Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Living Within The Rules

It is not a fragrant world. ~Raymond Chandler

Some days, I can't get the radio turned off quickly enough.

The local sports station has an op-ed segment which gives the on-air types a chance to actually spit out an opinion without the other two constantly interrupting him or her. These tend to be pretty vapid rants, so most of the time I ignore them until I get the traffic report and can turn the radio off. Today, one of them just got a little too stupid.

Let me summarize what he said. At Clemson, a young man who happens to be a football player has gained guardianship of his little brother, for reasons I'll describe below in more detail. The young man is a fine person, who got a Pell Grant and is working part-time jobs to earn money to support his brother. After a story appeared in the local newspaper, there was an outpouring of support. One coach and wife offered to be foster parents to the brother; others offered to drive him to school; and money, lots of it, was being offered to help support the pair. But, says our intrepid commentator, the evil rules-makers of the NCAA are forbidding the school to help this young man because it would violate rules governing payments to athletes. Obviously, the NCAA is a bunch of trolls that detest happy endings and want to see this young man suffer because of their dumb rules.

Right.

Now, let's look at the real story. First of all, Ray Ray McElrathbey, the football player, sounds like a truly fine young man, one I would be proud to know. His mother used to take him along to crack houses and keep him in another room while she fed her habit. His father was no better alternative, being a compulsive gambler living in Vegas. Somehow, Ray Ray beat the odds and made it to Clemson to play football. But that wasn't enough for him. His little brother, Fahmarr, was still stuck in the hell-hole Ray-Ray had escaped, so the young man decided he would attempt to get guardianship of his six-grade brother, which he did, at least temporarily. Fahmarr just started school in Clemson. Ray Ray, as noted, has a Pell Grant, which supplies some money for living expenses, but the only way he can make ends meet to work at any odd job he can get. Obviously, once football season starts, that's going to be harder, but young Mr. McElrathbey is not one to be intimidated by a challenge, not where his brother is concerned.

When the story appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier, there was an immediate upwelling of emotion in the area. People want to help, and that's good. But Clemson is in a bind, because Ray Ray is an athlete. The NCAA is very strict about monies, presents, and services being given to athletes by boosters or by the school. In fact, it's probably the single most common cause of schools being put on probation. Star athletes have often been given expensive cars, “no-work-high-pay” jobs, and plain old cash payments to get them to come to a school. Because of that sort of thing, Clemson can't allow favors to come to Ray Ray and his brother without controls.

Now, nowhere in the article linked above do I see where the NCAA has called the school and told them to throw Ray Ray to the wolves. It's Clemson itself that is proactively trying to work things out, although you never would have known that from the radio commentary. My guess is that something will be worked out.

But, some people need to get in touch with the real world here, notably the misguided radio commentator and one of Clemson's coaches as well. Let's face it. If you could bypass the rules governing gifts and payments by claiming you needed to support a child, every athlete would have a little brother, sister, second-cousin-twice-removed, or whatever living with him. And that kid would find him or herself to be the proud owner of a Hummer, jewelry, stocks, bonds, and anything else wealthy boosters could shove his way, so that the athlete could provide “support.”

Athletic programs cheat. If they didn't, the NCAA wouldn't need all those rules.

But there's another hypocrisy here. Quoth Clemson coach Vic Koening: “I know we have to abide by the rules and everything. But someone in a similar situation not involved with the NCAA can get all the help they want.” Sure, Coach, they can go to the Department of Human Services (or whatever they call the welfare folks in South Carolina) and try to get whatever pittance they can get. More likely, the brother would end up in a foster home, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but, living with a responsible family member would be better.

Sure, people were lining up to offer help; one coach and his wife offered to be foster parents. Now, I'd be shocked if one couldn't find more than one student at a school the size of Clemson who wasn't in a similar situation, wanting to get a younger sibling out of bad surroundings. Who's offering to help that young man or woman? Who's offering money to set up trust funds? What coach is making pious speeches about someone who doesn't run a fast 40-yard dash but is working to become a doctor or a teacher? What coach's wife is offering to drive the kid to school?

How about that, Coach and radio guy?

As I said, I think Clemson will work something out for Ray Ray and Fahmarr, and that's good, because helping one kid is better than helping no one. But, with all those offers of money and time, wouldn't it be something if Clemson offered to help any student in similar circumstances? Oh, they can't support everybody's little brother and sister, but with all that money that's being offered, a fund could be created to provide that little bit of assistance that could make a difference. And, not a single NCAA line would be crossed because the fund would be available to all students, not just athletes.

From what little I know of young Mr. McElrathbey, I suspect he'd be proud to know he'd kicked off something like that. I suspect he knows other candidates for that kind of help.

Because he knows first hand how the world can stink.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Slingshot Effect

[I]t becomes increasingly easy, as you get older, to drown in nostalgia. ~Ted Koppel

Like most people, I wax nostalgic every now and then, even in this space. For the most part, though, I tend to leave the past in the past, because it's easy to fall into an idealized view of how it was. It is, for instance, wonderful to remember buying a week's worth of groceries for $25 (in 1971, honest). It's not so much fun to realize that, with a salary of $7500 a year, that $25 was a significant chunk of change each week. My dad's $49 a month mortgage payment looks swell, until I recall his $75 a week paycheck.

So, I try to keep things in perspective.

Certain pieces of the past, though, seem to be hugely magnified, not just to me, but to entire generations. In the case of my generation, one of those pieces came to life 40 years ago come September: Star Trek. It was Smithsonian Magazine's September issue that rudely reminded me of how long ago Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the rest of that merry band boldly went “where no man has gone before.”

Good lord, 1966. I graduated from high school that year and entered my freshman year of college, majoring in the making of flint tools. Well, no, it was physics, but it seems like it should have been something from the Neolithic (and I probably would have done better if it had been). What was it like in 1966?
  • We hadn't got to the Moon yet, but were sho 'nuff workin' on it.
  • VietNam was beginning to look like a lousy idea, but the majority of Americans were still on board.
  • Gasoline cost about 35 cents a gallon for high test (just thought I'd throw that in to depress you), and the first so-called fuel shortage was still about 5 years away.
  • Rock, folk, blues, and jazz were about to create a fusion that would last into the early seventies, generating the best music of the twentieth century.
  • The Civil Rights movement was gaining ground, but we were a couple of years away from finding out that the North needed it as much (or more) than the South.
  • And it seemed that just about everyone was protesting about something.
Into this Ball of Confusion (from the song of the same name) plopped “Star Trek”.

