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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Gay Player Question

I'm happy for Jason Collins, the veteran NBA center who found the inner strength to announce to the world yesterday (via a Sports Illustrated cover story) that he's gay. He's being called the first active player in a major US sport to come out, and I don't want to throw water on that.


Now that the NBA regular season is over and Collins' team, the Washington Wizards, isn't in the playoffs, he's a free agent, which means that until he gets re-signed by the Wizards or signed by another team -- there's a good chance neither will happen -- he's no longer in the NBA. And if that's the case, while he was certainly an "active player" a month ago, he isn't anymore. So, if Collins' 12-year career is over, the questions of what the impact will be on NBA locker rooms may prove to be moot.

There have been five ex-NFL players to come out -- Dave Kopay was the first, as early as 1975, followed by Roy Simmons in 1992, Esera Tuaolo in 2002, Wade Davis in 2012, and Kwame Harris in 2013. Only two former major league baseball players -- Glenn Burke and Billy Bean -- have come out. But all of them had already left the league before revealing their homosexuality.

Collins' admission, while important, would carry a lot more weight if he were a current NBA star. Remember the reaction when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV? Amid the shock and sympathy for a guaranteed hall-of-famer, there were plenty of bigoted comments from those who didn't understand the disease. Eventually, however, the public remembered why it loved Magic as he became a role model and an outstanding spokesperson for others who suffered from HIV.

That's what the NBA (or NFL, NHL, or MLB) needs. In a world where Rutgers coach Mike Rice lost his job in part because he hurled gay slurs at his players with the same vitriol as basketballs, where players like Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah targeted a referee and a fan with similar slurs, it may take a big name player with the courage to come out at the peak of their career, not after they've played (what could very well be) their last game, to change the culture.

That will be the real test of how accepting pro athletes can be.

So Many Shots, So Few Hits

There's something I've been meaning to ask gun advocates for the last two weeks.

Remember the shootout in Watertown on Thursday, April 18th, between the Tsarnaev brothers and several branches of law enforcement? Reports said there were over 200 rounds exchanged that night, and we learned later that the Tsarnaevs only had one gun, a Ruger 9mm, which holds 15 bullets in its clip. Even if Tamarlan Tsarnaev went through several clips, the majority of ammunition fired came from guns in the hands of police officers who had been trained in the use of their weapons. Even if it wasn't the majority, let's make it half and you have a hundred shots fired at two suspects.

How many of those shots hit their targets? Not enough to kill either of them right away. Tamerlan was certainly shot a couple of times, but didn't die until his younger brother, trying to escape, drove an SUV over him and dragged him along the ground. We know that Dzokhar was shot, too, but only once or twice -- most of those 100+ rounds fired by police did not hit the brothers. Fortunately, they didn't hit any innocent bystanders, either.

And yet, the next day, during the search for the surviving brother, I heard more than one cable pundit or talk radio host say, "I bet those people in Watertown all wish they had a gun right now." The implication being that if they were armed, they'd be able to kill or capture Dzhokhar and save the day. Because in their gun-obsessed world, everyone with a weapon is a crack shot, a good guy who always gets the bad guy.

Except of course for the MIT police officer Sean Collier and MBTA police officer Richard Donahue. The former was killed and the latter was critically wounded -- despite each of them having a gun.

Because that's how the real world works.

Bomb Detector Scam Update

I'm happy to report that James McCormick has been convicted of fraud.

Three years ago, James Randi was on my radio show to talk about a horrible scam being perpetrated by McCormick involving fake bomb detectors. His Advanced Detection Equipment was purchased in large quantities by the governments of Iraq, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Niger -- but the devices couldn't detect anything, as they contained no working electronics. They were made from less than $100 worth of parts and sold them for $40,000 apiece, netting McCormick $85 million.

These devices, no more effective than dowsing rods, actually endangered more lives. Thousands of them were distributed to Iraqi guards, who would stop vehicles at checkpoints and give them the once-over with the "detectors." When they found nothing, as they always did, the vehicles were allowed to proceed and, in many cases, blow up. Lives and limbs were lost because of the reliance on these pieces of garbage -- one truck bomb went undetected by the devices and killed 155 people; two months later, another killed 127 people. Both had passed through multiple checkpoints using McCormick's useless collection of plastic and wires.

Last week, a British court found McCormick guilty of fraud, and he will be sentenced on Thursday (update: the judge gave him 10 years in prison). Authorities also plan to go after his money under the Proceeds Of Crime Act. An Iraqi army officer who used to lead the Baghdad bomb squad, Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, helped McCormick sell his scam, and is already doing jail time for corruption.

But here's the bad news: McCormick's fraudulent detectors are still being relied upon in some parts of Iraq.

DVD Reviews

Thoughts on four very different movies I've watched on DVD recently...

"Django Unchained" includes a character like none I've seen before, the bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for the role. Although Jamie Foxx's ex-slave seems like the core of the story, it is Waltz's character -- and the lines Tarantino wrote for him -- that make the movie zing. However, the movie is about a half-hour too long, with some scenes unnecessary to the plot (dogs vs. man and then man vs. man). Tarantino is also a little too in love with gore and spurting blood. It's not as over the top in "Django" as it was in "Kill Bill" (which eschewed anything resembling a plot in favor of multiple decapitations and swordplay), but he could have toned it down and not lost any of the violent aspects of the movie. Overall, I recommend "Django," mostly for Waltz.

