Listen to me on KTRS/St. Louis every Friday, 3-6pm CT

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Showbiz Show 10/30/15



This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed "Room," "Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse," "Our Brand Is Crisis," and "Truth." We also had news about Al Pacino on Broadway and a Jimmy Fallon theme park ride. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 10/30/15

This week on my Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- I have two categories about scary movies, one about Halloween candy, plus "Have You Been Paying Attention?"  Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Want more Harris Challenges? Click here.

Knuckleheads In The News® 10/30/15


This edition of Knuckleheads In The News® includes stories about a dog named Trigger, a man named Indiana Jones, and Chewbacca campaigning for Darth Vader. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Trading Privacy For Cyber-Security


Here's my conversation with Evan Greer of Fight For The Future, an electronic privacy advocacy group, about the controversial CISA cyber-security bill that the Senate passed this week. I asked him why Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech firms are against it while the telecommunications and banking industries are for it. We also discussed what it means for the privacy of the information you share with those companies online, and whether the law will help in the fight against cyber-terrorism and hackers.

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Brother Seth, Fantasy Sports Commissioner


My brother Seth (former Deputy Secretary of Labor) returned to my show to discuss his new job as head of the Fantasy Sports Control Agency, an independent authority which will address recent issues regarding Draft Kings, Fan Duel, and other daily fantasy sports sites, and oversee the industry going forward.

I asked Seth what kind of power he'll have, what he can do about insiders trading information that's not publicly available, and how technology has gotten ahead of the law again. We also discussed the two dozen lawsuits filed by consumers this month, as well as regulatory attempts by lawmakers at both the state and federal levels. Interestingly, the industry was brought up as a question for Jeb Bush at last night's Republican debate, and then elicited a "let them play!" response from Chris Christie.

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

CNBC Blew It


Here's my conversation with ABC's Alex Stone about last night's GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado.

I start by talking about how the CNBC moderators blew it by asking bad questions, including Carl Quintanilla's job-interview softball "what's your weakness?" I hate that question almost as much as "where do you see yourself in five years?" When asked by a human resources manager, those queries elicit no valuable information from job applicants. When asked by a journalist of a presidential candidate, the only outcome is to have the question ignored in favor of some standard talking points.

Considering CNBC is a business network, and the debate was titled, "Your Money, Your Vote," I thought the entire evening would be full of economic questions and, more importantly, real-time fact-checking of the candidate's claims about tax plans, etc. There was a little bit of that, but (as Stone points out) not nearly as much as when Anderson Cooper moderated the Democrats debate on CNN. Overall, CNBC blew it by asking bad questions, thus leaving itself open to every anti-media claim the Republicans love to make.

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Bacon Cancer Scare


Tim Caulfield was back on my show today to discuss the new report from the World Health Organization that supposedly classifies bacon (and other processed meat) as a carcinogen. He put the scare-monger headlines into perspective and explained why it's still okay to have a bacon cheeseburger -- every once in a while.

Tim is a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta, and was on my show a few months ago to talk about his book, "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?"

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: Rock The Kasbah


"Rock The Kasbah" is a real disappointment. I thought we were headed somewhere good after the opening scenes in which Bill Murray, as a down-on-his-luck music manager, takes client Zooey Deschanel to Afghanistan for a USO tour. There's some real potential there. The problem is that Deschanel's character freaks out on the first night in Kabul and leaves, never to be heard from again. End of potentially interesting movie.

From there, Murray -- who now has no money or passport -- gets involved with Bruce Willis as a mercenary soldier and two arms traders (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) with no scruples but lots of munitions to sell. All three of them are right out of the Cliched Characters handbook, as is Kate Hudson as the obligatory hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. She's essentially Penny Lane from "Almost Famous," grown up and turning tricks in a double-wide trailer in the middle of Kabul.

All of that is just prelude to the final third of the movie, in which Murray is enlisted to deliver some of those arms to a Pashtun village a few hours from Kabul -- a plot device that serves only to get him to a cave where he discovers a young woman singing while watching "Afghan Star" (a real TV show a la "American Idol"). He convinces her to leave the cave and go on the actual show, with his managerial assistance, despite the fact that Afghanistan's oppressive society bans women from singing in public, let alone on TV. This part of the movie is based on the true story of Latifia Azizi, who was 17 when she went on "Afghan Star" in January, 2013, sending shock waves across the country. That’s an interesting tale to tell, but "Rock The Kasbah" muddies it with all of the preliminaries.

The movie's a real disappointment, especially since it's directed by Barry Levinson, whose filmography includes such classics as "Diner," "Tin Men," "The Natural," "Young Sherlock Holmes," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Rain Man," "Avalon," "Bugsy," "Wag The Dog," and "Bandits." Unfortunately, he hasn't made anything good since 2001, and "Rock The Kasbah" doesn't break the losing streak. I give it 3 out of 10.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mythbusters Cancelled


I was sorry to hear that the upcoming season of "Mythbusters" (which I once called "Jackass Meets Mr. Wizard") will be its last.

Over the past 14 years, I've seen every episode Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage have done of what was one of the best science shows on television. Sure, the show included lots of explosions and crashes and other visuals that made for great TV, but it also exposed its audience to the scientific method. Jamie and Adam have conducted thousands of data-driven experiments before arriving at conclusions. Some of those were surprising, but they were never less than entertaining.

Since Adam and Jamie have already recorded the new season's episodes, I'm sure they have parted ways, unlikely to work together again. In fact, I'd bet we won't see Jamie on another television series, since he always seemed reticent to be on camera in the first place. Adam, on the other hand, loves the spotlight and will almost certainly re-appear soon with a new project, which I look forward to seeing.

I'm a little surprised they haven't produced a "Mythbusters" spinoff yet. I envision something that's a cross between the 1973 NBC series "The Magician" (in which Bill Bixby played an illusionist who uses his talents to help people in trouble) and the 1986 movie "F/X" (with Bryan Brown as a special effects/makeup artist who helps fake a mob hit). In my suggested show, you'd have a couple of guys like Adam and Jamie, who are experts in building devices and effects, solve a client's problem each week, in a procedural format like "CSI" or "The Blacklist." There would be plenty of room for stunts and science to co-exist -- with the occasional explosion, of course.

The final "Mythbusters" season begins on the Discovery Channel in January, 2016. Meanwhile, their legacy will endure, with reruns moving to the Science Channel next year.

Previously on Harris Online...

Movie Review: Steve Jobs


"Steve Jobs" should be called “Steve Jobs Argues With Everyone.” That's all we see, in three extended scenes which all take place backstage before big product introductions (for Macintosh, Next, and iMac computers). Michael Fassbender is fine as Jobs, Seth Rogen is okay at Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels is good as Apple CEO John Scully, but it is Kate Winslet who gives the best performance as marketing exec Joanna Hoffman, who has to try to keep Jobs on track.