Now, roughly a bazillion words have been spoken and written about the significance of “Star Trek”, including, most recently a PhD thesis. Much of the rest of words have come from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and other Trek cast members whose acting careers outside of Trek shows and films have been less than stellar. Well, that's not entirely fair. William Shatner actually has had some successes (including an Emmy for one of those lawyer shows), but the rest of the ensemble haven't exactly set the Hollywood firmament ablaze. At any rate, scholars, critics, Trekkers, and lord knows who else have waxed eloquent about how the show had a magnificent message of a future with hope and equality – and constant near warfare with Klingons and Romulans.

Well, maybe. Let's recall that Star Trek nearly warped into cancellation after its first season, being rescued at the last moment by a massive letter-writing campaign (the way people did it before the Internet). Despite all this fan mail, the show never really got very high ratings and was subsequently canceled after its third season. But, the show would get a new life after network, in syndicated reruns. There were bunches of sci-fi shows coming and going during those years, most of which have faded into oblivion, yet Trek, nearly a half-century later is still being shown. Trekkers are loyal.

By the way, with all due respect to the Smithsonian Magazine, they got it wrong, calling the show's fans Trekkies. The true fans are Trekkers, who take umbrage at being addressed by the cutsie form “Trekkies”. Trekkers are the people who go to the conventions dressed as green Orion slave girls, can speak Klingon, and can make the Vulcan salute without having to look down at their fingers first.

So how come Trek rolls on? I don't think it's much of a mystery, despite all the philosophizing that people have done about the program all these years. It all boils down to a few simple characteristics:
  • Good scripts: They had sci-fi writers generate their stories, and they gave them a very detailed outline for consistency (although they did cheat a little when the plot needed it). Yes, there were meaningful themes, but they seldom beat us to death with them, as most dramatic programs did. And there was an excellent blend of action and dialog that kept the shows from dissolving into philosophical ramblings (like Star Trek:The Next Generation).

  • Perfect casting: Maybe there weren't any great actors on the show, but they were perfect for the parts they had. Leonard Nimoy's limited range of emotion (if you ever saw him in Mission:Impossible, you know what I mean) was put to perfect use in Mr. Spock. William Shatner's overacting was just the ticket for a Horatio Hornblower sort of captain. And there was a remarkable chemistry that developed along the way. For whatever reason, you always felt that these people had been together as a crew for years.
  • Amazing special effects: Yeah, yeah, everybody goes on and on about how pitiful the effects were compared to today. Well, bunky, it wasn't today: it was 40 years ago, and believe me, those were good-looking effects, better than anything anyone else was doing on TV(except maybe, occasionally, The Outer Limits). The fact that they managed to do them on the cheap is all the more wonderful.
If you think about it, it's really the first two that have made the show last. The effects served to get everyone's attention early on. Once you got past the innovative look of the star ship Enterprise, the transporter, and phasers, it was the stories and the chemistry of the actors that kept bringing you back. Ultimately, that's what works in any series. Consider the other show that goes on and on: The Andy Griffith Show. No special effects, but the stories and the cast's chemistry just keep the reruns rolling.

The Trek franchise tried to match the original, but I think the later programs benefited more from special effects than anything else. TNG must have had something to last 7 or 9 years (or somewhere thereabouts), but, frankly, whatever it was eludes me. Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and, heaven help us, Enterprise were just soap operas that never would have seen the light of day without the Roddenberry name and spiffy CGI to keep them afloat.

So, to Kirk, Spock, Bones, Barney Fife, and all the great characters, I say, “Live long and prosper!” I suspect that if I last another 40 years, I'll still be able to watch your reruns.

Which will quite likely still be the best thing on the tube.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Blog Furor

We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true. ~Robert Wilensky

Robert Scoble is nothing if not a prolific blogger. His claim to fame came as a Microsoft “evangelist”, a term MS came up with to describe people who tout their current wares and (more importantly) their coming wares as the be-all and end-all of modern computing. He became well-known around the 'Net universe for his blog, “The Scobilizer”, which he appeared to update more or less continuously during his waking hours. Somewhere along the line, Mr. Scoble became disenchanted or just found greener grass (and money) elsewhere. Either way, he now “scobilezes” on his own as head of his own concern.

In the olden days, before blogs, during the ascendancy of the Usenet, Mr. Scoble would have been one of those technically knowledgeable gadflies who would create postings that would alternately inform and infuriate. The latter posts would come to outweigh the former in the minds of readers, leading to inevitable flamewars stemming from innocently offered questions. The original poster would ultimately wonder what happened and where he/she might actually find some real information.

One advantage about blogs is that they allow this sort of thing to be localized.

Mr. Scoble didn't exactly leave Microsoft gently. While there's no indication that anyone was trying to get rid of him, he offered a parting shot at Steve Ballmer that wasn't the sort of thing to get you welcomed back into the fold if the new gig didn't work out. I presume (and this is just my supposition) that Mr. Scoble's tendency to veer off the MS party line made him anathema to some highly-placed folks in Redmond, perhaps including Mr. Ballmer. Again, that doesn't mean anyone forced Mr. Scoble, kicking and screaming, out the door, but it might have made the environment less than personally gratifying.

All this verbiage is preface to a new debate Mr. Scoble has sparked. He seems to take issue with some Microsoft trumpeting concerning Live Spaces (TM, Copyright, etc., etc.), Microsoft's entry into the “social networking” or whatever the My Spaces (also TM, etc., etc.) genre of personal-web-space plus blog plus lonely-hearts plus sexual-predator-hangout plus law-enforcement-stings-to-catch-sexual-predators web sites that are all the rage at the moment.

I've forgotten what I was going to say.

Oh, right, I remember now. Microsoft is claiming that they are already have the most blogs of anyone (if I read Mr. Scoble's site correctly). Mr. Scoble is taking exception to that statement. To find the discussion, just go to the the link above. The items relating to Live Spaces are sort of mingled in and around other topics, but you'll be able to find them if you're interested.

(Some people had live links to the discussion, but none of them seemed to work.)

Mr. Scoble has basically gone tiptoeing through the blogosphere and has found, unsurprisingly, that many blogs are blank or have one or two posts. So, I guess he reasons, what passes for a lot of blogs is actually a lot of empty space. Why this makes Live Spaces any different from any other large grouping of blogs is unclear to me. There is also a lively debate over whether private blogs count as blogs at all.

