Thursday, April 30, 2009

Computers in Jeopardy?





I read the other day that IBM plans on having a computer compete against human contestants on the TV show, "Jeopardy!" The claim is that if the computer beats people, it will be a big leap forward in the field of artificial intelligence. It doesn't sound like a leap to me. We already know that computers can be faster than humans and that their "brains" can contain more information. So what's the big deal? However, the people at IBM are quite excited about this. I assume "quite excited" translates at IBM to mean that some of the folks there are actually considering loosening their ties.

If IBM (or one of its clones) were announcing that it had finally made a computer that will last longer than a ballpoint pen, then I might be excited. If they had come up with a computer that doesn't crash the night before something important is due, I'd put on a tie and loosen it. I'd be impressed if they were demonstrating a new program that could tell the difference between e-mail from my mother and spam from "Swedish Porn And Farm Supplies." But a computer that's good at playing a game? Big whoop.

So I wasn't all that impressed when I first read about this, but then I started thinking that maybe I was being too quick to judge. Maybe I'll consider this computer amazing when I actually see it on the show. Once they put it on the set, sandwiched between a male and a female contestant, maybe it will do things besides just answer questions. Maybe the computer will be better dressed than the human contestants. Maybe it won't make dumb wagers. Maybe it will be impressive during what the show's producers refer to as the "interview portion" of the program and what we at home call, "the bathroom break." That's the time when the contestants tell "fascinating" stories about themselves like, "One time I had a flat tire." Maybe the geniuses at IBM will have programmed the computer to tell an anecdote that's actually interesting, like a story about the time the computer was caught in a motel room fooling around with a DVD player.

One of the quirks of "Jeopardy!" is that the contestant is actually given the "answer," and he or she must supply the "question." For example, the "answer" might be "Claimed She Could See Russia From Her House," so the correct "question" would be, "Who is Sarah Palin?" A response that would be technically correct, but not what they're looking for would be, "Who is Mrs. Putin?"

I guess this kind of subtlety about giving an answer that is factually correct but obviously not what they're looking for is one of the things that make it difficult for a computer to play the game. Understanding the vernacular of the show and the strange categories that sometimes appear are all things that aren't easy for computers. It would be a slam-dunk if the show just asked questions like, "What's the square root of the year President Obama was born, multiplied by the number of cosmetic surgeries that Joan Rivers has had?"

The computer that they'll use isn't like the one I'm using right now. It's going to be a Blue Gene supercomputer, whatever that is. Most people will probably be rooting for the people against the computer. That's just human nature. We often hate machines, hate talking to them on the phone, and hate having to deal with them when we forget our stupid passwords.

We love stories about a guy who can do math faster on his abacus than some computer. We shake our heads sadly when computers replace people at work. We shrug knowingly when we hear about a major computer mess-up like when students are told they've been admitted to a university that they aren't even qualified to visit. So I predict that the audience will be cheering if that librarian from Omaha kicks the computer's hard drive.

Gary Johnson, "Jeopardy!" Head Writer, said he wasn't worried about the computer challenging "Jeopardy's" human contestants until he read the last sentence in the news article about the challenge. That's where computer scientitst, Eric Nyberg said that he and his colleagues sit around after work and talk about ideas while "having beers." Johnson's response was a big "uh-oh," because "that's exactly what we do around here after work."




Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Name Game









We all know people who have unusual names. Some of them are intended to be "cute," like Justin Thyme or Madison S. Garden. You might wince when you hear names like these, but others might think they're clever. Whether someone has a "good" name is subjective. You can't legislate this kind of thing, right? Well, that's exactly what one judge in the Dominican Republic wants to do.

Apparently, there is a trend among Dominicans to give their children names that are cartoon characters, body parts, and car makes. Gender ambiguity is also big in names these days. An electoral commission judge is against this sort of thing. Unfortunately, for the sake of irony and this column, this judge is not named "Outlandish Justice Smith." It is Jose Angel Aquino.

