Salvador Dalí’s fear of castration

Salvador Dalí’s fear of castration.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: (Abandoned)

Moroccan Kids in Marrakesh

Moroccan Kids in Marrakesh

On a trip to Morocco in 2002, I came across two groups of kids just hanging out in a seemingly abandoned part of the Medina.

The older boys are aware of (and perhaps keeping an eye on) the two younger boys, who sit on a smashed cardboard box, oblivious to everything but whatever game they are playing.

The photo hearkens back to a time that no longer exists in much of America, when children were left on their own to play and discover the world as it was, not as the internet tells us it should be.

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The Year I Turned 18 and Met the Messiah


I turned 18 on December 20, 1977.  To celebrate, I took myself to New York.  This was the era of American Hustle, when the beautiful people were snorting coke and drinking champagne at Studio 54.  As a rocker, however, I wouldn’t be caught dead there.  Instead, I hung out at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City, or even better at Trax, where I could see Richard Belzer kill it with his famous Jagger impression.  It was the place to be if you were a rocker.  And it made for the one of the loneliest birthdays I’ve ever had.

 For one thing, my face had started breaking out.  Or at least that’s what I thought.  I’d covered the spots with make-up, but they kept showing through.  Worse, they were starting to hurt.

By the time my aunt finally took me to her doctor two days later, they covered my entire face.  I was stunned when the doctor told me they were cold sores.  I’d never had one before (or, for that matter since).  I didn’t know you could get them anywhere other than your lip.  And the doctor said they could leave scars. So instead of a fabulous pre-Christmas week in the Big Apple, I was stuck indoors, soaking my face in medicated compresses.  Happy *@*%! birthday to me.

Handel’s Messiah saved me.  As a secular Jew, I would have been reluctant to go to church on Christmas Eve under the best of circumstances.  As a dead ringer for the Elephant Man, there was no way I wanted to hear people sing about Jesus for three hours at a midnight mass.

But music is a funny thing.  At its best, it transcends its subject matter.  And when people come together to celebrate joy, joy is what you get.  Mundane things like religion – or a face that looks like pepperoni pizza – seem to disappear.  And so every December 23rd or so, I skip the mall and head for Disney Hall.  Because while Messiah may not be the most exciting music ever written, there’s something about a room full of people singing the Hallelujah Chorus that embodies the true Christmas spirit and reminds of the best part of our humanity in a way that fighting over that last Play Station on the shelf never will.

 So to all of us this Christmastime — no matter who you are, or what you believe — I wish you Peace on Earth and all the joy in the world.


For more on December 23rd, go to

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Dissecting “Dennis”: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the randomization of questions



Cedric the Entertainer likes to call the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire computer “Dennis.”

Dennis is supposed to randomize each contestant’s topic tree.  In theory, after Dennis does his magic, a contestant’s first ten questions appear in random order of difficulty.

But I noticed something when I recently went through the unofficial transcripts at the WWTBAM Bored.   The question distribution didn’t seem random.  Rather it appeared that the more difficult questions were mostly appearing later in the round.

 Sure enough, when I went back and ran the numbers from 59 recent shows (463 questions in total) in which the contestant’s pre-randomized tree was first shown, this was borne out.

Level 1 & 2 questions appeared 49% of the time on question 1.

Level 7 and higher questions turned up just 10% of the time on questions 1-3.


The average difficulty level (which should be 5.0 for each question) was as follows:


1.         3.05    

2.         3.92

3.         5.44

4.         5.67

5.         6.34

6.         5.15

7.         6.19

8.         6.97

9.         6.37

10.       6.73


I’ts been a long time since I studied higher math.  So I have no idea whether this is an expected distribution based on 463 questions.  If you do, please feel free to leave an explanation in the comments, below.

I’ve always assumed the pre-randomized trees aren’t always shown because of running time concerns.  But is it possible that the producers are intentionally editing out trees in which difficult questions appear upfront?

