Thursday, January 30, 2014

Samantha vs. Siri

After seeing the movie "Her," I've become disillusioned with Siri on my iPhone.

It's not just because Siri doesn't sound like Scarlett Johannsen, voice of the intelligent operating system (a/k/a/ Samantha) in the film. It's that Scarlett understands everything Joaquin Phoenix says, even judging his moods, while I often can't get Siri to follow simple commands like "call AnnMarie" (who produces my America Weekend radio show). Siri will tell me there's no AnnMarie in my contacts list, even though I've called her hundreds of times. Or Siri can't remember who my daughter is when I want to send her a text. Or I'll tell her to "set up an appointment with Jeff on Thursday from ten to twelve" and she'll think I want to meet him at 11:50am.

You call that an intelligent personal assistant? Am I going to have to resort to actually touching the phone screen to get what I want? I know these are nit-picky first world problems, but in a fast-moving technology world, Siri was amazing when she was introduced just three years ago, but now she feels ten generations behind.

Here's the most frustrating thing of all: Joaquin can connect with ScarJo anywhere, anytime -- even in elevators -- simply by putting in an earpiece. Meanwhile, my AT&T signal drops out if I get in the left lane on Highway 40.

On the other hand, if the near future means wearing our pants pulled up as high as Joaquin's in "Her," I'm not in any rush, ScarJo or not.

Random Thoughts

Some people were up in arms the other day when MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell cut off former Congresswoman Jane Harman to do a Breaking News bulletin about Justin Bieber's arrest. Sure, it's ridiculous to spend even one sentence on Bieber -- let alone the 18 hours of saturation coverage he then received on CNN, followed by updates right through today -- but why is a member of Congress, present or past, considered so important that she can't be interrupted? There wouldn't have been a word of complaint if Harman were a public school teacher, or an emergency room doctor, or a farmer, or a blogger. But don't you dare stop a member of the power elite from speaking (without actually saying anything) on a cable news outlet, even if she is a former member of a group that is held in lower regard than the Atlanta official in charge of snow removal.

Speaking of holding elected officials in the wrong regard, why was the word "thug" used to describe Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for his admittedly over-the-top reply to Erin Andrew's post-game question last Sunday, but not to Congressman Michael Grimm's threat to throw a TV reporter off a balcony for doing his job? Couldn't have anything to with the fact that Sherman is black and Grimm is white, could it?

As for Sherman, I'm looking forward to seeing how often Peyton Manning will test him by throwing to whichever receiver the cornerback covers during the Super Bowl. In fact, I'm looking forward to the entire extravaganza -- both the great football I hope we get out of the Broncos and Seahawks and the over-hyped commercials. In neither instance am I interested in a preview. I don't want to know in advance what will happen in the game, and I refuse to watch any TV shows or YouTube videos that show some of the spots. I know they're all available in advance, but I prefer to enjoy the experience as it happens and be surprised. There's virtually no other television I watch in real time, but Sunday night is a big enough event that I want to consume it as it unravels.

By the way, this weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the United States Of America being brought to its collective knees by the appearance of Janet Jackson's nipple on national TV for an eighth of a second. Here's a link to the column I wrote at the time about the ludicrous over-reaction we had to endure for weeks on end, and here's a piece by Marin Coogan that re-tells the whole story with an added perspective from a decade later.

Jon Stewart Calls It What It Is

Pretty great job by Jon Stewart responding to Republicans' complaints that President Obama won't work with them...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Enduring Legacy of Pete Seeger

I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers,
and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

That's how Pete Seeger described himself at the top of his Twitter page. It is a line from his 1955 testimony to the House Un-American Activites Committee, in which he refused to name names (see the remarkable transcript here).

What he didn't say was how often he got us to sing with him.

Pete died yesterday at 94, but his music and influence have and will continue for generations. In my family, they extend from my mother sitting in a New York apartment listening to Pete and others play and sing. Songs she then taught me and my brother as very small boys. Songs we then taught to our children. The arc of Pete's influence flowed not just through his audiences but through other singers and songwriters, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to John Mellencamp, who introduced Pete last summer at the Farm Aid '13 concert.

That day, as he had thousands of times before, Pete got the crowd to sing along. The joy of singing with others is a big part of Pete's legacy, but so is his social activism. Pete was always ready to raise his voice against injustice.
The civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it hadn't been for all those songs. People hummed them when they were most beaten.
-- Pete Seeger on Twitter, December 13, 2013.
Considering the role Pete had played in the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. King and leading crowds in "We Shall Overcome," I can only imagine the thoughts that went through his head as Pete and Bruce performed "This Land Is Your Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of President Obama's first inaugural (which Pete agreed to do only if he could sing all the verses of Woody Guthrie's classic protest song).
My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!
-- Bruce Springsteen at a 90th birthday celebration for Pete Seeger.

