Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fields of Dreams – and the Occasional Nightmare

You know it's summertime at Candlestick when the fog rolls in, the wind kicks up, and you see the center fielder slicing open a caribou to survive the ninth inning. ~Bob Sarlette

I was going to write about something else just now, but I ran across the quote above and was sucked in by a wave of nostalgia for old ball parks. Take Candlestick Park. I used to love it when the Braves went out there, because it was a hoot to see people in California wearing parkas in July. There's something about the geography of San Francisco that causes this aberrant weather. Not only does it generate cold, but it produces some genuinely wicked winds.

The Braves had a slugging third baseman named Rob Horner, who was playing because of his skill with the bat, not the glove. In his first season, balls clanked off his mitt-of-stone with awsome regularity, but most of these were ordinary “oops” errors. I believe everyone who followed the Braves was looking forward to his first visit to Candlestick. Sure enough, early on, there was a popup to third. Horner circled, came in, went out, darted left, darted right, and finally tumbled over backward as the ball blew over his head, for an 85-foot double.

To his credit, Horner stuck with it, but I don't recall that he ever managed to actually catch a fly ball at the Stick.

Ball parks used to be more interesting places because they were built inside of cities. They had to conform to street layouts, which generated weird outfield dimensions, the most familiar of which is the legendary Fenway Park in Boston. It's no coincidence that most of the great Red Sox hitters were left handed, like Ted Williams and Carl Yazstremski. Most righthanders ruined their swing trying to poke a ball high enough to clear that short left field wall. Sure, they had Jim Rice, but Rice was one of the few who was smart enough to know that if he deliberately tried to hit it over the wall, he wasn't going to succeed. So he just let it happen. He was just as happy to lace one off the wall for a double and get the RBI.

That wall also turned many a pitcher into a nervous wreck. A little popup might end up over the fence if the wind was blowing to left. The story is told about a night when the Sox got down by nine runs early in the game. The manager decided to let Yazstremski have a rest and pulled him from the game in the fourth inning. Yaz showered and headed home. As he stopped at a toll bridge, the operator said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Yaz said, “What's the matter?”

“The Red Sox just tied the score and have two men on in the eighth!” the operator shouted.

The game was never out of reach at Fenway.

The Giants, when they were in New York, played at the Polo Grounds, which was a truly weird park. Right field was a “short porch” if you could drive it down the line, but center field was known as Death Valley. Every Cleveland Indians fan, including ones who weren't even born in 1954, know about center field at the Polo Grounds. That's where Vic Wertz hit a monster shot that would have been a home run in any other park in the league. But, we all have burned into our brains the image of Willie Mays, running hell-bent-for-leather, back to the infield, catching the ball over his shoulder, turning in a single motion, and firing the ball back into the infield. The Giants went on to sweep the Indians, who had set a record for regular-season wins, in four straight in the series. It would be a very long time before Cleveland would see the World Series again.

There was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Baker Field in Philadelphia, Briggs Stadium in Detroit, and Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Each had it's own oddities and charm. Others, like Comiskey Park in Chicago and Municipal Stadium in Cleveland were more regular, harbingers of things to come.

In the 1970's, there was a spate of ball park building. Aside from a couple of gems (Chavez Ravine and the Kansas City Royals park), they were cookie-cutter affairs with artificial turf, symmetrical outfields, and green outfield walls. If you tuned in a game where Cincinnati was playing Philadelphia, you couldn't tell where they were playing. Where a club could once build a team to take advantage of their home field, now they and the visitors were on a so-called level playing field. In theory, this sounds fine. In practice, it's a bore.

I think the Yankee Stadium refurbishing was the first attempt to stem the tide. Rather than build a new park, the Yankees updated and remodeled their stadium but kept it's basic style and dimensions. They did put the monuments behind a wall, removing the chance we used to have to watch center fielders trying to catch up to a ball caroming off the memorials. Keeping the stadium in the Bronx was a brilliant idea, hearkening back to the days when ball parks were in the city, not out in some unrelated suburb.

Baseball stadium construction in the last decade or so has shown that even the Lords of Baseball can figure out what the fans want. In Baltimore, they built Camden Yards; Cleveland got “the Jake” or Jacobs Field. Even Houston moved out of the dome into the stadium-formerly-known-as-Enron. It's now Minute Maid Stadium (unless they change it again). They may have gotten the parks right, but this business of selling the naming rights still takes a little something away from the charm of the new parks. I mean, if the name changes every couple of years, it's hard to have the same sense of history.

Here's some of that history for you. When Cleveland Municipal Stadium was built in 1933 (or thereabouts), it had a huge outfield. Home runs were unheard of where outfielders could roam the Elysian Fields of Cleveland. Later, they added a fence that gave hitters a chance. It is a fact, though, that no one ever hit a ball into the center field bleachers on the fly – or even on a single bounce. Not in a game, not in batting practice, never, ever. The Stadium is gone now, so no one will ever hit one into those bleachers.

The Jake is prettier and probably more comfortable, because when the wind blew in off Lake Erie, it got really cold at that old concrete and steel structure. But, the Stadium had it's history, even with a mediocre bunch like the Indians there. And it had those bleachers, mocking Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and a host of other sluggers.

I'll bet when they tore the old place down, the bleachers gave the Jake the razzberries.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Game's Afoot

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. ~J.B. Priestley, 1928

One of the failings of Americans is that we tend to extremes when it comes to what the rest of the world does. At times, we don't like anything domestic whether it be wines, artists, or cars. At other times, we look down our noses at anything that isn't born in the U.S.A. When it comes to sports, we're particularly myopic.