Unfortunately, the whole movie comes off showing Jobs as a jerk to everyone around him -- his employees, his partners, even his daughter. There's nothing to explain why he was a visionary, even in the flashback scenes, which are disruptive, not informative. For that, I blame director Danny Boyle.

But most of the fault lies in Aaron Sorkin's script, which is too talky -- even for him. I'm a Sorkin fan, from "A Few Good Men" to "The West Wing" to "The Social Network" and even "The Newsroom." However, the structure he's used to tell part of Jobs' story is, frankly, boring and tedious. Worse, it ends in 1998, before Jobs got to the devices that did change the world (iPod, iPhone, and iPad) and grew his cult-like following into a global sensation. I give the movie 4 out of 10.

By the way, "Steve Jobs" did not open to big box office this weekend. Perhaps the public doesn't care, or perhaps its interest has already been sated by at least two other Jobs biopics, a documentary, and Walter Isaacson's book (of those, only the latter was a success). Sorkin and Boyle won't change that with this tedious exercise.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Football Cliches and Pet Peeves


That's the scene in Ron Shelton's 1988 screenplay "Bull Durham" where Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) teaches Nuke LaLouche (Tim Robbins) the boring cliches he should use in every media interview. Danny Amendola of the New England Patriots must have been taking notes -- as proof, look no further than what he said to CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn during a post-game interview today. Amendola's remarks are so generic, you don't even need to know what the questions were:
We just wanted to focus on doing our job, not necessarily look at the scoreboard. You know, all eleven guys on offense do their job and make as many plays as we can. I'm just trying to make plays. Trying to do all I can to help the team win and prepare each week as hard as I can, give us the best opportunity to make plays on Sunday. We had to start fast. We wanna execute throughout the game and sustain drives. We definitely have some things to work on going into next week. We've got a good Miami team coming here, so, you know, we're going to prepare like we always do and try to go get another one.
Wow. There's some real insight into professional football. I bet Washburn was really proud to get that kind of brilliant analysis from Amendola.

The sad thing is that you'll rarely see a sideline interview that's much better. At halftime of every game, we always hear from a reporter what she's been told by each of the head coaches, which usually consists of "We have to do a better job moving the ball downfield and keeping them from scoring." The networks consistently play up these moments as if they contain important information, but they don't. The only sideline reporter who provides anything enlightening is Michelle Tafoya on NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcasts. Al Michaels throws it to her several times during each game when she's learned something we need to know -- she rarely repeats those same old cliches.

While I'm on the subject of the CBS post-game, let me mention two other pet peeves.

One has to do with my ongoing frustration with broadcasters who use phrases and language that no regular person would use (my favorite is radio traffic reporters who say, "motorists use caution"). James Brown committed one of these offenses today by referring to Tom Brady as "38 years of age." He would never put it that way in real life. If you met James and asked how old his niece is, he would say, "She's 21" (or maybe, "She's 21 years old"). Under no circumstances would he reply, "She's 21 years of age." [full disclosure: I have no idea if James has a niece, nor how old she might be].

My other criticism has to do with everyone on that CBS telecast only referring to Bill Cowher as "Coach." They never call him "Bill." Even when Brown is introducing his colleagues, it's "Boomer, Scott, Tony, and Coach." Everyone else has a first name but Cowher? While Cowher did lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in 2006, he retired a year later, which means he hasn't been a coach for more than 8 years. I can understand someone who played for him calling him "Coach," but does the rest of the world have to, as well?

Is there a statute of limitations on use of the word? Will he still be known as Coach when he's 90 years of age?

Neil Tyson on Mars One

In an interview with IFLScience, Neil deGrasse Tyson is asked about the Mars One project and its founder, Bas Lansdorp...

Tyson: I value dreamers, even if they’re kind of floating above the ground, not really connected in the way the rest of us are. The dreamer moves the needle, even a little bit. To get to Mars in the way he describes you need innovations. So if it stimulates someone to innovate, even if they don’t successfully achieve that goal, then I think there is still value to it.

IFLS: Do you think Mars One’s goals are realistic?

Tyson: The way he described them to me, I can see how it could happen, perhaps not on the timescale that he recommended. But I can see it happening by virtue of how he described the staging of the plan, where you would send cargo out there first, with supplies, food, water, and at some later time the crew comes, so the crew doesn’t have to be launched in a vehicle that contains all the weight that traveling with everything you need would require. These are fundamental elements of what it is to explore. And without exploration I think we should all just move back to the cave!

IFLS: Will we really get humans to Mars within the next 20 years?

Tyson: I’ll give you two ways in which we will be at Mars in 10 months. One is if we find oil in Mars (*chuckles*). And I joke about the other one: suppose the Chinese decide they want to put a military base on Mars. It doesn’t have to be real, they just need to leak a memo suggesting that. We would go berserk and design, build and fund a new spaceship in a month and have it above Mars in 10 months.
Read the entire IFLScience piece here. Tyson's "Star Talk" show returns to the National Geographic Channel tonight.

Previously on Harris Online...

Best Thing I've Read Today

Susan Barton has a profile of Terry Gross in today's NY Times Magazine:

Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor. Barbara Walters was once our national interviewer, in a flashier style defined by a desire for spectacle. Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy. In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.
I listen to many of Gross' shows via podcast, and admire her very much. I said as much on this site in 2010:
Over the years, I've had quite a few people say some very nice things about the interviews I conduct, which I appreciate very much. Recently, a listener asked me who I think does great interviews, and the first name out of my mouth was Terry Gross, the woman who has been hosting NPR's "Fresh Air" for a quarter-century (plus another ten years as a local show before that at WHYY/Philadelphia, still the show's home station).

What makes Gross so good? Three words: preparation, curiosity, and listening. It's clear that Gross has done research on every guest, delights (as I do) in asking questions that the interviewee may not have been asked before, and pays close attention to what they're saying so she can ask followup questions that make the interview a conversation, not a re-hash of the same old talking points. You get more than the same old stories and talking points in a Terry Gross interview.

I don't know how many people are on her staff, but it's clear that she has resources that few local hosts have, from guest bookers to researchers to editors who find audio for her. All of them contribute to one of the most consistently well-produced shows in the business.
Read Barton's full piece on Gross here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Showbiz Show 10/23/15


This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed "Steve Jobs" and "Rock The Kasbah." We also discussed why people bought "Star Wars 7" tickets two months in advance, and how Donald Trump hosting "Saturday Night Live" might cause havoc at local TV stations over the Equal Time rule. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 10/23/15

This week on my Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley follows Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the latest to provide punishment music for contestants who lose. See how you do in categories that include "Bill Murray's Co-Stars," "The Political Pages," and "Classic Rock Animals."  Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Want more Harris Challenges? Click here.