I saw Pete perform at rallies against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC. I saw him perform "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy" on the Smothers Brothers' show after CBS censors tried to keep him off the air. I heard him sing to raise money for the Sloop Clearwater, a project he started to try to clean up the Hudson River. I heard him sing pro-labor songs that stretched back decades into the struggle for America's working men and women to be treated and paid fairly by their employers. I admired the fact that he was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to name names in the McCarthyism era -- when Congress itself was more contemptible than it is now, as hard as that is to believe.

In our house, we often sang Pete's songs, and when I took guitar lessons beginning at age 8, many of the first songs I learned were his. I was thrilled when my daughter was old enough to sing along with "Goodnight, Irene" and "Tzena Tzena Tzena" as we watched "Wasn't That A Time," the documentary about The Weavers, the folk quartet made up of Pete, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. She also grew up on Peter Paul and Mary's children's music, thanks to their association with Pete.

This morning, when I broke the news of Pete's death to her, my daughter launched into "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and I joined right in. Just as Pete would have wanted us to.

Previously on Harris Online...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Thou Shalt Laugh After All

I'm happy to report that the ban has been lifted on the Reduced Shakespeare Company's show, "The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (abridged)" in Northern Ireland. As the Belfast Telegraph reports, the show will go on:

Anger had been growing since it was revealed the council's artistic board – made up of councillors and independent members -- had pulled the plug on the show at Newtownabbey's Theatre At The Mill. DUP members had branded the pay blasphemous and an attack on Christianity, but the decision caused outrage and made international headlines. But on Monday night the artistic board announced it had reversed its decision -- an announcement that was backed by the full council.

Councillors who supported the staging claimed the decision to ban made them look like a laughing stock and there were bitter exchanges at the meeting on Monday when the council agreed for the production to go ahead as scheduled. 
A prominent DUP woman broke ranks with her council colleagues to condemn the banning of the play. Alderman Dineen Walker, deputy mayor of Newtownabbey, told the Belfast Telegraph it was not the job of councillors to censor art.
To make things even better, all the publicity has helped the RSC sell more tickets for the rest of their UK tour. If you missed my America Weekend conversation about the ban with Austin Tichenor, one of the creators of the Bible show, you can listen to it here.

Captain & Tennille & Mae & Timothy

Several people have e-mailed to ask if the punishment music I used on Friday during The Harris Challenge was for real. Yes, it was.

When it was announced that Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon were divorcing after 40 years, newspapers and websites were filled with headlines like "Love Didn't Keep Them Together," a reference to the biggest of their 1970s-era hits (along with dreck like "Muskrat Love," which was voted The Worst Song Ever three times by my listeners).

In addition to all of its play on Top 40 radio at the time, "Love Will Keep Us Together" (written by Neil Sedaka), was also featured in one of the worst movies ever made. It was called "Sextette," starring Mae West -- yes, the sexy screen goddess of four decades earlier, who was 85 years old when this celluloid disaster was made in 1978. Her onscreen lover in "Sextette" was the then-34-year-old Timothy Dalton, nine years before he became James Bond.

In one scene, Dalton segues from some incredibly stilted dialogue into the lyrics of "Love Will Keep Us Together," with occasional vocal contributions by West as she walks around the set primping and preening. If it's not the worst musical scene captured on film, then it's a close second to the Village People in "Can't Stop The Music" (directed by Nancy Walker at the height of her fame as Rhoda's mother).

I can't embed the Dalton-West duet, but you can watch it for yourself here.

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/26/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include the wrong team jersey, fake wristbands, and a $120 million marriage offer. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Christine Brennan's Olympics Preview

USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan has been covering the Olympics for 30 years, and before she leaves for the 2014 Winter Games, she joined me on America Weekend to talk about what to expect when they start in less than two weeks in Sochi, Russia. We discussed concerns about security, whether we'll see protests against Putin's anti-gay laws, whether the not-so-cold weather will affect athletes, and an odd toilet arrangement at one of the facilities.

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

Post-Docs For Jocks

When Mary Willingham, a researcher at the University of North Carolina reported that 10% of the school's top athletes could only read at a third-grade level (or below), she was shocked by the backlash. While some in the campus community supported her, urging the administration to do more to help jocks learn, many more Tar Heels fans turned against her (to the point of death threats).

Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate, wrote about Willingham's research in a recent column, and offered a simple proposal to fix academics in the NCAA. I invited her onto my America Weekend show to discuss her proposal and the chances of universities with big sports programs giving their athletes the education they were promised in exchange for playing for free.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/25/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include two stories of protests gone wrong and an obituary for a guy who's not dead. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Explaining BitCoin

You may have heard of BitCoin, the virtual currency that was introduced in 2009 and was used, at first, for transactions on some small website. Then they became popular on Zynga and, and now they're being accepted at brick-and-mortar outlets, including two casinos in Las Vegas.