Let's take a step back here. “Blogs” is supposed to be short for “web logs”, which began as nothing more than online journals or diaries. Many had access limited while others were public but not exactly intended to be considered as great news sources or as nuggets of literary gold. Before the news media decided that blogs were some kind of threat and before every columnist (online or print) was ordered to create his or her own blog, most bloggers were just doing some free-associating, sort of like Ulysses with even less of a plot.

Ultimately, the half-life of the average blog is somewhere around that of one of those sub-atomic particles that flashes into existence in a particle accelerator then disappears. The blogs don't exactly disappear, but the people responsible for them appear to, since the updates quickly stop, leaving the blog just sort of lying there. Keep in mind that there are millions of these things coming and going all the time, so just floating through a site's blog space is going to turn up live ones, dead ones, and some that sort of come and go.

So what's the big deal? Well, Mr. Scoble notes, the issue is all about advertising. If you claim to have more blogs than anyone else, you have more bloggers. Which means that more people are entering through your portal. Which means more people to view ads. Which means you can charge more for said ads. This, according to Mr. Scoble, is the Web 2.0 model.

Welcome to the world, sir. Advertising has been the model on the Internet long before anyone started blithering about Web 2.0 (whatever the devil that actually is). If it weren't, we wouldn't have all that ad-blocking software running around. Advertising has become such a big part of the 'Net that viewing a site with an adblocker running can convince you that the site has no content at all. The absurdity is that, on the Internet, advertising has become almost an end in itself. It doesn't matter if anyone actually buys anything thanks to an ad; all that matters is that they click through. Once they do, they're confronted with even more ads that might take them somewhere else, and so on. And I'm not even going to talk about using bots to generate clicks.

Add to this the fact that “social networks” or whatever the Live Spaces, My Space, and whatever sites are called, have become hotbeds for adware, spyware, trojans, and any other malware you can to name. So even if you don't make a date with Jack the Ripper, you're quite likely to turn your machine into a spambot or bring it to its knees with popups and illegal software monitoring your every Internet move.

My point, and I've certainly taken enough time to get around to it, is that Mr. Scoble's being upset with how many blogs actually exist on Live Spaces is missing the point. First, blogs, for most of us, are an amusement. Second, the “social networks” are a dangerous mess, although they may have started with the best of intentions. Third, if blogs have morphed into regular websites, so what? It's not like personal web sites haven't been around since just after Tim Berniers-Lee first typed “http”.

If people are going to get worked up about something, they should worry about teaching kids to discern what's appropriate and not appropriate to post (like home addresses, for instance). They should be concerned about getting those same kids to understand that not everyone who is posting on these sites is a nice person. They should be concerned that advertising has reduced the “Information Superhighway” to an overgrown path in a rain forest. And Microsoft, no matter how you feel about them, didn't create any of these issues, although they have the power and influence to do something about them.

Speaking of influence, wouldn't it be nice if Mr. Scoble could use some of his (and he does have influence if only because so many people know of him) to address some of these and/or some of the other problems surrounding the Internet? Of course, it's not as much fun as making Steve Ballmer mad, but it would be more worthwhile.

Besides, ticking off Mr. Ballmer is just too damned easy.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Five'll Get You Ten

The devil loves nothing better than the intolerance of reformers. ~James Russell Lowell

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer. ~Will Rogers

(I couldn't decide which to use, so you get a twofer today.)

America is a schizophrenic country. We have excellent intentions, we sometimes do great things, but we may be the most hypocritical population on the planet.

What brought this on was a commentary by Paul McNamara concerning the taking up of anti-gambling legislation by Congress. Mr. McNamara's main stock in trade is writing about the tech industry, but he uses his blog, like most of us, to throw out the occasional rant, and this one struck a chord.

Let us consider, before jumping into the gambling discussion, the great social experiment of the twentieth century: Prohibition. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stopped the legal sale of liquor (with some small exceptions). The idea, pushed by a variety of well-meaning but utterly stupid temperance groups, was that demon rum was the cause of much of the evil in the world. It generated huge social costs, medical bills, and antisocial behavior. What these people seemed to ignore was that the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of people who imbibe spirits did so (and do so now) in a social context without going on drunken rampages or ending up as indigent alcoholics lying in alleys. To the anti-booze crowd, the issue was cut and dried: Booze is bad; ban it and people will become all righteous and sober.

Of course, the exact opposite occurred. People actively broke what has been termed the dumbest law in American history. Thanks to the Prohibitionists, the criminal element in this country went from being local thugs and gangs to being a huge business, that was able to adapt when Prohibition was repealed by moving on to illegal drugs, prostitution, and gambling.

And we know how successful we've been in limiting those sins.

Gambling is very similar to alcohol in that, when done socially and responsibly, its practitioners have a good time and no one gets harmed. In fact, it's better than alcohol in that you can go to a race track, bet on every race, and be able to drive home safely (assuming you didn't overstay the clubhouse bar). Unfortunately, like alcoholics, there are gamblers who can't control their fun and become addicted to the activity, losing tons of money and getting into serious trouble as a result.

We can deal with this sort of problem a couple of ways. We could make serious attempts to educate people from a young age about responsible gaming (and drinking). We could quit pretending that gambling doesn't exist everywhere, and focus on providing help to those who are desperate need of it. That would be a good way to go.

Nope. We'd rather get on our soapbox and close down evil bingo halls, block passage of lotteries, and, most imporantly fight Internet gambling. Legislators like issues like this one because they can get all moral about those evil off-shore gambling site operators, while ignoring some embarrassing facts. For instance:
  • Gaming is legal on Native American reservations, even in states where it's otherwise illegal.
  • Some forms of gambling are exempted even in “tough on gambling states" (like dog tracks and horse racing in Alabama).
  • Gambling is outright legal in several states. Can't shoot craps in Alabama? Head for Vegas or Atlantic City.
  • The government, at least at the state level, runs the biggest gambling operation there is in the form of state lotteries.
What's ironic is that groups in states that have lotteries frequently fight the establishment of lotteries and other legalization of gambling in neighboring states, so that their take won't go down. Because, let's face it, a lot of those ultra-moral folks in the non-lottery state are coming across the border regularly to buy their tickets.

And then there's sports betting. A local radio station, during the college football season, has a regular weekly feature where the proprietor of a tip site will spend nearly half an hour talking about the odds, offering betting recommendations, and advertising his site along with a site where you can actually place bets. In addition, the station will have commercials by at least three other tip sites before and after his segment.