Baseball, football, and basketball are America's sports. Of these, only basketball was actually founded here, what with baseball having its roots in cricket and rounders, while football is an obvious descendant of rugby. We like to think baseball is a big deal around the world, but except for Japan and some of Latin America, it's not played at a very high level. Football is watched in Europe and in one whole game in Japan, but to these people it's more of a curiosity. The site of large men made even larger by high-tech plastic armor seems to fascinate them. As to the game itself, it seems to have a small following outside of the area between our left and right coasts. Basketball, on the other hand, has caught on well in the world, probably for the same reason it has done well in the U.S. You need a ball and a hoop; with just those two implements, you can play for hours on end.

Of course, there's an immense irony to the fact that we now seem unable to beat the rest of the world in the sports we championed for so many years. Well, no one beats us in football because no one plays it. That is, no one plays American football. The entire world plays football, or as we call it, for some reason, soccer.

Soccer, like basketball, requires little in the way of equipment. If you've got an open space, a ball, and something to mark where the goals are, you've got a soccer game. American kids play catch or horse; the rest of world's kids have a kickaround.

It's hard to understand why soccer didn't catch on here. Part of the reason is baseball. Baseball has been our poetic sport, our common denominator, our pastime. During World War II, GI's carried baseball gloves and taped-together balls with them, not footballs. When they met allied troops, all of whom played soccer, there was oddly no trading of places. I don't think was due to any meanness or chauvinism; for each of them, the game they played as kids was the game they loved.

It is odd, though, that soccer does have a large youth following in this country. Huge numbers of kids play in youth leagues all around the nation, but it doesn't seem to translate into a fan base. The reason for this is fuzzy, but, as usual, I have some theories.

  • Theory 1 – The kids love the game, but their parents don't get into it. The parents don't understand the game, and the kids are not likely to do a little backyard practice with Dad. Soccer is just another activity for the kids to participate in. When they're ready for “real” sports, Mom and Dad want them in football, baseball, or basketball.
  • Theory 2 – Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional league, stinks. My dad grew up playing soccer, and he was thrilled when we finally started getting some pro soccer here. But his enthusiasm dimmed when he saw the level of play. The players initially were over-the-hill foreign stars who were unknowns in this country. They never really gelled into good teams. It's been over 30 years and about four leagues since those early attempts at professional soccer, but the game still looks like it's played by guys who haven't been introduced.
  • Theory 3 – When a kid thinks about baseball, football, or basketball, he can dream about making it to the big leagues and emulating his favorite player. There's nowhere to go from youth soccer. Oh, you might play in college, if you're lucky enough to go to a school with a serious program. But, if you're a good player, your dream would be to play in Europe, where the money and the fame is, not in the anonymity of the MSL. But, there's no direct route to playing on the foreign teams, so they switch their dreams to the home sports.
  • Theory 4 – All that kids hear from so-called sports authorities in this country is that soccer is dull. Well, so are football, baseball, and basketball if you don't understand the games. Soccer is a little more subtle, and American networks really don't know how to televise it, which doesn't help any. In our sports broadcasts, we like closeups; we focus on individual players. This tendency even detracts from our own sports. For example, in baseball, fielders are shifting with every pitch, but you see little of this on ESPN, Fox, or ABC. Add to this the blocking of screen real estate with useless overlays during play, and it's a miracle if you can find the ball, much less see players at the wings breaking for the goal. If you watch European coverage of soccer, most of the time you see a broad view of the action, which is good, because a lot of the game's motion is away from the ball. Most of soccer's detractors, though, have never watched good soccer and don't intend to. It's easier to put the game down than it is to try to understand it.

The truth of the matter probably encompasses parts of all of these theories, but the ignorance factors in Theories 1 and 4 figure heavily. I listened to some boob this morning who, after giving lip service to the pending U.S.-Ghana game (we lost), went on about how dull the game is, how complex the tie breakers are, how the World Cup takes so long and how, geez, they only have it every four years. His partner sarcastically said something about how it's the most popular game in the world, as if the rest of the planet was unimportant compared to us.

Well, Noodle Brains, you see, it's the World Cup. There are 205 eligible nations, most of which you probably haven't heard of, that have spent the previous three years trying to get into the tournament. And an awful lot of them are a whole lot better at the game than we are. Yeah, yeah, the U.S. team, made up of a lot of people with rather foreign-sounding names, was highly ranked. When the chips were down, they were merely rank. While idiots like you have been sneering about what the rest of the world thinks is a great game, they've continued to be better at it than us while starting to best us at baseball and basketball. Thankfully, the rest of the world doesn't think enough of American football to play that, or we'd probably be getting beaten by Croatia at that, too.

Oh, by the way, anyone who will spend twenty minutes explaining the NFL wild-card tiebreakers, as these dimwits did every Monday morning last December, should not be complaining about the World Cup's rules. The U.S. tax code is simpler than the NFL formulas.

I like our football, baseball, and some of our basketball (the NBA can go suck eggs), but I like soccer, too. I'm not about to ignore a great game just because it's not one of our games.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

To Fetch or Not to Fetch

The more I see of man, the more I like dogs. ~Mme. de Sta

I have been associated with many dogs over the years. I don't think of myself as an owner of dogs; I happen to have been one of the dogs' people. Fortunately, most dogs like having their own people, so it's a nice relationship.