Knuckleheads In The News® 10/23/15


I have never issued a caveat like this: the lead story in this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® -- involving a Walmart customer trying things on in a store -- is the most disgusting story I have ever done in these compilations. The other stories include a burglar in the vent, cupcake frosting as evidence, and thieves who signed the guest book. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!
Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Presidential Math

With Joe Biden officially out of the race, Lincoln Chaffee's chances of becoming president just tripled, because 3 x 0 = 0.

Tom Wilson, Back To The Future


Since today is "Back To The Future Day," the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second movie in the series, I've dug into the archives for this interview from 1997 with the comedian who played the villain...

Harris: Welcome to our guest microphone comedian Tom Wilson, who you may remember as Biff in the "Back To The Future" movies. But I promised him we would not talk about that this morning because at this point, you've got to be tired of the whole Biff thing.

Wilson: We ended the last "Back To The Future" movie in 1989.

Harris: Yeah.

Wilson: It's now 1997.

Harris: I know.

Wilson: Get over it!

Harris: I know, that's why we're not going to talk about it this morning.

Wilson: It's a movie! I have people coming up to me and they're like "Star Trek" fans! People dressed as Marty McFly!

Harris: You're kidding me!

Wilson: Oh, no kidding, no kidding. I'm serious. It's like a "Star Trek" thing: The "Back To The Future" fan club is actually growing in membership. These people are going crazy.

Harris: You don't have people coming up and going, "You know, I thought Biff was good but Griff was better."

Wilson: Yeah, so I'm in that position. I'm just sitting at a table autographing pictures with Scotty. I'm just out there..."What happened?!?"

Harris: The next table over is Skippy from "Family Ties."

Wilson: It's just a movie!

Harris: All right, so we'll talk about other things this morning, like your ever expanding family. I understand that you have a new son, right?

Wilson: I have a new son, nine-months old. Well, yeah I have four kids. I'm very fertile. Sperm motility is not a problem.

Harris: I'll stand back a little bit then.

Wilson: Yeah, don't sit on a love seat with me, really, because something might happen. I have three daughters, though. All of them have hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls.

Harris: Perfect.

Wilson: I have three girls, I've got a nine-month old son. Our house, with the girls, looks like Laura Ashley exploded in it. I live in Malibu Barbie's dream house. I've got 37 Barbies in body parts alone, in a drawer. So, okay, me and my nine-month old son, we just huddle in a corner covered in steer blood, chanting ritualistic male things. Beating a drum and moaning about "dada" or something. And the girls just do their thing.

Harris: Were you so happy when the fourth one turned out to be a boy? "Finally, some of my own hormones have paid off!"

Wilson: That was just really it. It wasn't the "my boy Bill" thing, it was just like, "Oh, someone! Someone so maybe I can throw a football once in my life with a child. Honey, I love the ballet shows, but Daddy occasionally wants to play cowboy."

Harris: You know what's going to happen know. Your son's going to grow up, "My personal hero: Mikhail Barishnikov!"

Wilson: That's right, that's right.

Harris: Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wilson: I didn't mean that in a bad way, that my son could be traipsing around like a little...well...

Harris: I understand...I understand...three tutus in the house is plenty. Four, counting yours.

Wilson: No, he's a good boy and we've taped a football to his hand because he's going to be a biggun'. So we want him to get out there, Daddy's your manager, and we go out for big money.

Harris: You're using Tiger Woods' dad as your example. Start him young, train him, get him in there.

Wilson: Wow, that is weird, isn't it? I mean, to do that. I'm like Mr. California Dad, Mr. Peace Sign, brother. You do what you want. You express yourself, my son. Don't work for The Man.

Harris: Unless, of course, The Man is the guy from Nike with a $60,000,000 contract.

Wilson: Then, you just kiss The Man's butt. You just take The Man's money. That's right. No, we don't do that sort of thing. No, actually, he doesn't have an identity. He actually is a small me. He actually is me. Just everything I've been a loser at in my life, I'm just going to whip him until he does it and succeeds. It's the American way!

Harris: This is your chance to remake your own image.

Wilson: That's right.

Harris: Just like everybody thought they could do with cloning. Oh, I'll go and fix all my own mistakes.

Wilson: Like so many dads, I'll see you out on the little league field. "You loser! Get back in that batter's box right now!" "Daddy, he hit me with the pitch!" "If you cry...don't get in my car if you cry!"

Harris: You are a great dad, let me say that right now. I wish you were mine. Several years back -- I don't know how many years ago it was, maybe five years ago -- I was watching the Carson show and you came out, you and your tuba and did five, six, seven, eight minutes there and just blew me away because you were the first comedian I'd ever seen perform with a tuba.

Wilson: I think I was actually the first person to ever perform on "The Tonight Show" with a tuba. It's kind of a weird thing to be.

Harris: Do you still travel at all with the tuba?

Wilson: I travel with it as a good luck charm. I don't play it anymore, but I'm surprised you didn't see it on the chain around my neck. It's kind of a lucky piece, sometimes I use it to keep track of my keys.

Harris: Some people just put them on the desk in the entrance way.

Wilson: And you should see the looks you get from the valet parking guys when you hand him a tuba connected to a couple of keys.

Harris: It's like the men's room key at the gas station.

Wilson: That's right!

Harris: I have to carry this to use the key?!?

Wilson: That's right, that's right. Yeah, I played the tuba in the band when I was in school. I was a total geek. I was not an athlete. Now, were you an athlete? Because you cut quite a swarthy figure!

Harris: Well, thank you. Does the word Yahtzee mean anything to you, my friend?

Wilson: Oh, you were on the Yahtzee team!

Harris: 1974 champion, okay! Step back, everybody!

Wilson: That's a great yearbook shot, you know. You've got the football players in their positions, in their triumphant positions. Then you've got the Yahtzee team players, with the surprised look looking at dice. Talk about scoring with the cheerleaders!

Harris: That's it, absolutely!

Wilson: Yeah, those Yahtzee guys.

Harris: Well, we had our own trading cards and that's what really brought the chicks in.

Wilson: And the Yahtzee cheers are really good.

Harris: "Gimme a Y!"

Wilson: "Gimme an A! Gimme an H!" "H"??? The whole crowd stops, has to mumble among themselves..."H"? Yahtzee? "H"?

Harris: And at the end you could never get them to give you the exclamation point.

Wilson: Exactly, exactly. "What's that spell?" "H"?? They don't get over that.

Harris: And so you were in the marching band? I'm guessing with a tuba you've got to be in the marching band.

Wilson: Yeah, of course, I was in the marching band with the tuba, the huge instrument. The giant bell, they call it. Big hole that everyone makes toilet jokes about as you walk into the stadium. And then all the rest of the band, they get to sit down in the front of the stands. They get to watch the game, talk to their friends, whatever, put down the instrument. The tubas are way up in the top of the stands, swinging back and forth going da-da-da-da-da...the entire game...da-da-da-da...Can we stop yet?...da-da-da-da...just swinging back and forth with those things trying to dodge all the garbage people are trying to throw into them.

