Sunday, May 29, 2011

Comedy Sites, Podcasts, and DVDs

Read this funny/interesting/great interview with Bill Murray. Speaking of Bill Murray, check this out.

Finally released: The Ernie Kovacs Collection.

Amazing site full of interviews with old-time comedians (I was particularly intrigued by the interview with Norm Crosby).

Particularly good insider account of Johnny Carson. Speaking of Carson, one of my favorite pieces of trivia is that Johnny spoke fluent Swahili, and in his retirement used to do standup in Kenya and Tanzania in the local language (just as good: Colin Powell freaked out the prime minister of Israel by greeting him in fluent Yiddish).

Comedian Marc Maron's extended audio interview with Jonathan Winters

Maron's interview with Garry Shandling

Adam Carolla's extended audio interview with Albert Brooks

The Tobolowsky Files is a stupendously entertaining series of podcasts by veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (he played obnoxious insurance salesman Ned Ryerso in Groundhog Day). Hear his recollections about shooting Groundhog Day in episode #29, his riotous thoughts on acting in episode #45, and his tale of being forced to read a manuscript at 3am in Graceland in episode #1. The best introduction may, however, be Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, the legendary cult film that launched Tobolowsky's career as storyteller. Here's how to view it.

One more podcast: Public Radio's The Sound of Young America has some good extended pieces with top comedians (e.g. Bill Burr and Best Comedy of 2010)

Note: all above podcasts are also available via iTunes.

I've created a new tag for the Slog called "Comedy", and tagged previous entries about comedy (as opposed to previous entries that were actually themselves funny).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cash Cab Comedian's Considerable Comedic Capabilities

I've always been a fan of Cash Cab the game show set in a NYC taxicab. But while channel surfing on a bored night, I found out that the host/star, Ben Bailey, is also one of the best stand-up comedians out there. His "Road Rage" special, currently in frequent rotation on Comedy Central (and also available on DVD), features some of the most intelligent, honest, insightful, non-cheap comedy I've seen in a while. And if you do view it, watch his face; I've never seen more startling extremes of expression (Jim Carrey eat your heart out).

It's worth watching for.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Straw Men in the Glass Booth

Each time I hear Michael Moore speak, I creep slightly rightward, politically. In fact, I harbor suspicions that he's a closet Republican. His demagoguery, combined with his uncanny ability to exemplify the most off-putting stereotypical qualities of the far left, makes him a sort of living political cartoon. Any exposure he gets amounts to more anti-liberal publicity than conservatives could ever hope to purchase (even post-Citizens United).

And don't even get me started re: Jackie Mason (would someone please pass me a bacon cheeseburger?).

For that matter, has any American ever done more for gay rights than the Westboro Baptist Church's Fred Phelps? Quite seriously, trace it back. Being gay in America pulled in from its beyond-the-paleness just as Phelps was spewing his cartoonish message. No gay activist could ever conjure such a repugnant model of bigotry. Phelps mirrored our lingering prejudices back to us with such ugly clarity as to dissolve much mainstream aversion. We truly must credit him for a lot of recent social progress.

It's often noted that Americans reflexively recoil from extremes. And so our pendulum swings ceaselessly, never quite reaching as far as fanatics might hope. One of the strongest forces behind this equilibrium is the inevitable appearance of cartoonish zealots who unwittingly work against their own goals. I'm not a huge fan of the world's operating system, but that particular line of code is surely a saving grace.

A little-remembered (and even less understood) film in 1975 called "The Man in the Glass Booth" was about a Nazi death camp survivor who falsifies his dental records so he'd be mistaken for a Nazi war criminal. He's brought to trial in Israel where he draws enormous publicity for his remorseless testimony, defiantly proclaiming the old Nazi tenets and relishing the movement's stark contrast to other Nazi defendants, with their meek "I-was-only-following-orders" revisionism. He offers himself up as a straw man, freely inciting backlash (hence the glass booth) in order to shine bright, clear light on wounds so they could be flushed out and healed.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Photopic Sky Survey

If you're at all interested in astronomy, don't miss the Photopic Sky Survey. It's a magnum opus - tons of photos of the Milky Way shot from all over the planet stitched together. The result is magnificent. But then you check out the interactive version, and zoom in...a lot! It's speechless-making (and, amazingly, shows only hundredth of one percent of our galaxy's stars).