My parents used to be the people of a viszla. Now, you probably don't know what that is, and I'm sorry for you, because viszlas are cool dogs. Think of a weimeraner. Now make him a little more fine boned and just slightly smaller. Color him golden brown, like honey. Give him a pink nose. You've got a viszla, arguably one of the best field dogs ever born. Ours was called Stormy, and he would fetch stuff until your arm wore out. He could also find lost baseballs. We had fields with tall grass around the house, and the neighbor kid and I had notoriously erratic arms; balls would disappear into the tall weeds. We'd bring out Stormy and take him to the approximate area of where we saw the ball roll. He'd circle for a few seconds, catch the scent, and zero in on the ball. We would then spend the next ten minutes trying to get the ball back from him.

His “fetch” was better than his “give."

As a result of years with that dog, I have this crazy idea that all dogs should like playing with balls and frisbees. My wife also shares my love of dogs, and she has been the adopter and caretaker of most of our mutts. I happen to like mutts because they're sturdier than purebreds. There's nothing wrong, mind you, with a beautiful black lab or a pointer, but purebred dogs tend to develop unfortunate physical breakdowns. Mutts are nearly indestructible.

At any rate, my wife likes to adopt dogs, so we seldom have less than three dogs around. But, somehow the dogs that gravitate to her aren't fetch dogs.

Some of them are just dumb. Rocky, for example, appeared to be part mastiff and part brick, the brick part having lodged squarely between his ears. He was very friendly, but if you, say, tossed a frisbee, he would look at it happily, then back at you, equally happily, as if to say, “Duh, that was neat. Pick that up and throw it again.” I gently tossed the thing straight to him a couple of times, but he simply sat there and watched it all the way until it bounced off his head.

This was a dumb dog.

Cleo, part rottweiler, part lion hound, all coward, would attempt to fetch, but she was so clumsy, we stopped throwing things for fear she would injure herself. She could trip over a dandelion. When she chased a ball, she would overrun it, then hit the brakes, churning up a chunk of lawn, fall down, then come back and pick up the ball. After all that, there was no way she was going to carry it back to you.

Cleo liked to tree squirrels. Since they were already up there, most of her work was done for her. She could just sit under the tree and bark. One day, I was coming up the drive, and she started to amble over. The squirrel, sensing a chance to have some fun, came charging down the tree and began to run across the yard. Cleo heard it and gave thundering chase. As she neared the woods, a tiny signal went off in her brain: “There's a fence there, stupid!” She slammed on the brakes, tumbled over three times, and bounced off the wire fence. No harm was done to her body, but her dignity was shot for days.

Then there was Sheba. Sheba was part chow and all attitude. When she came ambling down the driveway, fresh from her latest adventure, I felt that all that was missing was a black leather jacket and lipstick. She was that sort of dog. The idea of fetching was completely alien to her. If I tossed a pine cone, which she loved to chew on, she would look at it, look at me as if I had lost my teeny little mind, then amble off in the opposite direction and pick up another pine cone altogether. “Listen, idiot,” she seemed to say, “there's one of these right here. You think I'm going over there for one?”

Now, we have Emily, our labrador deceiver, and Tiny, our rottenweiler. Emily used to fetch, but she finally decided that if I was going to throw the ball over there, I must want it over there, so why bother to go pick it up? But, I have hopes for Tiny, who likes to play catch. She will bring over a tennis ball, look at you with what my wife calls “Hedy Lamarr” eyes and go “murff”. Loosely translated, that means “Toss it and I'll catch it.” Which she will do about three times on average. After that, she gets bored and thinks chewing on the ball is more fun that catching it.

(Parenthetically, what is with dogs and tennis balls? I mean, how can they stand all that fuzzy on their tongues? Think about it. Makes you want to go “fwah”, doesn't it?)

I'm going to keep working with Tiny, because I suspect there's a fetch dog lurking inside of her somewhere. She's got part of it down. She likes to push her tennis balls under things. I don't mean she let's them roll under, say, the couch. She'll carefully set it down on the floor next to the couch and then push it underneath with a paw or her nose. Then she waits for the wife or me to come get it. So she understands the concept of fetch. She's already taught us to do it.

Now if I can get her to understand that she's supposed to fetch, not me, I'll be getting somewhere.

Friday, June 16, 2006

DSL Blues

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. ~William Shakespeare, King Lear

I am generally a pretty easy-going individual. Really. Oh, I bluster a lot, but I really haven't got a violent bone in my body. Occasionally, though, things occur that are so rank with stupidity, hypocrisy, and/or greed that I just get royally ticked. Often, these things relate to treatment by the various monopolies and cartels that have bought off the government. The other day, I got a good whack upside the head by Bellsouth.

The telcos control our Internet connectivity. This is reasonable because they laid the wire, set up the switches, and manage a lot of the routers. I have no problem with this, and I'm willing to pay for the privilege of using the system. I would, however, like to be able to actually use the system.

I've said in other posts that I live out in the boonies. Now, that is not to say that I live five miles from the nearest house. On the contrary, there are quite a few homes in the immediate area. My place is set off the road and has a little acreage around it, so there's a good 70 yards between me and my nearest neighboor and my back yard has woods between me and the folks on the other side. But, there are people around here. We even have what the telcos refer to as a CO (Central Office, which is actually a big green box) where switches are installed. DSL ends about 2 miles from my house, and less than a mile from the first house on our road.