Two of the names Aquino mentioned were "Mazda Altagracia" and a name that translates to "Breast Jimenez." I can understand his not being a fan of names like this, but that doesn't mean I think they should be outlawed. Who has the right to decide for others what they should name their kids?

Of course, the Dominican Republic isn't the only place where children are sometimes given unusual names. My son went to school with a boy named "Tai-chi" and a girl named, "Gypsy." In the past few decades, we've seen names like, "Butterfly," "Freedom," and "Peace" – not to mention, "Moon Unit" and "Dweezil." In the world of sports, there have been players named Lawyer Malloy, Pacman Jones, and Coco Crisp.

But clearly what the judge is talking about are names that parents give their kids that don't seem appropriate to him. We all know what he means. Parents come up with a first name that they think would be a fun combo with their last name. If their family name is Daniels, they name the kid, "Jack." If the parents' name is Port, they name their child, "Ari." If their last name is Land, they name their kid, "Disney."

Some parents show appropriate restraint. Minnie Driver's folks resisted naming her, "Backseat," Barry Bond's parents didn't name him, "Junk," and Brad Pitt's parents held back from naming him, "Arm."

But some people just can't stop themselves from giving their child an outrageous name. I know we're supposed to be non-judgmental about this, but it's hard not to react if Mr. and Mrs. Motel name their daughter, "Bates," or if Mr. and Mrs. Mills name their son, "General." And I'm going to feel bad for the kid if Mr. and Mrs. Waite named him "Over."

Our thought when we hear names like these is that the parents didn't really think things through. They might have had a good laugh when they gave their kid a name, but apparently they didn't realize how much he or she would be teased. For example, if you have twins, you don't have to name them "Trick" and "Treat." If your last name is Bigg, you can resist the temptation to name your daughter, "Too." A well-known retired racecar driver has the name Dick Trickle. What were his parents thinking when they named him, "Richard?" If your last name were Trickle, don't you think you'd think things through a bit?

On the other hand, if we are to believe that great child psychologist, Johnny Cash, maybe having a name that gets a kid teased might make that kid stronger. That's what he sang about in "A Boy Named Sue." Shel Silverstein wrote the song, and Silverstein wrote many respected stories and books for children. In the song, Sue's father points out that it's because of Sue being picked on and having to fight so much that he became a strong man.

All of this supports my initial position that a democratic country cannot and should not legislate what people name their kids. What some people think is a stupid name, others will think is brilliant. There just can't be any objective standard about this. Well, there can be in one instance. Years ago, a basketball player whose last name was "Free" changed his name to "World B. Free." It was a nice sentiment, but the problem is that he changed his name from what is objectively one of the absolute greatest names ever: Mr. Free's first name had been Lloyd.




Thursday, April 16, 2009

Words From The Afterlife





I know it's not the same as toiling in the mines, but writing is hard work. That's why it's so impressive to me when someone is prolific. Thriller novelist Robert Ludlum, author of "The Bourne Identity," among others, is an example. He has written countless books depicting intricate conspiracies, some were turned into movies, he has sold almost 300 million copies, and has had his books translated into 32 languages. But the really amazing thing is that he has published more than a dozen books in the last eight years. Why is that so impressive? He died in 2001.

Ludlum hasn't proved that there is life after death, but he's certainly shown that there can writing after death. It's not unique for previously unpublished works of a writer to be published posthumously. But the late Ludlum continues to crank these things out year after year. He has fans everywhere who anxiously await the next book written by a dead guy.

His executor and his agent say that some of the works have been books that Ludlum wrote, but just weren't published before he passed away. Others have been written by other writers including an old friend of Ludlum's whose name sounds a bit like a Ludlum villain - – Eric Van Lustbader. However, it's the Ludlum name that sells books. Van Lustbader wrote "The Bourne Betrayal," but on the book's cover, Ludlum's name is twice as tall as Van Lustbader's.

It was probably thirty years ago that I started reading Ludlum's page-turning books of intrigue where there was a new conspiracy in every other chapter. More recently, I often buy a Ludlum paperback at the airport before I fly somewhere. That's what I did on a recent trip. I feel it's fitting for me to read a mystery on an airplane since there is so much mystery involved in air travel these days: Will the plane arrive on time? Will my suitcase be there? Or like the last time I flew -- will I be stopped by security for possession of yogurt with intent to eat?