I can see the packaged-pitch meeting for "Hope Springs" -- Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a couple in their sixties stuck in a loveless marriage who get counseling from Steve Carrell. Sounds pretty good, but the result is less than the sum of its parts. Everybody does what they're supposed to do, but it just doesn't work. The movie also contains a couple of scenes of Streep and Jones making out (one on the floor and one in bed) and, frankly, I didn't need to see that. If my wife and I wanted to watch two middle-aged people in the act, we would have put a mirror over our bed. When it comes to on-screen love scenes, leave it to the younger demographics. You can pass on "Hope Springs," eternally.

"The Debt" is by far the most serious movie I've watched recently, with a plot about Israeli agents trying to capture a German doctor who was a notorious torturer in Nazi concentration camps. Part of the plot takes place in 1965, with Jessica Chastain and two male colleagues working to kidnap the doctor in East Germany and get him to Israel to stand trial for his atrocities. The other part takes place 30 years later, when Chastain has grown up to become Helen Mirren, whose daughter has written a best-seller about the events of 1965. But there's more to the story than what's told in the book and, as it unravels, we're caught up in the mission and its aftermath. Very gripping stuff, well told, with vivid characters portrayed brilliantly. A big recommendation for "The Debt," which I have added to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

There have been two bio-pics about Alfred Hitchcock in the last year. HBO's "The Girl," about the making of "The Birds," was okay, but not worth recommending. However, "Hitchcock," is much better, with Anthony Hopkins as the great director during the making of "Psycho," and Helen Mirren (again, flawless) as his wife and co-conspirator, Alma. They make quite a team, ably assisted by Scarlett Johannsen as Janet Leigh and the rest of the supporting cast. What makes "Hitchcock" a more appealing story is the relationship between Alfred and Alma, plus the attention to detail in the movie-making scenes, where some of his directing process is revealed. He may have been a strange man in real life, but he created movie masterpieces, and "Hitchcock" does a good job taking us into his world.

One last recommendation from the world of streaming video...

Amazon has followed Netflix into the original programming business, and recently posted 14 half-hour TV pilots available for streaming. One of them, "Alpha House," is worth your time. It's a single-camera comedy about four Republican senators who share a house in DC -- an arrangement that's not that unusual, particularly for first- and second-termers who have a residence in their hometown and choose not to get another one for the few days a week they spend in Washington. What makes this pilot work is having John Goodman and Clark Johnson as two of the four, with a very funny cameo at the top by Bill Murray. Whether the pilot begats more episodes will be up to viewers, as Amazon has asked its customers to rate each of the shows as a kind of crowd-sourced ratings service. I didn't bother to offer my feedback to them, but I can recommend it to you for a few laughs.

Not As Beautiful

Two weeks ago, Dove released a campaign called Real Beauty Sketches. In it, a forensic artist drew portraits of women based on their descriptions of themselves. Then he drew new portraits of those same women based on the descriptions by strangers who had spent some time with them. The idea was to show women that they're more beautiful than they think they are...

The video created a lot of buzz, including some negative reaction from those who thought it still sent the wrong message (this is one of the best of those). It also inspired a parody version about how men are wrong about how they're viewed, too...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Mud"

"Mud" is a movie that starts out looking like "Stand By Me," then seems like something else, then reveals itself slowly as an adventure, a mystery, and a love story.

In rural Arkansas, two 14-year-old boys (who look just like the young Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix), set out to find a boat they've heard about that was swept up by a recent Mississippi River flood and deposited in a tree on a nearby island. When they get to the island, they find the vessel about 20 feet off the ground, stuck in the branches, so they climb up and scope out what they're already thinking of as their new playhouse. Then one of them discovers some fresh mud in boot prints on the wall, and a grocery bag with a can of beans and a loaf of bread. He realizes that someone else is already living there.

If that sounds like the opening of a horror movie, it could be, but that's exactly what "Mud" isn't. The man who's living in the boat turns out to be Matthew McConaghey as a mysterious character on the run from, well, we're not sure for awhile, and I'm not going to spoil the story for you. I will say that this is an interesting character study of both the mystery man and the two boys, who get more than they bargained for out of this adventure, plus a few life lessons along the way. McConaghey and the two boys -- Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland -- carry the weight beautifully, with strong support from Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Reese Witherspoon (in a small role, despite what the ads for the movie want you to believe).

"Mud" is definitely worth your time.

Working The Big Room

My brother Seth (the Acting Secretary Of Labor) was at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night and tells me that both President Obama and Conan O'Brien killed in the room. It's always hard to tell via the C-SPAN telecast because they don't bother to mike the audience, so viewers only get to hear the response via the speaker's own microphone, and in a space as cavernous as that ballroom, the laughs don't translate to the TV soundtrack, so we can't judge the crowd's true reaction.

My review of the two was mixed. Although Obama has a very good sense of timing, I thought he was funnier in previous years (particularly last year, when he and Seth Meyers were merciless in their attacks on Donald Trump, who sat in the audience stone-faced and steaming). As for Conan, he seemed to be shouting his way through a script he barely took his eyes off, as if he'd had little to do with preparing the material for that night while trying too hard.