Or is it possible that there’s something wrong with Dennis?  Or that the so-called randomization isn’t really random after all.

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To Ask or Not to Ask (the Audience): Revisiting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s Trickiest Lifeline





In game show parlance, I got “dursted.”

But then relying on someone else for an answer on has always been an iffy business on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. 

Just ask comedian Rudy Reber, who was a contestant on the show in February 2000.

Reber was in the hot seat with $250,000.  If he answered the next question correctly, he would earn $500,000 and see the million dollar question.  If he missed, he would drop to $32,000 and be out. 




The question:  Which Hollywood figure directed Michael Jackson’s 1988 video “Bad”? 

Reber didn’t know.  But he had his phone-a-friend “lifeline,” which he used to call fellow comedian, Will Durst.  Durst told Reber he knew for a fact that it was John Landis.  Reber took Durst’s advice and made it his final answer.

That misstep cost Reber $218,000 and bought Durst game-show immortality as a verb. (For the record, Landis directed Jackson’s “Thriller” video; Martin Scorsese directed “Bad”

The phone-a-friend is long gone, along with the 50-50 and various other lifelines which have followed over the years.  They’ve been replaced by the more reliable “jump-the-question” (or “JTQ”), which contestants can use up to twice to bypass a question altogether, along any money they might have gotten from it.

 A more devious change is in the order of the first ten questions (Round 1), which is now random Contestants aren’t told the difficulty level of each.  As a result, it can be hard for a contestant to gauge just how many difficult questions they’ve seen, and whether any “wicked weed outs” are likely to come.

 Yet despite these and other changes, one thing has endured: the ask-the-audience (ATA) lifeline, which has been there from the start.  It’s interactive.  It’s dramatic.  Best of all, it’s unpredictable.

 Or is it?




On the day of my show, before the morning’s taping began, Millionaire’s executive producer, Rich Strop, showed the contestants some sample questions.  The idea was to teach us what made for a good ATA question.  But the guidelines were somewhat vague, and I had little time to digest the information.   I was up almost right away, the second contestant on the first of five episodes that would tape that day.

I breezed quickly through five of my first six questions, using a jump on the third to be safe.

 I was feeling pretty confident as question 7 appeared on-screen:


Boasting it “helps sell records,” what rap act put their own “explicit content” sticker on 1987’s “Rhyme Pays”?


A : Public Enemy       B:  LL Cool J

C:  Ice-T               D.  Beastie Boys


Here was the category I’d dreaded going in.  My first inclination was to use my second jump.  But three of my first six questions had seemed really easy, and even the one I’d jumped hadn’t been that hard.  Which meant a there were probably hard questions still to come.  I might need that jump.  And since I’d gotten low random dollar amounts to that point, the question was worth between $5,000 and $25,000. 

A little less knowledge would have served me well.  If I wasn’t so familiar with these artists, I would have used my last JTQ and not thought about it twice.  But rock radio had played the Beastie Boys a lot and I was able to rule them out.  And I had negotiated deals for LL Cool J.  

1987 might be pushing the envelope time-wise, but I was not a big fan of rap.   Maybe “Rhyme Pays” had been a huge album.  If so, the audience might know.  And if they didn’t, the distribution of their responses should be more-or-less random, in which case I’d use my last jump.  Sure, I’d be burning my ATA.  But it would give me a chance to save the more valuable jump.

The audience’s response surprised me:


A – 47%
B – 10%
C – 22%
D – 21%


Neither the overwhelming majority I’d hoped for, nor the random distribution I expected.  Still, Public Enemy was the top response by more than a 2-1 margin.  And a full one-quarter of the audience had picked them over the next closest choice, Ice-T.  I decided it was enough.

As durstings go, mine wasn’t nearly as bad as Reber’s.  But it did mean I lost money on my appearance, since Millionaire doesn’t pay for contestants’ hotel or airfare.  The $1,000 consolation prize might be nice for locals, but it doesn’t cover the cost of cross-country airfare and two nights in a New York City hotel.  Not to mention the costs of a trip to Las Vegas for the audition. 