Remember, betting on sports is illegal in Alabama.

So Congress, having solved all its ethics problems, passed campaign reform, funded social programs, and simplified the U.S. tax code, is deciding to deal with those evil off-shore gamblers. Okay, they haven't done all those things, but those are hard to do; going after some web operator in Belize is easy.

Congress is not about to legislate about gambling in the U.S. because, a) we all know what happened with Prohibition, and b) the people who run gambling operations are big political contributors who like things just the way they are.

One solution is to legalize gambling in this country, especially to allow Internet gambling even where local gambling is not permitted. Then, encourage the betting public to “bet American”, so that the government can collect taxes on gaming profits. After all, the gambler doesn't give a crud whether that poker site is running from some island in the Caribbean or in Weasel Piss Creek, South Dakota. He or she just wants to play some Texas hold 'em.

The gambling interests won't like it because people won't go to Vegas or the local Indian reservation casino if they can bet in their living rooms. The moralists won't like it because they want to control the way other people live. The only group I would respect in this are the people who genuinely want to address gambling addictions. So for them, a portion of the tax revenues should be dedicated to educating people about the signs of addictive gambling and programs to help compulsive gamblers kick their habit. Unfortunately, I anything of this sort stands no chance of happening.

In fact, if it were legal to do so here, I'd bet on it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Football is not a contact sport. It's a collision sport. Dancing is a... contact sport. ~Duffy Daugherty

With the football season upon us, ESPN decided that they should have a couple of writers, Ivan Maisel and Len Pasquarelli debate the merits of college football versus NFL football. Frankly, I've found this to be a regional issue. In many parts of the country, a football fan is a football fan. The more they can get, they happier they are. If they can watch a game every night, it doesn't matter if it's the Chicago Bears against San Diego Chargers or Eastern Michigan meeting Wayne State.

In the South, though, college football is king. One local radio station started the countdown to college football season in January. It's not that people won't watch pro football; it's just that they consider it a poor substitute for Alabama vs. Auburn or Texas vs. Oklahoma. Personally, I can go with that.

I grew up in Ohio, so I was (and am) a Buckeyes fan. I lived near Cleveland, so I was a Browns fan, which was easier in those days, because they were a good team. Even then, though, if I it was Thanksgiving Day, and I could choose between a college game and a non-Browns NFL game, I'd probably go with the college teams.

In the debate between Mr. Maisel and Mr. Pasquarelli, it's obvious the latter has the bigger chore. Some of his reasons that the NFL is better are just lame. For example, he cites the Super Bowl because it determines the best team. Of course it doesn't do this any more than the BCS bowl does. Pittsburgh winning the Super Bowl is akin to having the BCS championship between the number 6 team and the number 2. Pittsburgh didn't beat everyone else in the playoffs. They got hot when it mattered. That's the nature of playoffs. He also cites competitive balance, or as the rest of us call it, mediocrity, as a good thing. The idea of giving lousy teams cake schedules so they can have a chance to make the playoffs is sad (Mr. Maisel nicely summarizes this: “NFL motto: Excellence just gets in the way”).

At any rate, I've got my reasons, most of which Mr. Maisel mentions, for preferring the college game. I don't have 20 reasons (even Mr. Maisel has to stretch some to get that many), but I have a few.

First and foremost, there's the matter of offense. In my early years of watching NFL games, I used to wonder why they lined up in the same formation over and over. Basically, every team ran a split-back, two-wide-receiver, one-tight-end offense. It wasn't until the AFL came along that we saw I-formations, backs in motion, and shifts before the snap. NFL purists were, of course, dismissive of all this tricky stuff. Ironically, most of the AFL stuff was adopted when the leagues merged. Once that was settled, every team ran I-formation football until Bill Walsh came along. Now everyone wants to run the “west coast offense”, whatever that really is.

In college, there are teams with wide-open passing attacks, hard hitting running games, even the occasional wishbone and wing-T formation. A college coach may face four or five totally different offensive schemes in a season. Better, a college fan is going to see all manner of different sorts of games thanks to all this variety.

Secondly, there's a wonderful sense of urgency to almost all college games. Big-time schools are fixated on a national championship or at least a BCS bowl. Lower divisions want to win their conference and make their playoff. Either way, each loss has a huge impact. NFL teams can lose five, six, or even seven games and still make the playoffs. Every team has an off week, but many take a couple of more off during the season. Unfortunately, they do this while facing an opponent.

Oh, sure, college teams always schedule a couple of cream puffs during the season, but they still need to win the game. In fact, they need to win those games big or lose points with poll voters. So, there's never a game that isn't meaningful.

Then there's rivalries. The NFL used to have rivalries: Cleveland and Pittsburgh; Washington and Baltimore; Washington and Dallas. But, as more teams have been added, and as divisions have been shuffled, and even as the fortunes of teams have ebbed and risen, the idea of a rivalry seems to fade. For example, as long as Washington and Dallas were fighting for their division title every year, their games were intense. Once each went into the tank, the rivalry aspect of the games dimmed.

Now, for years Alabama was one of the national powers, winning national championships and SEC titles with annoying regularity. Auburn, on the other hand, while no weak sister, was seldom at the same level. But come the Auburn-Alabama game, the records didn't matter, the standings didn't matter, and the polls didn't matter. All that mattered (and matters now) was who won that game, known as the "Iron Bowl" (primarily, I think because it was played in Birmingham for years). In recent years, Alabama has been on hard times, relatively speaking, but what really irks their fans is that Auburn has been beating them regularly. In fact, if Mike Shula wants to keep his job, he'd better start beating the Tigers.

At Texas, despite success in recent years, which culminated in a national title last year, people were upset with Mack Brown because he had trouble beating Oklahoma. Believe me, in the NFL, Washington fans would have been more than happy to lose to Dallas twice in one year if the Redskins still got to the Super Bowl.

And what about the Super Bowl, Mr. Pasquarelli's lynch-pin reason for the superiority of NFL football? Well, when people start tuning in more to watch the commercials than to watch the game, it says something about how good that game is. Last year's farce of bad officiating was just a new twist. Most of them have been dull or just badly played. NFL players have said that the Super Bowl is an anti-climax to them; the stress is making it to the game. Once there, the pressure's off. Not so the collegiate national championship game. For all the faults of the BCS (and it has many), the teams that get to the championship all want to look like they deserve to be there.

