Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes: Steampunk Pugilist?

The new Sherlock Holmes movie is rollicking, steampunkish, and artfully dark and bleak in its cinematographic depiction of Victorian London. The fast-moving plot calls to mind old-time, Saturday-at-the-movies serials. The gothic darkness reminds me of the first Batman movie with Michael Keaton.

This production goes over the top with its amount (rather than severity) of cartoonish fisticuffs and James Bond-like physical predicaments. Not the about-to-be-caught-with-Miss Moneypenny, sexy-fun kind of predicaments but the about-to-be-sawn-in-half, always-in-peril kind of predicaments. The Holmes-Watson relationship in the film has been much discussed, but it's really only suggested rather than explicit. The critics may have it otherwise, but this is no Brokeback Baker Street.

The dialogue is quick, mumbling, and often hard to hear with a loud, action-movie soundtrack behind it. For that reason alone, those with reduced hearing capability will find the movie's wit and subtleties -- and there are plenty of both -- difficult to follow.

Robert Downey Jr. chews the scenery, of course, and Jude Law's version of Dr. Watson shows deeper depth than some other Watson depictions. This Irene Adler is a fetching but shallow character, as is Watson's fiancee, Mary. The dark-caped villain Lord Blackwell, an antagonist of evil intent, calls to mind the dark Don Giovanni figure in Amadeus, or even Darth Vader. Have I mentioned that the movie is dark?

Appropriately, we saw Sherlock Holmes at a holiday week matinee. We enjoyed it but were glad for the early show discount. I hope these facts provide you with enough clues to deduce our summary rating.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Healthcare Reform: It's All About the Benjamins

My continuing objection to the U.S. healthcare model, with or without the currently proposed reform legislation, is that it relies upon an obsolete, anti-growth employment model that includes four invalid, or soon-to-be invalid, assumptions:

(1) Employment is continuous, or at least sequential, and each job has a duration on the order of several months or more;

(2) Employment compensation consists of only traditional salary or wages that correspond to time served rather than value added;

(3) Employment occurs, and healthcare benefits therefore accrue, within a single political jurisdiction;

(4) Ability to pay healthcare costs and insurance premiums depends upon one's salary or wages rather than one's accumulated wealth (as does the income tax, for that matter).

In a truly innovative, venture-based economy, creative contributors might work several hours for one client, work a month and a half for another, and have an intermittent gig with a third -- and that's only in one's main line of business. There might also be a side project or two, perhaps some online sales, investment income, capital gains, etc. Or perhaps a high-mobility worker travels from jobsite to jobsite, his or her geographic flexibility across state and national boundaries, going to where the work is, representing a crucial contribution to an efficiently operating global economic system.

Having healthcare benefits associated with traditional, full-time employment makes little sense in the current economy in which traditional employment describes the circumstances of fewer and fewer citizens. The high-volatility economy simply doesn't square with the traditional workplace assumptions underlying the healthcare debate. To reconcile healthcare reform efforts with modern workplace realities, a historical perspective may, ironically, provide the most illumination.

Consider that, similar to today's venture-driven economy, many of the nation's founders, including Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, pursued multiple lines of entrepreneurial business, often simultaneously. This suggests a conceptual litmus test for evaluating today's healthcare reform proposals: would any proposed system under discussion that is still based on salary and wage income have covered Washington's leeches, Franklin's syphilis treatments, and Jefferson's extended family?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The McCarver Rule, On Ice

When it comes to making observations, baseball analyst and ex-catcher Tim McCarver has a unique gift of foresight. His prediction of Luis Gonzales's winning base hit in the classic 2001 World Series -- McCarver called not only the winning hit but how and where the ball would likely be hit, and why, based on the game situation -- should be in the broadcast archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

McCarver's observations extend beyond unique scenarios to universal laws. He proclaims with confidence that in the history of baseball, no conversation between a batter who has reached first base and the first baseman has ever meant anything. Then, there is the now-famous McCarver Rule: every time you watch a baseball game, you're likely to see something, or a combination of things, that you've never seen before. Perhaps a triple play; or a double play where an outfielder applies the final tag; or a pitch over everyone's head that the batter swings at anyway. Something.

What I didn't realize until today is that the McCarver Rule extends to realms beyond baseball. Less than a minute into tonight's Minnesota-Michigan college hockey game, Minnesota was penalized two minutes when the refs and linesmen threw two overly aggressive players in a row out of the same faceoff. I've been watching college hockey for more than four decades -- including a short stint as the World's Worst College Hockey Announcer -- and I'd never seen that rule applied before. Frankly, I didn't even know it existed.

Was this startling occurrence in fact the McCarver Rule in operation? If so, is it now to be understood as a universal law of all sports? Kenneth, what is the frequency? Crucial research questions all that now fall to Your Humble Correspondent to investigate.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shocked, Shocked About Steroids

Retired pitcher Curt Schilling once wrote an emphatic opinion piece on his 38 Pitches blog about the steroids era in baseball. According to Schilling, it's naive to think that any major league team was completely clean during that era, which he says encompassed his entire career.

It's deflating to realize that such awesome spectacles as the McGwire vs. Sosa home run race of 1998, the tape measure home runs of Bonds and A-Rod, the clutch hitting of Manny Ramierez, and the power pitching of Roger Clemens into his greybeard years have reflected the willingness of players to cheat and owners, executives, and managers to look the other way -- perhaps even encourage the practice.

In addition to steroids, consider: growth hormones (both human and equine); blood-doping (both human and equine); surgical enhancement (Tommy John surgery, LASIK); podiatrics (athletic shoe design); textile science (swimsuit fabrics); applied aerodynamics (curveballs, spitballs, knuckleballs); and statistical evaluation ("Moneyball"). And oh, those lovely East German swimmers! Success and failure accrue not just to athletes but also the technological prowess of the society that sends them forth into the arena.

Given the importance of sports in understanding the capabilities and limits of the human body, and the importance of sports science in developing those capabilities further, is there really a clear, ethical line between physical enhancements that represent cheating and those that are legitimate technological advances? Who makes that determination?

Consider the classical origins of athletics: as a means of inspiring, motivating and testing physical fitness, coordination, teamwork, and strategy -- in preparation for military battle. Somewhere right now, some American kids on combat patrol are probably taking various performance-enhancing drugs in a belief (true or mistaken) that doing so will aid in their muscle recovery or alertness and help keep them alive. Some American captains or sergeants might be encouraging this practice.

Somehow I doubt that the public would react to such "cheating" with the same scorn that it heaps upon juiced ballplayers who, for reasons both laudable and selfish, have given their bodies over to the R&D labs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yankees Win, Blah Blah Blah

Speaking of Philadelphia, weren't they just in a World Series? It's been only two weeks since the end of the baseball season, but the victory by the Yankees over the Phillies has already receded from front-of-brain consciousness.

For me, the iconic play of the postseason came in Game 4: Johnny Damon's alert steal of third base when nobody was covering the bag. That play showed verve and spirit. Other than that, not much comes to mind. Hideki Matsui hit a bunch of homers and doubles in the final game, and Mariano Rivera pitched more than one inning a few times. Andy Pettitte pitched with his usual Pete Sampras-like countenance. Derek Jeter got on base some, I'm pretty sure. Must have. A-Rod had a big game at some point, didn't he?

Ever the fair-weather fan, I tried to get excited about the Yankees win, which (unacceptably to some) was nine long years in coming. I'd grown up in Upstate New York during the losing Yankee seasons of the late 1960's and early 1970's, post-Mickey Mantle, pre-Thurman Munson and pre-Reggie Jackson. After pitching ace Mel Stottlemyre, graceful outfielder Roy White, and the late Bobby Murcer, the talent level on those teams fell off sharply. Recalling those lean years, I hold that a championship is never to be taken for granted -- even by a pinstriped franchise with a payroll large enough to fund NASA.

In that spirit, I caught some of the 2009 post-parade ceremony at City Hall. Honestly, I've never seen a more subdued, workmanlike celebration. With few exceptions, the players sauntered out when their names were called, most looking for all the world like they'd rather be somewhere else, or wanted a fee for their appearance. (In fairness, serious hangovers could have been involved.) Keys to the city were presented by Mayor Bloomberg to each Yankee player, including minor-league call-ups, as well as every last team employee down to the shoeshine kid. A few short speeches were made; a few onlookers cheered.

