they were lacking was the skeptical knowledge that the roulette wheel and ball have no memory. Every spin is an independent action that’s not influenced by anything that happened before, just as there’s no such thing as a lucky number.

Many of you know James Randi, one of the leaders of the skeptical movement, and one of my personal heroes.  I became an instant fan of his when I first saw him on Johnny Carson’s show debunking the faith healer con artist Peter Popoff.  Then I read several of Randi’s books, became a supporter of the JREF – the James Randi Educational Foundation -- and had him on my radio show several times. 

In a January, 2010, interview, he told my audience about a military fraud that was costing human lives. It had to do with bogus bomb-detecting equipment sold to security forces in Iraq, to the tune of $85 million -- despite the fact that the devices were useless. They were in essence nothing more than divining rods, the pseudo-science quackery that people have fallen for throughout history when a con man told them they could be used to find water, oil, missing persons, etc.

At the time, Randi wrote to several authorities in Iraq offering them the JREF million-dollar prize if they could produce evidence that the ADE651 dowsing-stick actually worked. Thirteen months later, in February, 2011, Randi wrote an update, in which he said:
None of these authorities ever responded, and I suspected it was because they were already making their own profit from fluffing up the price...

Well, Iraqi police have just arrested Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, the commander of the bomb squad and one of those who received my letter! He’s a high-ranking police official who handled the business involved in buying the ADE651 toy, which was widely used by police and soldiers at security checkpoints and was meant to be a key weapon in the defense against insurgents. Sure.

The police finally got around to wondering how a series of blasts had killed hundreds in recent years despite the use of the ADE651. Militants had gotten trucks, buses and cars packed with explosives through Baghdad’s numerous checkpoints, with no trouble – and those checkpoints had been “protected” by the fake device!
By the way, it cost the British company that made the ADE651 devices $100 apiece for a bunch of plastic and wiring – but they were sold Iraq for between $38,000 and $56,000 each. We need more skeptics to see through scams like that, which never saved a single life.  In fact, relying on them may have cost lives.

We need more skeptics willing to challenge the purveyors of nonsense. That means we need to get more skeptics into Congress and state legislatures, where nonsense often runs amok.

There's a new law in Tennessee that will hurt science education in that state by allowing creationism and global warming denial to be taught alongside the real science of evolution and climate change.  It amazes me that these same ignorant arguments are being made nine decades after the Scopes monkey trial took place (in the same state!). Supporters of the law say students should hear "alternative theories," so I suppose it's okay to teach them that the Earth is flat and storks deliver babies, too. The fact is that there is no controversy about these subjects among scientists, but there's a political and religious agenda at work, and it's winning in the Volunteer State.

As if that wasn't bad enough, that state's legislature has gone even further into the land of the lost. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Senate approved an update to the state's abstinence-only sex education law to make teachers warn students that holding hands and kissing are "gateway sexual activity."  Talk about an alternative theory.

No more holding hands.  This is going to throw fire drills out of whack in elementary schools, where the kids used to buddy-up and hold hands to ensure that no one got lost.  Who knew that being led to the nearest exit in an orderly manner could also lead them to intercourse?

That's right, kids, holding hands is the new first base.  When you play Red Rover, don't lock your arms together, because that's the new second base.  And I don't want to see any high-fiving, which is the new foreplay.

Meanwhile, how's that abstinence-only curriculum working out?  In Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee, 61% of high school students say they've had sex, as do 27% of middle-schoolers.  I'll grant you that "students say" is not the most scientific way to guarantee the results are true, because most teenagers are going to lie on the positive side for peer image reasons, but when compared to other teens in other areas, Memphis is way higher than the national average.  Apparently, the students are questioning authority when it comes to abstinence-only.

I hope they didn't do the survey by a show of hands.

I don’t think being a skeptic means being serious and humorless and demanding answers all the time.  Far from it.  A sense of humor and irony are essential to skepticality.  It’s okay to read the little piece of paper in a fortune cookie with a smile, knowing its prediction about your future is about as valid as most of Donald Trump’s claims.  And it’s okay to maintain a sense of wonder at well-crafted entertainment.  I’m perfectly happy to sit in the audience and enjoy Penn & Teller pulling off the illusion of firing twin .357’s at each other and catching the bullets in their teeth.  I know how some magic tricks work, but I never want to find out how they do that one.  I know it’s an illusion, but I admire its execution, and I’m happy to be amazed.