But what are BitCoins? How do you buy/sell them? Are they really legal? On my America Weekend show, I asked Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of its Technology Policy Program. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Laugh

Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin, the writers/directors/actors behind The Reduced Shakespeare Company, have written and performed (with other cast members) some very funny shows over the last two decades. Besides the Bard, they have lampooned and condensed the history of America, western civilization, great books, sports, Hollywood, and comedy. I have seen almost all of their shows, which never fail to make me laugh out loud.

But this week, one of their oldest productions, "The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged)," was banned in Newtonabbey, Northern Ireland, after a local group of evangelicals objected to an RSC troupe coming to perform it. It's not the fault of the local theater owner, but of the town council, which bowed to the demands of the protesters -- who have never even seen the show.

The irony is that the RSC may be more popular in the UK (of which Northern Ireland is a part) than they are in the US. They've had long runs of multiple shows in London's west end and have done a series for the BBC -- in fact, they've performed in pretty much every part of the English-speaking world, and this is the first time they've run into an obstacle like this.

So I invited Austin to discuss the censorship on my America Weekend show. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Updated 1/27/14 at 10:51pm...I'm happy to report that the Bible ban has been lifted and the show will go on at The Mill in Newtonabbey this week. And all the publicity has helped the RSC sell more tickets for the rest of their UK tour!

Is Edward Snowden Protected As A Whistle-Blower?

In an online chat this week, Edward Snowden said that while he'd like to come home to the United States,

It's unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistle-blower protection laws. There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing. My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistle-blower protection act reform.
Attorney General Eric Holder responded,
If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers.
I would think that Snowden's lawyers would want to have that conversation before he set foot on American soil, but what about those whistle-blower protections? 

On my America Weekend show, I asked James Holzrichter, who also worked for a government contractor he blew the whistle on -- and then paid for it with 17 years of hell, in which he was forced out of work and ended up homeless. He has bounced back and now consults others who see malfeasance being done at work and want to report it, but as he told me, while that's the morally correct decision, the consequences can be devastating. And the worst part is that the wrong-doers aren't punished in the end.

Holzrichter's story is quite compelling and a good primer on what may be ahead for Snowden -- and others. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

To find out more about James Holzrichter's story, read his book, "Just Cause: A True Story of Courage, Hope, and the Integrity of the American Dream."

Friday, January 24, 2014

Harris Challenge 1/24/14

Today on my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on!), the categories included "Justins Not Named Bieber," "Music to Soothe The Savage Blonde," and "Popular Partners." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Steve Coogan Continues The Trip

18 months ago, I raved about a new entry on my Movies You Might Not Know list, "The Trip," starring Steve Coogan as a writer hired to travel the British countryside visiting upscale restaurants and writing reviews of them. His friend Rob Brydon came along, and the two of them improvised much of their dialogue to hilarious effect. One scene from the movie went viral, with the two of them doing dueling impressions of Michael Caine.

Coogan is now in theaters as the writer/producer/star of the Oscar-nominated "Philomena" with Judi Dench, the real-life story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman whose baby was taken from her by nuns at a convent for teen mothers, and her search for him 50 years later with the help of a reporter named Martin Sixsmith. It's wonderfully told, thanks to Coogan's script and his chemistry with Dench.

Now I'm happy to say Coogan and Brydon have done a sequel, "The Trip To Italy," which debuted this week at the Sundance Film Festival to good reviews but won't be in a theater near you for several months. In it, Coogan and Brydon are on another road trip, talking all the way, and working in impressions of Al Pacino, Humphrey Bogart, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Robert DeNiro, Pierce Brosnan, Paul McCartney, Anthony Hopkins, Marlon Brando, Roger Moore (singing a Simon and Garfunkel song) -- and, of course, Michael Caine, as part of a riff on several of the actors in "The Dark Knight Rises"...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Schools That Break The Law

This story by Scott Lane of religious bigotry at school made my blood boil. It's far from an isolated case:

My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn't figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.

On a science test, their teacher had included a fill-in-the-blank question: "ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" When my stepson didn't know the answer ("Lord"), she belittled him in front of the entire class. When he wrote in "Lord Buddha" on another exam, she marked it wrong. As she was returning that exam to students, one student proclaimed aloud that "people are stupid if they think God is not real." In response, my stepson's teacher agreed, telling the class, "Yes! That is right! I had a student miss that on his test." The entire class broke out in laughter at my stepson.

