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The Man Who Pressed His Luck...and Won

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In 1984, ice cream truck driver Michael Larson set a record by winning $110,237 (a combined total of cash and non-cash prizes) in one appearance on the game show Press Your Luck -- and he did it by gaming the system. He had noticed that the Luck board did not rely on luck at all, but was actually running in five predictable patterns -- which he memorized over the course of six weeks, with the help of a VCR. By the time the show's taping was completed, everyone from the host to the contestants were mystified by Larson's amazing ability to avoid the Whammy (the squares on the board which would end the player's turn) and consistently win prizes. For Larson, there were indeed "No Whammies."

Larson's original appearance was aired as two episodes due to the length of his winning streak. Producers initially tried to avoid paying him, since his pattern-memorization might be considered cheating -- but eventually the producers relented, after determining that the official game rules did not prevent a player from reverse-engineering the game patterns. Indeed, producers later revealed in a documentary that they knew there was a weakness to the game (only having five board patterns without any randomness), but the weakness was ignored until Larson's famous performance. Furthermore, in order to get spins on the board, Larson had to answer trivia questions, which relied on his trivia skills.

The original Larson shows were aired in June of 1984, then were not seen again in their entirety for almost two decades. But they are on YouTube (recorded from the Game Show Network), along with a documentary about Larson's experience (the documentary also shows the great majority of the show video, along with extensive followup from everyone involved). Both will likely be removed at some point due to copyright claims, but if you get in now, you can see a rare part of game show history -- you can see how Michael Larson pressed his luck and won big.

The Larson Performance

Watch in amazement as the humble Larson goes on a winning streak. Pay particular attention to his focus, and how he often appears to celebrate a victory at the moment he strikes the button, rather than the moment the prize is explained to him -- indicating that he knows the pattern, and is happy when he successfully hits the button at the right time.

Below, the first episode ends with the player on the left holding his head in his hands.

Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal

And here's the complete documentary (in eleven parts) about Michael Larson, narrated by the show's host, Peter Tomarken. If you pick only one segment to watch, choose the sixth (I've noted it below).

This is the best part -- watch this next one for sure.

Epilogue

Wikipedia has an extensive narrative about what happened to Larson after his win. The short version is that he lost part of his money in a ponzi scheme, he lost part of it in a bizarre scheme involving $1 bills and a radio game show, and he lost the remainder when his house was burgled (he reportedly had $40,000 in $1 bills in the house). Two years after winning, he was working at Wal-Mart.

Larson eventually became involved with an illegal lottery scheme and lived his remaining years on the run from the law, eventually dying from throat cancer in Apopka, Florida in 1999 at the age of 49. It's a sad story -- read more about it at Wikipedia. There's also a good writeup of the whole story at Snopes, and Larson's story was discussed on an episode of This American Life.

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Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
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Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

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YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
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YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)

HOW TO WATCH THE FILM

Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.

WHAT TO DO WHILE YOU WAIT FOR TUESDAY NIGHT

You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)

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