Harris: And you can't sit up front because people say, "Put that thing down! We're trying to watch the game!"

Wilson: That's what I mean, you can't win. You're basically an egg target. By the end of a football game, you've got sixty bucks of Jujubes on the inside of it. People are just emptying Jujube boxes into it.

Harris: Every time I see a marching band at a football game, it's always the tuba guy who has to go off and make the little...

Wilson: That's Ohio State.

Harris: ...the little exclamation point or the dot in the "i".

Wilson: At Ohio State, what's very famous is that the tuba player, the senior tuba player, will march out and dot the "i". Which is the thrill of his geeky life. "Mom! Dad! Watch the game! I'm dotting the i!" "Oh, fun, son. I wish you were playing quarterback or something."

Harris: And of course Mom and Dad are watching on TV and halftime is not televised.

Wilson: "You know, I'd prefer if you sold hot dogs at the game. Great, everybody tune in! My kid's dotting the i!"

Harris: When you were in high school, did you think to yourself, "Maybe I'll go to Ohio State and be the tuba player who makes the i dot?

Wilson: [pauses for one beat] No.

Harris: No, I didn't think so.

Wilson: I never thought that.

Harris: Okay, fine.

Copyright 1997, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Danny Guzman.

Hype, Nonsense, and Some People


After seeing the new "Star Wars" trailer during Monday Night Football, so many people went online to buy tickets to the movie that they crashed the Fandango website. For a film that won't open until December 18th -- two months from now -- this horde had to get their tickets now.

I don't get it.

It's not like "Star Wars VII" will only be shown that day. It's not even limited to that weekend. It will continue to be projected in theaters for days and weeks after that. There might even be some screenings where there are a few empty seats -- I'm thinking at noon on a Tuesday, for example. But the Hollywood hype machine is infecting people with the same disease that makes them line up for three days on a sidewalk in order to buy every new iPhone as soon as it's available. To my knowledge, Apple has not run out of iPhones -- and there won't be a shortage of places to see "Star Wars VII."

I blame the media for not only falling for the hype, but pumping it up. Tickets going on sale in advance for a movie is not news, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find an outlet that hasn't breathlessly reported the crush of interest in the movie.

While I'm on the subject, let me also take a shot at multiple reports that have aired this week claiming "some people" are upset that there's a black stormtrooper in "SW7." Who gives a shit? Just because some cranky group of racists has posted some tweets with a hashtag doesn't make it important enough to deserve mention. Using the phrase "some people" is the cheapest, easiest way to pretend to give attribution without actually giving any.

On his excellent blog, my friend Mark Evanier writes about a similar controversy involving another fictional character...
There seems to be a silly controversy raging over the new Captain America story arc in which a black guy dons the costume. Not that anyone seems to care about the character's creators in matters like this but co-creator Jack Kirby proposed long ago that Steve Rogers stop being Captain America and pass the costume on to others…including at times, a black man, a woman, a naturalized citizen and eventually one of every kind of human being that makes up the United States of America.
Mark should know what he's talking about, since he is writing a new biography of Kirby that will be available in August, 2017.

Why must we always fall for the lowest-common-denominator garbage that gets spewed online and on our airwaves? Why does every uttering from the uninformed and intolerant qualify as repeatable and reportable? Why must the media continually circulate pure nonsense?

Those questions don't apply solely to entertainment matters. The same problem persists in modern-day political coverage. Instead of vital dissection of policy differences between candidates, we get bogged down in the latest dumb remarks made by one unqualified nitwit or another, who we're supposed to believe is smart enough to become the most powerful person in the free world.

Even when there isn't an Asinine Comment Of The Day, we still don't get helpful analysis from our media. We get "breaking news" updates of the latest poll numbers, as if they matter 13 months before the election. Or we get the results of an on-air or online poll, which are more scientifically inaccurate that your average Gwyneth Paltrow health tip.

Just because someone says something stupid does not make it worthy of re-distribution -- at least not without using context to point out how ridiculous it is (which most late-night comedy shows do a better job of than most "news" organizations). Going viral is not always a good thing. Merely repeating something you heard from someone whose name you don't know who has no idea what they're talking about in the first place is not journalism.

Gotta go now. I just received a bulletin about a rumor that there's a boycott forming over a new white character on "Empire."

Best Thing I've Read Today


In an interview with Salon, Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the dangers of unenlightened policies that aren't based on scientific facts:
For example, we live in a time now where many on the conservative right continue to be in denial of anthropogenic climate change. The problem that I see is that if you remain in denial, then you are not at the table discussing reactions to anthropogenic climate change. So, we’re losing time here, which is to say we’re causing climate change. Now, let’s go back in the room and debate what we do about it. Because whether you have carbon credits or solar panels or you have a new trade relationship with the Far East, all of these factors matter.

The moment you start bringing your personal belief system into governance, then that’s the end of pluralistic democracy. We have words for governance like that and they’re called dictatorships. You have a belief system, you have a philosophy, and that philosophy has some adherence and others have their own philosophies. Those are your personal truths. One of them is, “Jesus is your Savior.” I’m not going to say that Jesus is not your savior. That is your personal truth. But, in a country where we have different religions, if the person who said: “Jesus is your Savior” is going to govern a pluralist country, then their legislations must be based on objective truths, not personal truths.

And personal truths are not only religious. You can have political personal truths. You keep those to yourself or your political group. But, to impose them on others is to do away with the freedom that a free democracy gives you. Now, getting back to your point, we have people in Congress whose job is to pass laws. If they pass laws based on things that are not objectively true, that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.
Read the entire interview with Tyson here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Commercial Days

Early in my career, I voiced and produced a lot of commercials. Not for ad agencies, but inside the radio station. I did spots for night clubs, department stores, restaurants, car dealers, and anything else that came down the pike.

Radio stations didn't charge the client for this service (which gives you an idea how valuable it was) and the end result reflected that. It could be embarrassing to hear some of our quickly-thrown-together spots next to the well-produced national ones -- particularly those from Stan Freberg or Dick Orkin and his gang at the Radio Ranch -- but our mission was a little different. We were in the volume business where it was clear we were not to bust our asses creating the perfect spot. Just get it done and in the rotation so the station could bill the client for the airtime; that's what counted.

The process usually started with a salesperson bringing me a few details about what the client wanted promoted. If the account executive were particularly lazy, that information would be nothing more than the client's newspaper ad with circles around the most important details. It was my job to turn that into sixty seconds of audio salesmanship.