The same teacher also told our children that the Bible is "100 percent true," that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, and that evolution is "impossible" and a "stupid theory made up by stupid people who don't want to believe in God." She's also told the class that Buddhism is "stupid."

We were shocked, but we quickly learned from our children that these types of activities were not unusual.
Read the entire story here. Then read Zack Kopplin's piece on how taxpayer money is funding the teaching of creationism in public charter schools in Texas. Both practices are unconstitutional (you can be sure that none of the social studies classes in these districts teaches students about the separation of church and state) and should be stopped, but it's an uphill legal battle in the land of the intolerant and ignorant.

Monday, January 20, 2014

For MLK Day

Here's a remarkable document from 1956 -- a list of suggestions written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the black people of Montgomery who were ending their bus boycott. Note the emphasis on non-violence at all times.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

David Pogue on Yahoo Tech

David Pogue used to be the tech columnist for the NY Times, but now he's running the new Yahoo Tech site, which is beautifully designed and full of interesting content. He joined me on America Weekend to talk about recent tech stories, including Google's purchase of Nest, a company that will repair your cracked iPhone screen, and why you shouldn't be so worried about the Target credit card data breach.

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

Net Neutrality

When a federal appeals court struck down the FCC's open internet order (a/k/a "net neutrality") last week, many online advocates called it "the end of the internet as we know it." On my America Weekend show, Josh Levy of Free Press explained what the ruling means, what its impact will be on you as a consumer, on internet service providers, and on the speed of the content (from Netflix and others) coming to your computer.

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

The Aluminum Pickup

Ford announced this week that the 2015 edition of its F-150 pickup truck -- the best-selling vehicle in the US -- will be made of aluminum, not steel. That will make it 700 pounds lighter and more fuel-efficient, but will consumers consider it heavy-duty and strong enough? I asked Joe White, senior editor and Eyes On The Road columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

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

Clarence Jones, MLK Speechwriter

With the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday tomorrow, I invited one of his advisers and speechwriters to join me on America Weekend.

Dr. Clarence B. Jones was an attorney who worked with Dr. King from 1960 on, then moved into finance and became one of the first African-American partners in a Wall Street investment firm. Now he teaches advocacy speechwriting at the University of San Francisco, so I asked him about the process of writing speeches for Dr. King, what lessons he imparts to his students about crafting effective speeches, and whether they understand the struggles that he and other civil rights leaders went through some five decades ago.

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

Marriage Equality Update

With another federal judge ruling Oklahama's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional this week, I turned to America Weekend contributor Angela Giampolo for some analysis of what will happen as the case is appealed. We also talked about the impact of the Supreme Court staying a similar decision in Utah, as well as the fallout for gay and lesbian couples who are already married in that state and what it means for gay couples from elsewhere who move there.

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

Angela Giampolo is an attorney, entrepreneur, author, and LGBT activist in Philadelphia.

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/19/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a Little League lawsuit, a joy-riding auto mechanic, and a note to a drunk from Cagney and Lacey. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Black Is The New SNL Woman

That's Sasheer Zamata, recently hired as the first black female cast member on "Saturday Night Live" since Maya Rudolph left five years ago. She'll make her debut tonight, but how big a part she'll play in future weeks remains to be seen.

On my America Weekend show, I talked with Tanner Colby about how Lorne Michaels was forced into hiring Zamata by his own cast members, and how the show has a history of not giving black women a good comedic platform (except Rudolph). In fact, the show hasn't had a lot of black male stars, either, other than Eddie Murphy. Tanner explained the reasons behind the politics of this hire and the lack of racial diversity on "SNL." Tanner has some insight into this since he wrote biographies of both John Belushi and Chris Farley and "Some Of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America."

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Previously on Harris Online:

Concussion Settlement On Hold

I've talked quite a bit about the NFL's concussion crisis and the settlement the league reached with 4,500 former players before this season started. But this week, a judge rejected the settlement, saying it didn't cover enough players with enough money. On my America Weekend show, I talked over this development with Lester Munson, senior writer and legal analyst for He explained what the ruling means for ex-players, whether current players will be able to take legal action against the NFL, and what happens next.

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

Restraining NSA, But Not Enough

President Obama announced yesterday that he's pulling the reins on the NSA -- but only a little. Today on my America Weekend show, I spoke with privacy advocate Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University about the changes to the NSA's sweeping collection of telephone data, the burden it may put on phone companies, and the impact it may have on preventing terrorist attacks.

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

For more insight into this topic, I recommend reading:
  • A report from the New America Foundation, which says the NSA phone-data mining "has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism."
  • Jacob Sullum on how the mass collection of telephone metadata would not have helped stop a 9/11 hijacker as Obama claims.