But it wasn’t entertainment when Sylvia Browne told Shawn Hornbeck’s parents he was dead in 2003, four years before he was found alive in Michael Devlin’s apartment in Kirkwood.  It’s not comforting when James Van Praagh lies to grief-stricken people about their dead relatives. It’s not good for us as a nation that millions of Americans thought their stamina and balance would improve just because they bought plastic bracelets. It’s not good for the public health when Walgreen’s and CVS put homeopathic ripoffs in the same aisles as real medicine, causing people to believe they’ll be cured of serious diseases by drinking what amounts to nothing more than water.

It may seem like being a skeptic is an uphill fight in a nation where harmful nonsense like that thrives, where this week on television there were 20 shows about psychic investigators and psychic kids, 40 shows about paranormal activity, more than 130 shows about ghosts.  And they were all described as “reality” or “non-fiction” TV.

But every once in awhile, we get a victory story, like the one about Sanal Edamaruku, who heard an announcement by an Indian guru named Pandit Surender Sharma, who claimed he could kill another man with only his mind. Edamaruku stepped forward and said, “Really? Then kill me." Edamaruku is not a suicidal nutjob, he’s a skeptic, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Remarkably, the guru accepted the challenge. A TV channel carried the whole thing live, even preempting other programming as the showdown went on, hour after hour.

According to the Sunday Times:
"When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr. Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. "No, I’m an atheist," came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.

Not wanting Sharma to have any excuses for his failure, Edamaruku accompanied him to an outdoor studio, where the farce continued until midnight, when the TV station's host declared it over. In the end, of course, Edamaruku is still alive.
We don't get many opportunities to show these mystics to be the fakes they really are, so Edamaruku really hit a home run for reason with this demonstration. It's particularly important in a nation like India, where huge number of the poor and uneducated (and plenty of rich smart people) fall for this sort of nonsense every day. Considering how gullible Americans are in this realm, it's even worse in a nation with nearly four times the population.

That’s why we need more skeptics like Sanal Edamaruku, James Randi, Phil Plait, Lenore Skenazy and every one of you.  That’s why we need to keep asking questions and encourage our kids’ curiosity.  That’s why we need to go beyond this room and convince people outside our self-selected group to abandon nonsense and ancient myths and teach them that reason and logic and reality and math and science are key elements in moving society forward.

That’s why we need more skeptics.

Friday, August 17, 2012

SkeptiCamp St. Louis

Saturday morning, I'll be the leadoff speaker at SkeptiCamp St. Louis, a free event organized by the Skeptical Society of St. Louis. It's a full day affair, with two dozen critical thinkers doing presentations and answering questions for the audience. See the schedule and other details here.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Another Movie You Might Not Know

It’s not nice to laugh at someone who’s not all there. It’s the same type of freak show distraction that comes along every time a mighty empire starts collapsing. “American Superstars” is the new Colosseum, and I won’t participate in watching a show where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment. I’m done, really. Everything is so cruel now. I just want it all to stop.
Those are the words of Frank, the protagonist in "God Bless America," a satire for everyone who's ever witnessed someone being incredibly mean or inconsiderate to another person and wanted to teach them a lesson.

Frank has had it with idiots and jerks in his daily life, and when he turns on his TV, all he sees are reality show misfits, cable TV bullies, and judges on an "American Superstar" (think "American Idol") making fun of a mentally challenged contestant (think William Hong).  Because he's had a very bad day -- his young daughter refuses to come see him, his boss fired him for petty reasons, and his doctor just told him he has an inoperable brain tumor -- Frank puts a gun in his mouth and decides to end it all.  But before he pulls the trigger, he sees a reality show about a 16-year-old ultra-rich brat and decides she has to die first.  The crime is witnessed by another teenage girl who, rather than being horrified, is excited by the idea of taking out the world's most irritating people.  She befriends Frank and the two begin a killing spree that's half "Badlands" and half "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore."