Unlike at an ad agency, where there was a copywriter and an executive or two to shape the sponsor's message and decide what it should sound like, in radio it was all up to whoever the copy was handed to. The "production director" (often one of the DJs with extra responsibilities) either did the spot themself or doled it out to one of the other air personalities. At stations in smaller markets, which ran mostly local commercials (as opposed to national or regional buys which came down fully produced from those agencies), this meant each host spent an hour or so each day in the station's off-air studio turning minimalist information into a final product -- which then went on the air without review from anyone else, including the sponsor.

Most of the time, the person doing the spot was just trying to get through it so they could get to the fun part of the day -- being on the air. As soon as you recorded a decent take and added some music in the background, you were done and on to the next one. Occasionally, some inspiration went into producing that aural product.

I remember having to create sound effects that weren't in the pre-recorded production library, or spending extra time editing a musical bed so it fit just right (and this was in the days before digital, where I was cutting and splicing tape). Sometimes, the salesperson would make an effort to write some copy, but it was invariably too short or too long. The commercial had to be sixty seconds long, but when you read the copy, it only filled 40 seconds. I'd ask the salesperson for more info and be told, "Just give the phone number a few more times!" Worse, the copy would contain 90 seconds worth of bullet points, and the client wanted them all jammed in there. What a nightmare.

After finishing the commercial and putting it in the system, we rarely heard another word about it, but I remember one occasion where I ran into a sales guy for whom I had recorded a car dealer commercial a couple of weeks earlier. I'd spent extra time getting it just right and was proud of the way it came out, but neither he nor anyone else had said anything about my masterpiece (typical!).

I asked the salesman whether the client liked the spot. He told me that, in fact, the car dealer wasn't happy at all and was going to cancel the rest of the schedule. I asked, "Aren't our listeners responding to the commercial?" He told me that, yes, a lot of our loyal listeners had gone to visit the dealership, and foot traffic was way up since the spot had started running. I wondered, "So, what's the problem?" He replied, "They're not selling any cars."

I suggested he go back to that dealer and tell him that instead of cancelling his commercials, he should fire his sales staff. After all, we were doing our job -- getting more people to visit his business -- but his own people were failing to convert them into paying customers! That wasn't our fault, it was his. Naturally, the "account executive" didn't do that, and the car dealer's spots disappeared from our airwaves shortly thereafter.

It didn't matter to my bottom line, since I wasn't paid an extra penny for doing commercials, regardless of how effective they were, but I shook my head at the ineptness of both parties in that business transaction. As for that spot, I was so proud of it that I saved it for my own demo reel -- which, a year later, helped me land a job at another radio station.

By then, that salesman was long gone.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is Maggie Going To Mars?


In 2013, two hundred thousand people applied for the Mars One project, which wants to send humans to the red planet on a one-way mission. Now there are just 100 people still being considered, and Maggie Duckworth is one of them. She returned to my show to talk about how she's gotten to this point, what's next, and the timeline for the mission. We also discussed "The Martian" movie, in which Matt Damon's character gets left behind on Mars, and whether it changed her mind about wanting to go -- and how her parents reacted, too. I also asked her who she wants to go with, what skills she brings to the mission, and how the funding for the project is going.

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

Previously on Harris Online...

Showbiz Show 10/16/15


This week on the showbiz segment of my show, Colin Jeffrey and I reviewed "Crimson Peak," "Bridge of Spies," and "Beasts Of No Nation." We also discussed why Netflix is expanding into movie theaters, a possible sixth "Die Hard,", and movies Tom Hanks was supposed to star in but didn't. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 10/16/15

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "Tom Hanks' Co-Stars," "Sports and Games and Nudity," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Want more Harris Challenges? Click here.

Knuckleheads In The News® 10/16/15


On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about the wrong way to put out a fire, flight attendants in the overhead bin, and the Bearded Villains. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Uber Disruption


I had my first experience with Uber last month in New York. I was visiting my daughter at her apartment, and we were headed to my hotel, but the rain was pouring down. Not only would we get soaked while walking a couple of blocks to a street where we could hail a cab, it wasn't very likely we'd find an empty one in that weather.

So my daughter pulled out her phone, opened the Uber app, and requested a ride. Within four minutes, the driver was outside her apartment building. We knew when he was there because we could see his car as it approached on the map built into the app, which also gave us his name and license plate number. We went downstairs, hopped in, and headed uptown. At my hotel, he pulled to the curb, tapped the screen on his phone to complete his end of the transaction, while my daughter did the same on hers. Payment was automatic through the credit card she'd registered with her account.

Not only was it easy, we were also a lot drier.

Last weekend in Las Vegas, my brother-in-law and I used Uber to get to a very good Italian restaurant off the strip (Panevino). We would usually have taken a cab from the taxi stand in front of our hotel, but there was a very long line of people waiting ahead of us. So I opened the Uber app and less than four minutes later, a driver named Jeremy appeared in his Lexus and pulled up to the designated spot Bellagio has set aside for Uber and Lyft.

We got in an asked Jeremy about his experience as an Uber driver. He told us that the service has only been available in Vegas for a few weeks, and so many people have signed up as drivers that there isn't enough work to go around, but those numbers should shrink over time through attrition and when more people become aware that they can use Uber.

The other problem he mentioned is that Clark County will not allow Uber drivers to pick up or drop off at McCarran Airport. That privilege is reserved for taxis, which charge passengers a $2 fee for each trip, money that then goes to the county. If an Uber driver is caught dropping a passenger off, they can be fined $100. Some of the drivers won't risk it, but one of ours said he just tells the passenger to sit in the front seat and, upon arrival, act like they've just gotten a lift from a friend. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that Uber will eventually work out a system that charges the customer that same fee automatically and passes it along to the county.

It's all about the money, which explains why cab companies are fighting Uber tooth and nail. It is disrupting business just like Netflix did for Blockbuster and Amazon did for Borders. But as more cities lose the fight to keep Uber out, and more customers want the services it offers, there won't be any way to stop it. Ironically, Jeremy told us that he knows a couple of cabbies who, after their shifts, then go out in their own cars and make pick-ups as Uber contractors.

After dinner, there were no cabs waiting outside Panevino. Sure, we could have Googled a local taxi company and called to arrange a pickup, but with the Uber app, we had a return driver right there in 3 minutes. We used Uber again the next night after having dinner in Chinatown. Once again, there were no cabs nearby, but within 4 minutes, a man named Jongsu picked us up in his Hyundai and took us back to the hotel. Since we had taken a regular cab there, we compared the fares and found them roughly equivalent.

I like the details Uber provides when you use the app. It was refreshing to know each driver's name and license plate number, which minimized any concerns I'd had beforehand about the security of getting into a stranger's car -- that's more information than I usually have about a cabbie. All three drivers told us they'd had to undergo a background check and a vehicle inspection, both of which were paid for by Uber.