My problem with the entertainment at the annual "Nerd Prom" is that in the last several years, it has seemed more like a Comedy Central Roast. Every line has to be a jab at some politician or media person in the crowd. If that's what the WHCA wants, they might as well go all the way and let Jeffrey Ross be next year's performer.

As I mentioned Saturday, I thought the evening was much more enjoyable in 1998, the year I attended -- not for my presence, but because the comedian was Ray Romano, who didn't do anything political, yet had the crowd in hysterics for the full half-hour. Considering that the president historically gets in plenty of jokes at the expense of those in the room, it was a refreshing departure to have the next act not tread the same ground.

However, I do have to admit that one of Conan's bits this weekend did have me laughing out loud:

It's no surprise that John Boehner isn't here tonight. Speaker Boehner and President Obama are still struggling to get along. President Obama and John Boehner are kind of like a blind date between Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow. In theory, they understand each other's positions, but deep down, you know nothing's ever going to happen.
The highlights of this year's dinner were neither of the headline performers, though, but rather two pre-recorded segments. One of them was Steven Spielberg explaining the odd casting choice he made for the lead in his movie about Obama...

The other was a parody of the Netflix series "House Of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey, Ed Henry of Fox News Channel, and a slew of other Washington insiders...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Brian Stelter, "Top Of The Morning"

On my America Weekend show today, I talked with Brian Stelter, who reports on the television industry for the NY Times, about his new book, "Top Of The Morning," in which he goes behind the scenes at the battle between "Today" and "Good Morning America" to dominate morning viewing. Stelter explained the huge amounts of money at stake, how NBC's promotion and later demotion of Ann Curry was such a mistake, why CBS continues to limp along in third place, and how competition from not just other networks but also our other electronic sources of information impacts what those shows do. I also asked him why, in making the rounds to promote the book, he was welcomed at "GMA" but not at "Today."

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

Robert Greenwald, "The War On Whistleblowers"

Today on America Weekend, I talked with documentarian Robert Greenwald about his new movie, "The War On Whistleblowers," in which he takes a look at the high price paid for speaking out. The film includes four whistleblowers and several investigative journalists who talk about how much more difficult it has become to tell the truth about what's happening inside our national security state. I asked Robert about the blowback these men and women get from a system that doesn't want its secrets shared, even when they endanger the lives of Americans at war. We also discussed how the Obama administration, despite its promise of more transparency, has not only tried to keep more secrets, but also punished some of these whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.

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

Greenwald is making copies of "The War On Whistleblowers" available for free on DVD. To get one, click here.

College Athlete Turned Lifesaver

Cameron Lyle is a college senior and a star on the University of New Hampshire track and field team, which is having a championship season. But Cameron won't be taking part in the last 3 meets of his collegiate career, because he's decided to help save someone's life instead by donating bone marrow to a man dying of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. So I invited him to tell his story on my America Weekend show. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Blair Koenig, "STFU Parents"

Four years ago, Blair Koenig started the STFU Parents blog after being amazed at the things people posted on Facebook and other social media about their children. She has compiled some of those blog entries into a book, which she discussed with me today on my America Weekend show. She recounted some of the bizarre examples of parent over-sharing that begin before a child is even born and often continue into their teen years. You'll also learn a new two-word phrase you won't be able to get out of your head.

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

They Died For Your Clothes

On my America Weekend show today, I asked Theresa Haas of the Worker Rights Consortium to discuss the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, where the death toll has passed 325 and the building owner has been arrested for negligence in keeping it open despite cracks in the walls and other safety issues. Since those low-wage workers were making clothing for Western brands and retailers, I asked Haas whether those companies share any blame, what they can be expected to do about it, and whether consumers here and elsewhere care as long as the cost of what they buy is kept down (as in the Chinese plants where iPads and other electronics are assembled).

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/28/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a lost diamond, some not-so-disabled frauds, and a teacher suspended for showing kids his tools in the classroom. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Concussions and Kids

Last weekend, Abby Wombach, the best-known female professional soccer player in the US, was hit in the head by a kicked ball and crumpled to the field. Instead of making her leave the game to be checked for a concussion, Wombach was permitted to stay in the game and play on. Dr. Robert Cantu says that sends the wrong message to the many young girls who play soccer and look up to Wombach as a role model.

On my America Weekend show, he explained the dangers of concussions in youth sports, the effect of a soccer ball hitting a young athlete's head, whether kids should play football before they hit their teens, how little a helmet helps, and much more. Cantu is the author of "Concussions and our Kids."

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

Susan Porter, "Bully Nation"

There's been a lot of talk about bullying in the last decade or so, and our schools are at the center of it with policies designed to punish the "bully" and protect the "victim." But my America Weekend guest, Susan Porter, says we're going about it all wrong. She's the author of "Bully Nation: Why America's Approach To Childhood Aggression Is Bad For Everyone."

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

Online Sales Tax

In many states, you have to pay sales tax whenever you buy an item from a brick-and-mortar store, but not when you buy it online. That may end soon, as Congress is considering a bill that would allow states to force internet retailers to charge sales tax, too. On my America Weekend show, I asked US News business columnist Rick Newman what the impact of imposing that tax would be on both consumers and businesses -- and why Amazon is for it while eBay is against it.