It's sort of like Google Galaxy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Osama's Porn, Obama's Propaganda

As a Watergate era kid, I can remember when we all mistrusted our authorities - those we voted for as well as those we voted against. Civic leaders at the time always urged us to get involved, to be less cynical. And, after a brief few years of blessed skepticism, in 1980 came Ronald Reagan, spawning true believers and true disbelievers (literally) left and right. Since then, lots of folks have "gotten involved", adopting a profoundly uncynical stance toward their side's leaders. So, how's that going for you so far?

We were once perceived to have a political cynicism problem. I think we currently have a
political gullibility problem. I preferred cynical America, when left and the right could at least concur in our mistrust of the bums in charge. We viscerally understood that we had more in common with each other than with either ilk of windy demagogue. Indeed, other, hotter conflicts, like Israeli/Palestinian, will only resolve when each side realizes that antagonistic populations have more in common with each other than with their respective showboating leaders.

The latest example of our political gullibility: few 1975 Americans would have taken seriously the news report about a stash of porn found in Osama Bin Laden's compound (what's next, pork chops and Danish cartoons?). I assume that most of the world - with their healthy skepticism toward America's government - saw this as the weakly transparent propaganda it surely was.
But I haven't heard anyone here so much as question it.

The gullible want to believe, and so they do. Cynics want to believe, but know better. A bit of cynicism is not a bad thing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two Very Funny Quips

"Breaking News: Trump announces he won't run. Also announces he won't fly or walk on moon. Still debating sex change." - Albert Brooks

"The head of the IMF allegedly trying to fuck an's like he's posing for his own editorial cartoon!" -
Jon Stewart

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Response to "The Neo-Cons Won"

Blogger, the platform (owned by Google) on which this Slog runs, has been having severe problems, which is why the "The Neo-Cons Won" entry disappeared for a while. It's back, and Google promises to restore the comments which were lost, but, meanwhile, I'm replaying the comment discussion below.

Posted by
Jim, do you at least acknowledge the nature of the choice Obama was faced with in receiving the information that OBL was hiding out (and quite possibly being harbored by) Pakistan? Presumably, the strictly correct thing to do under international law would be to present Pakistan with the evidence on where he is and ask them to turn over the criminal. If you're Obama at this point, you have to assume there's a good chance that OBL gets tipped off and escapes in that scenario, in which case you're facing almost certain electoral defeat at best and an attempt at impeachment at worst, with resignation looking like a good option.

Let's imagine a scenario where a terrorist blows up the Eiffel Tower, killing thousands, and the CIA harbors him on American soil. The French find out and send a commando team to get the guy. Sure, a lot of Americans would be outraged, but could you really say the French would be unjustified in their actions? I think the discussion changes depending on whether or not Pakistan was knowingly harboring OBL.

I hate to bring Nazis into it, but was the Mossad justified in going into Argentina to get Eichmann? If they'd killed him rather than capturing him, would the answer be different? At what point do other considerations trump sovereignty?

Posted by Jim Leff:
Totally agreed that if we'd notified Pakistan, he might have been tipped off. Totally agreed that he's a very bad, dangerous man...a worst case scenario. And I'm personally content - though not exultant - with his being dead (his family, not so much). So that's that.

"Let's imagine a scenario where a terrorist blows up the Eiffel Tower, killing thousands, and the CIA harbors him on American soil"

If you have proof of that, you declare war on America and go in, yup. But we don't have proof the ISI harbored him. It seems possible or even likely that the more assholey elements of ISI knew or even aided. But it's not at all likely that the gov of Pakistan at large knew/helped.

If in your scenario a rogue element of the CIA may have aided/abetted the Eiffel Tower guy (no conclusive proof), no, I wouldn't be happy with French troops blasting in. Would you?