The book I chose on my recent trip, "The Sigma Protocol" is thought to have been the last novel written entirely by Ludlum. I didn't know that when I bought it. I was a little suspicious, because on the cover it didn't say, "written by Robert Ludlum," it just said, "Robert Ludlumä." That's right. There was a little "trademark" symbol next to his name. I didn't know you could trademark your own name. Did his estate think that if they hadn't done this, millions of other people would be walking around the world calling themselves, "Robert Ludlum?"

Those who put out his books don't exactly announce that Ludlum is no longer with us. Believe me, it doesn't say, "A book written in the style of the late Robert Ludlum" on any of the covers. But this is not a conspiracy against the great conspiracy theorist. All of this post-death writing is being done with Ludlum's permission and blessing. He wanted his life's work to go on after his life. Well, who doesn't? Wouldn't you like your heirs to continue to receive your paychecks after you pass away while someone else does the work for you? These days, it's hard enough for a living person to make a living, and here's a dead one who's doing a lot better than most of us.

However, there's no reason to be envious of Ludlumä and Company. The good news is that he has set a precedent for the rest of us. We can all decide that our careers will continue after we pass away. So, if you don't feel like going into work next week, all you have to tell your boss is, "Don't worry. I owe you a week, and I'll make it up the first week after I die." If your boss doesn't buy it, just claim it's a conspiracy against you. And then write a book.




Friday, April 10, 2009

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes





The University of Oklahoma's Courtney Paris recently became the first four time All-American in women's college basketball history. That's right, she played for four years, and she was an All-American every year. She also set some 18 records while playing basketball for Oklahoma. However, she will probably be remembered for something she said rather than all that she did while a basketball player. About a month ago, she guaranteed that the Oklahoma team would win the National Championship. In fact, she said that if they didn't win it all, she would repay the university for all four years of her scholarship. On April 5th, Oklahoma lost to Louisville in the semifinals, 61-59. Should Courtney make good on her promise? Is she a braggart or is she someone with integrity? Will the University sue her for the money?

It's not unusual for athletes to boast before a big event. Forty years ago, Joe Namath made his famous guarantee that the Jets would win the Super Bowl. Muhammad Ali used to promise that he would knock out his opponent in a specific round. But I don't remember athletes guaranteeing that if they didn't fulfill their promise, they'd give all the money back. Until now. Paris, the daughter of former San Francisco 49er football player Bubba Paris, had implied that unless she led the Oklahoma Sooners to a championship, she hadn't earned all that the University had given her.

If I were Courtney's father, I'm not sure how I would've reacted to hearing my daughter suggest that she might give back all of her scholarship money. Also, if I were her father, it's unlikely that my name would be Bubba.

Her promise wasn't an easy one to make. Oklahoma was not favored to win. The University of Connecticut, the eventual champions, were the favorites. So it's not like she was a Harlem globetrotter saying he'd give back his entire salary if his team lost to the Washington Generals. This wasn't Julia Roberts saying she'd give back her salary if her latest movie didn't sell one ticket. It's not as if Chicago's Mayor Daley said he'd give back all the money the city had ever paid him if he lost to a Republican. She really went out on a limb.

Quite correctly, the University has said they will not hold Courtney to her promise. They feel she has already earned every penny of her scholarship by bringing attention to the program, by attracting more and more fans, and by playing great basketball. The money is estimated to be at least $64,000. I don't know which is more historic: Courtney's promise or an educational institution turning down money.

Courtney says she's going to pay back all the money no matter what the school says. She doesn't have the money now, but she said she will repay the school even if it takes her the rest of her life.

Most people seem to be writing her off as crazy, a loud mouth, or at best, a kid who foolishly said something that wiser adults should ignore. Maybe she's not any of these things. Maybe she's simply someone who feels that a promise is a promise. As a professional player, she won't make the tens of millions that male pro players make. So it's not like she's going to earn that $64,000-plus in the first two minutes of her first professional game.