So, fine, there are only a few dozen homes out here, so I certainly didn't expect to be on the cutting edge of high-speed access. But, after years of listening to the FCC and the telcos go on and on about how we're all going to have broadband (except for the occasional really isolated places), I'm a little tired of waiting. My patience isn't helped by little newsletters from Bellsouth asking why I haven't upgraded to DSL.

So, today I needed to call not-so-baby-Bellsouth about a minor billing question. After getting a polite answer, I asked if I could ask about whether DSL would ever come to my neighborhood. The polite person said he could connect me with someone who could give me a definitive answer. Well, that's nice. So, after a brief wait, I hear a new voice asking me if I'm ready to order DSL.

Well, now we're talking, thinks I. So I explain that I didn't think I could get it, which, when she checks my phone number turns out to be the case. Okay, no biggie, just let me know when I might be able to expect it. Oh, she wouldn't have any idea. She's in a central sales office, and I'd have to get that information from my local office, but she'll be glad to connect me directly. Well, that sounded peachy, so I said go ahead.

I get yet another polite and pleasant person. When I ask her my question, she says (and I am quoting this verbatim), “Oh, we don't know that.” Say what? I explain that I was told that someone at this number would have that information, she offers to ask her supervisor about it. After a brief pause (amazingly all of these transfers and holds were short), she comes back and says, “No, my supervisor says we wouldn't know that.” Well, okay, who would know?

“As far as we know, no one has that information.”

“Let me see if I've got this straight,” I said. “You're telling me that no one at Bellsouth knows when DSL will be installed anywhere?”

“Yes, that's right.”

That, dear reader, is the most stupid thing I've ever heard, bar none, from any company I've dealt with. And, I have dealt with some real zeros in my days in Quality Control. Apparently, if this person was to be believed, somewhere at Bellsouth, someone tosses a dart at a map and says, “Let there be DSL!” I can draw only two possible conclusions:

  • Bellsouth is run by idiots; or
  • DSL is never coming to my neighborhood, and they just don't have the guts to tell me.

Now, I've had very good luck with Bellsouth over the years. Even my dial-up has been reliable to the extreme. When I've had problems with speeds or connectivity, people have actually come out and checked the junction box outside the house and fixed something. For free! I have worked as a contractor at Bellsouth, and, while I see where Scott Adams gets his material, from a technical point of view, these guys know what they're doing. Also, in the past, their service people have known what was going on and could give reliable information. So, I find it hard to believe that the whole outfit is run by a bunch of boobs.

But, of course, all that was before the telcos started merging together. And, that was before the FCC started rubber stamping everything the telcos request. The latest of these “requests” will allow the telcos to “prioritize” traffic, which translates into “If you want people to visit your web site or use your VOIP or web service, you're gonna pay us to let you have bandwidth.” In other words, the telcos don't have to be run intelligently any longer because there is no real competition (not there ever was).

By the way, if you want to see irony in action, keep an eye out for the ad that criticizes the telcos for only providing services to the rich. Notice the small print that tells you that this ad is paid for by the Cable Television companies. Guess who also doesn't provide services to neighborhoods like mine. Pot, meet kettle.

It's not like there are any options. Satellite broadband is expensive and notoriously lousy. Most don't even allow VPN connections, and they have download limits. Download too much and they throttle you down to dial-up speeds until your “download average” is within their acceptable limits (which they can change without notice). That “last mile” wireless that tech writers burble about seems to be a figment of their imaginations. And broadband over power lines? I went to a seminar where Alabama Power talked about a trial they were running. It was very exciting, eminently feasible, and totally underfunded. AP has no intent of competing with their buddies at Bellsouth.

So, what can I do? Well, I can annoy someone. So, I filed a complaint with the FCC. I know, this is like complaining about Dick Cheney to George Bush, but I felt better. At least someone at Bellsouth will have to spend an afternoon filling out paperwork and maybe drafting a little e-mail of apology.

That'll break up the dart game for a while.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Getting Organized in the Bermuda Triangle

My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that's what she said. ~Author Unknown

I learned early in our marriage that my wife had a fetish for moving things around. We were living in a typical two-bedroom apartment, with what is laughingly referred to as a “galley” kitchen and a living room. When you walked in the door, you were in the living room. The place was unprepossessing but comfy. I am admittedly a creature of habit, so I was used to walking in the door, turning to my right, and hanging up my coat on the coatrack. One day, I came in, turned to my right – and fell over the couch.

Fortunately, it was a large couch, so I didn't bounce off and hurt myself. I merely lay there with the typical deer-in-the-headlights look that husbands get. My wife was so concerned about my welfare that she stopped laughing after only five or six minutes.

“What the devil is the couch doing here?”

“Oh, I just thought I'd rearrange the room. How do you like it?”

From then on, I insisted on fair warning when she went on a rearranging spree. The wife seldom remembers to warn me, but she does make an effort not to leave anything where I'll fall over it.

What brought this to mind was that the wife is at it again. Tonight, I noticed the armoire had come out of hiding. For the Philistines among you, an armoire (pronounced armwar) is a movable closet that isn't quite big enough to hold what you need to have it hold but is more than big enough to be an absolute bear to move. My wife bought this thing. My wife likes buying things that really aren't quite right for what we need. She knows this, which is why I picked out the refrigerator, stove, and dish washer over the years. Picking things with the right functionality is not her strong suit.

The armoire, for example, wasn't really what she needed. What she needed was a large dresser with lots of drawers. What she got was a semi-movable closet with no drawers. So, after some years in our bedroom, with her clothes stacked in the bottom of the thing, she decided to swipe a dresser my son didn't want and banished the armoire to the utility room. Today, however, the monster had navigated out into the living room.