I complain a lot about the over-emphasis of football in colleges, but I have to admit that I'm still sucked in by the games. Maybe it's the enthusiasm of the players that does it most of all. Players seldom do choreographed dance routines in the endzone when they make a big score; they jump up and down like idiot kids having a great time.

And an idiot fan like me can't help but get caught up in it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fighting Spam Scams

In God we trust, all others we virus scan. ~Author Unknown

A while back I wrote a little number called “Spam Scams”, which covered the topic of dealing with the pile of detritus that many people are unfortunate enough to find in their e-mail inbox each day. I thought I would pass along some more information about the continuing battle.

First, on a positive note, Google is trying to save us from ourselves. They have begun putting up notices that say “Warning –the site you are about to visit may harm your computer!” These sites might be known to load spyware or trojans on your PC, so the warning may save you from an agonizing round of cleaning or, worse, reinstalling your operating system and programs.

This isn't foolproof, of course. There will be people who go on anyway, just like there are people who dive into areas marked “No Diving! Rocks!” Moreover, the sites pop up all the time, use tricks to increase their search ranking, and can catch the unwary before Google can be made aware that they're scum.

It's an important start, though. Hopefully, the gang over at Yahoo and MSN will take note. Oh, and by the way, Google, Yahoo, and MSN are all trademarks of their respective companies, all of which have many lawyers.

Moving on, I mentioned 419 scammers in the previous post. These charming people send out e-mails claiming to be relatives of or friends of relatives of deceased bigshots who were ousted in a coup or killed off by the current evil government in whatever country the scammer claims to live in. The deceased is said to have left a fortune lying around which the writer can't touch for variously convoluted reasons. BUT, with your help, they can get their hands on the fortune, and, to show their gratitude, they are willing to give you a sizable hunk of the swag. To do this, all they need is your bank account number, social security number, and maybe a few thousand bucks worth of seed money.

Despite how phony this all sounds, people end up being parted from their life savings on a regular basis. The center for this sort of activity is, for some reason, Nigeria; the term “419” is supposed to represent the part of the Nigerian criminal code these dirtbags are violating.

There are spins on this idea. For example, there's the YOU HAVE WON A BAZILLION DOLLARS IN A LOTTERY YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU ENTERED scam. Apparently, people equate this to the “You May Already Be A Winner” legitimate junk snail mail they get all the time, so they aren't put out by the fact that they have just won a Belgian lottery they never heard of. All they have to do to claim the prize is send a pile of money to the “commission” to facilitate the transfer of your bazillion dollars.

One technique the 419'ers use is to refer to Interpol with respect to particulars in their heartrending appeal. Just to show how far these people can go, they have created a fake Interpol web site to which they link in their message. From all reports, this is a very good fake, not that it's that hard to do. Phishers have created fake bank sites by the boatload, as well as fake eBay and PayPal sites (trademarks are the property, oh, you know). The beauty of the fake Interpol site is that the e-mail address on it is faked. Presumably, if you attempt to check out the 419'er by sending "Interpol" an e-mail, you get back a (hopefully more literate) response from “Interpol” telling you that Dikembe is one righteous dude.

The fake Interpol site is being run from a server in China. The Chinese are not always cooperative in taking down this sort of thing, at least as long as it doesn't mention democracy or freedom anywhere. I guess scamming capitalist pigs is okay.

But, by golly, there are people fighting back. They're called “Scambaiters”, who are, fundamentally, Internet vigilantes, determined to stop scams or, if they can't stop them, determined to make the scammers suffer a little. One of the ringleaders of this merry band goes by the nom-de-Internet of –get this-- “Shiver Metimbers”. One thing the baiters try to do above all is to get photographs of the scammers to post on their sites. However, a simple photo is not sufficient; the idea is to get the scammer to do something humiliating, like say, hold up a sign saying “SCUM”. Metimbers, though, wins the ultimate prize with his photo of a 419'er getting a tattoo that says, “Baited by Shiver.” That's chutzpah.

Unfortunately, much as I chuckle at what these guys (and girls) are doing, it isn't stopping the scammers. According to the article, even though a baiter might acquire a boatload of e-mails back and forth with demands for money, bank accounts, and/or the victim's first-born, law enforcement groups are loathe to do anything until something of value actually changes hands.

We can hope that as the fame of the baiters increases, law enforcement might see a way to use their efforts to do more than get humiliating pictures. It would seem like once a baiter has a dialog going with the scumbag, the law could pick up the trail, and snare the dirty dogs.
It's not that 419'ers are never caught. In fact, these scammers are probably arrested more often than any malware authors. But there are so many of them, and so few of the enforcers that the baiters could be a valuable weapon. Besides, it's a lot easier to tie a guy to a scam if he's got a tattoo that says he's a thief.

It is important to recognize that this baiting business is not for the average surfer. It's too easy to give out legitimate information while trying to keep the scam artist on the hook. These guys are greedy, but they're not stupid. In most cases, baiters spend a long time getting these guys to do something as crazy getting a tattoo. So, I don't recommend that everyone go out and be a 'Net vigilante. In fact, if you get one of these scams, just delete it and forget about it.

One final thought. Please exercise some common sense about mail you choose to open. For example, in the pile of suspected spam that I slog through daily, I found this gem of a subject line the other day (honest):

TRY IN-HOME COLON CLEANSING

I mean, why wouldn't you just delete that immediately? I have trouble imagining anyone seeing that subject and thinking, “Yeah! I gotta get me some of that!”

Some things don't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dark Films

Life is not a movie. Everyone lies, good guys lose, and love does not conquer all. ~ Kevin Spacey, Swimming with Sharks

Maybe life is a movie, but it's a film noire.

I like old movies. I am not one of those who can list the guy who played the third cop in the second remake of the Maltese Falcon, but I will get caught up in a 1930's or 40's potboiler much more quickly than with modern films. Now, this isn't a rant about how all new films are junk, and modern actors are all rotten, because that's not true. Well, not entirely, anyway. I just happen to prefer the style of films past, for a number of reasons.

For starters, modern films are too darn long. Any film running less than two hours is considered a short subject these days. Films seem to have a lot of trouble finding a way to end, so they just keep going. The classic in this genre was created around thirty years ago, a stinker called The Way We Were, featuring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. I won't bore you with the details other than to say that every time you think the movie is ending, it continues. I swear this movie was four hours long. It probably wasn't, but, lord, it felt that way.