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

Days Alive

A listener whose birthday is one day before mine pointed me to this website which counts the number of days since you were born. He hit a milestone yesterday, which means I'm hitting it today -- 20,000 days alive! And I've been up before dawn for way too many of them.

Harris Challenge 4/26/13

Play along with my Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "April In Rock History," "There's A First Time For Everything," and, of course, "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/27/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a tiger in the bathroom, an iPhone where the moon don't shine, and a man who gave himself the finger -- for dinner. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, April 26, 2013

White House Correspondents Dinner

I attended the White House Correspondents Dinner once in 1998 and felt incredibly out of place. Perhaps it was because I was the only one wearing sneakers with my tuxedo (I wore Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars all the time in those days, although I did buy a new pair for that night). I was there because Art Brodsky of Communications Daily invited me to join them at their table, which was a long way across the Washington Hilton ballroom from the dais where the president sat.

I didn't go to any of the cocktail parties beforehand, but I did wander around the ballroom before the festivities started to see who else was there, stopping every once in a while when I came across a celebrity who had guested on my radio show in the dozen years I'd been in town (James Carville and Mary Matalin, Connie Chung and Maury Povich, et al). There wasn't as much of an emphasis on bringing Hollywood stars as guests, but it was odd to see such a large gathering of politicians and reporters pretending to get along.

The highlight of the evening was Clinton's speech, which included lots of well-produced visuals and videos. I'm pretty sure my friend Jon Macks, a former political consultant turned monologue writer for Jay Leno, contributed some of the material, and Clinton, with his natural comedic timing, knocked it out of the park. He was followed by Ray Romano, whose sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" was beginning to hit its stride in its second season. He wisely stayed away from political material, opting instead for a half-hour of killer stuff from his stand-up act about his family.

Afterwards, most of the crowd moved on to more cocktail parties hosted by Vanity Fair and other media outlets. Since I hadn't been invited to any, I thanked my hosts and walked outside to get to my car, stopping for a moment when I realized I was standing exactly where John Hinkley had been when he took several shots at President Reagan seventeen years earlier. It was pretty odd being there with such a heavy security presence surrounding the area that night.

Tomorrow night, when that same ballroom fills up again for the so-called Nerd Prom, the celebrity quotient will be much higher. Here are some of the stars who have been invited by various media outlets. Many of them have no connection to politics, but get to go as a perk of having a show on a network or its parent company, others simply generate enough star wattage to guarantee free media exposure. At which table would you like to sit?

  • CBS: Claire Danes, Admiral Mike Mullen
  • ABC: the cast of Scandal, Connie Britton, Hayden Panatierre, Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara
  • NBC: Matthew Perry, Michael J. Fox, Michael Douglas
  • CNN: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Ware, Gerard Butler
  • Reuters: Fred Armisen, Jeremy Renner, Steve Zahn, Kathleen Turner, Madeline Stowe
  • NPR: Tracy Morgan, George Lucas, and Jessica Alba
  • Time: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Gabby Douglas, John Legend
  • USA Today: Courtney Cox, Ashley Judd, Kristin Chenoweth, Josh Gad, Kate Walsh
  • Daily Beast: Senator Claire McCaskill, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Olivia Munn, Harvey Weinstein
  • Huffington Post: Scarlett Johannsen, Jon Bon Jovi, Chris Christie, Shaquille O’Neal
  • Bloomberg: Barbra Streisand, Kevin Spacey, Ted Sarandos (Netflix chief content officer)
In 1995, Bill Clinton decided not to give a funny speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner because we were still just ten days removed from Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 19 children and 149 adults. The wound to the American psyche was still too raw, so the president made some somber remarks that night.

The day before, however, there was still a chance Clinton go for the jokes, so Mark Katz, his speechwriter, had worked up a humorous monologue for the president. When it became apparent that doing the routine at the dinner would not be appropriate, Clinton still wanted to read the speech out loud, even if the only people to hear it would be Katz and a couple of other staffers.

Here is Katz' reminiscence of that day.

Time Saving Tech Tips

Think you're really tech-savvy? Did you know about these shortcuts, as presented by NY Times tech columnist David Pogue?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Forgotten Media, Part 2

To read part one of this column, click here.

The other media brand that recently resurfaced on my desktop is USA Today, when I saw a news item about the death Friday of its founder, Al Neuharth.

Unlike AOL, I knew USA Today was still around, because I travel fairly often, and most hotels still plop "The Nation's Newspaper" in front of the room each morning. Unless I'm on the road, I never see it, nor do I check it online -- despite my admiration for some very talented writers who have been at USAT for a long time, like sports columnist Christine Brennan and music columnist Edna Gunderson. It's just off my media radar.

However, I remember when USA Today first appeared in 1982. With its colorful look and its concise storytelling, it seemed like someone had decided to create the ultimate show-prep paper for radio personalities. In its earliest years, you could turn on any morning show in America and hear all of us doing the same stories, taken directly from the pages of USA Today. In the pre-internet age, it was the first portal we had to what was happening in other towns, including the late night sports scores that our local papers never had because their deadlines were too early. Plus USAT had that purple Life section, written as if it were just for us.