“What the devil is the armoire doing here?” (I ask this sort of thing a lot.)

“Oh, I'm just rearranging things to get organized.”

Now, I love my wife, but she couldn't get organized if she was president of the AFL-CIO (unions .. organizers...come on, work with me here). Her basic problem is that she never gets rid of anything. We have a broken tuner knob from a Sears TV we owned when we got married. TV's don't even have tuning knobs any more, but, by golly, if they ever decide to put them back on, we've got a replacement for one – if we find the piece that broke off of it. Which is probably around here someplace.

Once, when moving, I found boxes that hadn't been opened since our previous move. We had lived in a house for four years and never had a need for anything in those boxes. I wanted to move them immediately out to the curb for trash pickup, but my wife was adamant.
“We might need something in there!”

“Like what? You don't even know what's in the boxes. If we didn't need to even open them in four years, there's no way there's something in there we need.”

Of course, we kept them. I think that one them, 20 years and one more house later, is still unopened.

I'm no organizational genius, but, in my den, in my office at work, I can normally lay hands on anything I need. When our kitchen remodel was done several years ago, I took the opportunity to organize my cookwear and utensils so I could quickly find them when the urge to create a culinary masterpiece was upon me. The wife decided to add some pans and move things around. Now, I can never find the little saucepan I use for making chocolate sauce. Or the 14" lid I bought for our big frying pans. One of these days, I'm not going to be able to find the stove.

So, the wife is on one of her “get organized” tears. A group of shelves that were in one corner of the dining room are gone. I have no idea where the stuff that was on them is, and I don't want to know. The stuff may be in the armoire for all I know. Our homes seem to turn into veritable Bermuda Triangles. Stuff disappears; stuff reappears. It happens for no discernible reason during one of her stuff-shuffling episodes. For all I know, Flight 19 might be hiding out in the root cellar.

A few minutes ago, I went out to the living room to look for the new dictionary. It's a new dictionary because we haven't been able to find our old one for a couple of years now, a casualty of an earlier re-org. After a couple of minutes, I gave up.

“Where's the dictionary?”

“It's right there. Oh, here, I'll show you.”

“Right there” was on a little desk that sits near the living room. It's been piled high with odds, ends, detritus, and general junk ever since it wandered up here from the basement. The dictionary, which a couple of weeks ago was sitting on an end table in clear view, was under about six inches of the stuff.

"What the devil is the dictionary doing there?" (Like I said ...)

I don't spend a lot of time in the living room. When I do, I stick close to the dogs. I figure if I get buried under something, the dogs can dig me out.

In this house, at least, she can't set any traps for me when I come in. The door from the garage leads into the kitchen, and the refrigerator is connected to a water pipe for the ice maker. It isn't going anywhere.

It's like a haven of safety in the Bermuda Triangle.

Friday, June 9, 2006

Arrogance as a Virtue

Some people are like Slinkies... not really good for anything, but you still can't help but smile when you see one tumble down the stairs. ~Author Unknown

Arrogance is a funny trait. Most of the time, it's irritating to be on the receiving end of the withering wave of frustrating condescension that an arrogant person can hurl at us. Worse, the most arrogant people also tend to be the most childish and difficult to work with. On the other hand, it's a positive blessing to have an arrogant person in the right place at the right time.

Consider General George Patton. In military history, there have been few more overbearing and absolutely arrogant figures than Patton. Yet this was a man who knew himself. In a scene from the movie Patton, after one Patton tirade, his aide says, “You know, sometimes, sir, they can't tell whether your acting or not.” Patton, brilliantly played by George C. Scott replies, “It's not important that they know. It's only important that I know.” As Patton, ultimately found out, arrogance is acceptable until you make mistakes, and those in power deem you to be dispensible.

Arrogance is not a necessary part of being, say, a successful general. Omar Bradley, a compatriot of Patton's, was known as the GI general, a sort of “with the guys” kind of leader. Despite this, though, when I've heard Bradley speak, he comes across with some of that leader's arrogance. It's an element of belief in self that is necessary to almost any successful leader. Whatever you may have heard, “aw, shucks” kinds of people do not, generally (no pun intended) speaking, make the best leaders. They may be folksy in public, cultivating a persona that sells well with the public, but, in the trenches, they've got an attitude that clearly states they're in charge. If they don't have that, then someone else is calling the shots.

Well, that's all well and good if you're running the First Cav or the United States. How about the arrogance we have to deal with in some individuals? Is that doing us any good? That depends.

Just as with Omar Bradley, effective corporate leaders have to have a degree of arrogance. There's a point at which someone has to make the calls, exert the discipline, overcome the inertia. This isn't just something that happens in the boardroom. The best project managers I've seen have a touch of “I'm in charge”. If you've ever managed a big project, you know that there's always a moment when the project leader has to go up against the recalcitrance of managers who, for whatever reason, are not wedded to the idea that the project must succeed. You can go up the ladder, but you can't do that too many times. To be effective, you have to project that attitude of certainty and control that says, “By god, we're going to succeed with or without you. When we succeed without you, you're going to be branded as a loser.”

Now, I'll have to admit to a certain amount of arrogance myself. It comes with the territory if you're going to be a system administrator. When things are going wrong, you've got to be able to take action in the face of all sorts of people screaming that their exceedingly important work isn't getting done. Some of them will decide they need to contact you every two minutes to get a status report, which, of course, will keep you from getting anything done. That's when the arrogance comes into play.