Like most athletes, she probably hired a financial adviser after about thirty seconds of her last collegiate game. Maybe he or she will come up with a way that the University can get the money that Courtney feels they're entitled to without causing her any hardship. Perhaps a Courtney Paris scholarship Fund can be set up, and the University will end up getting far more than $64,000. You know, they could name it something like, the "You'd Better Think Before You Open Your Mouth Foundation."

Adults can also learn from young Courtney Paris. Sure, she was boastful, and maybe she made a promise in the heat of the moment. But in this era when some people feel no compunction about accepting huge salaries or bonuses after poor performance, here is someone who is willing to pay back money just because she didn't achieve ultimate success, almost perfection. She's not asking for a bailout, she's offering her school a bailout. She's not saying, "Don' blame me, it was the other people who messed up." In recent months, how many executives have we heard say, "I'll pay back every penny to the people I let down?" That's right, zero.

We might never see another student athlete like Courtney. However, to quote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, "We'll always have Paris."







Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Final Four Frenzy






Below are four columns I wrote in Detroit while covering the NCAA Basketball Championship.



2009 Final Four Diary: Pre-Game Warm-up


It's NCAA Basketball Championship time of the year again, but you can't tell that by the temperature in tournament city, Detroit. It's more like football weather here than spring, although I'm not bringing up football in Detroit while the people of this city are in such a good mood. And they are.

Hours before game time, the streets are packed, mostly with fans of nearby Michigan State. There is so much excitement in the air of Detroit that you'd think some dealer finally sold a Yukon. It's remarkable that a city that has been hit so hard by tough economic times can be cheered up by a mere basketball tournament, but that is the power of sport.

Of course, it's not just any basketball tournament, and more importantly, people here are thrilled by the possibility that "their" Michigan State Spartans might become National Champions in a few days. In fact, the people I've talked to aren't even nervous about the games. They're simply assuming that their guys will win. I hope the team isn't as over-confident as their fans. I also hope that the team hasn't been partying all day before the game.

People on the street have told me that this basketball weekend means a great deal to the city. When I asked if the good feelings will remain after the championship game on Monday, the answer has been a unanimous "yes." One man pointed out that the basketball games will be followed by baseball's opening day and the hockey playoffs. He felt that should at least get people's minds partially off their troubles.

But what if they lose tonight? Will unhappy fans go crazy in the streets? Or what if they win? Will happy fans go crazy in the streets? A policeman I interviewed said that he's not worried. He feels that the fans are just in an "up" mood, and doesn't expect any problems. I don't, either. Nonetheless there are almost as many police cars downtown as ticket scalpers.

I'm in no way discounting the fans or the teams of the other three schools. It's just that we're here in Detroit, and for Michigan State, it's almost like a home game. But whoever scheduled tonight's double header doesn't know about drama. The game that all of those crazed fans in the street want to see – Michigan State and Connecticut -- is the first game. You don't have Chris Rock or the Rolling Stones as an opening act. Of course, I don't think too many people will be leaving after the first game and avoiding North Carolina and Villanova. There are four exciting teams playing tonight, and, as usual with these games, I'm mostly hoping for close games. I don't know if we'll get a double-overtime game like last year, but we'll have to wait and see.

I'm going to leave my hotel now, which is oddly a huge hotel inside of a huge business complex, and head over to the arena. Maybe that's actually fitting since the basketball court at Ford Field is inside a football stadium. It'll be a nice, brisk walk that should loosen me up for the games. It's an interesting walk which involves passing at least one casino. I've been told that gambling is one industry that hasn't suffered during the recession. Maybe instead of Fiat, Chrysler should merge with Caesar's Palace. Enjoy the games.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

2009 Final Four Diary: The Semifinals – April Madness


If you're a sports fan, you already know that Michigan State beat the University of Connecticut and North Carolina beat Villanova in the NCAA semifinal games. I'm not going to give you endless statistics from the games. I'm going to give you something different: the view from someone who was at the games -- a fan's perspective.