Most of the speakers credited Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, now in failing health, and his sons for their massive spending on star players that has driven and disrupted the economics of baseball for three decades. To finance astronomical salaries, ticket prices have risen over the years, and have now reached the level of the absurd in the new Yankee Stadium. It's no longer New York's barbers and cabdrivers who can afford to attend the games, especially in the seats closest to home plate, but bankers, lawyers and celebrity politicians. Perhaps this explains the curiously underwhelming response when the final out of Game 5 was recorded. "The-e-e Yankees win!" said the team's broadcaster. The fans cheered; the players put on special caps and t-shirts; the loudspeakers played We Are The Champions. All according to plan.

(Is noone aware that Queen's vainglorious winner's anthem was meant to be ironic?)

Excellence through expectation and execution is admirable in business and sports alike, but only in the corporate world is it enough. Sports requires passion as well as achievement to hold fan interest and build loyalty. As the Yankees report to spring training in 2010 and prepare to defend their 27th championship -- will Manager Joe Girardi change his number from 27 to 28? -- the best they can hope for if they succeed is not ecstasy but relief at meeting the annual plan.

Meanwhile, baseball enthusiasts everywhere else will hope that their team can stoke up, catch lightning, and take down the mighty Yanks. Explosive exuberance awaits the franchise and its fans whose players can, just once, overachieve wildly, steal a pennant and a championship, and reach the very pinnacle of their professional existence.

          Irrational, yes; impossible, no --
          We're in first place! Go, Brewers, Go!

"The Hammer"

The Philadelphia Flyers retired Dave "The Hammer" Schultz's No. 8 last night at The Spectrum. This tribute to the NHL's Super Goon of the 1970's portends either (a) the fall of Western Civilization or (b) the resurrection of Philadelphia hockey. Or both. Quick litmus test, for those on the fence: Do you like gladiator movies?

Schultz was a fighter and a game changer, the defining member of Philly's Broad Street Bullies championship teams of 1973-74 and 1974-75. Bobby Clarke scored the goals and Bernie Parent stood on his head in goal, but it was Schultz's clownish, brawling fisticuffs that set other teams off-balance. His antics not only inspired his own team but set the tone for a generation of brutality-as-comedy vehicles in the popular culture, from Paul Newman's minor league hockey movie Slapshot to Warren Zevon's hockey anthem, Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song):

          Brains over brawn -- that might work for you,
          But what's a Canadian farm boy to do?

The Hammer's 472 penalty minutes in 1974-75 -- only hockey celebrates its most flagrant lawbreakers -- are still an NHL single-season record. So iconic were Schultz's hockey fights that several exemplary, brutal specimens of his art are posted on his own web site.

Philadelphia built a statue to Rocky, Sylvester Stallone's fictional prizefighter, but it was a real fighter that clutched and punched his way into the city's heart and reaffirmed its combative, working class soul. If the Flyers of Broad Street contend for this year's Stanley Cup, as seems likely, they will do so with two championship banners from four decades ago and Dave Schultz's No. 8 as their visible inspirations from above.

          Hit somebody!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

One. Tera. Byte.

Always the futurist, I bought a Leading Edge Model D Personal Computer in 1986 for $1,500. With its amber-colored monochrome monitor, proprietary word processing and database software, and choice of either two floppy drives or one floppy and one hard drive, this Korean-made entry into the nascent, IBM-compatible personal computer market was considered at the time to be a value-oriented bargain.

I opted for the hardware version with two 360-kilobyte floppy drives. Why would a home user, even a writer wannabe, ever need a hard drive, a $100 option? Who could possibly fill even a fraction of ten megabytes -- that's more than a million English words! Twenty novels! Whereas my likely storage requirement was for a half-dozen unpublished articles, a dozen letters home, and a couple of text adventure games.

With word processing software disk in one floppy drive and data disk in the other, I was good to go. No more tiptoeing around allowable-use policies on the mainframes and time-sharing systems at school and work. No more jostling for access to shared PC equipment and dedicated word processors. No more flipping sign-up sheets. More disk space than I thought I would ever need, totally at my disposal, totally my own. So modern; so ahead of the curve. You bet!

I just looked at the electronics ads in this morning's Sunday edition of the New York Times. For a mere $200 -- discounted online to about $100 -- you can now buy an external hard drive from a computer accessories vendor that has one terabyte of data storage space.

One terabyte for $100. With apologies to binary computing purists, that's 1000 gigabytes, each of which is 1000 megabytes, each of which is 1000 kilobytes, each of which is 1000 bytes. 100 billion English words. Two million novels.

I'd better start writing!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How Life Imitates a Thomas Boswell Column

For decades, sportswriter and columnist Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post has penned beautiful, trenchant commentary. His baseball writing, in particular, captures the hard truths and romantic spirit of the game, mostly without succumbing to the wistful dreaminess so typical in the trade (except in his book titles: How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, etc.).

Boswell always writes with a purpose to a cathartic conclusion. One professor of my acquaintance assigns his carefully crafted columns to her writing classes for basic training in rhetoric. Until his World Series preview column this morning, however, I hadn't sent a link to one of his WashPost pieces to a friend or relative for a couple of years, maybe more. Reading Boswell used to be a twice-weekly routine for me, a necessary act of recreation. Why no longer?

One answer: the rise of rapid-fire highlight and debate shows on cable. A high volume of quick, pithy takes on topical issues -- often at high volume -- has superseded the well-thought-out exploration of a single theme. In sports, Tony Kornheiser's and Mike Wilbon's Pardon the Interruption, a preeminent, high-quality example of this format, even employs a time bell to keep the discussion lively.

Another: On the Internet, vehement opinion-mongering in response to any mental stimulus has supplanted the omniscient, thoughtful, writerly voice of yore. Whether in politics, sports, or celebrity gossip, the role of today's columnists, talk-show hosts, and bloggers is to kick off an inflammatory debate that will maximize the number of page hits by rabid partisans. The inmates are in charge of the asylum. The tabloids have always been with us, to be sure, but careful consideration of topical issues by an informed commentator now seems as quaint as a Labor Day doubleheader.

But I think the primary reason is that Boswell's talent is largely wasted on covering the Washington Nationals, a quasi-replacement franchise for the team of his youth, the twice-departed Washington Senators. Brilliant writing about the nearby Baltimore Orioles in the Cal Ripken/Eddie Murray era could not assuage his grief and anger at Major League Baseball officials over not having a team in the Nation's Capital. Boswell's columns became a sweet, sad song of yearning for a new franchise to replace the loss and end the grieving. Along the way, he excoriated baseball leadership -- from the Commissioner-for-Life, to the Players Association's obstinate boss, to the Orioles' incompetent owner -- for debasing the game that he cherishes, and that his readers have come to cherish through his writings, week by week.

At long last, Boswell's prayers and entreaties were answered: Major League Baseball delivered a franchise to Washington. The Nationals, nee the Montreal Expos, arrived to play for D.C.-area baseball fans -- and were quickly confirmed as a flop, the new taxpayer-funded stadium sparsely filled, the new team's flaws ruthlessly exposed by baseball's unforgiving 162-game season. Even the best writer in the business can lose his edge when his lifelong dream is fulfilled, and it turns out to be a letdown.

But now comes the World Series, and life, like sportswriting, returns to the present tense. Boswell's beat shifts back from the local losers to the exalted winners. In his World Series preview column this morning, he sets up this year's classic match-up between the Phillies and Yankees -- brilliantly, concisely, and from several levels: analytical, critical, cultural, economic, inspirational. What he says about the World Series is...well, click here and enjoy the read. He says it better than I ever can.

Once again, Tom Boswell has made me care about this trivial, irrelevant, thoroughly wonderful game, infused with as much meaning as everything that's most important in my life. I sent the link to my friends.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Former Math Major, Reclining

She: Did you have any dreams?
Me: No, I had axioms.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fox TV Pulls a "Reverse Heidi"

No, it's not a college football play, a call option trading strategy, nor even a subchapter heading in the Swiss translation of the Kama Sutra.

(Yes, I know Swiss is not a language. Work with me here.)

On November 17, 1968, the AFL's Oakland Raiders came back from a 3-point deficit with 65 seconds to play, scoring 14 points to beat the New York Jets. A thrilling finish to a critical game that would have been forgotten, ultimately -- except for the paradoxical fact that nobody saw it.

Nobody saw it, because NBC executives saw fit to cut away from the end of the football game to begin the previously scheduled, two-hour broadcast of Heidi, a dramatization of the beloved children's novel.

Outraged football fans lit up NBC's switchboard in protest of the network's boneheaded decision. NBC Nightly News anchor David Brinkley, on behalf of the besieged network, apologized to viewers on his Monday evening newscast, concluding in his trademark sardonic tones, "Next time, the little girl from the mountains will have to wait."