There's also the crowd-sourced ratings of both drivers and riders, so each party knows whether the person they're going to interact with has been appreciated by other users (on each trip, we gave each driver the top rating, five stars, and they did the same for us). One of the drivers told us that, if you rate an Uber contractor with three stars or less, the app will remember that and never assign that driver to pick you up again. And if you see that the driver coming to pick you up is low-rated, you just cancel that ride and get someone with more stars.

So, will I use Uber in St. Louis, where it also debuted recently? Unlikely, because I live in suburbia and have my own car to get around. I doubt I've taken a cab more than a half-dozen times in the 16 years I've lived here, and that was usually from the airport when my wife couldn't pick me up. But if I were anywhere else, especially on vacation without easily-accessible transportation -- or if I drank and needed a designated driver -- I wouldn't hesitate to tap the Uber app.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

I'm Just Saying

After 12 years of training, Afghanistan forces are still not strong enough to defend their own country, so American forces must still be deployed there. I'm sure Year 13 will change that.

Matt Jackson's Big "Jeopardy!" Run


Matt Jackson's run as "Jeopardy!" champion ended yesterday after 13 shows, during which he amassed winnings of $411,612, the fourth-highest total in the show's regular-season history (not counting tournaments). He did it with an intense style, quick pacing, big Daily Double wagers, and a lot of knowledge across the various categories, which helped him blow away opponents before they even got to Final Jeopardy -- at which point he "could not be caught." Although he finally lost Wednesday, Jackson will be in the Tournament Of Champions that airs in November.

His style was reminiscent of Arthur Chu, who used similar strategies to put together an impressive "Jeopardy!" run last year. Chu was criticized by some fans for his no-nonsense style, but it worked, and Jackson clearly emulated them over the last two weeks. As for Chu, he wrote a piece for Salon a couple of days ago showing Jackson some serious respect:
To manage to do what you’re doing at your age is damn impressive. If, God willing, they ever invite me back on a “Battle of the Decades”-style reunion tournament I’ll likely have to face you with the reflexes of a 40-year-old while you have the reflexes of a 30-year-old, and crack up and embarrass myself all over again. I look forward to the experience.

The blessing and the curse in all of this is that Jeopardy! viewers in general, as opposed to the hardcore Jeopardy! nerds, have very short memories. I remember feeling like a shameless media attention hog for letting people shower credit on me for gameplay strategies I’d straight up ripped off from Roger Craig in 2010, Dave Madden in 2005 and Chuck Forrest in 1985 that most Jeopardy! viewers seemed to think was brand new. Now I see people saying the exact same things they said about me 20 months ago about you, as though neither I nor Julia Collins nor Ben Ingram ever existed.

Such is life, and such especially is life when you treat as a serious sport what most Americans treat as something they half-pay attention to while eating dinner.
Read Arthur Chu's entire open letter to Matt Jackson here.

Previously on Harris Online...

Get To The Point, Podcasters

Perry Simon has an invaluable piece of advice for podcasters: get to the point.

You'll hear hosts introduce themselves, then just... well, they talk about their week, what they had for dinner, something that happened the other day, anything but what will be the ultimate topic or guest. Or they'll introduce the guest, go off on tangents for 10 minutes, then reintroduce the guests. You do not have time for that.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and this is one of my pet peeves. Take two examples: Mark Maron's WTF and Kevin Pollak's Chat Show. They are both marvelous interviewers, but I don't care about what's going on in their lives -- particularly since I often don't listen to their podcasts in the same week they're released, so by the time I do get to them, that content is outdated. Instead, I have to drag the scroll bar forward and back until I find the exact spot where the guest is introduced and the conversation begins.

Since that practice irritates me so much, and I try to give you the kind of listening experience I expect, I never do it on my own podcasts. When you stream any of the audio on this site (or via iTunes), you'll always jump right into the content you were promised, with no superfluous introductory tangents.

I wish others -- including "The Nerdist" host Chris Hardwick, who Perry works with -- would follow the same advice.

Read Perry's full piece here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Black Violin


My wife and I recently went to The Sheldon, acoustically one of the best concert venues in St. Louis, to see Black Violin, a duo of immensely talented violin and viola players (Kev Marcus and Wil B) accompanied by a terrific drummer and a deejay working the turntables.

We had a great time, despite being unfamiliar with the guys before that night (except for knowing they'd won the Showtime At The Apollo competition a decade ago). Though classically trained, their music has more of a rhythm-and-blues/hip-hop feel -- in fact, their current album "Stereotypes" is high on the Billboard charts of both musical formats simultaneously, a rare feat. In addition to playing their violins in the traditional manner, they also sang a few songs, and plucked their instruments like guitars and used effects like wah-wah and fuzz pedals. Their mixing of musical styles reminded me of the ground broken by jazz fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty forty years ago.

My only minor complaint about the Black Violin concert was Kevin and Wil urging the audience to "make some noise!" or "put your hands in the air!" or "get on your feet!" Thanks, but as a middle-aged couple, we'd like to just move to the music while remaining seated and having you perform for us, rather than the other way around, if you don't mind. Of course, that's impossible when everyone in the crowd in front of us repeatedly leapt to (and stayed on) their feet. So we had to as well, in order to see what was happening on stage.

Fortunately, those moments were only occasional, and didn't really detract from our enjoying the virtuosity of Black Violin during a terrific evening of music.

Stop With The Slapping


If the NFL is really trying to do something about concussions, how about telling the players to stop smacking each other in the heads?

I'm not talking about on the field during a play. I'm talking about after it's over, when someone has made a big catch or a key defensive stop and is congratulated by teammates who slap him in the helmet. Or worse, a head-butt. They even do it to each other during pre-game warmups.

I understand it's not as jarring as a head-to-head hit between opponents going full speed, but it can't be healthy to have your noggin banged like a conga drum that often. Give'em a shot in the shoulder pads instead.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Shocking

With his comments about not voting for Hillary Clinton because women are too emotional to be president, TI has become the first rapper in history to make a misogynistic remark.

Never Again Until Next Time

Shepard Smith is 100% correct in calling out NBC’s hypocrisy over Donald Trump.

With Guest Stars Jim, Lincoln, and Martin


I was in Las Vegas this weekend, playing poker, betting on NFL games, and having some good meals.

Monday morning, while walking to The Peppermill (my favorite spot for breakfast in that town), I passed CNN's setup in front of The Wynn, the site of tonight's debate among the Democrats who want to be present. The big sign in front of the casino was advertising the event, and I laughed at the display, which made it clear this is a two-person race.

There was a big illustration of Hillary Clinton, which was followed by a big illustration of Bernie Sanders, which was followed by a list -- with no illustration -- of the other trio of candidates who will be there (Jim Webb, Lincoln Chaffee, Martin O'Malley). In fact, while I found the two photos above on Google Images this morning, I can't find a single picture of the board that mentions the also-rans. It'll be interesting to see if any of those three will make enough of an impression to get their faces on the signs for the next debate, let along some attention from the general public and the media.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Totally Relatable

Every parent has had these frustrating conversations with their kid -- probably more than once.