I don't mean to just pick away at your example. If you want to present another, I'll ponder open-mindedly.

Nazis are actually a good example. The overwhelming majority of them were extradited, not grabbed. And they were dangerous criminals against humanity. Re: Argentina, yep, I disapprove. As a former philosophy major, I have a deep aversion to slippery slopes. The phrase ".....yeah, but this guy was really extra egregiously bad" won't move me past my moral stops (just as I didn't think 9/11 justified curtailment of civil liberties e.g. the Patriot Act).

But, look, this is all somewhat off-point for me. What I've been trying to express in my 3 or 4 OBL postings isn't that we did clear wrong. What I'm saying is that reaction has been, IMO, unthoughtful. The fist pumping and chants in the streets was savage and distasteful (and brought us down to the lowest level). The use of the word "justice" - even by Obama! - in reference to a summary execution was troubling. And the inability of Americans to recognize the complicated and dangerous precedent we increasingly set with our blithe incursions into other people's territory, just because we (including me!!) happen to have an important goal....well, that can only be explained by feelings of American Exceptionalism, I think (though I'm open to other interpretations!).

Thanks for posting!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Neo-Cons Won

The fundament of neo-conservative foreign policy has always been American exceptionalism. The rules don't apply to us because we're simply BETTER. What's good for the goose is not good for the gander, and he who dishes it out is by no means compelled to take it. We do unto others...period.

After the boondoggle in Iraq showed their lofty aspirations of utopia-building nobless oblige to be flatly delusional, I figured the neo-cons had been solidly discredited. Indeed, Republicans have lurched sharply away from neo-conservatism and toward the Tea Party, a drastically different ideology.

But then came the Bin Laden operation. Several commentators have noted that we Americans would likely not cotton to foreign troops zooming into our sovereign territory to assassinate individuals (and their families) with whom they have grievances. The point has failed to gain traction, however.

Why? Because, to my surprise, the neo-cons appear to have won. American exceptionalism has not only been accepted by both sides of the American political divide, it's now so baked into our culture that we can't recognize it even when it's pointed out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Descending to a New Low

Today may be your last here at the Slog, I realize. Because this is the day when I've linked to a funny pet YouTube video. Yes, nowhere is safe.

But, seriously, I mean...Jesus Christ, WTF is up with this dog (the Brother Theodore of canines)?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I've been posting quite a bit to Chowhound lately.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't Sweat That Sushi

As quoted in Chowhound Digest:
"There's really no chance of contaminated fish from Japan ending up on your plate. ... Precious little food of ANY sort is being exported from there right now, and anything that does go out is rigorously monitored and screened on their end before it leaves, AND on ours before it enters the marketplace." – goodhealthgourmet

Saturday, May 7, 2011

To-Read List

Even if you're not a Twitter user, I'd highly recommend bookmarking the Twitter feeds for Garry Shandling and for Albert Brooks. Both are new to Twitter, and are doing creative and hilarious work within the form.

A fascinating Twitter feed I'll keep following long after Osamasnuffmania fades is that of Sohaib Athar, a wry, thoughtful English-fluent computer geek who runs a coffee shop in Abbottabad...and who unwittingly live blogged the recent operation there.
Start out with this introduction to his story (be sure to scroll past the "related links" story for more) and then browse his FAQ. Then start reading his Twitter feed from back before the US operation (you'll have to scroll back a lot, but it's worth it). If there's a better window into the (reassuringly sane and sophisticated) vibe "on the ground" in Pakistan, I can't imagine it. Oh, and I also like his blog, which is currently inactive while he copes with a press furor).

Back to Garry Shandling. If you haven't viewed
his squirmy interview with Ricky Gervais, check it out. And then read this great Amy Wallace piece on him from last August's GQ (an issue devoted to comedy), which included background on that interview.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More Info

I redid my entry on yet again, this time to add a final paragraph about sussing out brand names so you can price compare their stuff to other sites (I also fixed some typos).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cheap Great Rugs on

[I'm replaying this post, because I'd forgotten to include the most important part, about shilling]

I just bought a rug from It arrived promptly, shipping cost just a couple bucks, and while they don't disclose brand names before purchase, when I opened the thing up and discovered the brand and model, I googled and found I'd saved 40% over even Walmart's price.