Last night, after a 40-year wait, sports fans everywhere exacted their revenge on the pesky little milkmaid. Only it wasn't football but baseball that did her in; and it wasn't NBC but Fox Television; and it wasn't even Heidi but the Hugh Laurie medical drama House that got kicked in the milk bucket.

You see, Major League Baseball playoff games are notoriously slow-paced. Managers bring in parades of new pitchers from the bullpen in the middle and late innings, and each new pitcher needs warm-up time. Pitchers, catchers, managers, and coaches don't want to make a strategy mistake, resulting in endless conferences on the mound. Batters adjust their helmet and batting gloves between pitches and call timeout if the pitcher is taking too long. Closely competitive games often go into extra innings.

Last night's Dodgers-Phillies game, which aired on the Fox Television Network, actually ended in regulation innings, with a Jimmy Rollins double in the ninth giving the Phils the walk-off win. But by the time the parade of 10 pitchers ended and the bullpen catcher spat tobacco juice in the dirt for the last time, a mere 3 hours and 44 minutes later -- reasonable, actually, by post-season standards -- Fox's prime time programs had been delayed, starting with House.

Fox aired House in its entirety immediately after the ballgame. In today's TIVO-driven, DVR-equipped era of time-shifted viewing, however, many fans missed it. Those who had pre-set their DVRs to record House at its scheduled time found that their 60-minute recording consisted of 45 minutes of baseball and only the first 15 minutes of the medical mystery -- minus commercial time. Hardly enough time to warm up the MRI machine; barely enough time for Dr. House to insult two patients and three colleagues.

House fans were livid. On Internet message boards, they posted in protest. On Twitter, they tweeted in hash-tagged agony. A few Luddites (those with DVR capability, anyway) probably even phoned the Fox switchboard. But it was all in vain. None of them realized that it was Fortuna, Karma, and the Universal Studio in the Sky all rolled into one, messing with their viewing obsession and evening up the score. Heidi climbed the Alps; the Fates, represented by Fox, tripped her up (using House's cane) and pushed her back down the mountain, 40 years later. And then they stole her goats.

Nowadays, Dear Reader, if you happen to see a forlorn, 50-year old woman wandering around Canton Bern, tending no goats, her long, blonde braids streaked with gray, her empty milk buckets in crooked hands, take pity. Listen for a while to her wistful, bittersweet stories of when she skipped along mountaintops. Maybe give her a hug and toss a Euro or two into her rickety buckets. Above all, Dear Reader, please don't ever say the words "Baseball", "Fox", or "McCarver" in her presence; that would be the cruelest cut of all. For now you know what turned Heidi 'ho'.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Which We List Ten Life-Long Favorites for Which I Must Remember to Thank My Parents, Who Introduced Me To Them

1. A. A. Milne
2. Dr. Seuss
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Chocolate Jumbles
5. Macoun Apples
6. RPI Hockey
7. Beethoven
8. Scrabble
9. Tom Lehrer
10. Monty Python

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cheese Toast (n.)

When Seattle Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson was still playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he gave a television interview in which he displayed two of his old baseball gloves at his locker. "This one here is toast," he said, showing the reporter a well-worn piece of leather, "and this other one is cheese toast."

Wilson's gastronomical idiom has proven far from idiotic; no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary says so. The OED New Edition's update of 10 September 2009 introduced cheese toast (n.) as a new subordinate entry under the main entry cheese (n.).

Somehow, I doubt that Wilson's use of the term as a metaphor for fully depreciated athletic equipment is what the word-wonks at the OED had in mind. Still, it's fun to think that a guy who can turn a meaningful double-play can also spin a new double-meaning.

Jack Wilson is now gone from Pittsburgh, along with Freddie Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, and many others. Without this crew, the Pirates were 9-21 in September and October, and they finished the 2009 season with 99 losses.

May all your favorite teams avoid becoming cheese toast!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

All Tomorrow's Parties

What happens if a bunch of humans are stripped of their rationality and critical thinking abilities, electrified beyond the point of recovery with high-voltage music (and non-music), and let loose en masse to collide into one another for several days in a village?

I think I just caught a glimpse of that unsettling scenario tonight at a Milwaukee Film Festival offering. All Tomorrow's Parties, a feature-length documentary, captures the annual U.K. rock festival of the same name, for which various leading bands "curate" each year's acts. Named for a Velvet Underground lyric, the ATP festival was conceived as a counterreaction to the creeping corporate control of youth culture and music -- so sayeth the painfully inarticulate kid interviewed in one clip -- and by the usual metaphoric extension, as a critique of all society, man.

Staging a festival without overbearing corporate sponsorship is laudable. When you do that, however, the best act you can get just might be Iggy and the Stooges. That's okay; the real action in ATP is in and around the decrepit resort dormitories, which look like the worst two-level, exterior-entrance motels that you've ever stayed in. Here, beyond the obligatory Intermittent Spontaneous Musical Occurrences, we're treated to clips of drunken post-partiers wandering around aimlessly, peering into other people's rooms, and falling through cheaply constructed second-floor balconies. Before you can attend tomorrow's parties, it would seem, you have to survive today's first.

Anarchic and chaotic as the music festival itself, the documentary cobbles together miscellaneous film clips gathered from numerous attendees and participants over the years. Like the festival, the film seems not so much curated as thrown together. The only concession to the left-brain that craves information and a semblance of order is the briefly displayed band names, with curator and festival year, for a number of leading acts. The director overuses a multiple-windows technique for concert footage; somebody must have thought it looked really cool back in film school.

I didn't like many of the bands, but so what; it's no longer my generation's turn. Choppy editing aside, All Tomorrow's Parties is a fair depiction of a significant youth music gathering, now sprouting offshoots around the globe. A cultural time capsule, I suggest it be suitably buried for posterity. Perhaps in velvet. Definitely underground.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Corner Kick

It's 1967; I'm eight years old. My dad takes me with him to RPI, the college where he teaches, to see a home football game. The well-kept athletic field is nestled on campus amongst the classrooms, labs, and dorms. Admission is free, or perhaps a buck or two, and we find seats in the bleachers. The play moves up and down the field. Assorted parents, kids, students, and football fans cheer on the home team. Down two rows from us, a student holds forth loudly, holding the tallest can of beer I've ever seen. A penalty flag is thrown, and the drums of the student pep band beat a military tattoo. I hear certain words I've never heard before. Dad buys me a hot dog or a hot chocolate, or both. It's the sunniest of sunny autumn days.

It's 2009; I'm fifty years old. By now, I've heard all the words. I drive over to the UW-Milwaukee campus on the East Side for a Friday afternoon soccer double-header, part of an early-season weekend tournament. The well-kept athletic field is nestled on campus amongst the classrooms, labs, and dorms. Admission is five dollars, and I find a seat in the bleachers. The play moves up and down the field. Assorted parents, kids, students, and soccer fans cheer on the two Wisconsin-based teams. Down two rows from me, the public address announcer reads an ad for the local sandwich franchise. "It's a Pepsi Panther corner kick!" he exclaims, followed by a Panther roar -- the same cheesy sound effect from the last UWM game that I'd watched, four years earlier. Several members of the nationally-ranked team from that era, now part of a local club team that won a championship, are introduced to the appreciative crowd at halftime. I munch on a bratwurst. It's a warm autumn evening under the lights.

This week, we heard of the passing of NCAA President Myles Brand. An RPI philosophy major and former President of Indiana University, Dr. Brand was most well-known in the sports world for firing Indiana's revered hoops coach Bobby Knight, who had clashed once too often with the concept of civilized behavior. My dad once served on a committee with Dr. Brand and verifies that his overriding mission was to promote the importance of academics in the lives of college athletes.

The soccer players and small crowd of onlookers honor Dr. Brand with a moment of silence before Friday night's game. Then the whistle blows, and the two teams of scholar-athletes, none of whom will get rich from their playing abilities, compete fiercely for position and possession of the ball.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Brief Theory of Executive Identification

If you see a person at work using scissors, he or she is not an executive.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Brief Theory of Masculinity

As a public service, My Two Innings hereby presents a highly reliable differential indicator of masculinity:

1. Holding purse momentarily for wife/girlfriend/female relative: Chivalrous. Masculinity retained, provided purse is not held by the strap.

2. Walking more than one step with purse: Traveling Violation. Masculinity not retained.

3. Important Exception: Retrieving forgotten purse from mid-priced family restaurant on a Sunday is permitted, provided the bag is grabbed in the same way that Brett Favre holds a football while scrambling -- confidently yet haphazardly, with arm extended downward at full length for maximum distance between the purse and bearer's line of sight -- and is in no event carried by the strap. Bearer must glance around furtively and return to the vehicle at a hasty trot.