So what exactly went wrong?

Was it just that 1987 was too far back after all?  Or is that Millionaire audiences are like me, knowledgeable about music generally, but not big on rap?




To find out I turned to the WWTBAM Bored, where a group of loyal fans posts unofficial transcripts of each show.  I analyzed the 100 most recent Round 1 ATA questions, sorting them by category, difficulty level, and the time period the question addressed.

The audience’s overall success rate was 77%, down from a supposed 91% during the PAF/50-50 era (See Ignoring the Wisdom of Crowds).

As expected, difficulty level proved the best predictor of audience accuracy.  At levels 1-5, the audience was 100%.  But when you’re on the show, determining difficulty isn’t easy, especially early in the round.  Were there any other guidelines that might have helped?


As it turns out, there are.


The audience was almost always right when:


  1. At least 50% of the audience agreed on the top response (93% accuracy); OR


  1. There was a 20% or greater difference between the top two responses (92% accuracy).


And they were usually wrong whenever:


  1. Less than 40% agreed on the top answer (15% accuracy); OR


  1. Less than 20% separated the top two responses (38% accuracy).



Category and time period proved less relevant than one might expect.  Only two categories stood out as problematic.  The first was history, on which the audience was a dismal zero for three.

Their other bad category was – you guessed it — rap.  They were one for three, and the one they got right was also a film question.

Perhaps most notably, the audience did well on other music questions, going 11 for 14.

So is rap Millionaire’s contestant killer, or is something else at work?

I was told afterward by some people at my taping that the audience missed every question they were asked that morning.  They also told me that they’d been misled by the words “their” and “act” in my question into thinking the answer had to be a group.

Maybe it was the audience, then.  Maybe it was the show’s writers.  More likely, however, the questions were just too difficult.  And my guidelines would have weeded out the audience’s errors, even in my case, with was a pretty close call.

In retrospect, my decision to go with the audience wasn’t terrible.  There was a 25% margin between the top two responses, and the highest was one I hadn’t ruled out.

So, is rap really the problem, or does something magic happen at 50%?  I’ll leave that one to academicians to sort out.  But as considerable as Strop’s wisdom is, I’d have gladly traded it for my numbers.

Future WWTBAM contestants, you’re welcome.  But if it all goes wrong, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  The ATA can be fickle.  And a mind is a terrible thing to Durst.


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Runaways mania in Tokyo

In June 1977 the Japanese caught Runaways mania. It was the moment we’d been waiting for — to play in front of truly appreciative fans, to stay in nice hotels, to get a taste of the rock star life. But there was a scary side to it as well and two memorable incidents stand out.

One came at a scheduled appearance at a record store, where we were to meet fans and sign autographs. We were supposed to be dropped off by limo at the front entrance, but the appearance was over-attended and the front of the store too packed for us to go in that way. So the limo driver went around back through the alley. Once we got into the alley, though, we discovered that it was even more packed than the front, but there was no turning back as the limo was immediately overrun by fans and the driver couldn’t see to reverse.

We inched our way through the alley, with the driver and us terrified we were going to run over some poor Japanese kid. The windows were rolled up and as the fans surrounded the limo and press up against the exterior vents, we started to run out of air, a truly terrifying moment. So someone cracked a window, at which point the fans started to throw things through the cracks, including a letter addressed to me, which turned out to be a heartfelt five page love letter. After about 45 minutes of inching forward in fits and jerks, we finally made it through the alley, although we never made it to the store as the record company decided it was too risky.

Later that week on our way to a television appearance, the crowds grew too thick again and we had to we had to crawl into an office through a window, walk down five flights of stairs and through a basement with a very low ceiling which led into a kitchen in the basement of the building next to it. From there we took an elevator up to a department store, where we were hustled through the crowd and out the main door. Some of our fans, however, had figured out our escape path and were waiting for us. They chased us down the street until we managed to get away long enough to make it back to our hotel, where yet more fans were waiting and we had to run through the back entrance. It really was like a scene out of Help!, both fun and scary at the same time.