Suing Chris Christie & Friends

The fallout from the Chris Christie bridge fiasco continues, with subpoenas from the New Jersey legislature, an investigation by a US Attorney, and lawsuits from people whose lives were affected by the closure of those lanes in Fort Lee.

What chance do those lawsuits have? On my America Weekend show, I asked John Culhane, law professor and director of the Health Law Institute at Widener University School Of Law. He explained the three principals under which people can sue, whether Christie and other government personnel are immune from suits, and what kind of money the plaintiffs might get if they win.

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

Your Car Is Watching You

Did you know your car is gathering data about how you drive? Do you know that in most states, you don't own that data? Who does, and what can it be used for? On my America Weekend show, I asked Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is advocating for federal laws protecting us from abuse of that data. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/18/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® is an all-animal edition, with stories about a parrot, a puppy, a Chihuahua, and a cockroach. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Harris Challenge 1/17/14

Today on my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on!), the categories included "Martins Not Named Luther King," "Down On The Farm," and "It Happened In January." Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Congrats to my brother Seth, who today ends 11 years of game-changing public service at the US Department Of Labor over 2 administrations. Proud of you!
  • Next time you meet a climate change denier, show them this. Not that the facts will change their minds, but still.
  • GOPers are happy young people haven't signed up for Obamacare 10 weeks before the deadline. Because all the teens they know are so punctual.
  • ARod says baseball has been against him since day one. He must have signed that quarter-billion dollar contract on day two.

Cosmos Coming

I'm not a Seth McFarlane fan. I don't watch any of his animated shows, detested the one episode I watched of his live-action sitcom "Dads," and thought he did a horrible job as host of the Oscars last year. But I am glad that he used his influence at Fox to convince the network to air an updated version of "Cosmos" with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The legendary Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan created the original in 1980 with astronomer Steven Soter, and the latter two worked closely with Tyson on the new version, which will roll out in 13 weekly episodes beginning March 9th. Tyson seems like the right guy for the job -- with his recurring appearances on Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's shows, and more than a million and a half Twitter followers, he connects with people in an easy, non-ponderous manner that makes the subject that much more palatable to the masses.

In an era when anti-science and pseudo-science get far too many free passes in the media, it will be nice to see a show that promotes real science, hopefully in a way that engages an even bigger audience than Sagan did the first time around. Appearing before TV critics in LA recently, Druyan said:
When Carl Sagan was alive, you know, we wrote for Parade magazine. We weren’t trying to preach to the converted. We wanted to evoke in people, who might have even had hostility to science, a sense of wonder, the questioning, or to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Feelin' Christie

I don't know Richie Phillips at WGNA/Albany, but he did a clever parody for the Chris Christie bridge fiasco, to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song." You can listen to it here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

In Case You Missed It -- Golden Globes Edition

From my Twitter feed tonight...

  • My show America Weekend is up for Golden Globe for Best Radio Show Named After A Country & Calendar Part. Hope we beat Botswana Fortnight.
  • It's so nice to see former Somali cab driver Amy Poehler win a Golden Globe. She didn't even use a stunt double in Captain Phillips.
  • Those State Farm "discount daaable-check" spots are a lock to win the Golden Globe for Most Annoying Commercials Not Starring Papa John.
  • The Golden Globes seem so tarnished since Dan LeBatard put his ballot on Craigslist.
  • What, no NBC sponsor for the long walks to the stage at the Golden Globes? "This walk from the back of the room brought to you by Botox."
  • I wish someone had said "spoiler alert" before Breaking Bad won the Golden Globe. I'm still binge-watching the nominees on Netflix.

60 Minutes: Wrong On Clean Tech

Last week, Lesley Stahl did another one of her mistake-riddled reports on "60 Minutes." This one was about a conclusion she reached before doing the story about how clean tech is dead -- except that it isn't. The newscast, once the gleaming jewel in the CBS News crown, has been on a downswing lately after the retracted report on the Benghazi consulate attack, the softball-filled story about NSA spying, and the puff piece on Amazon and its drone plans. It's too bad, because "60 Minutes" used to have a well-deserved reputation as one of the bright spots in all of journalism.

On my America Weekend show, I invited The Nation's Zoe Carpenter to talk about the errors in Stahl's clean tech piece, from how well the industry is actually doing, how government seed money does make the industry grow, and how clean tech does create jobs (despite Stahl's poorly-researched claims).

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

Previously on Harris Online...