At any rate, action films particularly seem to have trouble wrapping up their plots, with so many last-minute attempts on the hero's life, you're flinching as the credits roll. I'm old-fashioned; I freely admit it. Once you've built up to a climax and resolved it, don't start another. Just say, “Goodnight” , Gracie.

Secondly, there are just too many explosions. Now, I like a good action flick, replete with the requisite mayhem, high-caliber weapons, and plenty of TNT, C4, or other demolition device of choice. The trouble is that we now have wide screens with remarkable audio; even TV's do a respectable job of showing a film. In addition, film makers have so many wonderful options for creating special effects. Given the means to create and the means to view, writers and directors just have to go crazy, blowing up everything in sight in the most incendiary manner. One or two of these per film is enough for me, but most films fling the destructive forces around like a fireworks show, building and building, until you fear for the very planet.

Of course, our heroes still manage to walk away from these things with nary a scratch beyond a torn shirt and a scrape on the forehead. Everyone else is spurting blood from all sorts of places, but the hero is just fine, thanks.

But the ultimate problem with modern films is that they're in color. Don't misunderstand me; I think some films lend themselves to color. But, for pure mood, nothing beats black and white. And this brings us back to old movies.

The old films were concise and in black-and-white, probably for very pragmatic reasons. First, years of filming occurred before color was practical, so directors learned to use light and dark, shadows and shading, to convey mood, foreboding, character. You name it, they could show it using nothing but shades of gray. I think it's actually more difficult to do some of those things with color than it was with black-and-white.

As to being concise, well, the budgets weren't big in the old days. Another thing, though, is that movie directors still followed the old three-act motif of the stage, which puts a natural clamp on how long a story can take. Finally, movie people didn't think moviegoers would sit through a long film. In fact, there were many who said Gone With The Wind would never make money because it was so very long that audiences would get bored and walk out.

But the best thing about black-and-white succinct movies was film noire, the “black film”. People define film noire differently and don't even agree on whether some movies actually fall into that genre. They were typified initially by the “tough detective” movie, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Later, you have such greats as Double Indemnity, D.O.A, and one of the noire-est of the noire, Asphalt Jungle.

So what makes a film noire? Damned if I know, but that doesn't mean I won't take a stab at defining one.

  1. It's tough to tell who the good guys are. In fact, in Asphalt Jungle there aren't any good guys, although there are some bad guys with hearts of gold. At any rate, everyone ends up in jail or dead.
  2. Main characters die. In D.O.A, Edmund O'Brien has been poisoned and spends the movie trying to track down his own killer. If you're an eternal optimist, you keep expecting somehow he'll make it. He doesn't.
  3. If it's a mystery film noire, it's complicated. I don't know if The Big Sleep counts as film noire, but it has many elements, including the most complex plot of all time. It was so complex that, at one point, director Howard Hawks and writer William Faulkner (yes, that Faulkner) got into an argument over who killed the chauffeur. Finally they decided to call Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book, to settle the issue once and for all.
    Chandler paused for a moment, then said, “Actually, I don't know either.” Now THAT'S a complicated plot.
  4. Aside from being hard to tell good guys from bad guys, it's hard to tell what good and bad is. Film noire loves amoral characters. In The Third Man, Harry Lime is at once a scoundrel, a realist, and an absolute louse who, for reasons that are never clear, seems to command a lot of loyalty from people who should know better.
Yes, they're dark films, but they grab you around the throat and hold you until the end.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Murphology

Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
Barton's Amendment: ... and even if it can't, it might ~ A. J. Barton

I have an odd collection of mental trivia. For example, I know the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. Most people don't even know he had a nephew. I know how a baseball team can, in one inning, collect three triples, two singles, a double and two stolen bases yet not score a run (regular baseball rules apply). I also happen to know who Murphy is, thanks to Paul Dickson's “The Official Rules.”

I've had a copy of Dickson's book for about 25 years, and it's well-worn and filled with bookmarks. It's a collection of sayings that humorously but accurately describe how the world works. For example, there's Commoner's Three Laws of Ecology:
  1. No action is without side effects;
  2. Nothing ever goes away;
  3. There is no free lunch.
Or there's Kitman's Law, as valid today as it was in 1967 when it was created: “Pure drivel tends to drive ordinary drivel off the TV screen.”

But, I was going to talk of Murphy's Law. Everyone knows this as “if anything can go wrong, it will.” There also listings of other laws attributed to Murphy, such as:
  • Nothing is as simple as it seems.
  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will go wrong first will be the one that will do the most damage.
  • Left to themselves, all things go from bad to worse.
And, that all-time classic:
  • Mother Nature is a bitch.
Murphy has a lesser known relative known as Finagle. Finagle's Laws were compiled by John Campbell, editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” (later known as the excellent “Analog”) after he issued a call to readers to help him gather these “unwritten laws of science,” as Dickson puts it. Finagle's basic law is, “If anything can go wrong in an experiment, it will.” As you can see, it's merely a specialized version of Murphy's Law. But it does have it's own corollaries, such as:
The Law of the Too, Too, Solid Point – In any collection of data the figure that is most obviously correct – beyond all need of correcting – is the mistake.
Honest, the Lone Ranger had a nephew. Try to stay focused.

Most of the time, characters like Murphy are mythical blends of real people and fantasy characters, who have no corporeal existence. But, as Dickson records, it turns out that Murphy was a living, breathing person. And, rather than being some contemporary of Shakespeare, he turns out to be a twentieth century creature. The identity of this legendary philosopher was revealed by one Jack Smith, who wrote for the LA Times. He received a letter in 1977 from George E. Nichols who worked at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the fine folks who gave us the Mars Rovers, although a lot later).


Mr. Nichols, it seems was involved with Air Force Project MX981 during the late 1940's. I don't know what the MX981 was, and it's not crucial to the story, other than to know it was complicated and involved figuring out what happened to people in aircraft that were subject to high deceleration (which, frankly, is not a good thing to happen to an airplane). At one point, a technican incorrectly wired a strain gauge bridge which caused a strap transducer to malfunction. I'm sure you've done the same thing yourself. At any rate, a development engineer, realizing what had happened, said of the technician, in frustration, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will.” The engineer's name was Captain Ed Murphy.

Honest.

According to Nichols, the law was mentioned at a press conference some time later, and the rest, as they say, is history. Dickson points out Ed Murphy is known to have existed; he graduated from West Point in 1940. Also, he says that Mr. Nichols' letter also appeared in a book called “Murphy's Law” by Arthur Block, so it also appears the Mr. Nichol's is a real person as well.