Recap: Holding bag, okay; walking with bag, not okay. Thus informed, you may now proceed with confidence.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Constitutional Amendment

This retrograde flap about Barack Obama's citizenship and eligibility for the Presidency begs the real question: why shouldn't we welcome as a national leader an immigrant who has, or whose parents have, renounced other allegiances decades ago? Isn't America supposed to be about ideas rather than soil?

Here's what our Constitution says on the subject of Presidential eligibility, in Article II, Section 1:

"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

Here's my simple tweak, er, proposed Constitutional Amendment:

"No Person shall be eligible to the Office of President who shall not have been for the consecutive thirty five Years prior a Citizen of the United States, and fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

Have at it, Ah-nold.

Of course, a 34 year, 6 month old pro-life advocate could someday claim citizenship since conception. This, at a minimum, would make for intriguing interrogations of the parents. Where's Ken Starr when we need him?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Merci Beaucoup, Milwaukee!

I don't know much French beyond "Guy LaFleur", "Milles Bornes", and "German people - rubbish!" (That last one technically isn't French, but it is a direct quote from a Parisian bartender in 1978.) This doesn't stop me from thoroughly appreciating Milwaukee's Bastille Days, a French-themed street fair and cultural celebration held annually in mid-July.

Milwaukee's ethnic festivals, most of which follow the renowned Summerfest music festival on successive summer weekends, are themselves famous. Unlike its better-known fréres like Irishfest and Indian Summer, held at the controlled-access festival grounds on the lakefront, however, Bastille Days draws people to the open streets of East Town, an upscale area near Cathedral Square and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. (Cathedral Square also hosts the Thursday night Jazz in the Park series.)

A miniature, yet imposing, two-story Eiffel Tower stands on Kilbourn Avenue, the hub of the festivities. The music, the street performers, the food -- the food! -- and the arts and crafts in vendor booths are all present in abundance, but the real draw is the people-watching. From the lunchtime businessmen and women enjoying a French Caribbean specialty off the grill to the Saturday night party-goers, everyone observes and participates in the promenade as the casual, often-stylish crowd circulates around the streets. A true exercise in your basic Liberté, not to mention your Egalité and your Fraternité.

Chanteuse Robin Pluer's Edith Piaf-inspired performance and the hilarious French Waiter/Waitress Race top off the Bastille Days experience. It's the most relaxed and cheerful festival of the year, lending its joie de vivre to your esprit de corps. The perfect antidote for a case of Parisian bartender malaise. Vive la fête!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hockey Story, and a Beauty

Ken Baker is a former college hockey goalie who began as a prospect in the U.S. Olympic development program. His career reached a plateau at Colgate University, and he never fulfilled his potential. Having left the game at 21 somewhat bitterly, without understanding a hidden, physical source of his malaise, he was diagnosed a few years later with a brain tumor than had, during his college years, affected his pituitary function, altered his body chemistry, and robbed him of strength and energy. He is treated and recovers. Later, he experiences a sudden, sharp desire at 29 -- literally, a dream -- to play competitive hockey again. Rediscovering the passion and talent of his youth, he sets a goal of playing pro hockey at the minor league level as a late-career rookie in the 2001-02 season.

Ken Baker is also a writer whose post-collegiate career includes a journalism degree and stints at People and US Weekly. His first-person book about his hockey comeback attempt, They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven, documents the mundane details of his physical and attitudinal progress over two years as he rediscovers his love for the game and what it takes to compete at the professional level. He ultimately gains a benchwarmer's slot on the Bakersfield Condors, a minor league team. Will he finally get playing time in a pro game and validate his dream?

I wanted to like this book. I did like it, to a point. I'm a hockey fan and former rec league player; I can relate to Baker's depictions of the sights, sounds, and smells -- "Pee-yew!" says his fiancee, of his old goalie equipment -- of the rink-rat life. His tales of the camaraderie, competition, brutality, violence, and stomach-turning injuries in minor league hockey result in a worthy, textual companion to the classic hockey farce on film, Slapshot. There's a full airing of Baker's thoughts along the way as he pursues his dream.

It's just that there's nothing new here. The against-all-odds, aging-rookie scenario has been explored in sports movies from The Rookie to The Natural. Roger Kahn's Good Enough to Dream and the movie Bull Durham present the hardscrabble, bus-riding life in the minor leagues. Jim Bouton's Ball Four is still the standard-setter for a candid look at rude, crude clubhouse life. Canadian-American hockey culture is depicted seriously in Ken Dryden's Home Game, and comedically in the aforementioned Slapshot. George Plimpton's Open Net presents in even starker relief the enormous talent gap between pro hockey players and the average wannabe in the stands.

What's unique to the book, then? The dramatic element of Baker's athletic training starting from ground zero, in light of his recent medical recovery; the encouragement and temporary separation from his spouse in pursuit of his hockey dream; the combination of goaltender's cockiness and writer's vanity that allows him to begin an action sequence with the words "I expertly"; the colorful descriptions of the suitably archetypal characters and internal rivalries on his Bakersfield team; and 200 pages of "Will Kells put me in the game tonight?" When he finally gets in a game -- oh gosh, I spoiled it for you! -- there really aren't any surprises left.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Good Thing They Have a Football Team

This is the seventh time in my life that I've driven across Nebraska, and I still have nothing to say about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hail to the 1970's! (Or Not.)

Are you embarrassed by your own generation? I was, at the time: the mid-to-late 1970's. I still am, to an extent.

From the predictable, drunken calls for semiprofessional garage bands to faithfully reproduce "Freebird"; to my college classmate who squealed his tires in a trashy salute while pulling away from my grandparents' house; to sportscoats in patterns and colors not found in nature; it was not the best decade in terms of taste.

We started the decade with a power-mad, bombing-happy crook in office and ended it with a moralistic, tone-deaf technocrat. When President Carter phoned U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks to congratulate him on the team's astounding Gold Medal victory, including the "Miracle on Ice" game against the Soviets, Carter explained that he didn't watch the games because he was working on the Afghanistan crisis. No complaint here about the man's priorities, but he could have worked on his audience identification.

Don't get me started about President Ford's "Whip Inflation Now" buttons.

When Reggie Jackson held up three boastful fingers to the camera upon hitting three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, the social virtues of modesty and good sportsmanship flew out the window, forever lost to the ages. When you see T.O. autographing a football in the end zone, or Jim Edmonds turning a routine fly ball into a highlight-reel catch, think Reggie. Braggadocio is classic and human, but amplified bombast is what our culture produced in the 1970's.

A friend of mine calls us a Lost Generation. I say, it's all been downhill since the 1969 Mets and the moon landings.

Our next-door neighbor's dad had a theory about the previous decade: the reason that the 1960's kids were angry enough to protest was that their pants were all too tight. Disco notwithstanding, ours in the 1970's may have been too loose, culturally speaking. Thirty years on, it still shows.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fescue Me

The NBC and ESPN announcers covering the U.S. Open golf tournament have become enamored of using the word "fescue" to mean "any kind of tall grass that swallows your chances".

There's apparently a lot of fescue at Bethpage. Watching the broadcast has been like the Antiques Roadshow drinking game episode of Frasier in which Frasier and his dad raise a glass every time someone says "veneer".

          The golfers must rescue
          Their balls from the fescue.

Miscue? Fescue!

Turns out, fescue includes over 300 species from the genus Festuca.

There's Red Fescue, Green Fescue, Blue Fescue, and Grey Fescue.

There's Northern Fescue, Western Fescue, Arizona Fescue, Idaho Fescue, California Fescue, and Coast Fescue. Fescue can be Rough, Bearded, Tufted, Rush-leaved, Various-leaved, or Viviparous.

There's Alpine Fescue, Arctic Fescue, and Atlas Fescue, not to mention Crinkleawn Fescue and Wood Fescue.

Don't forget Sheep's Fescue, Fine-leaved Sheep's Fescue, Fescue Tussock, Alpine Fescue Tussock, Chewing's Fescue, Alpine Chewing's Fescue, and East Alpine Violet Fescue.

          So, don't be crass
          If you land in the grass --
          The golf course will test you
          If you hit from the fescue!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Snell on the Hook?

Baseball writer Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today that Pirates starting pitcher Ian Snell is among those on the trading block. With a thin supply of front-line pitching available this season, and stars like Jake Peavy of the Padres recovering from injuries, a trade for Snell could make sense for the Brewers, or indeed for any number of contending teams with holes in their rotations.