Advice For Target Customers

The Target data breach story got worse on Friday, when the company revealed that as many as 110 million of its customers' credit and debit card data may have been stolen -- almost three times as many as initial estimates. On my America Weekend show, I asked security expert Hemu Nigam:
  • what customers should do to protect themselves and their identities;
  • how Target is handling the public relations crisis that caused its sales to drop after the first announcement of the problem on December 19th;
  • what the breach says about keeping so much data in the cloud, where it seems more vulnerable to hackers.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Keeping Oil At Home

Last week, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski proposed lifting the ban on exporting US crude oil -- a ban that has been in place for 39 years. That's not surprising since she represents Alaska, one of our oil-producing states. On my America Weekend show, Tyson Slocum (director of Public Citizen's energy program) explained why it's a bad idea that will hurt American consumers.

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

A Quarter Pound At A Time

The headlines read Science Teacher Loses 37 Pounds Eating Nothing But McDonald's, but there was much more to the story than that. On my America Weekend show, Slate's assistant editor Laura Anderson and I dug deeper to discuss the message the teacher sent to his students, the details that were left out of most reports on the story, and how the weight loss wasn't only about what the teacher ate.

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

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/12/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a bet involving arms and ears, a car-warming plan gone wrong, and a small woman vs. a giant steak. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Bully And The Bridge

Jason Grant of the Newark Star-Ledger joined me on America Weekend to talk about the Chris Christie bridge-blocking scandal that erupted this week. We discussed whether there's a smoking gun linking the governor to what his subordinates did, why Christie hasn't been more curious about what they did and why, whether there will be criminal charges filed against Bridget Kelly or David Wildstein, and whether anyone has offered any evidence that there ever was a "traffic study."

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

What Will You Have To Buy Now?

Tech reporter Ina Fried (formerly with AllThingsD, now with Re/code) was back on my America Weekend show to report on the new products that were introduced this week at the Consumer Electronics Show -- from TVs with even higher-def to connected cars to wearable electronics.

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

My Trashiest Guest Ever

About 30 years ago, when I did mornings at WHCN/Hartford, we did a promotion in which I swapped jobs with a listener for a day. They got to come in and do the show with me, then I went out and did their job with them. The winning entry was from a garbage man, so I spent a couple of hours on his truck picking up cans and dumping them in the back.

At first, it was fun and good exercise. But by the second hour, my back was killing me from lifting some of those heavy cans (no plastic barrels in those days, and no automated arm on the machine to help!). That's when I gained some respect for the people who pick up our trash all day every day.

Robin Nagle did, too. She is a professor of anthropology and urban studies at NYU, who spent time on the streets and inside the trucks as a New York City sanitation worker for her book, "Picking Up." Today on America Weekend, I asked about her experience and her view of trash as a career:
  • How hard is the job, and what about the smell?
  • Are there many women doing it?
  • Did you find anything really valuable or incredibly gross in other people's trash?
  • Which season is the worst time for sanitation workers, winter or summer?
  • What's the difference between trash pickup in the city, suburbs, and country?
  • Where does it all go?
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The Failed War On Drugs

Paul Feine has written and directed a documentary, "America's Longest War," which exposes how the War On Drugs has failed over the last four decades. Today on my America Weekend show, I asked him how much money has been spent on the war, how effective it has been, and whether it's gotten so out of control that no one can reel it back in.

We also discussed the hypocrisy of the last three presidents (Obama, Bush, and Clinton), who all admitted using drugs in their youth but were never arrested for it. Yet they have continued federal prosecutions that would have kept all of them out of the White House if they'd been targeted like the hundreds of thousands who have been imprisoned for drug crimes under their administrations. We also talked about the White House's attitude towards legalized marijuana in Colorado and medical marijuana in 20 other states.

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Here's the trailer for the documentary...

Bridge Over Troubled Governor

How does the Chris Christie bridge-blocking scandal compare to other political scandals? Today on America Weekend, I asked Dr. Mark Feldstein to put it into historical perspective. He's a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book, "Poisoning The Press," about Richard Nixon's attempts at revenge against his political enemies. I also asked Feldstein what impact the scandal could have on Christie's presidential hopes, whether the endorsement of the mayor of Ft. Lee would have created votes for Christie (who won in a landslide anyway), and whether the bully reputation of the governor and his staff will stay in voter's minds.

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

Not So OK Cupid

Alli Reed is a single woman who has tried online dating services but hasn't liked the guys she met, some of whom simply disgusted her. She got the feeling that some of them would send a message to any woman with a profile, regardless of what she said about herself. So she set out to create the world's worst online dating profile -- a woman so toxic that no guy would ever be interested in her. As she explained on my America Weekend show, even that didn't keep guys from getting in touch with her fictional alter-ego.

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Click to see the full profile Alli created, and some of the replies she received.