Best Thing I've Read Today

The heartbreaking story of the white Aussie who stood with the two African-American runners giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Making Of Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," released in 1964, still stands as one of the best war satires of all time. This is a documentary, produced in 2001, about the making of that landmark film, including stories about stars Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden. It also details Kubrick's attempts to thwart the release of the similarly-themed-but-much-more-serious "Fail Safe."

Thursday, October 08, 2015

How Do You Prorate Zero?


For a couple of years, we've been on an AT&T Wireless plan that gives us 10gb of data per month for a flat fee. The other day, I saw an AT&T commercial offering 15gb for the same price, so I called to ask about it. I fully expected to be told that the offer was for new customers only, so I was surprised when the "customer service specialist" told me that I was eligible for the upgrade. Here's how the conversation continued:

Me: "At no extra charge? There's no catch?"
Him: "That's correct."
Me: "Let's do it."
Him: "Okay. Do you know what day your billing month begins?"
Me: "As a matter of fact, I know that the new month started yesterday."
Him: (in a worried tone) "Oh, I see. Hmm."
Me: "Is that a problem?"
Him: "No, it just means that you can either wait until the next billing month, or we can prorate you for this month."
Me: "You have to prorate me for something that's free? Won't you be dividing zero by a whole number and ending up with zero again?"
Him: (humorlessly) "That's correct. Do you still want to do this?"
Me: "Do I have to do anything, or is this simply a matter of you filling out some paperwork?"
Him: "No, you don't have to do anything. Would you like me to continue processing your request?"
Me: "Well, call me crazy, but if the burden's entirely on you, then go ahead."
Him: "Please hold."

I put my phone on speaker and put it down for another five minutes while he proceeded to fill out whatever he needed to fill out to give me the deal. Then he returned and told me it was all good and my 15gb of data plan would begin immediately.

I thanked him, but then I had to ask: "I've been an customer of multiple AT&T services and products for a couple of decades, but if I hadn't seen your TV commercial, was the company ever going to contact me -- by mail, e-mail, or text -- to let me know what this free offer was available so I could take advantage of it?" There was a pause before he replied, "No, sir. AT&T does not do that."

That might lead to more prorating.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Poker Stories: Stella

Another in my occasional series of poker stories...

When I started playing poker in St. Louis in 1999, I played in middle-limit stud games, but was quickly drawn to the most popular variant in town -- limit hold'em. There were games practically every night, with the biggest having blinds of $20-40 or $15-30, both with a "half-kill," where the blinds increased 50% if any player won two hands in a row.

The only chips allowed were red $5 chips, so in a multi-way pot with lots of raising, there would be a huge mound of them in the middle of the table. When you scooped one of those pots, it could take you five minutes to stack your winnings. On many nights, there would be four tables full of these games, but after the no-limit hold'em boom swept through town a few years later, followed in recent years by the adoption of pot-limit Omaha and similar games, there's now a much smaller player pool for $20-40, although it is still played a couple of days/week, albeit on only one table.

One of the characters who played in the game way back when was a woman named Stella. I didn't know much about her, but she reeked of money -- always in nice clothes, hair (or wig) done just right, and plenty of jewelry. Someone told me she was a psychic, and since I'm a notorious skeptic, I jokingly asked her one night whether she was having visions of all the other players' cards. She shot me a look that went right through me as she answered, "No, I would never use my powers for evil."

That became more and more apparent as time went by, because she rarely left the table a winner, and there was nothing supernatural about it -- she was just a bad player. But she seemed to get along with almost everybody (if you don't count the dealers and opponents she put a "spell" on after losing a big hand), and I enjoyed having her at the table.

One night, I asked her if she was married, and she told me she'd had three husbands, but they were all dead. I wondered what happened to them, so she explained. The first one had eaten some poisoned beans. A few years later, the second one also died of poisoned beans. And the third husband? "He wouldn't eat the beans, so I hit him with my frying pan."

The table erupted in laughs as a big smile crossed Stella's face.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Movie Review: "The Martian"


"The Martian" is a very good movie, one of my favorites this year. It is also the best STEM movie since "Apollo 13." While Matt Damon gives a terrific performance as an astronaut stranded on Mars when he's left behind by the crew that believes he's dead, it is the combination of science, technology, engineering, and math that makes the film so good.

From the moment he realizes his dire situation, Damon's character endeavors to "work the problem" (a phrase unknown to members of Congress) and there are lots of them to solve. Simultaneously, his colleagues on Earth at NASA and the JPL are also attacking those challenges, and it is fascinating to see that brain trust of very smart people figuring out how to get him back safely, while also protecting the lives of the other five mission members, and the public face of NASA, too.

While all that STEM work is going on, there's still the human story, and we need a plot device to help us understand what Damon is doing while all alone 34.5 million miles from home. In "Cast Away," Tom Hanks had Wilson, the volleyball he could talk to. In "The Martian," Damon keeps a video log running, and talks directly into the camera to explain to us how he's growing food, creating water, and re-engineering his Rover to travel greater distances. Not only does it work to advance the story, it also allows for some moments of humor and humanity.

For a little while, I wondered whether we were heading into "Capricorn One" territory. That was a cheesy 1977 movie starring James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and OJ Simpson (!) as astronauts who are supposed to go to Mars, but when NASA's funding is cut, they can't make the trip, so they're forced to fake it on a soundstage. When something goes wrong that would have killed the astronauts in space, the NASA administrator (Hal Holbrook) realizes that those three can never be seen in public again or the agency's image would be irreparably damaged. So Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson have to die -- or escape. If there were any doubt this was a movie made in the 1970s, you'd just have to look at the rest of the cast list: Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, Telly Savalas, Karen Black, David Huddleston, David Doyle, Denise Nicholas, Robert Walden, and James B. Sikking.

Remembering that movie while watching "The Martian," I wondered whether this version of NASA was going to try to cover up the fact that Damon was still alive and plan on leaving him there to die, only to have the crew find out somehow, then disobey orders and go back to Mars to retrieve him. Oh, perhaps I've said too much. Don't worry, I didn't just spoil the whole movie for you.

I have a couple of small nits to pick, however.

After "Apollo 13" was a hit, the flight director for that mission, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) wrote a book about his career called "Failure Is Not An Option." It was a great read, and I had him on my show in August, 2000, to discuss it. One of the things I asked him about was the scene in which the crew has survived re-entry and is safely returning to Earth -- the entire room erupts in joy, with people standing up, cheering, and applauding. I asked Gene if that happened in real life. His response: "No. If anyone ever did that in mission control, that would be the last mission they ever worked."