One problem: Snell's current record is 2-7, with a 5.08 ERA. But don't be fooled: Pirates fans have been down this road before, with Jason Bay in particular. The trick for ballplayers wanting to be traded away from a hopeless organization is apparently to show general competence and occasional brilliance -- thereby threatening a higher salary demand in the future -- while underachieving overall. Should Snell, a former Opening Day starter, be traded to a playoff contender, I'll bet he perks up right away. Just sayin'.

This gambit should sound familiar to Brewers fans. Purported Hall of Fame candidate Gary Sheffield, whose steroid-era career has included over 500 home runs, played for the then-woeful Brewers as an infielder through age 22. He disliked the city and the organization, and once said he committed errors intentionally. He was traded and lived happily ever after...oops, maybe not. In 2005, talking about a potential trade, Sheffield said, "You might as well not bother trading for me, cause you're gonna have a very unhappy player. You gonna inconvenience me, I'll inconvenience every situation there is."

Makes your heart sing, doesn't it? That's baseball -- or at least, baseball as we approach the trading deadline.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Pirates Scuttle the Ship

As a Milwaukee Brewers fan, I should be rejoicing at the trade that sent All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team's only serious offensive threat, to another division. Instead, I'm in mourning along with the fans of a once-proud American sports franchise.

The Pirates' wretched "trade" of McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for prospects is no cause for celebration by anyone in the league (except the Braves). A vibrant major league sport requires vibrant ownership, willing to invest in quality players. The Pirates had signaled that they were, at last, ready to sit at the big kids' table when they signed McLouth to a three-year deal, paying him a salary approximating his market value. McLouth responded in kind, leading the team this season in home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage.

With this stinker of a move, the Pirates resume their insidious pattern of removing any player of All-Star caliber; Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay, and Xavier Nady come to mind as previous examples. The lone exception has been Jack Wilson, but they've tried to trade him, too. Pirates players and fans alike are seething, not only at the crippling of the team's current roster -- again -- but at the dishonesty of the new management team in claiming that this move helps the club (no, really!).

It's particularly appalling for Pirates owner Robert Nutting to stay in the shadows as his top management team spins and spins, trying to depict a financial move as a baseball move. Truth is, however, observant fans could see this coming; as soon as the new management group was hired, supposedly signaling a break from the low aspirations of the past, team president Frank Coonelly said in a press conference that the team could make substantial progress by changing the team's attitude and culture without increasing the payroll, yo ho ho! Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In the aftermath of the McLouth trade, two of Nate's former teammates reportedly lit a candle bearing his uniform number in the Pirates locker room. The last, sad rites for a sinking ship. Lower the Jolly Roger.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Goin' to Indiana in My Mind

Larry Bird and Reggie Miller aside, I don't really get the point of Indiana. Ur-Hoosier Bobby Knight registers lower on the Wait Scale of Admirable Americans than geeks in chemistry labs. Tom Crean, Knight's latest successor as Chief Chairthrower at IU, should never have left Marquette. Peyton Manning's a great quarterback, but he's not really a son of the state. For that matter, the entire Colts franchise isn't really of the state. Once I had a job interview in East Chicago, Indiana; thirty years later, I can't remember if they turned me down or if I ran away screaming.

In fairness, Indiana has Notre Dame, as well as two Big 10 universities and a school that's actually called Oo-ie-poo-ie. The price for diesel fuel is lower in Indiana than in Illinois. The phrase "Gary, Indiana" has a lovely, trochaic meter; it's even musical, you might say. Breaking Away (1979) is a fine little coming-of-age movie depicting the aimlessness of four Indiana high school buddies. My point is this: weren't the four of them all trying to break away?

Some may say I don't know the real Indiana because I never saw the movie Hoosiers (1986). What I do know about Hoosiers is that former Vice President Dan Quayle is one in real life. I rest my case!

Once a year, however, my fatuously judgmental attitude toward the Hoosier State, like a muddy snowbank along I-90/I-94, melts away. Apparently, I care a bit more than it's cool to admit about a certain little annual road rally.

I almost missed it this year. For some reason, I thought the Indianapolis 500 was on Monday (Memorial Day) instead of Sunday. I was tooling around town in The Silver Zloty, aimlessly punching car radio buttons, and came across a radio broadcast of the race. Although I'd missed "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!", the classic cry to start each year's race, I was tuned in from Lap 83 onward.

The radio announcers were great! Their crisp call of the race was as colorful and exciting as any sports broadcast that I've heard; I was able to visualize the race clearly. Naturally, I spent the rest of my errand run curbing the instinct to perform lane changes Mario Andretti-style!

Kudos to the radio team, and especially to the audio and technical directors; from the perfect mix of screaming engines and crowd noise to the seamless segues among the several enthusiastic announcers, the whole production was terrific. Their impeccable teamwork would have won applause from the finest pit crew. Listening, I once again fell in love with radio as a sports broadcast medium and the Indianapolis 500 as an annual sports tradition. I'm hopeful both will survive long into the future.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On Baby Boomers, Silver Zloty's, and Cosmic Things

It's happened. Our tame, elegant family cruiser, The Silver Zloty, has become an object of nostalgia. If only in our own minds, that is; you don't hear the music industry writing songs about 1992 Camry's. But it had to happen, just as assuredly as once-modern '57 Chevy's, '66 Mustangs, and '73 Super Beetles in their time became wistful objects of recollected desire. My '82 Tercel may have been the bee's knees, and our '88 Dodge 600 took us from Point A's to Point B's, but the Silver Zloty really aims to please!

This fact was driven home, so to speak, on this past weekend's round trip to Madison on I-94 for a Mothers' Day gathering. The Silver Zloty's ancient C-V joints popped and creaked, its tires flopped, its obsolescent cassette deck whirred, and its A/C system went unused due to a lack of ozone-destroying freon, its original supply of which we'd long ago released in a bid to kill off what remains of Earth's atmosphere. Long the recipient of $500 and $800 repair increments, per Wait's Laws, the Zloty has seen us through three multiple-trip moves, numerous weekend outings and holiday sojourns, and hundreds upon hundreds of workday commutes. It's been the sole survivor in our livery stable for more than ten years. It's still running -- just like us.

When my beloved spousal unit and I take the Silver Zloty out, fill it with 87 octane, and pop in the cassette of The B-52's Cosmic Thing album -- our soundtrack for twenty years of happy travel, the tape itself starting to fade and wobble -- it's not just a drive but a cruise. "Roam if you want to!/Roam around the world!"

Road trip!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Black Roses and Red Tomatoes

Our ghost-like rehaunting of the Greater Milwaukee metro area continues as we seek out new worlds and new life forms in our erstwhile city. On a whim, we decided on Oakland Trattoria, one of our favorite roosting spots and eateries from back in the day, and found that the owner has recently subdivided more than half of its space into a new Irish pub, the Black Rose. The Gaelification of Milwaukee, host city of North America's largest Irish music and culture festival every August, continues unabated.

Never ones to pass up a new culinary experience involving corned beef, we seated ourselves on the newly painted, black-green side of the joint. I mourned the loss of the wall murals depicting brightly-colored garden tomatoes and potatoes -- duly captioned using Dan Quayle's spelling primer -- while wondering about the decision to create a faux-aged, cracked paint look on the Irish half. Surface prep is essential for avoiding that result, I had always been taught. There is also a hint of theme park artificiality due to the shared premises and close juxtaposition to the restaurant's Italian half. ("Dublin or Palermo tonight, folks? This way.") Nonetheless, the overall effect of the remodeling within its own context is mood-enhancing, and we enjoyed our hour-plus in one of the Black Rose's arch-top open booths.

The server offered us two menus apiece, useful for those considering a melting-pot meal. This could make for some interesting combinations: say, a light California Trio pizza with sun-dried tomatoes and a Guinness, or Wood-roasted Vegetable Lasagne and a Smithwicks. Beloved spousal unit was relieved that her favorite portabella mushroom soup was available on either side of the establishment. Truth be told, however, we made prosaic selections for lunch -- a Reuben and a burger -- in keeping with the basic, black decor. Essentials, like the compulsories in figure skating. We can now proceed to Level Two.