It the civilized world, this would be psychopathic behavior, and we already have too many crazy people killing randomly because of fear, bigotry, and political or religious beefs.  But in "God Bless America," written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, it works.  You might even find yourself sympathizing with Frank (played by Joel Murray in a perfectly low-key style) and his young cohort Roxy (played by Tara Lynne Barr, in what would be a breakout performance -- if anyone had seen this movie) as they thin the herd, rant about their cause, and try to decide who their next victims should be.

I don't recall "God Bless America" making it to movie theaters, but it's on DVD now, which is why I'm adding it to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • A letter from John Kinnear to his yet-to-be-born hypothetically gay son is one of the most moving things I've read today.
  • Top 10 differences between white terrorists and others, by Juan Cole.
  • A real-life Jeopardy drinking game -- this bar's trivia contest is packed with former Jeopardy champions.
  • Hysterical: How Ryan Seacrest got his big NBC deal, by Ken Levine.
  • Olympic trampolining reminds me of junior high gym class. When is the gold medal round in climb-the-rope-and-touch-the-ceiling?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Martian Curiosity

NASA's mission to Mars, putting the Curiosity rover on the surface of the red planet, is another great scientific step forward for a species that has exploration in its genes.  Seeing the celebration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last night -- with scientists and engineers who have worked on this project for years hugging, fist-pumping, and high-fiving -- was wonderful to watch with my daughter.  It wasn't as exciting as that July night in 1969 when my parents and I watched Armstrong and Aldrin first set foot on the moon, yet it's still a great achievement and the joy was contagious.  Perhaps in her lifetime, she'll witness humans setting foot on Martian soil.  Of course, if she's watching NBC, she won't see it until primetime.

The Curiosity mission is easier to explain than this summer's other major scientific break-through, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle.  That one's too complex and sub-atomic to summarize in a single sentence, but this one is easier: "we lowered a big car onto the surface of Mars, and it's going to drive around looking for signs of life."  The search may take a long time, like trying to finding a moderate in the Republican caucus.

I was happy to note that the demographics of mission control have changed dramatically, from the all-white men's club that was the NASA of my youth to the still-mostly-white-but-not-entirely crew of men and women working towards the common goal of landing Curiosity exactly where they wanted it, some 160 million miles away.  In a nation with too many people who believe in nonsense and denigrate science, it's good to see that we can still reach for the stars -- or at least the planets.

To those who think that NASA is a waste of money, that going to Mars and expanding the field of human knowledge isn't worth it during an economic downturn, here's a helpful perspective from Adam Mann:

The rover was subject to delays and cost overruns, eventually coming in at a total cost of $2.5 billion. During the press conference, NASA officials pointed out that this amounts to roughly $7 per U.S. citizen. “This whole enterprise comes out to be the cost of a movie,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, “And that’s a movie I want to see.”
Me, too.

Updated 12:38pm...Here are some of the women on the JPL Curiosity team.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Only You Can Prevent Forest Fears

Today's philosophy question: if a tree falls in the woods, do you need to warn the public?

After nearly a month of temperatures over 95 degrees, my wife and I had a serious case of cabin fever this afternoon, so I suggested we go for a drive through Babler State Park, with its 800 acres covered with beautiful old-growth forests, campgrounds, and picnic areas. The heat and humidity were oppressive enough to leave the park virtually empty -- we didn't see more than a dozen other people in the hour we were there -- and kept us in the air-conditioned car as we drove along at a leisurely pace, enjoying our surroundings. We stopped a few times to peer deep into the woods, with its grand array of trees, many grown tall, some broken and fallen.

That's why we were surprised to see this sign posted in several places along the roadside...

Is it really necessary to warn visitors to a forest that there might be tree limbs scattered about, from storm damage or other natural causes? Could it be that the state's lawyers insisted the signs be posted as protection against negligence suits, like the warning notices on Pop-Tarts that their filling will be hot after being toasted? Have visitors gone for a walk in the woods, tripped over a branch, twisted an ankle, and filed lawsuits that the state lost or had to settle? Because if they're going to be that concerned about legal action, where are the warning signs about potential burns from using the barbecue pits in the picnic areas, not to mention the splinter-ridden picnic tables, and possible poison ivy patches? Those cautionary notices aren't necessary, because life is full of assumed risk, and if you're not willing to accept that, you might as well not leave your house.