Think basketball is just a big man's game? Well, the University of Connecticut had the biggest player of them all, 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet, but Michigan State's six-footer, Kailin Lucas was the high scorer for the victorious Spartans. In the second game, North Carolina's 5'11" Ty Lawson was the high scorer as his Tar Heels beat the Villanova Wildcats. So in each contest, the smallest player in the game came up the biggest. Forget about trying to dunk. Just keep practicing your driveway jump shot.

I can't overstate the excitement in Ford Field as 72,000 people got ready to watch Michigan State play the University of Connecticut. It seemed as if 71,000 of them were rooting for Michigan State. As the introductions were made, the respective coaches, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun slowly walked to each other like two gunslingers from the old west. And a shootout was about to begin – for one team, at least. They gave each other what looked like insincere smiles and handshakes, and then the game started. In less than 30 seconds, Lucas hit a jump shot and Michigan State had the lead.

During the game, Connecticut's Coach Calhoun kept looking around, astonished. His body language implied that he thought something weird was occurring. Instead, it was just that Michigan State was much better than he – and most "experts" – anticipated.

The most famous MSU player in history, Magic Johnson, was in the stands, and during time-outs he signed autographs and posed for pictures with his electric smile. During the game, I'm sure he was as nervous as the rest of the fans who had to keep worrying that no lead was safe against UCONN.

With a little over a minute left in the game and MSU ahead by five, Spartan Goran Suton undercut Connecticut big man Thabeet and the seven footer crashed to the floor. His head hit the wood making a sickening thud. It took him a while to get up, and when he did, he said he was "okay," but he looked like a boxer who had been knocked down by a hook to the jaw. He was wobbly, and it didn't look like he was sure where he was. His coaches and trainers wisely took him out of the game and let someone else shoot his free throws. Fortunately, his injury was not serious, but it was symbolic: Michigan State made Connecticut wobbly and knocked them out of the tournament.

The arena went crazy. At the press conference, Michigan State's coach and players said they hoped they were helping the people of Detroit – and of Michigan in general—forget their troubles, even if just for a little while. And they certainly seemed to be.

The second game was an emotional letdown for everyone except North Carolina and their fans. After five minutes of the first half, it was obvious that there was no way North Carolina was going to lose. Villanova might have led the Final Four teams with the most players named Corey – two – but that's about the only category that they led in their semi-final game.

It's not that the Tar Heels played that great. In the second half, they only hit 31% of their shots, but Villanova only made 23% of theirs.

Villanova had a priest on their bench who helped with anything that needed to be done and urged the team on. This could lead to an interesting situation if Villanova ever plays Yeshiva University in the Final Four.

I witnessed a nice moment of sportsmanship during halftime of the Carolina-Villanova game. The two mascots, hot and exhausted, sat with each other on the floor of a hallway at Ford Field. They removed the heads of their costumes, drank water, and talked about the game. Maybe they were enemies during the game, but they shared a commonality that nobody else in the arena could understand. I suggested to them that they switch costumes for the second half. The Villanova mascot said he'd be tempted if his team kept playing the way they were, but the Carolina ram just shook his head, "no."



So we're down to two teams, one game. North Carolina is favored over Michigan State. They are considered "the class" of the tournament. But as MSU's coach, Tom Izzo said after their semi-final victory, "This is a blue collar team, playing in The blue collar city." Of course, let's not forget that those in Carolina Blue might also have something to do with the outcome of the Championship Game.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Michael Jordan, My New Roommate





Okay, maybe the above headline is a little misleading. But I was in the same room Michael Jordan today. It was the annual ceremony in which this year's new basketball Hall of Famers were announced. Surprising no one, Michael Jordan was one of those chosen in his first year of eligibility. Along with Jordan, John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, and coach Vivian Stryker comprised the class of 2009.

Sportswriters aren't supposed to get excited around athletes. They're supposed to act blasé, but I didn't see a lot of blasé-ishness when it came to Jordan. Grizzled reporters asked for autographs and photos, you know, for their "kids."