In 1987, while doing mornings at WCXR/Washington, I'd had Edna as a guest several times, and she finagled an invitation for me and my crew to do our show from the brand new USA Today radio studio in the Gannett Building in Rosslyn, Virginia. Newsman John Ogle and I were awed by the 27th-floor view overlooking the Potomac River, the monuments, and the rest of downtown DC, as various writers and editors stopped by to join us on the air. They even made a special director's chair for each of us with their logo on the front and our call letters on the back, a memento I still have in my basement.

It was such a positive experience that I proposed a business deal with them. Since the newspaper wasn't taking full advantage of the radio studio -- it was only on occasion that a writer stepped into the booth to record an interview -- I suggested that I set up visits from radio stations around the country. I knew that there were other morning shows who would enjoy the experience as much as I had, having access to a fully-equipped studio and ready-for-air guests, at no cost, in exchange for a morning full of promotion for the USA Today brand. It seemed like a no-brainer to me and to the mid-level management person I proposed it to, but once it got above that, the idea died in the paper's bureaucracy and, to my knowledge, that radio studio was never used to full advantage.

A year later, however, that floor of the Gannett Building was re-built into a larger broadcast facility, when it became the home of the syndicated "USA Today: The Television Show." Despite huge amounts of money, the leadership of TV veteran Grant Tinker, and a talented staff -- including my wife, an associate producer, and me, a contributor to its weekend edition -- the show never got off the ground, with less-than-prime clearances in too many markets, lasting a mere 18 months.

My wife and I have two lasting memories from that show, though. One was that the Gannett Building was very close to the flight path of planes landing at National Airport. On approach, they'd swoop down the Potomac, and by the time they got to Rosslyn, they were on final approach. From her desk, it seemed she could reach out and touch the jets as they passed so close to those 27th-floor windows. The other memory was of watching the July 4th fireworks on the National Mall from that vantage point, an amazing view.

That USA Today TV show is long forgotten, the newspaper no longer occupies that building, and it's been at least a decade since anyone received an AOL floppy disk in the mail. I can't help but wonder how long it will be until I write a similar column about Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Forgotten Media, Part 1

Two media brands that I hadn't thought of in a long time reappeared in the news recently.

One of them popped up when Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, did an impromptu press conference on his lawn in Montgomery Village, Maryland, last Friday. At one point, he was asked how he heard about his nephews being involved and when he first saw their pictures. He replied:
I saw them only this morning when I was contacted by reporters. When they said, "Have you seen the pictures?" my wife opened the internet and on AOL I saw a picture of Dzhokhar.
My immediate reaction was surprise. AOL is still in business? And there are people who use AOL as the homepage on their browser, so it's the first thing they see when they "open the internet"?

I was an early adapter of AOL, back in the days when users had to tie up a home phone line to dial in to a local access number, wait 30 seconds for my modem and theirs to complete a noisy digital handshake, and hope to hear "You've Got Mail." It had lots of forums, was the first place I discovered the Gardner brothers behind The Motley Fool, and had full-color graphics. It was slow compared to today's high-speed connections (think of a Model T on the Autobahn), but it was a source of lots of information and the first online community most people shared. Companies fell over each other in their efforts to establish AOL pages to connect with the public, much as they do now with Facebook and other social media. But at the time, AOL was pretty much the only game in town. CompuServe, which I'd been using since 1986 as a text-only service to access its forums, couldn't compete with AOL's graphics and news sources -- nor could Earthlink, Prodigy, or other competitors.

I thought AOL, with its monthly fees and constant mailings of floppy disks to entice you to subscribe had faded from public view like those other companies. Particularly after its disastrous corporate merger with Time Warner, which was supposed to create a model of cross-platform synergy, combining content from Time's print empire and Warner's movie and music empire with AOL's online reach. All it succeeded in doing was destroying the value of the stock without giving the content providers the marketing monster they craved.

Whenever I search my contacts list for someone I haven't spoken to in a long time, and I see that the last e-mail address I had for them ends with "@aol.com," I assume it's outdated -- surely, by now, that person has migrated to something more current, like Gmail or an address ending with their current ISP's domain. But there are still three or four who maintain an e-address with that now-free suffix, part of a group that apparently includes a family of Chechen immigrants in Maryland.

Tomorrow: the other media brand that recently reappeared on my desktop.

Updated 11:58pm...According to a Business Insider story earlier this year, AOL is still making a lot of money off people who pay for access to the service every month -- via slow dial-up connections -- even those who have internet service from another provider. Hey, 1995 called and it wants its 3,000-baud modem back!

A Very Bad TV Debut (follow-up)

A follow-up to the story of AJ Clemente, the guy who had the anchorman's worst first night ever. As I wrote earlier, it's becoming more and more apparent that -- aside from cursing on the air -- what happened was not his fault.

On "The Today Show" this morning, Clemente explained two reasons he didn't know he was on the air when he blurted out the expletives -- the newscast started thirty seconds earlier than it was supposed to, and neither he nor the other anchor were wearing an IFB earpiece through which they could have heard a countdown from the control room. So, with no one on the floor to tell them when the newscast had begun, Tieu (the female co-anchor) just happened to look up and notice the red light on the camera go on, so she started talking while Clemente had no idea what was happening.