There's an easy return policy - and, since shipping's so low (at least to you), returns are viable. And the rug exceeded my expectations - as the active Overstock customer review community promised it would. The company's rug buyer seems to have an eye for quality...and the inventory's huge. Overstock's become a big favorite among floor covering enthusiasts.

Best of all, their business model makes the customer reviews immune to shilling (shills pretend to be objective while raving under alias about their own products, or those of friends/family). That sort of thing was the bane of my existence when I ran Chowhound. Such people quickly ruin a good thing. But there's no incentive for anyone to shill on Overstock. Except, perhaps, for Overstock themselves - but, with all those jillions of products, it'd be an impossibly daunting task. And, anyway, they just don't. So these are some of the most useful customer reviews anywhere.

One problem is that the photos don't always show accurate color, but the same's true for all online rug sales. The trick is to read the reviews, which often note the discrepancy. And, also, be sure to read reviews for the same rug in different sizes (Overstock for some reason doesn't throw them all in together).

If you're overwhelmed by the quantity of choices, try sorting by review rating.

One footnote: to determine the actual brand of an Overstock item, google its description (they use the canned ones from manufacturers). You'll then find the item on other shopping sites, and can compare prices (rugs are generally cheap, but other stuff varies). This also works backwards; I google item descriptions when I'm shopping elsewhere to see if they're sold on Overstock, for the great reviews as well as the possibly lower prices.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Amusing Spam

I'm not sure why I got such a kick out of the spam comment drawn by this entry, which sounds like it's written by a foreign-born spambot trying to project chowhoundishness.

But I did, and that's why I approved it.

SIGA: Final Bargain Opportunity?

Lots of Slog readers didn't buy SIGA (here's my first posting about this company, and here's all postings in reverse chronological order) when I recommended it at $2.92, or at $4.29, or at $6.28. And when it went to $15, I still said "it will likely double again before the fat lady sings."

But small biotechs are volatile, so the stock price has been whipping around between $12 and $14 as we've waited for the government to get its act together and finally award this contract. I've been reluctant to recommend it again, because I've had no idea when this will actually happen, and both SIGA and the government have been silent.

But now there's a very happy combination of events:

First, the government has finally offered an update, and it shows they're now moving swiftly ahead and not brooking further nuisance complaints from a competitor (Chimerix) with a less developed drug that's been tying up the process in an effort to slow SIGA down. This will be a sole source contract (very unusual for a contract worth billions, but the gov needs to stockpile smallpox antiviral in times like this).

Second, at this writing the stock price is at one of its low ebbs. So this may well be SIGA's final bargain opportunity. I can't promise a timeline, but I'm extremely confident investors will eventually see $22 or more (perhaps lots more).

Third, it's been dangerous for the past couple years to try to time SIGA's stock, because the contract might have been announced at any moment. But we know from this announcement that the contract will definitely not be announced before May 10. So if you want to buy, you can wait for the very lowest price without worrying about missing the big lift-off.

On the other hand, it may not go much lower than this. And you'd better buy quickly if there's another downturn, because I'm surely not the only one with this realization! In fact, the price has moved up a bit since I started writing this.

One wiseguy move: put in a standing buy order for $11.50. I've recently seen two biotech stocks absolutely crater shortly before an announcement of fantastic news. It's a trick market makers do when they know huge news is imminent: panic investors into selling cheap and take out their "stops" (automatic sell orders in case a stock drops a certain amount). So
if you're contrarian enough to disregard panicky hordes, you might want to ride piggyback in case this indeed takes place. And you oughtn't have any "stops" on your SIGA shares, or you may well find yourself out of the investment moments before it comes to fruition.