While it will be a challenge for the Black Rose's cuisine to match, say, the root soup at Milwaukee's County Clare -- even with the help of the Oakland Trattoria's portabella soup -- we look forward to testing this theory. You can never have too much Irish.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Jaguar Group

          Jaguar Group (allegedly)
          Borrowed millions from regional banks
          Secured by 92 properties
          To purchase subprime mortgages

          Jaguar Group (allegedly)
          Transferred or encumbered 52 properties
          Without telling the banks about it
          As was required contractually

          Jaguar Group (allegedly)
          Stopped making payments on the loans
          When the subprime mortgages
          Stopped performing economically

          The banks (understandably)
          Were surprised and none too happy
          When they learned that their collateral
          Wasn't there (allegedly)

          Lawsuit City (naturally)

Source: "Lenders Bitten by the Jaguar Group", Denver Business Journal, May 8, 2009.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Spherical Recreations

Colorful balls are such a pleasing form. They practically shout out loud: "Sports!" "Games!" "Toys!" And above all: "Recess!"

Superballs from the toy store. Billiard balls on the bumper pool table at the the Y, where we had summer day camp. A game of 8-ball with my dad on the pool table at the volunteer firehouse. A croquet game in progress in the backyard. Yellow tennis balls. Yellow golf balls. Miniature golf balls in every primary color. Baseballs, softballs, and wiffle balls; basketballs, bowling balls, soccer balls, volleyballs. Red-rubber kickballs at school. Red cricket balls too, or so I understand. Pinballs. Bocce balls. Nerf balls, even.

That pile of colorful balls at the Ikea entrance -- sanitized hourly by the staff, surely -- in which you can happily lose a kid for an hour. There's nothing that's not happy about a pile of balls.

Which probably explains my current obsession with a simple, freeware computer game that I found on Yahoo: the aptly named "Pile of Balls". It's an absurdly simple, Tetris-like recreation in which you manipulate the falling balls, three at a time, into color groups that vanish when you get four or more together. Every so often, a satisfying little fanfare sounds -- "Ta-daaaaa!" -- and you advance a level. I have yet to survive Level 7, but it's not for lack of trying.

Toy models of atoms and planets in science class are fun, too. Speaking of which, I've been following the updates of American astronaut Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike) on Twitter. He'll be on the Space Shuttle that launches into orbit in about a week. I'm really envious; pretty soon he'll have a large blue and green ball out the window to play with.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Golden Farewell to O'Colorado

With our departure from the Centennial State now decided and upcoming, it's time to recapitulate: what have we learned? We've learned that coyotes are common, water is precious, and springtime snowfall forecasts have, to say the least, a high standard deviation. We've learned how to cook with two burners and a dream. We've seen the Rockies play at Coors Field and marveled at the dazzling, golden clouds at sunset over the Rockies. We've huddled inside while chinook winds howled against our windows, and we've reddened from the sun at mile-high altitude. We've become reacquainted with Western relatives and ridden the RTD light rail up and down I-25. We've seen dinosaur fossils at the museum and collected four library cards each. (Epic tie!)

We've also sought out the best Irish pub and restaurant experiences in Denver and environs. Our unfair and unbalanced report follows:

The Lansdowne Arms Bistro and Pub, Highlands Park. Located near the amazing Tattered Cover Bookstore. Nice restaurant seating area with interesting artwork on the walls. A bit pricey, though. Recommendation: avoid the hovering manager if you're a tall person, for he will interrogate you about any junior relatives of exceptional height who might become fodder for his daughter's school volleyball team.

Scruffy Murphy's, 20th and Larimer, Denver. Trekked downtown, expecting to hear the advertised Irish music sit-in jam session. Turns out, it's every other week. FAIL! So we had a decent meal in a rather bar-like atmosphere, took note of the more-Irish-than-most regular crowd, and watched football on the telly -- by which I mean soccer, not football.

The Irish Snug, East Colfax, Denver. Very tasty pub food. So-so decor and seating. Casual crowd, relaxing on a weekend afternoon; a teacher or professor at a nearby table graded papers over a sandwich and a beer. At other times, we imagine it's more of a college hangout. Football on the telly -- by which I mean football, not soccer.

Nallen's, formerly O'Shay's, Greenwood Village. Affiliated with the well-known Nallen's Irish Pub in downtown Denver. Located at Belleview and Yosemite, near the Denver Tech Center. Advertised its Grand Opening in Celtic Connection, the Celtic music and entertainment paper serving the Greater Denver area. We looked forward to a fun evening out. Went there, couldn't find it. Figured out where it was supposed to be. Still boarded up. Very dark. No signage except for silhouetted vestiges of the lettering from O'Shay's. As the kids would say -- even in Ireland, I'll bet -- EPIC FAIL!

Jack Quinn's, Colorado Springs. Cheerful; hopping. We were enchanted by the attractive, traditionally decorated wooden booths ("snugs") that provide attractive surroundings and a modicum of privacy for a small group. Without the snugs, Quinn's would just be a typical lengthwise bar with small, wobbly tables and a makeshift music platform. With the snugs, it was one of our favorite, most authentic hang-out experiences. Recommended.

Slattery's Irish Pub, Greenwood Village. Upscale furnishings, such as you might find in a downtown martini bar. Very good Irish-style entrees, save for the sticky white rice underneath the salmon. Very reasonable menu and prices, considering its location in the Landmark luxury condo and shopping complex. Oddly, for an Irish pub, Slattery's features a live music combo playing 1930's/1940's "gypsy jazz" invented in Paris. Enjoyable, especially as an alternative to the six-thousandth rendition of "Danny Boy".

So, that's the report from the Mountain Time Zone -- or the O'Rockies, as we call them. See you this summer at Milwaukee Irishfest!

Monday, April 13, 2009

You Never Can Lose, You Always Win

I'm not a jazz musician on a Saturday night bandstand. I don't have the talent to improvise nine or ten riffs around a recognizable theme before powering up with a Big Band flourish on the last verse while the beloved, Italian-American bandleader croaks out the familiar lyrics, wails out the climax, and takes a warm bow to scattered applause in the room.

But if I were, I'd arrange an 8-minute jam to the Schenectady Savings Bank's 30-second television commercial of the 1960's and 1970's, the one that's still lodged in my cranium like a crowbar:

          Get the most,
          Get the most,
          At Schenectady Savings Bank!
          It's the most,
          Yes the most,
          That's Schenectady Savings Bank!
          You never can lose, you always win
          When Schenectady's the bank you keep your money in!
          Get the most,
          Get the most,
          That's Schenectady Savings Bank!

God forbid this should be the last tune going through my mind when I pass away, but based on the commercial's reach and frequency when I was growing up, not to mention its penetrating melody and vocal harmonies, I wouldn't bet against it. It's not a bad little tune, actually; the syncopation is rather catchy. I'll take it over that cloying, ubiquitious Jared Jewelers jingle anytime. A toast to the composer -- wherever he may be banking now.

As for the lyrics: the careful observer will notice that there's some serious public policy embedded in the song's bridge, resulting in today's claims in perpetuity on taxpayer dollars. I'll bet Bernanke and Geithner wish they could musically improvise on that "never can lose" line right about now.

Schenectady Savings Bank eventually merged with Hartford Federal Savings & Loan in 1982; the combination was federalized and renamed Northeast Savings. Northeast Savings was bought out by Shawmut National Corp. in 1994; which merged into Fleet Financial Group in 1995; which in turn merged with BankBoston -- itself a 1996 merger of the Bank of Boston and BayBanks -- to form FleetBoston Financial in 1999. All of which was acquired by Bank of America in 2004.

In 2009, Bank of America, too big to fail, received $20 billion of taxpayer money and $118 billion in government guarantees against toxic assets.

Get the most? I'll say!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Peanuts! Get Yer Peanuts!"

My beloved spousal unit and I drove out for errands today in the Silver Zloty. Upon parking, we noticed a certain hot smell. Uh oh. "The car in front of us?" she said, hopefully. "Cracked exhaust system?" I thought, ruefully. "$800?" both of us thought, recalling the universal applicability of Wait's Laws.

Neither of us expected to see what I found upon opening the hood: three or four handfuls of peanuts in the shell sitting in two or three locations atop our hot car engine. Roasting.

We usually park near a row of trees, home to multitudinous birds, rabbits, and other fauna. Also nearby, our neighbor often scatters birdseed, bread crusts, and, we now know, peanuts. It seems the early squirrel gets the nut -- and also knows where to put it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Probably Worth Only a Tweet, If That

Question: If you're working on behalf of two people, are you working on bequarter of each one of them?