In other words, the fact that the newscast had begun was news to him...

Clemente will also tell his story to David Letterman tonight.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Much was written in the last week about Joe Berti, who finished the Boston Marathon shortly before the bombs went off, then went home to Texas, where he witnessed the fertilizer explosion that devastated the town of West. Being in the midst of two such horrific incidents is a remarkable coincidence, but it pales in comparison to what Tsutomu Yamaguchi experienced.

On August 6, 1945, Yamaguchi was on the final day of a business trip in Hiroshima, Japan, when the US dropped the first atomic bomb. The blast ruptured his ear drums, temporarily blinded him, and burned half of the top of his body, but he survived. The next day, he returned to him hometown for treatment, and then went back to his office. Unfortunately, his office was in Nagasaki, where the US dropped the second atomic bomb on August 9, 1945. He was 29 at the time.

But the story doesn't end there. While approximately 200,000 people died in the two cities, Yamaguchi survived both atomic blasts (one of only about 160), and lived to the ripe old age of 93.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Whenever I hear Richie Havens' name I don't think of Woodstock, I think of this Albert Brooks standup bit.
  • Tom Shales on the frustrations (and pleasure) of working with editors.
  • Give Al Michaels credit. When he was busted for DUI, he didn't ask the cop, "Do you know who Reese Witherspoon is?
  • Fear-mongerers proven wrong again: cases of HPV virus are declining in Australia due to vaccinations. Science FTW!
  • If you watched nothing but Sunday morning TV, you'd think America only had two Senators -- Graham & McCain. Don't the others have phones?
  • Durex (the condom company) has a new product called Fundawear that allows people to touch each other online. You may want to consider the demo video NSFW.
  • Yet another example of what often goes wrong when you put a non-broadcaster (Dick Morris) in a prime talk radio slot.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Very Bad TV Debut

On Sunday, AJ Clemente's first day as a TV anchorman was even more of a disaster than Aaron Altman's in "Broadcast News." Instead of sweating buckets, AJ dropped the F-bomb and the S-bomb right at the top of the newscast.

While he's responsible for the profanity, I blame the station's management for this disaster. I don't expect a station in North Dakota to be the world's best-run media outlet, but whoever is in charge threw AJ into a job he clearly was not ready to do.

Forget about the language. As you watch the video, you can see AJ is mega-nervous, but he also seems to have never done this before -- I don't mean on the air, I mean it looks like he's never even rehearsed doing a newscast from the anchor desk. My impression is he's a recent college graduate who sent a tape to some TV stations in small markets to get his first job on the air, and KFYR-TV gave him the opportunity, but not the training.

His co-anchor, Van Tieu, didn't make it any easier when, rather than diving into the night's top story, she asked AJ to tell viewers about his background. She might have been trying to calm him down and make him feel comfortable, but she made things worse. You do not banter with a rookie -- you tell him which camera to look into, let him read the teleprompter, and keep everything as simple as possible, which means no ad-libbing under any circumstances. It's also apparent there was no stage manager in the studio to point AJ to the correct camera (and no one behind the cameras to help him either, because they're probably remote-operated by someone in the control room).

After the newscast ended, AJ tweeted, "That couldn't have gone any worse." A few hours later, he added (his punctuation), "Tough day, Thanks for the support, We all make mistakes. Im truly sorry for mine. I'll try my hardest to come back better and learn from this."

Lots of people make mistakes their first day on the job. On the night of my first show on a commercial radio station (the 7pm-Midnight shift at album-oriented-rock WRCN/Long Island, April 15, 1978), the first song I cued up to play was "More Than A Feeling." Unfortunately, the last record played on that turntable had been a single, and I forgot to change the gears, so when it hit the air, the Boston song was at the wrong speed -- 45rpm instead of 33 and 1/3.

By then, I'd done hundreds of shows on my college and high school stations (mostly error-free), so I quickly realized what I had done and fixed it, but it made the knot in my stomach tighten even more. Fortunately, program director Don Brink was too good a manager to even mention my mistake, instead calling me a couple of hours later to tell me I sounded fine and keep up the good work. I did, staying at that station in ever-growing roles for three years.

AJ Clemente won't have that opportunity because today, he's out of a job. If it had just been the nervousness and a couple of minor mistakes, he might have been kept on. But AJ forgot Cardinal Rule Number One of broadcasting: you never know when a mike is live, so don't fuck up and say shit!

Picture Of The Day

Chris Hadfield, commander of the International Space Station, conducts an experiment suggested by two Canadian students...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Harris Challenge 04/19/13

Play along with my Harris Challenge, which includes the categories "Rock Of The Eighties," "Bad Sports Movies," and, of course, "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Dave Barry, "Insane City"

Few guests bring a smile to my face as much as Dave Barry. He was on my America Weekend show today to promote his "Insane City," his first solo adult novel in over a decade. It's set in his hometown of Miami during the days before a big wedding, with a wild bachelor party, some Haitian refugees, an orangutan, and a stripper who can only be described as oversized. Dave tried to explain the plot, but we got sidetracked onto a discussion of the Burmese Pythons that have overrun Florida -- and the ridiculous contest the state held to get rid of them.