Once you solve the problems, the arrogance is forgotten, perhaps even admired. But, you can't make it a habit, or else it won't be effective when you need it. Also, continual overbearing arrogance gets old. The next time a problem occurs, people are liable to decide that your arrogance is one of the causes of problems.

In some circumstances, they'd be right. Arrogance can be a sign of the corrupting influence of power. We've seen it altogether too often in recent years, with the likes of Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, and HealthSouth. Before the fall, we see the arrogance of the people on top, ignoring subordinates' warnings, granting themselves egregious percs, and robbing stockholders and employees blind. What then follows is these same towers of arrogance pretending they had no idea what was going on. It's the inverse of the Nuremberg defense. Instead of “I was just following orders,” they say, “I was just giving orders, but I had no idea how they were carried out.”

R-i-i-i-ight.

Ultimately, though, what fries most of us is the arrogant sort who has no business being arrogant. We accept some high-handedness by those who have demonstrated expertise or carried off difficult tasks. But when you get that attitude from the guy in the office mostly likely to be elected village idiot, it's galling. These are the people who never learn from their mistakes. Well, that's not strictly true. They make the same mistakes, but they often learn to cover them up with newer excuses.

Thankfully, most users are willing to accept responsibility for their actions and want to learn what to do to avoid having the problem happen again. This is fortunate because it cuts down on the number of bodies a sysadmin has to hide.

But, the most amazingly arrogant person I ever met once reached a level I thought wasn't possible. She was running through a litany of people she didn't get along with, even to the point of admitting that she recognized that I didn't much care for her style. Actually, what I didn't care for was that she consistently screwed up, then blamed it on anybody but herself. However, I let that pass, because I wanted her to go away. Then she hit me with an admission that I never expected.

She said that she recognized that she could be very irritating. Actually she used a common anatomical vulgarity, but I try to keep this blog relatively free of that sort of thing. Anyway, since she was being so frank, I simply said, “Why, yes, I'd say that's right.” She then went on to explain that she felt that was a positive character trait.

As anyone will tell, I am seldom left speechless, but this was one of those rare occasions. She actually used some of the logic I've presented above, omitting to mention the importance of successfully completing assigned tasks and reacting well to crises. I would like to say that I answered with some clever Oscar Wilde sort of quip, but I didn't. I just sat their slack-jawed until she left.

I was afraid she was going to start drawing comparisons to me.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Random Ruminations Yet Again!

I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain. ~Jane Wagner

666, My Aunt Fanny
We have survived 6/6/06. In doing so, we have established the following:
  • The media is even more shallow than I had ever imagined.
  • People don't understand the meaning of 666 in The Book of Revelations (or the Apocalypse, for the Catholics out there).
  • Things that were supposed to happen on June 6 included the announcement of the arrival of the AntiChrist, the end of the world, and major terrorist attacks because "666" has such incredible significance to Americans. Yeah, right.
  • People don't know the difference between 6606 and 666.
  • Just like they did with the coming of the second millenium, people were unable to realize that 6/6/06 had been occuring ever since the invention of the Julian calendar, with no notable catastrophes associated with the day.
  • Somehow, Conservatives, who seem to attach all sorts of signifcance to 666, fail to remember that there are 6 letters in each of Ronald Wilson Reagan's (used to be President of the U.S., remember?) names, thereby making him the AntiChrist by some of the loonier associations of the number.
  • Just to prove how evil Reagan was, one of his home addresses was 666 (he had it changed to 668; didn't want people to find him out, I guess).
  • People don't know that the bulk of Biblical scholars regard 666 as a reference to Nero, being the total of the numerical values of the letters in his full Roman name.
  • Most amazingly, apparently everyone forgot that it was the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, because in all that media burbling about 666, there was scarcely a word about one of the momentous events in modern history.

Legitimizing Bad Behavior - Again
It is being reported that more than 7% of people in the U.S. have -- are you ready for this one? -- "Intermittent Explosive Disorder" (IED). This problem has been discovered in people as young as fourteen years of age.

Hell's bells, I've seen this in people as young as two. It's called a tantrum, and people used to be taught to outgrow them. Now, it's a disorder. That means we'll soon be seing ads, sandwiched between the weight loss and erectile dysfunction pills, for drugs to help control IED. Unpleasant side effects will include being polite to strangers, yielding the right of way in traffic, and occasional death (from someone who doesn't take the pill).

I'm willing to bet this study came from the same people who have determined that: People who are overweight tend to eat a lot and mem and women are different (except where they're the same).

Political Followup
Lucy Baxley and incumbent Governor Bob Riley won their respective primaries outright, ousting a former governor currently on trial for taking bribes and a former State Supreme Court Justice who believes that he's the only law south of the Talapoosa. I'm not sure what the vituperative types who were going to campaign for the losers are going to do to occupy their time for the next few months, but I am sure Ms. Baxley and Governor Riley are hoping they don't try to help them.

In the Wild World of Sports
The World Cup starts today, and early predictions are that computer networks worldwide will be brought to their knees by rabid fans watching streaming video at work. Well, perhaps in other parts of the world, but in the U.S., I sincerely doubt we'll see a blip. Despite the fact that youth soccer and even college soccer have been relatively popular as participation sports, the average U.S. sports fan would be hard pressed to even name a world class soccer player. I think the problem is that the game is too cheap to play.