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Spring Gift Registry

If you're saving your money this season, here are ten gift items that you definitely do not need to get me, from Crate & Barrel:

1. Olive Spoon
2. Yellow Melamine Reamer
3. Non-Stick Egg Poacher
4. Marble Wine Stopper
5. Bellini Jam
6. Silicone Trivet
7. Daffodil Vase
8. Bodum Mousse Electric Frother
9. Pineapple Slicer
10. Mini Tomato in a Bag

Here are ten more, from Williams-Sonoma:

1. Vintage Bunny Band Dessert Plates
2. Persian Lime Hand Lotion
3. Color-Changing Egg Timer
4. Monkey-Head Flexible Spatula
5. Lemon Bird Juicer
6. Pop-Up Sponges
7. Emile Henry Salt Pig
8. Cranberry Daiquiri Rimming Sugar
9. Book: Kids Parties
10. Pink 9-Speed Handheld Mixer

Lastly, ten from Restoration Hardware:

1. Ribbed Metal Soap & Lotion Dispenser
2. Vintage Glass Shower Curtain Rings
3. Astrology Paperweight
4. Sculptured Men Bookends
5. Cast Iron Digging Dog Sculpture
6. Cast Iron Frog Prince Sculpture
7. Potted Horsetail Plant
8. Marshmallow Roaster
9. Laser Putter
10. "Great Lines from Great Movies" Knowledge Cards

I trust this clears up any misunderstandings left over from last season.

Review: The 'Watchmen' Experience

My beloved spousal unit, a fan of imaginative science fiction and graphic novels in books and cinema, wanted to see Watchmen, the film adaptation of the highly touted, darkly graphic, flawed-superhero series created by D.C. Comics innovator Alan Moore, before the movie closed. I suggested we catch it today, a Sunday afternoon in late March.

Timing was everything. We needed a location and starting time that would allow us to return home in time to catch the last two games of the NCAA hockey regionals, which we've been enjoying on ESPN2 and ESPNU. Having seen Boston University skate past Denver skillfully and energetically during the regular season, we were hardly surprised that BU became a leading contender to make it into the Frozen Four. (As it turned out, they defeated New Hampshire later in the day to qualify.)

More surprising during the tournament was that Notre Dame was eliminated by spirited upstart Bemidji State, a 5,000-student campus in the Iron Range of Minnesota, in the first round. In fact, Bemidji State made it all the way to the Frozen Four, to be held in Washington, D.C., becoming the lowest tournament seed (#16) ever to qualify for college hockey's ultimate prize. We were equally impressed with Miami (OH) and Vermont, the other Frozen Four semifinalists, and also congratulate a plucky, well-conditioned Air Force squad for giving Vermont a two-overtime run for its money in the regional finals. Both New Hampshire and Minnesota-Duluth scored thrilling, last-second victories in the regionals as well. It's been an amazing tournament that's kept us on the edge of our seats and rejuvenated my interest in the college game.

Also interesting was watching part of yesterday afternoon's games at the ESPN Zone restaurant in downtown Denver, located on the 16th Street pedestrian mall. My beloved spousal unit's birthday had been earlier in the week, on Thursday, but due to the snowstorm that hit Colorado's Front Range we didn't get out that day. But on Saturday, at her request -- she's an avid sports fan; lucky me! -- we took the light rail into the city and walked along the mall a few blocks to the sports bar and restaurant.

ESPN Zone is a theme/destination eatery, analogous to a Hard Rock Cafe for music lovers. The entire experience is organized around the multiple sports events on numerous television screens around the interior, including one enormous screen with the featured broadcast in the main room. We knew that the college basketball would claim the large screen -- indeed, we saw Connecticut advance to the Final Four while we were there -- but neither of us had to strain to see side screens showing the college hockey. We enjoyed parts of two games on the ice, along with our cheese fries appetizer, entrees and drinks. We could have done without the pushy, grinning waiter, however; what is it with these fools who think they have to bother you every five minutes to see if everything is okay? Particularly irritating was that, in the middle of our meal, he came up and asked us three times if we were saving room for dessert. Hey pal, we didn't answer in the affirmative the first two times; would you kindly take a hint? Overall, however, the experience was a treat and a rare indulgence -- although I'd happily relinquish a few of the television screens for control of the big screen's remote!

So anyway, having decided on a theater and time -- we were happy to see that the first Watchmen showing of the day at the Landmark Theater in nearby Greenwood Village, CO was parenthesized in the newspaper listings, indicating a discount show -- we parked and approached the theater. It's one of those new, upscale movie complexes, eponymously named after the adjacent luxury condo development in the south suburbs of Denver. I suppose this kind of mixed-use development makes good economic sense, if the condo units can be sold, although a more utilitarian example of the New Urbanism would feature some more affordable housing units, as well as closer proximity to the light rail or major bus lines.

As it turns out, we didn't have to shop for a condo to experience The Landmark's stratospheric economic aspirations. "Would you like the V.I.P. seating?" said the box office manager. He explained that, for three dollars more per person, we could sit in special seats and have the privilege of being served food and drinks -- at least for the next five minutes until the previews started. No thanks, we indicated. "Okay. That's eighteen dollars." I handed over my credit card, but also asked about the early show discount that we'd seen advertised in the Sunday paper. "This is the discount show. It's normally twelve dollars." Oh. "Thanks, guys. Theater Three, on your left. You can enjoy the complimentary popcorn and drinks, right over there."

So that's the new business model, I thought. Sell a six dollar ticket for nine dollars, and give the illusion of offering free snacks. Oh well; at least we're not paying New York or L.A. prices. We helped ourselves to sodas and popcorn, admittedly a nice touch, and wandered in. Inside Theater Three, we found our non-V.I.P. stadium seats, perfectly comfortable ones, and watched the previews. We noticed a waiter serving -- you guessed it -- soda and popcorn to the only couple in the V.I.P. seats. And charging for it. And collecting a tip. I hope they enjoyed their seats and treats, for I think we came out at least $15-20 ahead on that deal. (And, unless their popcorn was flavored with premium cognac, ours was just as good.)

My favorite preview was actually a well-produced import beer commercial featuring Italian bicyclists in a road race who sabotage their tandem bike so that they can sit roadside at a cafe and enjoy their upscale ales while the other bikers pass by. It's come to this, I thought again; I'm compliantly attentive to the advertising that we've paid eighteen dollars to see at the early discount show! At any rate, later on I appreciated the cleanliness of the rest room that I had to visit midway through the movie, once my free soda asserted itself. Note: I'm not being sarcastic here; I really do appreciate well-designed, well-maintained sanitary facilities. At the ESPN Zone, in fact, you don't have to miss any of the action being shown on the main screen while visiting the men's room -- I can't tell you why, exactly, but perhaps you can guess -- nor do you, I'm reliably informed, in the ladies' room, although the ergonomics of that are more difficult for me to imagine. Still, what more could an obsessed sports fan of either gender ask for?

Upon leaving the theater, the warm spring breeze and sunshine enticed us to take a walk around our favorite local park, and despite the warning signs, we encountered no coyotes along the nearly dry, paved walking trails. It's amazing how Denver winter weather can dominate the national weather report -- we'd received about 10-12" of snow on Thursday, in blizzard conditions -- and then the snow was all but gone three days later. We came home in time to see most of the BU-UNH hockey game, followed by the day's second game, Bemidji State's decisive win over Cornell, accompanied by Sunday dinner, my beloved spousal unit's delicious chicken curry over brown rice, and raspberry pie for dessert. All in all, a wonderful way to wrap up a delightful weekend.

What's that? The Watchmen movie? Thanks; I almost forgot. Way too violent. Sorry, kids.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Have Wait's Laws Been Refuted?

We have previously introduced and discussed Wait's Law and Wait's Second Law in this space. Namely:

(1) Everything in adult life costs $500.
(2) $800 is the new $500.

Today, however, a striking challenge to Wait's Law and Second Law arose, shaking my confidence in an orderly universe. Specifically, the Silver Zloty's car battery required replacement. Even opting for the Sears Die-Hard with the longer warranty, the invoice came to only $131 including tax, a far cry from the theoretically incontrovertible parameters previously set forth.

As with Rutherford's gold foil experiment, we cannot merely discard observations that seem inconsistent with existing theory. We investigate further.

Reviewing: it's true that today's charges fell short of the mark, and that the damage to the household treasury was, if not minimal, moderate. It's also true that this modest expenditure was voluntary, in part, as the battery had recharged itself adequately during the drive to the store since its earlier failure during the day. Does this fact account for the apparent exception?

(Aside: Is there a better unclaimed name for a rock band than The Cold Cranking Amps? Answer: No.)

Then it happened. The service technician uttered those magic words: "Mr. Wait, can I show you something?"