Somehow, knowing that there's a real Murphy is comforting. The Law wasn't a construct of some ad agency brainstorming session, looking for something to stick on cocktail napkins. It was a very real utterance applying to a very real situation. Like all great principles, it has been expanded upon, but its universal truth remains unblemished, as we see on a near daily basis.

The horse's name was Victor.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Injuring Sports

To dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious, as trying to imitate God; it is stealing from God the privilege of the spark. ~Roland Barthes

The late Chief Justice Earl Warren once said, “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures.” Fortunately, the Chief Justice is not around to read today's sports pages, which look more like a cross between a police blotter and the “Wall Street Journal”. A day does not pass without some said piece about cheating, doping, franchise financial troubles, or athletes' exorbitant contracts. On a really bad day, we can get all of them at once.

On today's sad news front, American Floyd Landis has been essentially stripped of his Tour de France title because his second drug test came back with the same results as the first. Landis continues to maintain his innocence, saying he normally has abnormally high testosterone levels, he was dehydrated, he was taking medication for his hip, and so on. Unfortunately, his body also appears to create synthetic testosterone, which is a little hard for anyone to explain. Landis still has avenues of appeal, and part of me wants him to be exonerated because, lordy, I am so tired of having wonderful sports moments destroyed by athletes cheating in some way.

In other news, Maurice Clarett, the one-time Ohio State hero and attempted NFL draft-buster, has been arrested again. You may have lost track of Mr. Clarett after he failed in his attempt to beat the NFL draft rules. He was ultimately drafted legtimately in 2005 in the third round by the Denver Broncos, who cut him before the season started. He was later arrested for aggravated robbery, for which he was awaiting trial when he managed his latest headline-grabber.

Bobby Bonds is under a continual threat of indictment by a grand jury for his involvement with BALCO and for tax evasion. Jose Canseco writes a tell-all book about steroids, which is roundly criticized until it is found to be extremely accurate. Rafael Palmeiro sits in front of a Congressional committee and swears up and down that he has never, ever, ever taken any illegal drug then promptly fails a drug test (if there were a Nobel Prize for stupidity ... ).

I don't know who started all this drug -taking, but football was into steroids years ago, often quite openly. It wasn't illegal, and, despite not knowing the long-term effects of steroid use, no one seemed to mind. No one cared, that is, until Lyle Alzado died from brain cancer, which he and others linked to his steroid use. Weightlifters and bodybuilders used them. Ultimately, baseball players, claiming to have gone on weight programs, were found to be using them.

Baseball players, of course, already had a long history of "greenies" and other colorful "uppers" to keep them going.

Then there's the ever-increasing number of stories of athletes at all levels getting caught by police doing all manner of stupid things. The ultimate incident had to be the Duke lacrosse team, getting accused by a woman of rape. Even if the rape story is untrue, the kind of party these guys were throwing was certainly inappropriate.

Lacrosse players. Good lord, what next? A scandal involving the Chess Team?

Sports has always had a seamy side, but it used to be winked at. Babe Ruth missed huge chunks of one season because he had syphilis, but newspapers went along with the team's cover stories about indigestion. Problems with booze, battered wives, and other legal scrapes were carefully hushed up to maintain the image of "clean, character-building sports." But, in the 1950's, college basketball point-shaving scandals could not be covered up. It seems that once the press started admitting that the ivory tower of sports was built on a foundation of sand, the whole structure started looking rotten.

I heard about an interesting study, for which I wish I had a link (however, an equally interesting and depressing study summary can be found here ). The study involved which college athletes had the best moral reasoning abilities, in essence, which ones were the most ethical. It turns out that at the top of the list were golfers, followed by tennis players. At the bottom of the list were – you'll love this – lacrosse players. Right above them were hockey and football players. Apparently, soccer, baseball, and basketball finished somewhere in between.

The conclusions drawn from the study ran something like this:
  • In sports involving individual integrity, where the athletes call their own penalties and keep their own scores, the athlete is less inclined to cheat.
  • In team sports, the object is to sneak fouls past the officials. In fact, “good” coaches actually teach illegal techniques to their players, giving them methods, for example, to hold in football without being caught. Add a weapon (like a lacrosse or hockey stick) and you simply make matters worse.
On a side note, one announcer, interviewing someone about the study, allowed as how perhaps the reason golfers were so honest is because they come from a more “elite” (his word) portion of society. He is, of course, an avid golfer. In one instant, he managed to show himself to be elitist and racist (consider the number of black golfers besides Tiger Woods). To his chagrin, the study had taken socio-economic factors into account and found no correlation between social/ethnic background and being a cheat.

Cheating is as old as sport. In the olden days of professional baseball, when there were only two umpires, runners would occasionally take the straight route from first to third, ignoring second base. The other team would complain, but if both umpires were out of position, there was nothing to be done. Early football was an organized mugging that got so far out of hand that President Teddy Roosevelt considered having the game banned.

So, it's always been with us, but now it seems to be getting out of hand. Winning is not the main thing, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it's the only thing. Millionaire coaches lose their jobs for having a 9-2 football season. Athletes think that they are above the rules, both in sport and in real life.

Don't get me wrong. I love watching many sports, and I like my favorite teams to win. But, when winning begins to corrupt the sport, when adulation for star athletes completely warps their sense of right and wrong, it's time for us to take stock in ourselves to see if we really understand what's important. If coming out on top is all that counts, we lose the joy of participation. We forget that these are games and that games are supposed to be fun for both the participants and for the fans.

When success always implies cheating, we lose all sense of honor. I don't mean to imply cosmic significance to sports, but sports mirror our behavior in other facets of life. If we can't play a simple game honorably, how can anyone be trusted to deal honorably with anyone in business or legal affairs?

Come to think of it, I think the front pages Earl Warren mentioned are telling that story.

Monday, August 7, 2006

The Blogs Are Gonna Getcha

I'd rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer. ~Jack Smith

You may have noticed, if you ever got that far, that there is a copyright notice at the bottom of these pages. This is not because I'm worried someone is going to steal my work, because some would actually have to read this blog to steal something from it. No, I do just because it's a proper thing to do to lend a bit of professionalism to the page. It's not really required because any work is immediately copyrighted to its creator. You can get a copyright certificate if you're really into legalism, but that costs money, and I'm cheap.