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/11/14

Today's Knuckleheads In The News® include a man in a washing machine, a not-so-cute kiss on New Year's Eve, and a very cold escaped prisoner. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Harris Challenge 1/10/14

Today on my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on!), the categories included "Golden Globe Non-Nominees," "Going To The Dogs," and "You Call That Leadership?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Big Obnoxiousness Theory

A reader named Mike Buss e-mails:
You complain about unlikable characters like Llewyn Davis and P.L. Travers, but I've heard you say you're a big fan of "The Big Bang Theory," whose central character -- Sheldon Cooper -- is more annoying than both Davis and Travers combined. How do you explain that?
While I don't agree with the math, there's no doubt that Sheldon is immensely irritating, and it's hard to believe that the other people in his universe would put up with him for a day, let alone year after year. However, there are plenty of examples of Leonard, Penny, Raj, and especially Howard putting Sheldon in his place. Not to mention his mother, played perfectly by Laurie Metcalf, and Raj's sister Priya when she had a recurring role. You also have to remember that "The Big Bang Theory" is a sitcom, so Sheldon's rudeness is often played for laughs, whereas "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Saving Mr. Banks" are dramas in which the lead characters are always serious but never taken down a notch by anyone.

I'd also argue that "The Big Bang Theory" has evolved, thanks to the addition of the newer members of the ensemble (Bernadette, Amy, and Stuart), who allow the show to rely less on Sheldon's anti-social behavior and more on relationships between couples and friends. I'll bet that there are lots of viewers who care more about what Leonard and Penny are up to each week than the foibles of Dr. Cooper.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

For Whom The Bridge Closing Tolls

The question I have yet to hear anyone ask or explain in the Chris Christie/George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal: since when do the endorsements of small-city mayors translate to votes?

I strongly doubt that they -- like those of newspaper editorial boards or right-wing talk radio hosts who have failed to get majority turnout for their candidates in the last 25 years -- have any impact, which makes this seem even more like a petty, ego-driven power play by a governor trying to teach a political opponent a lesson by throwing his weight around (if you'll pardon the expression).

It's also yet another in a long history of bad ideas badly executed, followed by even-worse lies and a cover-up. Kudos to The Bergen Record for breaking the newest developments in the story.

Detestable Double Feature

Two recent movies have garnered a lot of praise but turned me off because their main characters are anti-social jerks I did not want to spend time with and whose stories didn't touch me.

First is the latest from the Coen brothers, who can make great movies ("Fargo"), terrible movies ("Burn After Reading"), and movies that need subtitles so you can understand Jeff Bridges' mumbling ("True Grit").

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is about an unlikable folk singer in the early 1960s who has some talent, but not as much as he and the Coens believe. When the movie is over, you can't remember a single song of his. If you saw Davis perform in a club, you wouldn't think, "This guy is clever and deserves to be famous." Instead you'd think, "When is open-mike night going to be over?"

Because he's not that good, he has no money and no home, so he sleeps on friends' couches and acts like a pain in the ass. He's a bitter loser who doesn't do anything redeeming throughout the entire movie. Worse, he doesn't do anything interesting -- for long stretches. We see him drinking coffee, riding the subway holding a friend's cat (don't ask), and driving to and from Chicago for what seems like several hours. Meanwhile, he's petulant and boring and has nothing original to say in his music.

Why would I want to spend two hours with him, let alone watching his story unfold?

I grew up with folk music, played it on the guitar as a kid, learned about many of the people who made the form an important part of music history, sang folk songs with my parents, and taught them to my daughter. If you want to see a great movie about folksingers, instead of "Inside Llewyn Davis," get the documentary "Wasn't That A Time," about The Weavers (Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman). They went through some tough times -- like being blacklisted in the McCarthy era -- but still influenced a generation of songwriters, performers, and activists through their music and message.

The other movie is "Saving Mr. Banks," about Walt Disney trying to convince P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the "Mary Poppins" books, to let him turn them into a movie. Since it's a Disney production, you know he and the company aren't going to look bad on the screen (which is why he's played by America's most lovable actor, Tom Hanks). I have to admit an anti-Disney bias, in that I have never been -- and will never go -- to DisneyWorld, was never a Mickey Mouse fan (the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes cartoons were always much more clever and entertaining), deplored his anti-Semitic and misogynistic practices, and think most of the movies for which he's most famous are treacle. Apparently, Meryl Streep agrees with me.

But my real problem with "Saving Mr. Banks" is that once again, the protagonist -- Travers, played by Emma Thompson -- is an incredibly unlikable person. She's beyond rude to every single person she deals with, from a flight attendant to a chauffeur to the screenwriter to the songwriting Sherman Brothers. She doesn't like anyone or anything.

The movie tries to explain through a series of flashbacks that she became such a bitter person because she grew up in Australia with an alcoholic father. He was not the beat-your-kid kind of drunk (this is a Disney movie, after all), but the kind of dad who loved spending time with his daughter, telling her stories, sparking her imagination, and going for long rides on horseback. But his love of booze cost him his job and eventually his life, and that turned little Pam into a horrible woman who can't get along with anyone.