He points out the loose engine mounts. Price to replace: $800. The guy at Sears spotted them, for Pete's sake. Clearly Wait's Laws hold; confidence in their universality is restored once again. Naturally, I declined to have the work done this time, as before. Who has $800 just lying around?

Which leads us immediately to Wait's Third Law:

(3) If you think Wait's First and Second Laws don't apply: buddy, just you wait!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who's Leading This Away Team, Anyway?

Word from NASA is that the astronauts now orbiting the earth have had to maneuver the International Space Station to avoid a piece of space junk.

This is the second time in recent weeks that astronauts have avoided a disastrous collision with a small object. Earlier, three astronauts were ordered into the Soyuz escape capsule as a precaution when a flying object passed within close range.

Makes me wonder - did they forget to pack their phasers?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Coyotes Silenced, For the Moment

The New York Times has picked up on the ongoing controversy over coyote-culling in the adjacent Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, Colorado:

After Coyote Attacks, a Denver Suburb Turns to a Gun-Wielding Trapper

For what it's worth, we haven't heard coyotes howling at night in a couple of weeks, even though the designated hunter has supposedly destroyed only one animal in the area.

Update: March 20, 2009 - The State of Colorado's Department of Wildlife has now posted Coyote Warning signs on the walking trail around the Greenwood Village park. How to act if confronted with one; don't let your dog interact with it; etc.

Pass the Hat...and the Plate

My favorite rock-cabaret chanteuse, Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls, has conducted a reportedly successful economic experiment on her recent tour swings through the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Touring in support of her new solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, Palmer enlisted The Danger Ensemble, an Australian theatrical art performance company, and featured string instrumentalists Zoe Keating and Lyndon Chester as accompanists.

One problem: the tour economics for a live performer, with travel, room & board, tour bus rental, equipment managers, etc., did not allow for salaries for the supporting cast. A veteran of street performing, Palmer's solution was to have The Danger Ensemble pass the hat (or rather, two burlesque boots) around the willing audiences. Supported generously during her modestly priced shows, The Danger Ensemble performers made more money through voluntary donations than they would have on salary.

Palmer and her traveling team have also solicited donations-in-kind: food, lodging, even driving errands such as last-minute deliveries of boxes of newly minted CDs and band merchandise ("merch") to tour stops, in exchange for tickets, merch, and time with the performers. Her advance teams of fan volunteers distribute promotional posters and flyers, and a semi-organized group called The Brigade arranges amateur performance artists, such as living statues and costumed models, to greet concertgoers outside the clubs. Friends and fans appear as extras in her music videos.

Palmer, a prolific blogger and interview subject, has written openly about the business aspects of her occupation in a time of chaotic transition in the music industry. She believes voluntary patronage of artists of all types will become the new business model for working musicians, and she cautions new singers and bands that the rock band fantasy of simply showing up for a gig, getting paid, and leaving without fostering a close, continuing connection to the fans is no longer possible.

Fortunately, the Internet bolsters that connection. Palmer's close, caring, and technology-enabled relationship with her fans -- an intentional decision from the early days of The Dresden Dolls -- has yielded her the goodwill, social capital, and email lists that allow her to go to her audience repeatedly for voluntary, tangible support. Will it last? Is artist patronage, not by foundations but by average fans, a sustainable business model?

In "Christopher Lydon", an early Dresden Dolls song, Palmer's girl protagonist torches for the mellifluous NPR interview host, who ignores her on-air declaration of love for him. Jilted, she sings, "Thank you for everything, but I'm not listening anymore/Nor do I plan to contribute to NPR!" If Palmer's right about the new role of patronage at all levels of the music industry, there's a lesson in that lyric for all working musicians.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pi Day? Bah, Humbug!

Everyone's all excited about Pi Day (3.14) this year. They're overlooking several key facts:

1. To be more precise, Pi Day would have been 3.14.1593. We missed it by 416 years.

2. As a real number, Pi on the timeline would last not a whole day, not even a second or a microsecond. It would be over the instant that it began.

3. Like most of its celebrants, Pi is irrational.

4. Pi tastes better if you add e to it.

Personally, I'm saving up for Golden Ratio Day. See you on January 6, 1803.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Comrades! Pay Attention!

When the experimental cellist Zoe Keating posted on Twitter that she'd contributed her music to the second module of a downloadable freeware adventure game, I had to check it out.

Turns out it's the funniest effort in the old adventure-gaming genre that I've seen in decades, since the old Infocom games like Leisure Suit Larry and Zork were produced and popularized. Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf, from the Austrian art-technology company Monochrom, has me in stitches -- and I'm not even out of Sector 1!

Soviet 1960's retro-kitsch has always been good for a cheap laugh, from Kommissar!, the 1966 Selchow & Righter board game; to The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, also in 1966; to the Beatles' 1968 hit "Back in the USSR". Why present three-dimensional characters or nuanced cultural analysis when a hack stereotype will do? Who needs Arkady Renko -- let's make fun of the Russkies!

Like "Back in the USSR", Monochrom's game works as parody on several levels. It simultaneously mocks, through mimicry:

1. The heroic slogans, stilted language, stiff attire, and physical decay associated with postwar Soviet culture, depicted in a latter day microcosm of the fallen empire;

2. The kitschy, cartoonish humor in multiple media -- including cartoons -- produced by Western humorists parodying these quirks and foibles of Soviet communist culture;

3. The clumsy attempts to incorporate graphics during the early evolution of gaming, between the peak popularity of Infocom's intriguing, text-only mazes in the 1980's and this millenium's multiplayer contests and obsession with lethal firepower.

At the player's direction, Party Secretary Gomulka marches stiffly, with all the precision and blockheadedness of a Terry Gilliam cutout animation, accompanied by old Soviet inspirational tunes being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a seriously dysfunctional LP record player, around the decrepit Red October Yard in front of the Central Administrative Office for Inner Party Processes -- basically an old barn -- picking up trash and telephoning the Supreme Soviet for instructions.

The small touches, like the noticeable warp in the audio track during the playing of "The Internationale" during the opening titles, make Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf a multidimensional parody laced with knowing jokes. Knowing that Zoe Keating's stirring cello awaits me in Sector 2 -- if I can only figure out where in Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf to secure the nation's last living chicken, at the stern direction of the Supreme Soviet -- is motivation enough to complete Sector 1. Along with the fact that I cannot wait to offer my services to the glorious fatherland, of course.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Video Game, In Paperback

Stormbreaker, the Young Adult (YA) spy novel by Anthony Horowitz, fills an airport bookstore's urgent need to stock something to sell to action-loving teens -- and former teens -- who have left their Game Boys at home.

Borrowing heavily from BritSpy genre giants Ian Fleming (James Bond), John LeCarre (George Smiley), and Patrick McGoohan (himself - I mean, John Drake), Stormbreaker introduces 14-year old schoolboy Alex Rider as a reluctant hero whose covert-ops uncle has been killed in action and who is recruited by MI6 to take his uncle's place. He faces prototypical dangers -- the evil mastermind! the mumble-jawed monster man! the security forces on ATVs! the machine guns! the electric fence! the poisonous jellyfish! the plot to destroy the world! Fortunately, Alex has been ruthlessly trained by the MI6 team and tactically equipped by the always-important spy-gadgets supplier, Smithers. I'll never look at zit cream the same way again.

As fast-paced, two-dimensional, and values-free as a second-generation video game, Stormbreaker runs Alex through his harsh basic training and then drops him into an existentialist scenario that only a plot maven could love. There's no way out for Alex but forward through the ordeal; no possible alternative exists but to work at massive personal risk for bland, exploitative spymasters who need him desperately, yet who could care less about his personal survival. This is a bleak vision of teen as imperiled pawn, a joyless executor of the impossible mission that the adults have determined for him.

Good elements of the novel do exist: the taut pacing and animating plot, suitable for alumni of the Hardy Boys series; the economical writing; the Introduction to Existentialism course. It's not that Stormbreaker isn't well-written; rather, it's that there's a dry humorlessness without relief or redemption as the plot moves forward. There's no tubby, loyal friend Chet or other oddball sidekick to color in the human spaces. Even David Brin's Postman, a loner if there ever was one, forms alliances along the way; in contrast, Alex Rider is truly on his own as he fulfills his assigned destiny. In the end, Alex's increasingly bleak life is spared -- if only for the sequel -- when one of his murderous antagonists improbably shoots the other one. Talk about killer endings.

Alex Rider is John Drake without the worldliness; George Smiley without the moral nuance; James Bond without the girls. Now a major motion picture, says the book's cover. I think I'll wait for the Game Boy edition.


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