Still, I'm willing to accept it in the context of both movies for dramatic effect, as I am the scenes in "The Martian" of people all over the world gathering in Times Square and other large central-city locales to watch the latest updates on Damon's Mars adventure. I don't know of any time -- other than a sporting event like the World Cup -- where large groups of people came together to view a news story on big screens. We may all be watching on TV, as we did on 9/11/01, but we're at home, or at work, or using those screens in our pockets. Sure, after a big event, people might gather to share the moment (e.g. the crowd that formed in Lafayette Square opposite the White House on the night Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden), but we're not standing around in those places waiting for the latest update on a news story, no matter how big. Again, I understand why director Ridley Scott included those scenes, but they rang false for me.

That said, "The Martian" is still a helluva ride. It is what big-screen movie entertainment is all about. Hopefully, it will also inspire some younger viewers to pursue a path in the STEM fields. Because if we're going to try to send humans to Mars in the near future, we're going to need their brain power to make it happen -- and get them back home safely.

Previously on Harris Online...

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Colbert Report Card


After four weeks on the air, Stephen Colbert has settled into his "Late Show" rhythm and, for the most part, it's working. His desk bits are sharp and, in the same way he did on "The Colbert Report," Colbert still makes important points laced with clever humor, even without his bombastic character. In fact, the desk stuff is so good he should consider dropping the short monologue he opens the show with. It's the weakest part of the show.

If I were on his staff, though, I'd worry about doing two desk segments in the first half-hour plus another one later in the show. That's an enormous amount of writing to burn through. While his team did have several months to write bits and put them on the shelf, that supply is going to get thin soon, and for the sake of the integrity of the comedy, Colbert would be better off doing two a night rather than three.

One potential trouble area is when Colbert tries to do schtick with his guests. For example, the other night when he had Morgan Freeman reading lines from movies he wasn't in, just to hear how they sound in his voice. Not only did the bit not work, it detracted from what should have been a better attempt to get Freeman to share some anecdotes from his long career. Instead, it came off as something Jimmy Fallon would do (i.e. trying to create a viral moment). Colbert can be a very good interviewer, and is bringing on some guests who don't fit the stars-who-have-something-to-plug that are typical of late night guests -- from politicians to tech CEOs to Malala Yousafzai. His interview with her was compelling, warm, and even crossed into the realm of cute when she did a card trick for him. He'll set himself apart from Jimmy and Jimmy by doing more of that.

Great performers need great technical people to keep the show tight, so Colbert's smartest CBS hire has to be bringing director Jim Hoskinson with him from Comedy Central. They have the best host/director timing since Hal Gurnee worked with David Letterman. As for bandleader Jon Batiste, he seems fine -- although I have yet to recognize a single song his band has played -- but Colbert shouldn't rely on him too much as a comedy foil because that ground has already been worn down from decades of Paul Shaffer's just-right support work for Letterman. Besides, Colbert is such a strong solo act, he doesn't need anyone to prop him up.

I would make one band-related change, however -- if Colbert is going to keep doing that stand-up at the top of the show, he needs to stop being surprised when the band starts playing his theme. Don't even mention it -- just let it happen, tell your last joke, and roll into the opening credits. And, as I've mentioned before, the audience needs to calm down a little. Their over-caffeinated pumped-up reaction to Colbert's mere appearance onstage is annoying and goes on for far too long.

I recognize that this is all nit-picking, which is a good indicator that there aren't really any big problems with the updated "Late Show." Especially following a long-in-decline Letterman, Colbert's desire to be there and to please us marks a new direction in and of itself.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Nick Gillespie on how zero-tolerance policies hurt our kids:

Before there was Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old terrorist (read: nerd) who was arrested for bringing an explosive device (read: clock) to a Texas high school, there was Joshua, the seven-year-old Napoleon of Crime who was suspended from his Maryland elementary school for chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun and pointing it at fellow students.

Before Joshua there was Patrick Agin, a Rhode Island high school senior and member in good standing of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who had to sue his school to allow a yearbook picture of him dressed in chain-mail armor and carrying a broadsword. And long before Patrick Agin rode in bureaucratic battle, there was the curious case of the unnamed eighth grader we’ll call “Midol Mary”. She got booted from her school in Washington state for the unforgiveable crime of giving a non-prescription pain-relief pill to a classmate suffering menstrual cramps.

Listing the undeserving victims of zero-tolerance policies in public K-12 schools yields a genealogy as long, confusing, and endlessly multiplying as any found in the Old Testament or a late-run episode of Honey Boo-Boo. And why this is so and whether the benefits outweigh the costs are questions well worth asking.
Read Gillespie's full piece here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Best Thing I've Read Today

Nicholas Kristof in today's New York Times:

In Great Britain, people used to kill themselves by putting their heads in the oven and asphyxiating themselves with coal gas. This accounted for almost half of British suicides in the late 1950s, but Britain then began switching from coal gas to natural gas, which is much less lethal. Sticking one’s head in the oven was no longer a reliable way to kill oneself — and there was surprisingly little substitution of other methods. Suicide rates dropped, and they stayed at a lower level.

The British didn’t ban ovens, but they made them safer. We need to do the same with guns.

When I tweeted about the need to address gun violence after college shooting in the Roseburg, Ore., a man named Bob pushed back. “Check out car accident deaths,” he tweeted sarcastically. “Guess we should ban cars.”

Actually, cars exemplify the public health approach we need to apply to guns. We don’t ban cars, but we do require driver’s licenses, seatbelts, airbags, padded dashboards, safety glass and collapsible steering columns. And we’ve reduced the auto fatality rate by 95 percent.
Read Kristof's full piece here.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, "Mississippi Grind"


Here's my conversation with Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, writer/directors of "Mississippi Grind," the gamblers-on-the-road movie that I appear in, along with stars Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, and Sienna Miller. We talked about:
  • why they used me in the film;
  • how I first met them and told them some poker stories they incorporated into the script;
  • why they didn't give me much advice on how to play the scene;
  • how they cast their leads and whether they changed the script to fit the actors;
  • how difficult it was to get financing and the role of film festivals;
  • whether they had any gambling experience before making the movie;
  • why they added a voice saying "take it" to the end of my scene with Ben;
  • why they gave James Toback a cameo in the movie;
  • how they endured a more-than-four-year process of getting the film onto the big screen.
"Mississippi Grind" is a wonderfully-told road movie of two guys making their way from Iowa to New Orleans for a high-stakes home game, and stopping along the way in St. Louis and Memphis for some poker, dog racing, horse racing, blackjack, craps, and -- of course, women. As a poker player, I can tell you they got those scenes right, and captured the feel of the cities and the gambling atmosphere perfectly.

It opened in St. Louis this weekend, then rolls out in other cities over the next month. It will be available on DVD on December 1st. Don't let the fact that I'm in it keep you away.

Note: we had an audio problem in the studio on the day this was recorded, so the quality is not up to the standards of previous podcasts. Nonetheless, I wanted to share it with you and hope you still enjoy it.

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