Again, why would I want to spend any time with this person, and why does everyone put up with her obnoxiousness? Disney, of course, just wants her to sign over the rights, so there's some sucking-up to be done, but at no point does anyone confront her about her complete lack of interpersonal skills.

I'm not saying that every protagonist has to be a nice and good person -- anyone who watched every hour of "Breaking Bad" or "The Sopranos" knows that -- but they have to give me some reason to care about them, to root for them, to be invested in their success, even when they're evil. But when the characters are nothing but insufferable, surly, ungracious jerks, there aren't enough spoonfuls of sugar to make me swallow them.

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • For those asking what my brother Seth will do after stepping down as Deputy Secretary of Labor, here's part of the answer.
  • Best Thing I've Read Today: a daughter's letter to her mother who calls herself fat.
  • A timeless question for philosophers: if no media outlets paid attention to Dennis Rodman, would he still be insane?
  • My daughter and I did the boiling-water-tossed-in-freezing-air-becomes-snow last night at -5 degrees. Once again, science for the win!!
  • Today's early-morning weather-related oldie: "When Will I Never See You Again" by the Negative Three Degrees.
  • Good column by Frank Bruni on the sickening feeling of watching NFL concussions and casualties.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

An Unvaccinated Life Backfires

Amy Parker grew up in the 70's with health-nut parents who didn't vaccinate her. The result: she contracted measles, mumps, rubella, a type of viral meningitis, scarlatina, whooping cough, yearly tonsillitis, and chickenpox. As an parent herself, she didn't hesitate to have her children vaccinated, and while she understands that her own experience is merely anecdotal evidence, she offers it because that's the only kind of evidence believed by anti-vaxxers who spread fear and lies about them:

I understand, to a point, where the anti-vaccine parents are coming from. Back in the ’90s, when I was a concerned, 19-year-old mother, frightened by the world I was bringing my child into, I was studying homeopathy, herbalism, and aromatherapy; I believed in angels, witchcraft, clairvoyants, crop circles, aliens at Nazca, giant ginger mariners spreading their knowledge to the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Egyptians, and that I was somehow personally blessed by the Holy Spirit with healing abilities. I was having my aura read at a hefty price and filtering the fluoride out of my water. I was choosing to have past life regressions instead of taking antidepressants. I was taking my daily advice from tarot cards. I grew all my own veg and made my own herbal remedies.

I was so freaking crunchy that I literally crumbled. It was only when I took control of those paranoid thoughts and fears about the world around me and became an objective critical thinker that I got well. It was when I stopped taking sugar pills for everything and started seeing medical professionals that I began to thrive physically and mentally.
Read Amy Parker's full piece here.

Monday, January 06, 2014

I Would Love To Teach But...

The Washington Post printed a heart-breaking letter from a veteran teacher who is fed up and quitting the profession because of students who make no effort, parents who want their kids to get grades they haven't earned, administrators who don't support the educators in the classrooms, all the standardized testing that makes it impossible to really teach, and a principal who told her that students are not allowed to fail -- that if they're getting D's or F's, there is something she's not doing for them.

What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers, I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them, I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time, I was not excusing their lack of discipline, I was not going back in time and raising them from birth, but I could do none of these things. I was called down to the principal’s office many more times before I was broken, before I ended up assigning stupid assignments for large amounts of credit, ones I knew I could get students to do. Even then, I still had students failing, purely through their own refusal to put any sort of effort into anything, and I had lowered the bar so much that it took hardly anything to pass. According to the rubrics set forth by the county, if they wrote a single word on their paper, related or not to the assignment, I had to give them a 48 percent. Yet, students chose to do nothing. Why? Because we are forced to pass them. “They are not allowed to fail,” remember? Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing. I learned quickly that if I graded students accurately on their poor performance, then I have failed, not them. The attention is turned on me, the teacher, who is criticized, evaluated, and penalized for the fleeting wills of adolescents.
I was constantly prodded both inside the classroom and out by condescending remarks like, “It must be nice to have all that time off.” Time off? Did they mean the five or less hours of sleep I got each night between bouts of grading and planning? Did they mean the hours I spent checking my hundreds of e-mails, having to justify myself to parents, bosses, and random members of the community at large? Did they mean the time I missed with my family because I had to get all 150 of these essays graded and the data entered into a meaningless table to be analyzed for further instruction and evidence of my own worth? Did they mean the nine months of 80-hour work weeks, 40 of which were unpaid overtime weekly, only to be forced into a two-month, unpaid furlough during which I’m demeaned by the cashier at Staples for “all that time off?”
Read the entire piece here.