You see, here if you don't need five hundred dollars of equipment to play a game, it doesn't catch on. All you need for soccer is a ball, a couple of crossbars, and a big field. The uniform is just shorts and a t-shirt. To outfit an American football player costs a king's ransom for protective gear. In baseball and softball, you need the glove, a bat (preferably more than one), and a spiffy uniform. Now you might say that basketball is inexpensive, needing only a bar and baggy shorts. You might until you consider what a pair of basketball shoes costs.

Elsewhere, it appears that the Outdoor Life Network's coverage of the NHL Stanley Cup is being watched only by the families and close friends of the players involved. ESPN's coverage of the NCAA Women's Softball tournament is actually getting more viewers. Part of this is due, of course, to the year-long strike by NHL players, which caused many in the U.S., and apparently some in Canada, to forget that the NHL existed. In the spirit of stupidity that got the NHL where it is today (somewhere behind pro lacrosse), OLN decided to block their NHL programming from carriers (like DISH network) that didn't have them in their basic packages. As a result, not a lot of people watched regular season hockey, so they had TWO years to forget that the NHL ever existed.

OLN, realizing that they had shot themselves in the foot with a magnum round, relented when the playoffs came around. Apparently, that was too little too late. Instead of having a season to get used to the poor play (a year off does not usually improve one's skills), lousy officiating (which wasn't all that good before the strike), and oddball rules changes (touch someone with your stick and you're hooking; two minutes bub), the viewers were clobbered with this during the playoffs. Many, like me, said, this sure ain't my daddy's hockey, and went back to watching women's softball.

Which is pretty good, actually.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. ~Ronald Reagan

The campaigns are going hot and heavy here in Alabama, which means the invective, claims of greatness, and monumental promises are flowing like a pyroclastic flow from Mt. St. Helen's. Ordinarily, I tune most of this out, but this year seems to be particularly ridiculous.

First, I've never heard so much “more conservative than thou” yak in my life. Okay, we live in the deep South, and not many folks from down here are going to turn up at Sierra Club meetings. But some of the jargon being thrown around goes beyond ridiculous to the totally inane.

-- One politician's ad says that he voted for a state law that allows abortions as long the woman is giving all necessary information about the consequences and about alternatives. He then says he's a right-to-lifer who opposes abortion. As if that little incongruity isn't enough, the ad goes on to say that he's “a card carrying member of the National Rifle Association.” Therefore, he's against killing fetuses but in favor of having them killed by AK-47's once they get grown a little.

-- I have written about former State Chief Justice Roy “I only support laws God tells me to” Moore. A supporter of his is running for his old job. He has taken snippets of speeches from his opponent and associated them with claims that the opponent favors gay marriage, would allow abortion “right to the moment of birth” (which I think is illegal everywhere), and that the opponent has the temerity to regard Roe v Wade as the law of the land. This guy promises to rule against every U.S. Supreme Court decision of the last fifty years. The opponent has a stalking horse stating that Roy's boy is a “judicial activist”, ironically enough, since that's a term usually reserved for liberals.

--The challengers claim that all the incumbents are in the pockets of lobbyists and special interests. The incumbents never heard of lobbyists and are all "their own men" (or women, as the case may be).

--Incumbents all claim to have reduced my taxes. According to these people, I'm paying nothing at all. Challengers all claim that incumbents voted for tax increases, and I'm being positively crushed by my tax burden. If I elect them, they'll cut my taxes to nothing.

That last deserves some additional discussion. I've said before that I don't mind paying my share of taxes. I like have police and fire protection. I think police, firefighters, and teachers should be paid fairly. I like having the roads fixed. I think good schools are important. You don't get these things without paying for them. I certainly don't like corporate welfare and wasted money, but the challengers in these elections don't say anything about fixing those things.

Alabamians are lucky. Relatively speaking, we have a low tax burden. Unfortunately, it shows in some areas, like pay for those folks I mentioned and perennially financially strapped school systems. Our roads are pretty nice, though. What is ridiculous is the sales tax. Since property taxes and the state income tax are low, the state makes it up in sales tax. By the time you add in local sales taxes, the average rate is around 10%. Every time some governmental sector needs money, they slap another sales tax on things.

Sales taxes are very regressive. Lower income people are effected more, especially when you consider that Alabama is one of the few states (maybe the only one) that taxes groceries. I'm not talking about beer, cigarettes, or aluminum foil. I'm talking about bread, milk, meat, and vegetables. That stinks. And I haven't heard a single arch-conservative tax slasher ever say a word about rectifying that situation.

Another goofy aspect of Alabama government is that local government has to go begging to the legislature to get approval to pass local ordinances. For example, the city of Montgomery for years did not allow the sale of draft beer. You could get all the bottles and cans you want, but ask for beer on tap? Sorry. So the city would dutifully pass an ordinance allowing the sale of draft beer. But, the legislature had to approve it. The beer sellers, who don't make as much selling draft as they do selling bottles and cans, would ensure that the Montgomery legislators, who had to kick off the approval process, had plenty of campaign contributions to help them realize what was the “best” course to take. Which meant that draft beer stayed out of Montgomery.

(I think that finally changed, but I don't live in Montgomery any more, so I couldn't say for sure.)

I've only heard one conservative campaigner say this lack of local authority is a bad thing.

And as for Alabama's constitution with its endless amendments, the very suggestion of rewriting it seems to send conservatives into paroxysms. A couple of years ago, one loony went so far as to suggest that the constitution was inspired by God and rewriting it would be blasphemous. I don't think God would create a document requiring over 800 amendments to keep it straight.