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My President went to the Supreme Court and all I got was this lousy Vicodin

A number of news items recently caught my eye: California approved an average health insurance premium increase of 14% for Anthem/Blue Cross subscribers after public pressure forced it to withdraw its request for a much larger hike; the Government Accountability Office reported that Medicare is subsidizing prescription drug abuse; the Prescription Drug Summit at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that prescription drugs are increasingly falling into the hands of people who abuse them; in Florida, a group of parents and other concerned citizens protested a meeting of the Board of Medicine for stronger action against physicians who overprescribe pain medication; and today the Los Angeles Times printed that at least three patients had died of overdoses from drugs prescribed by a Southern California physician. Amidst the outcry over the increasing incidence of abuse of prescription narcotics, one group stands shockingly free from accusation: health insurers, who put very few limits on the amount of narcotic pain pills prescribed by an M.D., but severely limit the number of visits for alternative and less risky treatments for pain, including visits to chiropractors, acupuncturists and mental health professionals.

The reason for the discrepancy is purely economic. Under an Anthem/Blue Cross group PPO plan costing over $1,000/month, the copay for a thirty-day supply of ninety pills of hydrocodone with acetaminophen (generic for Vicodin) is $10. The copay for three-times per week physical therapy for that same period of time is approximately $750, and combined physical therapy/chiropractor visits are limited to 20 per calendar year. And if a large number of Americans become addicted to painkillers, what does it matter to the insurance companies, which have shielded themselves from the costs? The number of visits to mental health professionals is limited to 20 per calendar year, including visits for chemical dependency, and subject to higher co-pays. The burden of the insurance companies’ irresponsibility gets shifted to employers, the states (who pay disability benefits for inability to work due to addiction), patients and their families and, perhaps most of all, to American society itself.

But it is not just the insurance companies that are to blame. Responsibility belongs to all of us — government, corporations and individuals as well as insurers. Government because there is no will to achieve true health care reform. The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge on the consitutionality of the Obama health care plan this term, a plan that offends almost everyone — Republicans because they think the plan is taxes couched as a mandate (and because they consider almost everything Obama does an offense), and Democrats because a mandate puts an almost insurmountable burden on the poor and the unemployed, for whom the cost of insurance is prohibitive. But Obama is right about one thing — without healthy people in the pool, the very notion of insurance collapses, and in a weak economy, many healthy people have stopped buying insurance. But the mandate is flawed, not so much in that it requires us to buy a product (although the Supreme Court may disagree), but in that it requires us to buy such a bad product.

Corporations bear responsibility because employee well-being is a notion of the past, and the only numbers that matter are those on the balance sheet at the end of each quarter. We have become a nation of expendable zombies, as fewer of us are expected to do more, in an increasingly longer work day. Use and abuse of prescription sleep medication is at an all-time high, especially among the young. We are easily replaced when we burn out, and for most of us wages have stagnated even as CEOs are receiving record compensation and the wage gap between those at the top and those at the bottom, while not at record highs, still boggles the mind. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people and, therefore, not subject to any restrictions on the amount they can spend of political ads, which are protected as free speech, the likelihood that Congress will act to close up loopholes in the tax code favorable to the wealthy and industry decreases every day, while the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers will increase the burden on young workers of providing Medicare benefits for a generation with ever-increasing life expectancy.

But we as individuals are responsible, too, because we have gone to George Orwell’s Room 101 — where in our fear of losing what little we still have, we want government to “do it to someone else” — tax someone else, take benefits from someone else, send the opposing party down in flames, just don’t do it us.

There is no easy fix to the health-care problem, but unless we break free of partisan rancor and fearful self-interest, health care is destined to become the perogative of the privileged few. As for the rest of us, there’s always generic Vicodin to ease the pain.

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