Except for Michael Jordan, all of the soon to be inducted members expressed how thrilled they were to be there. While he was grateful for the honor, M.J. talked about some ambivalence, for the honor implied to him that is playing days were definitely over. He thought it would be more appropriate for people to be elected to the Hall of Fame when they were in "their 70s," when they could no longer tell themselves that all they had to do is put on a pair shorts and get out on the court and compete.

The others who've retired from basketball seemed to have moved on with their lives. They appeared to have adjusted fairly well to life after basketball. Not Michael Jordan. He freely admitted that he missed the competition, and golf was no helping to satisfy his competitive addiction.

Jordan's penchant for competition was obvious at the ceremony. When M.C. Jim Nantz kiddingly told the former North Carolina star that if tonight's championship game is tied after regulation, instead of overtime, it was decided that Jordan should play Michigan State's Magic Johnson one-on-one to decide the outcome. Jordan laughed, "Are you kidding me? That's no problem. Magic's never beaten me in a Final."

I asked Michael a question at the ceremony. (That counts as my having a friendly conversation with him, doesn't it)? I wanted to know what it was like for him to watch his kids play basketball and what it was like for them to play with him watching. Obviously, I said, some of us fathers didn't have the exact kind of basketball career that he did -- although I had a very quick release.

He replied that he didn't think it was all that different from any other parent watching his or her kids play. One major difference was that's it was aware that people at the games constantly look at him to see how he reacts to the game, so he has had to control his reactions. But overall, he said that you get as much joy, just as much pride out of the experience as anybody else.

However, then he told an anecdote. Get his younger son a, Marcus, was on the team that recently won the Illinois state high school basketball championship. Michael said he was very proud. There are even reports that he cried. After winning, Marcus pointed out to him that he had won something that Michael never had -- a state championship. Michael told us that he answered, "That's true. But I won a lot of things later on in my career."

He said that his point was that his son shouldn't be satisfied, and he should continue to strive to accomplish things whether in basketball or in the rest of his life. But it sure also sounded like the old man was competing with his son.

I was tempted to bet Michael that I can type faster than he can. But I held back. I figured, considering his drive, by next year, he'd be one of the fastest typists in the world.

On a non- basketball note, I discovered today that here in Detroit, there is a real school called General Motors University. I have a feeling that's applications are probably down these days for their business school.





Have a good game tonight.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


2009 Final Final Four Report: The Party's Over



The bubble burst, the prince turned back to a frog, and that classic, tricked out Mustang was really an old Ford. Pick a cliché, but the fact is that Magic ran out of magic, reality reared its ugly head, and the University of North Carolina trounced Michigan State to become the 2009 NCAA basketball champions.

As in the semi-final game, after five minutes, it was obvious to everybody that North Carolina was going to win the game. With 13 minutes, 57 seconds left in the first half, Michigan State trailed 21 to 7 and their fans started shouting, "We want new refs." But they should have called for new players. MSU just wasn't as good as Carolina.

Before the game, Motown's "The Temptations" sang the national anthem. For Michigan State to have won, they could have used "The "Miracles."

UNC was bigger, stronger, and even seemed faster than MSU. Chalk some of State's poor play up to lack of Final Four experience, peaking in the semi-final game, and stage fright in front of a record crowd. But chalk up most of that poor play to the defense of North Carolina. In so many ways, from Dean Smith to Michael Jordan to Tyler Hansbrough staying all four years, the University of North Carolina is college basketball. I mean, Hansbrough played for Poplar Bluff High School. "Poplar Bluff?!" That could have easily have been one of the teams in the movie, "Hoosiers."

Think basketball isn't all that important in Detroit? A leading candidate for the city's mayor is former basketball great Dave Bing. If Rasheed Wallace runs for sheriff, you'll know things have gone too far.

Michigan State didn't "blow it." North Carolina won it. But the Spartans have nothing to be ashamed of – far from it. They made it to the Championship Game, they overcame all kinds of problems, they inspired a city, a state, and possibly a great portion of our country. And many of their players will be back next year.