[An hour after I posted this, the market caught up and SIGA shot to $15.29. I hope some of the buying was yours! In any case, it'll drift down again, at least some. And I'd still suggest keeping a lowball buy offer going.]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

John Stewart and Osama

John Stewart made a good point on The Daily Show last night:
"The face of the Arab world in America's eyes for too long has been Bin Laden. And now it is not. Now, the face is only the young people in Egypt and Tunisia and all the Middle Eastern countries around the world [sic] where freedom rises up."
Very true. But as Stewart also said last night:
"I am too close to this whole episode to be rational about this in any way shape or form. Last night was a good night".
Whenever you find yourself celebrating death by willfully disregarding higher rationality, you're on dangerous ground. Bin Laden was a monstrous worst-case scenario, seemingly as "deserving" of this fate as anyone on Earth, but there's a slippery slope. There are a great many others you or I might be relieved to see shot. And if we're going to ignore our rationality and morality, the feeling of jubilant release could, I would imagine, get pretty addictive pretty quickly.

How many people "deserve" it, if you really want to make a list? Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe? How about their aids and supporters who've done most of the actual dirty work? Their torturers? The engineers who knowingly designed the torture equipment? Child murderers? Tutsi? Hutu? Goldman Sachs' management? Scott Walker? Bernie Madoff? Your landlord? The judicial system, ideally, makes the call re: the actual death-worthiness. But where do you draw the line on whose death deserves unbridled celebration?

I recognize that there exists deep inside my psyche a part that could bypass my rationality and my moral compass to celebrate the murder of just about anyone who's ever stood in my way. It's the same part that celebrates a sports victory or the slaughter of video game bad guys. I keep that part firmly under wraps. The first step of unwrapping would be any sentence starting "Look, I may not be rational about this, but...."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jingoistic Blood Lusting Mobs

Hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims decline to celebrate in the streets when infidels are slaughtered. And dozens of millions of educated, modern Muslims feel ashamed when they see their more extreme brethren doing so on TV. And many of them have remained skeptical of the extremist rhetoric that America is at war with Islam.

And they're surely all watching this troubling scene on Al Jazeera:
When the ancient impulse of blood lust is stirred up, scary things can happen. At the very least, it makes conciliation ever less likely. The two sides never notice their symmetry. The Times Square guys lack self-awareness, as is always the case with mobs. We train on sports, which help sublimate our tribal impulses. When the primal slow simmer ekes up into a boil, we can find ourselves celebrating real death in exactly the manner we'd previously celebrated our team's decimation of its rivals.

Me? I'm ashamed, as a fellow human, of bloodthirsty Muslim extremists, I'm ashamed, as a fellow Jew, of bigoted Israeli settlers, and I'm ashamed, as an American, to see these primal impulses increasingly stoked here, where my grandparents brought our family yearning for a more civilized environment.

As I asked a few years ago, "Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?"

[Though I'm a centrist, conservatives may consider my feelings of shame to be emblematic of wishy-washy liberal relativism. Me? I mistrust anyone predisposed to spurn the human shame impulse. The world suffers far more from shame's lack than from its excess.]

Bin Ladin and Justice

Many of you come to this Slog to read contrarian opinions. So here's my viewpoint on the Bin Laden killing.

This guy was never much of a mastermind (and, it's said, lately not at all). He was a symbolic spiritual leader and a financier. His symbolic value has only been increased by what will surely be seen as his martyrdom, and he certainly didn't take his money with him. So we didn't help ourselves, tactically, with this.

There will, obviously, be retribution attacks. And while there may be targets of such enormous tactical value that the risk might be worth it, he wasn't such a target.

So why did we kill him? The word "justice" is being used a lot, even by members of our government, which makes me squirmingly uncomfortable. We are a modern, civilized country with a well-developed legal system. Assasination may or may not be justifiable, but it's never justice. And the day it's widely seen as such would be a dark day indeed.

The real reason for this was blood lust. America needed "closure", which is the sanitized modern term for an ancient, messy impulse.