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

You'll find lots of my previous interviews with Dave Barry here.

Death With Dignity

Since 2009, it has been legal for physicians in Montana to prescribe medication to help patients end their lives without fear of prosecution, but in February, the Montana house passed a bill to criminalize that action. Advocates for physician-assisted suicide rallied behind Dr. Eric Kress, a physician in Missoula who has aided three patients in ending their lives with dignity. Fortunately, the bill was defeated in the Montana senate last week.

Today on America Weekend, I invited Dr. Kress to explain why he does what he does -- although it's a very small part of his practice (he's no Dr. Kevorkian) -- and how the legalization in Montana has not caused a "rush to die" as some critics predicted (they were wrong about it in Oregon and Washington, too). We also discussed how life-and-death decisions like this are made every day by families and doctors in hospitals all over the country, and he revealed the story of the patient who helped him make up his mind to aid others who wanted to die. As you'll hear, Dr. Kress is a very compelling and compassionate guy. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

A Quick Chechen Lesson

The alleged Boston Marathon bombers are ethnic Chechens who spent the last 11 years in the United States, but have family roots in Dagestan and southern Russia, in an area called the Caucuses. Since most of us know nothing about that part of the world and the people who live there, I invited Oliver Bullough -- who has traveled the area and written about it -- to join me on America Weekend to explain some recent history of the Chechen people. We also discussed the perceived radicalization of the older brother, Tamarlan Tsarnaev, and the possible influence of extremist Islam. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

For more, read Bullough's op-ed, "Beslan Meets Columbine."

Time To Pay Restaurant Workers More

Today on my America Weekend show, I talked with Saru Jayaraman, author of "Behind The Kitchen Door," an expose on the poor working conditions and low wages the overwhelming majority of restaurant employees have to deal with. I asked her how long it's been since workers in that industry got a raise, how it's unfair to make them rely on a subsidy from customers (in the form of tips) for their income, and what the evidence shows regarding the impact of a minimum wage increase on the cost of dining out. She also explained how most food service employees, who don't have health insurance, are going to work sick and breathing on my food and yours. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

That Pepper Is Too Hot!

Last week, I saw a piece on Slate by Jackson Landers, in which he describes eating the world's hottest pepper, a Butch T Scorpion pepper. Naturally, I had some questions, so I invited him on my America Weekend show to explain, starting with why he did it, what he had to do to deal with the pain in his mouth, whether it had any effect on the rest of his body, and how much hotter this pepper was than, say, a jalapeno. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Here's what it looked like when Jackson and his friend Jenny ate the Butch T pepper:

What It Was Like In Watertown

Today on my America Weekend show, I spoke with Eric Moskowitz, one of the Boston Globe reporters who covered the events in Watertown, Massachusetts, that led to the death of one of the Boston Marathon bombers and the capture of the other. I asked him to describe what the scene was like during the gun battle and chase Thursday night, the climactic arrest Friday night, and the area's mood this weekend. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/21/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a viral murder scare, a resignation cake, and a six-year-old who really likes Chinese food. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Terrorism and Miranda

On Monday, after the Boston Marathon bombing, there was debate about whether to call it an act of "terrorism." To me, anything that kills or injures a large number of people and scares a lot of others qualifies for the description. But there's also a legal definition, which is why I turned to Laura Beth Nielsen, Director of Legal Studies at Northwestern University, today on my America Weekend show. I asked her to explain what adding that label means, and how she feels about the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, not being given the Miranda warning before being questioned by law enforcement.

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

Peter Byck, "Carbon Nation"

This is Earth Day weekend, so today on my America Weekend show, I talked with Peter Byck, producer/director of "Carbon Nation," a documentary about climate change solutions. I was fascinated by Byck's optimism on the topic, based on his conversations with business leaders who see a way to save money, military officers who see national security issues, and others. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Can The Government Shut Down Cell Phones?

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, reports surfaced that the government had shut down cellphone networks in the area to deter anyone from using that technology from exploding other devices remotely. The story sounded fishy to me at the time, and later proved to be false. Today on my America Weekend show, I asked NYU senior research fellow Anthony Townsend if it's even possible for the government to do that, or if it was just the system getting clogged up by so many people trying to make emergency calls at the same time.

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

Security vs. Freedom

How will the Boston Marathon bombing redefine homeland security? Is there any way to uncover people plotting to murder and maim while still maintaining a free society? Today on my America Weekend show, I talked it over with Brigadier General Michael McDaniel, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Defense Strategy.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/20/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include an angry pheasant, a license plate with cancer, and a judge who found himself in contempt. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cuba Otra Vez

I started to write something about the recent controversy over Beyonce and Jay-Z going to Cuba, and the hypocrisy behind America's attitude towards that nation, when I realized I had already written that column -- almost exactly a year ago. Read it here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Seeing the Boston blast video, I'm taken by cops who immediately moved TOWARDS the explosions as everyone else moved away.
  • Stop playing semantics: anytime a bomb goes off and hurts innocent civilians, sending others running in fear, it is by definition terrorism.
  • I wonder how all those radio guys who told listeners to buy gold feel about its value dropping 20% since 2011? As long as the check cleared?
  • Dead: Robert Edwards, inventor of in vitro fertilization. His technique resulted in 5 million babies -- almost as many as the NBA.