The people I talked to after MSU's loss feel that the positive feelings that Michigan State brought to Detroit will last for a while, despite the result of the final game. They know times are tough, but they believe they'll come out of this dark tunnel better than when they went in. Some of it seems to be naïve thinking as they still talk in glowing terms about the latest model Pontiac as if that's going to turn G.M. around. But mostly they are people who have always seen that hard work has paid off.

My bus driver gave me his philosophy on dealing with the recession. He seemed to feel it was a lot like the Detroit weather. You can't do anything about it, so why complain? Or, as he put it: "Either you can cry in your beer, or you can drink your beer, and go to work." I don't think he meant to go to work drunk. He just meant to suck it up and keep working.

I'm sure that's the advice he'd give to the Michigan State team: don't cry about it. Just suck it up, and keep working.




Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Queen And I





President and Michelle Obama recently visited the Queen of England in Buckingham Palace. Although the event obviously took place in England, for me it was yet another "only in America" event. In what other country could Michelle and Barack Obama come from where they were born and raised and end up visiting the Queen? If you used that time machine you have in the garage, and went back a few decades and were driving through the South Side of Chicago or the streets of Honolulu, and you pointed to young Michelle and/or young Barack and you told your passenger, "Some day he (or she) is going to have a private audience with Queen Elizabeth," you would have been put away faster than you could say, "totally delusional." But there they were in Buckingham palace.

We Americans probably have even more affection for the institution of the British monarchy than the Brits themselves. We wouldn't want to have a king or queen, but we think it's great that they do. We love the tradition, the pomp, even the absurdity of it. Most of us will never get to meet the Queen, so we can only enjoy a visit with Her Majesty vicariously, as with the President's recent visit.

I know I did. I couldn't help thinking what it would be like for me to be in Buckingham Palace shaking hands with the Queen and Prince Phillip. President and Michelle Obama are far more sophisticated than I am, but there had to be at least a moment of, "Can you believe we're actually going to visit the Queen?" Which, if they're like most couples, was probably followed up by, "Yes, but what I can't believe is that you're wearing that tie to Buckingham Palace."

I can imagine my wife giving me last-minute advice in the car: "Now, not everyone in the world cares about basketball. Don't ask the Queen if she had a good bracket for the Final Four."

When we pulled up to the Palace, I'd be struck by a moment of panic when I'd turn to my wife and ask, "Are you sure this is the right night? Check the invitation. What if we messed up and it's next week?"

Once actually in the Queen's presence, I don't think I'd be able to resist asking her what we'd all like to ask her: "What's up with the purse? You carry it wherever you go, and you clutch onto it for dear life. You've got a zillion guards. Who do you think is going to steal your purse?"

And if there were a lull in the conversation -– because I wasn't bringing up basketball – it's just possible I'd say, "So, Your Majesty, it doesn't look like the recession has hurt you at all. Just look at this place, Your Majesty. Your job is pretty secure, isn't it?"

Sticking with tradition, the Obamas and the Royal Couple exchanged gifts. If you ask me, there's a good chance that both couples will be "re-gifting" these items around Christmastime. President and Mrs. Obama gave the Queen an iPod and a book of songs signed by Richard Rodgers. I would've gone for something more personal – a bottle of wine from our basement, maybe flowers from our garden, possibly some home-baked mandel bread. The Queen gave the Obamas a silver framed portrait of her and her husband. In my fantasy, I have enough self control to wait until I get back to the car before asking the question, "Who gives a picture of themselves as a gift?"

Knowing me, sometime during the visit, I'd probably try to show off my knowledge of the British language. As I ignore my wife's dirty looks, I'd say something like, "I was really brassed off by all the traffic on the way here from our flat. The Bobbies stopped all the lorries because some bloke nicked someone's breakfast bangers. Which way to the bloomin' loo?"

I guess what this all means is that President and Michelle Obama suggest that everyone in America can grow up and meet the Queen. I, on the other hand, suggest, "not everyone."




New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by
CLICKING HERE