Do I mourn Bin Laden, or wish he were still alive? No way. I lost friends in 9/11. And I'd have shot Hitler if given a chance (though I'd never have called it justice, and would have deemed myself a murderer). But was I dancing in the streets last night? No. I don't celebrate death. I don't fire my kalashnikov skyward in jubilation when blood's spilled in the other tribe. Instead, I dug around my psyche for some feeling of satisfaction. And I pondered the horrendous return on investment*. And then I went on with my life, feeling a little less safe.

* - Neil deGrasse Tyson noted last night on Twitter:
"Two American goals that took a decade, and more than $100 billion to achieve: 1) Walk on the Moon 2) Find Bin Laden"


You've probably been asked by a doctor to describe your pain level on a scale of one to ten. Did you realize that a bee sting or toothache is only a four?? And standing on a sprained ankle is just a five???

I'm not sure why I find this so horrifying. Or that childbirth is comparable to "a real bad migraine." Or that "excruciating unbearable pain" (e.g. throat cancer) is not the very worst level. No, that'd be a good solid hand crush ("unimaginable/unspeakable pain"). Who knew?

For one thing, this all demonstrates the ridiculousness of the 1-to-10 pain system. Not being subject to migraines, throat cancer, hand crushes, or, to the best of my recollection, childbirth, I have a very different spectrum of experience from some other people. Perhaps this explains why my doctor prescribed OxyContin for my recent stubbed toe (which I think I described as an eight).

If you can't resist subjecting yourself to the horror of that link, you can salve your eyeballs with
this much happier 1-to-10 system.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Seth Meyers at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner

It's a notoriously tough crowd. And Donald Trump looks, quite seriously, as if he's planning the poor guy's execution. But Seth Meyers hit it out of the park with his twenty minute comedy routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last night (there are some short editing snafus in the middle when he discusses Ron Paul, but they pass).

Even better: Stephen Colbert's work at the 2006 WHCD where he immortalized himself as a latter day Joseph Welch to George W Bush - and did so with side-splitting hilarity.


I was once a serious professional New York City musician. Those of you following along are aware of my efforts to recoup my musical skills after taking fifteen years off to build, run, and recover from my web site, When I first took my horn out of my case, I couldn't play a note.

Recovery was tough. As a teen, I'd practiced hours per day to build my technique, but these days I have too many interests to invest single-minded attention. I resorted at one point to running off to
band camp, and managed to persevere through adversities like getting my horn stolen.

The good news is that for the past six months, I've been pro level again, though not completely up to my previous level. Tonight, I played with a really hot organ trio group, and, for the first time, felt I was playing perhaps even a little better than in the old days. That was a really big thing for me. But something has changed in the intervening fifteen years.

When I played in the mid 90's, even with really top groups playing reasonably accessible music, the vast majority of patrons in bars and cafes would ignore the band. A few isolated kooks would bop their heads in time to the music, but that'd be about it. Now, in 2011, even the bopping kooks are gone. Each song ending was met with utter silence from a completely indifferent crowd. We were set up near the door, and patrons ignored us on the way out, or else glanced our way in vague perplexity, foggily wondering what we were doing with our hands and mouths. A few sneered contemptuously as they strode out. And, of course, every table within shooting distance of the musicians had cleared out immediately, their occupants grimacing in disgust, as if a nearby drunk had vomited.

We weren't particularly loud. We weren't playing crazy avante garde jazz. And these were excellent musicians, performing in Manhattan, a center of culture and urbanity. The musicians forlornly confirmed that this is what it's come to these days.

Walking through the streets of Krakow with a woman friend last winter, I suddenly ducked into a cafe, having spotted a piano inside, and played a quick song (I've also played piano professionally). The patrons dug it, as most Eastern Europeans are more sophisticated than most New Yorkers, but my date spent the entire time chatting loudly with a bartender about five feet away from the keyboard. When I was done, she looked at me wearily, as if I'd forced her to wait while I'd suddenly indulged myself with, say, a game of pinball. We left wordlessly, and, eventually, blandly resumed our previous conversation, as if it had never happened.

Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here...

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