On the other hand, that may explain why Babler Park was so empty today. It wasn't the heat and humidity. It was log-o-phobia.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Aerodynamics explain why Olympic swimmers/divers shave off all body hair, but why do so many track stars have a hairdo like a lion's mane?
  • Jenna Jameson endorsed Romney to little reaction. Now consider how right-wing media would react to a porn star publicly endorsing Obama.
  • No matter what happens in the rest of my daughter's life, at least she'll never be known as a "disgraced Olympic badminton player."
  • This just in: over 85% of the chickens consumed on Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day were heterosexual.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Another Movie You Might Not Know

I'm adding "The Trip" to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

The plot is simple. British actor/comedian Steve Coogan is hired by a London newspaper to tour the country's best restaurants and write about the food and atmosphere. He wants to make the journey with his girlfriend, but she goes to America instead, so Steve turns to his best friend, comedian/impressionist Rob Brydon, for companionship along the way. Nothing much happens as they drive around England, other than some really high-end food experiences, but their running commentary, arguing, and joking with each other is often hilarious -- and it's a pleasure to simply eavesdrop on their banter.

Here's a clip in which they disagree about how to do a Michael Caine impression...

When Money And Mouth Meet To Eat

Some right-wing extremists declared yesterday Chick-Fil-A Day to support anti-gay statements and financial contributions made by the fast-food chain's owner. It seems an odd thing to publicly celebrate, just as I was shocked when I lived in Virginia and learned that there's a state holiday honoring Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, two generals who led the Confederate army in the Civil War. I still don't understand honoring them, and I can't believe there were commentators and customers cheering on Chick-Fil-A for its bigotry.

I don't know how many people went to the restaurants specifically for that reason, but I've never eaten there and never will, for the same reason I don't eat Domino's Pizza -- I'm picky about where my discretionary dollars go, and if any of them will be used to support causes I abhor, I'll choose someplace else.  It's not like those are my only food options.

The Chick-Fil-A story got out of control when the mayors of Chicago and Boston, who disagree with the owner's stance on gay marriage, said they'd use their powers to keep the company's franchises out of their cities.  That's an abuse of power, because government -- as opposed to individual consumers -- may not punish any business owner or citizen for expressing their political views, as repugnant as they may be.  In a nation that cherishes free speech, bigots have the same right to spew their intolerance as others have to disagree with them.  The same would apply to any municipal official who wanted to exclude a company that was vocally pro-gay-marriage.  The mayors, like everyone else, are free to express their opinions on the matter, and even to boycott those businesses personally, but they must not use the power of City Hall to block the company from opening a store if it chooses to.

These businesses know nothing of my personal boycott and, because I was unlikely to patronize them in the first place, I realize that I'm not hurting their bottom line.  In my radio career, I have often turned down endorsement opportunities for companies or products I didn't want to be associated with, including firearms shops and alternative medical quackery.  I didn't issue a statement or make a big deal out of it.  I'm not on a mission to get you to stop buying their products, because you can make up your own mind about your own money.  I simply opt out of giving them my support, just as I didn't buy BP gas after their irresponsible handling of the gulf oil spill.  Somehow, that multi-national conglomerate still thrives without my business, and Chick-Fil-A won't be going away anytime soon, but I consider it a matter of conscience.

I have played poker many times at the Venetian, which has a huge, well-run room and lot of games running all the time.  When I was in Vegas earlier this summer, I was torn about going there, because I know it has some of the best action in town.  But this year, its owner, Sheldon Adelson, has been very publicly donating tens of millions of dollars to presidential candidates whose policies are anathema to me.  First, he single-handedly bankrolled Newt Gingrich's insanity-fest in the primaries, and now he's writing checks to get Mitt Romney in the White House.  Because I don't want any of my cash to find its way into those coffers, I didn't play at the Venetian, and won't anytime soon. Adelson and I are both making choices regarding where our money goes.

But here's the real bottom line: in the long run, the cause the Chick-Fil-A owner and his supporters are fighting for is a losing one.  Despite the best efforts of the closed-minded who believe the Bible trumps the Constitution, America keeps progressing on social issues. There were religious zealots that supported Prohibition, segregated restaurants, and banning interracial marriage. How did those work out?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Watermelon vs. Rubber Bands

A battle between two eternal enemies, in high-speed slow-motion...

[thanks to Janice Melton for the link]