I don't think much is proved by campaigners trying to prove that their politics is somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun. I'd like to challenge all these characters to stop knifing each other in the back and address what they're going about the real problems of the state. In fact, I'd like to see candidates for national office talk about what they're going to do about the nation's concerns. I'd also like to be able to teleport myself to work and back each day.

Well, I thought I wish for at least one thing that had at least a finite probability of happening.

Friday, June 2, 2006

A Brief Political History

Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. ~Author Unknown

I have lived in three states, Ohio, Virginia, and Alabama. I have learned that politics is pretty much the same all over, but the sideshow is very different from place to place. Alabama has a very lively sort of political carnival.

My introduction to Alabama politics came in 1986, when Bill Baxley and Charlie Graddick ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. Since no Republican had been elected governor since Reconstruction, the outcome of the Democratic primary usually determined the winner of the November election.

Alabama has a run-off system for primaries, and in 1986, Baxley and Graddick made the run-off election. In this state, if you vote in one party's primary, you aren't allowed to cross over and vote in the other party's run-off. That's the law. Charlie Graddick, a former State Attorney General, evidently missed class the day that law was taught because he actively promoted the idea of Republicans, who were more likely to favor him, to vote in the Democratic run-off.

Republicans were available to vote because they had picked their man in the initial primary. When no one expects your party to win, you don't get a lot of guys queuing up to get beaten. Guy Hunt, their nominee, had won relatively easily. Now Graddick was asking them to break the law.

Graddick won, as I recall, but had the nomination stripped by the state Democratic party, who gave the nod to Baxley. Graddick sued and lost, so Baxley had a fairly clear road to the governor's mansion. Except, that he wasn't any brighter than Graddick. It seemed that Mr. Baxley, a married man, was photographed leaving a motel with a female known not to be his wife. This sort of behavior, while certainly not uncommon in Alabama (or anywhere else), is not considered something to be flaunted about publicly. Unless you're William Jefferson Clinton, which Baxley certainly wasn't.

Of course, Baxley denied any wrongdoing, it was all just business, blah, blah, blah. His wife, Lucy, stood by him. Stood by him, that is, until Guy Hunt beat him to become the first Republican governor in Alabama in over 100 years. At that point, she showed him the door. More about Lucy later.

Hunt, a folksy sort of man, acquitted himself adequately if not brilliantly as governor. Everything was lovely until it was learned that he was using the State airplane to get ferried to revivals and other church-type events where he would preach. That resulted in an investigation which, as is usually the case, brought up some other apparent improprieties concerning the spending of excess campaign funds. Hunt did not finish his second term.

He was succeeded by Democratic Lt. Governor Jim Folsom Jr., whose daddy was Big Jim Folsom. Yes, that Big Jim Folsom. Big Jim, the story goes, ran for re-election by saying that his people had stole as much as they were going to steal, but if the voters voted in new people they'd start stealing all over again, so they'd save money if they re-elected him (which the voters did). Little Jim, as he was known, showed that he wasn't a very quick study because as election time rolled around, it turned out his family was getting ferried around in –you guessed it-- the State airplane for non-governmental reasons.

So, Republican Fob James (who had been a Democratic governor some years earlier) became top man. He promptly demonstrated all the reasons that had led to him not being re-elected the last time. His main contributions to embarrassing the state were: a) suggesting that the state government should be run like Waffle House; and b) penning a long article on why the U.S. Bill of Rights should not apply to states. Fob fiddled while the State lost federal funds through inaction.

That brilliant performance brought us Democrat Don Siegleman, whose administration was marked by continual murmurings about financial favors being demanded for governmental favors. The law-and-order State Attorney General, Bill Pryor, a Republican, managed to not find anything out for Siegleman's entire term. He did this by actively not investigating any of the allegations. Pryor also decided that working with Federal prosecutors would interrupt his busy schedule of worrying about illegal bingo parlors. At any rate, it wasn't until recently that Siegleman himself got indicted. More on that in just a moment.

Siegleman was defeated by Republican Bob Riley. Riley is in the Hunt mold, not as a preacher, but as a folksy guy who has done an okay job. A big plus is that he seems to have kept everyone away from the State airplane.

So we reach the current political season. This features Riley being challenged in his primary by former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy “Ten Commandments” Moore. Moore became nationally famous as the judge who ignored a U.S. court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Judiciary Building in Montgomery. He announced that he wasn't going to obey that law, and no one could make him. Surprise, Roy! They can! And they can kick you off the Court, too. So now he says he can be a fair governor as long as we let him uphold the laws he likes and ignore the ones God tells him are bad.

By the way, I'm not going to get into that whole Ten Commandments debate other than to say there were a dozen legal ways Moore could have had his precious monument. All he had to do was create a display that recognized other religions and even secular lawgivers like Hammurabi. Many states, local communities, and even federal buildings have such legal displays.

On the Democratic side, good ol' Don, who is being tried for his alleged financial follies, is running against –and unless you live here you won't be expecting this—Lucy Baxley. Yup, ol' Bill's wife is running for governor. Lucy has not wandered into this cold. She served pretty well as State Treasurer and followed that up by being elected Lt. Governor. While there she managed to get people to forget her predecessor's idiocy (a story in and of itself) and brought some dignity back to the office.

Odds are good that Lucy and Bob will go into the fall election, which could produce the most civil campaigns we've seen here in years. Both are reasonably competent, and both have clear public records to run on. We might actually have a campaign based on issues, not invective.

But, I'm not going to bet the farm on that.