Calling North Korea's Bluff

Amidst all the blustering and fear-mongering over the North Korea situation, the best thing I've read on the subject is an op-ed by Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. Lankov says that the rest of the world should follow that nation's lead, stay cool, and call Kim Jong-Un's bluff:

Scores of foreign journalists have been dispatched to Seoul to report on the growing tensions between the two Koreas and the possibility of war. Upon arrival, though, it is difficult for them to find any South Koreans who are panic-stricken. In fact, most people in Seoul don’t care about the North’s belligerent statements: the farther one is from the Korean Peninsula, the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here.

The average South Korean’s calm indifference is understandable: he or she has been through similar “crises” many times. By now South Koreans understand Pyongyang’s logic and know North Korea is highly unlikely to make good on its gothic threats.
The truth of Lankov's words were apparent this weekend in Seoul, when tens of thousands of people attended a concert by Psy, the South Korean superstar whose annoying "Gangnam Style" video went viral in the US last year. Reporters interviewed several of the concertgoers, who expressed no concern whatsoever about the possibility of North Korea attacking their city.

They seem to view Kim as nothing more than a crazy drunk cousin, the kind who keeps saying stupid stuff, won't shut up, and won't leave you alone -- even China, the uncle to Kim's drunk nephew, can't seem to sober him up -- but he's all talk, no action. This is a guy who loves pizza and basketball and being in charge. He's not suicidal. After all, his good friend Dennis Rodman announced this weekend that he's going back to North Korea on August 1 to party with Kim again. Go ahead and frown on tattoo-and-piercing diplomacy, but that probably means Kim isn't going to blow up the world before then (unlike most Americans, who would burn down the house before letting Rodman inside and near their children).

Lankov's op-ed concludes:
If history is any guide, in a few weeks’ time things will calm down. North Korea’s media will tell its people that the might of the People’s Army and the strategic genius of their new young leader made the terrified American imperialists cancel their plans to invade the North. Meanwhile, North Korea’s diplomats will approach their international counterparts and start probing for aid and political concessions.

In other words, it is business as usual on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps, when the atmosphere cools down, an argument can be made for giving North Korea’s leaders some of the assistance they want, if they are willing to make concessions of their own.

But it does not make sense to credulously take their fake belligerence at face value and give them the attention they want now. It would be better if people in Washington and New York took a lesson from the people of Seoul.

Forty Two

Today's the day every player in Major League Baseball will wear 42 on their uniforms as the annual salute to Jackie Robinson. Not-so-coincidentally, the movie "42" was tops at the box office this weekend, and that's a good thing, because it's important for a new generation to understand the dangers and difficulties Robinson encountered in 1947, when he became the first black man allowed to play in the big leagues.

The movie isn't great, although it's not bad, either. I'm always leery of any movie that says it's "based on a true story," as if that's license to fictionalize parts of it and over-dramatize others. In that way, "42" plays like a TV movie, hitting on most of the important points in that year in Robinson's life, but adding too much melodrama and particularly an overbearing soundtrack that reminds you every time something "important" is about to happen. Those musical cues are unnecessary in a story that's already so compelling.

Chadwick Boseman, the unknown who plays Robinson, is fine in the role and, fortunately, looks like an athlete, particularly in the base-stealing scenes. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford chews every bit of scenery in sight as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who unilaterally decided to integrate baseball, chose Robinson as the man to do it, and then coached him through the nearly-impossible task of ignoring the haters. In not lashing out at those who were so vocal in their opposition to his breaking the color barrier, Robinson's strength of character and restraint were a predecessor to Martin Luther King's non-violent civil rights campaign more than a decade later.

It's also important for those who think they know the Robinson story to understand Rickey's role. Sure, he was a businessman who figured bringing blacks into the league would mean more blacks paying to get into his ballpark, but why is that wrong? I don't have a problem with someone who does the right thing and profits from it. I have a problem with someone who does the wrong thing and profits from it.

The people who made "42" didn't make a perfect movie, but they made a decent one. If they profit from it and some viewers get a history lesson, that's fine, too.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Knuckleheads In The News® 4/14/13

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a mug shot gone viral, a man who bit a boy, and a guy with an eel eating him from the inside. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Andy Dehnart on Buck Wild, Survivor, & Splash

Andy Dehnart is a TV critic and publisher of RealityBlurred.com, a blog about reality TV shows. I invited him to join me on America Weekend to talk about the end of MTV's "Buck Wild," the decline in quality of CBS' "Survivor," and a complaint he has about ABC's "Splash." Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Towing An Asteroid Into Lunar Orbit

When NASA recently announced that it wants to spend $100 million to kick-start a program to tow an asteroid into orbit around the moon, I wanted to know how and why. So I called upon Emily Lakdawalla, planetary geologist and senior editor at Planetary.org, to come on my America Weekend show to explain the theories and science behind the plan. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

You Can't Just Spell It To Win

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is making a change this year -- not only will contestants have to spell the words, they'll also have to know what they mean. On my America Weekend show, executive director Paige Kimble explained the impact this will have on kids trying to get to the finals, and shared a story about one speller whose story has stuck with her through the years. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!