I bring up the point about copyright because the geniuses at “USA Today” have discovered that there is plagiarism happening on the Internet. This is sort of like discovering that water is wet, but reporter Del Jones reports in a copyrighted article (notice how I'm covering my behind here?) puts the blame on blogs.

Of course. Blogs have become the root of all evil. Mr. Jones, in his article (which I do not claim to have written; copyright lawyers take note), neglects to mention that mainstream media journalists have also been known to do a little literary lifting, occasionally even stooping to stealing from – wait for it – blogs.

Conventional news streams seem obsessed with blogs these days. I don't know what the current count is, but there have to be over 30 million of the things out there, of which 99.9% are junk (make up your own mind about this one). The average life of a blog, I recall seeing a while back, is about two weeks, after which the author has run out of steam (I don't recall the source of that, but I assure you that I am not claiming to have done the research; it was done by some other soul who worked long and hard to count all those blogs and see how long they lasted). Why the New York Times, CNN, or the Wall Street Journal (all containing copyrighted material; okay, I'll stop now) should be afraid of Gog's Blog or any other Internet writing is beyond me.

Let's face it: Information on the 'Net that doesn't come from a reputable source is a crap shoot. Even some of the reputable sources fall on their faces now and then, but that seems to happen most often when they get their information from Wikipedia. Web sites in general, never mind bloggers, are noted for hyperbole and downright inaccuracy. Anyone can create a web site and put anything they want on it. If they refrain from issuing slanderous statements, advocating the violent overthrow of the government, or publishing overt hate speech, they can go crazy, which many do.

Does plagiarism go on? Yes it does, and it's wrong. Sometimes it's inadvertent, as noted in Mr. Jones' copyrighted -- no, I said I was going to stop that – Mr. Jones' article, because someone will see an article in a blog which, like this one, has a link to a story. But, when the someone writes his or her article, he/she attributes the material to the blogger, not to the original source. This isn't culpable, it's just laziness. Well, it could be cluelessness, but we'll give the someone the benefit of the doubt.

By the way, the article does mention one despicable action, that of spammers stealing content and planting links to their site. Not only is the original author not getting credit (or not getting paid), but the reader is faced with garbage ads and potentially damaging adware or spyware.

What to do, what to do? Naturally, the suggestion is made that what is needed is a high-profile, sue-them-for all-they've-got-including-the-wife-and-kiddies lawsuit. Well, that's certainly worked to stop auto manufacturers from making bad cars and doctors from making mistakes, so I'm sure that one big court case will stop Internet plagiarism in its tracks.

Right. And I'm going to wrinkle my nose and make a million bucks appear in front of me.

Jones' article has it right. He quotes writer Jim Berkowitz as saying, “People are incredibly sloppy.” Certainly that's true with blogs, and why should we expect otherwise? Most people are just thinking out loud when they write their entries. They're carrying on a conversation with the reader. If they were talking around the coffee machine at work, they probably wouldn't apply an attribution to every opinion they expressed that they originally heard somewhere else.

Mr. Berkowitz goes on to say, “ It's like the Wild West out there.” Perhaps. But I think the landscape of plagiarized material is a little more complex than that. On the one end, it's kind of a casual gathering of people saying what's on their mind, which they may have borrowed from someone else's mind. Technically, they're swiping other writers' material, but there's no attempt to gain from it, except maybe to sound a little smarter. At the other extreme, there's the Roaring Twenties, with spam gangsters using any means they can to fool people into jumping onto their sites. In the middle, you have the same sorts of people who have been stealing material for years. News services from some countries have never had any compunction about lifting material from news media in other countries and claiming it as their own. Or, as another example, big time news reporters have been filching small time local sources as long as there have been newspapers.

The middle group is the one that's got some explaining to do, because they know what they're doing, yet they continue to do so. Some web sites, desperate for material, have stooped to using the same tactics. In most cases, simply outing the miscreant is enough to put a stop to it. I suppose if someone tries to make a career of stealing other people's material, then legal action might be needed. But, as far as I'm concerned, don't waste time with the bloggers and the small-time web sites. Let loose the hounds of law on the spammers. Anything that happens to them is only fitting.

And here's a thought for the mainstream media: Quit worrying so much about the bloggers. There's little evidence to think that any of our vast mob is shaping public opinion one way or the other. If you're so afraid of us as competition, then maybe you should be improving your own content so that the casual reader can tell the difference between good reporting and the casual discourse of blogs.

Of course, if you folks in the media are looking for some good writers, you might just find some out here in the “Wild West.”

I'd name names, but modesty forbids.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Geckos, Jerks, and Barbarians

Seeing a murder on television... can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some. ~Alfred Hitchcock

Benny Hill once did a routine about a woman who watched TV for the commercials, thinking that the ads were the programming. Historically, there has been much programming on the tube that has actually been improved by commercials, since the ads cut down on the amount of actual program one has to see and provide relief from what one has been watching.

Television advertising has always been uneven. Some ads are occasionally informative and/or entertaining. Others are just boring. Then there are those, like a current one for a headache salve or something that you smear on your forehead. If you don't know what I mean, consider yourself lucky for not having seen it.

Some of the best ads failed to actually sell products. There was a classic set of ads for Alka-Seltzer 30 or 40 years ago that the company is actually using again, with new actors and slight modifications to the scripts. One they haven't brought back is the classic “speecy spicy meatballs” ad. I'm sure you've seen it, because it makes every retrospective about ads or old-time TV. It's a funny bit of business and won scads of advertising awards, but it didn't sell Alka-Seltzer because people thought they were selling spaghetti sauce.

Almost all advertising is an insult to the intelligence since they don't provide accurate information to help you make product decisions. Over the years, the FCC and FTC got hard on advertisers who used statements like “9 out of 10 doctors” and so on, demanding that they have proof on file to show that 9 out of 10 doctors really did recommend that brand of cigarette.

By the way, that's not entirely a joke. In the 1950's, menthol cigarette ads touted the lung-clearing benefits of their wares. I guess if you're getting a lung removed one might construe that as "clearing" it.

At any rate, since they don't really tell you anything factual, ads are just intended to call your attention to a product and build an image around it that makes the potential buyer feel like he would be cooler, happier, and more fulfilled if he uses Brylcreem or Drano (for different problems, of course). They may also hawk some sales promotion, but the idea is to fix the product in your mind. That's why the meatball Alka-Seltzer ad failed; it fixed the wrong product in people's heads.

Humor is a tool that is most successful primarily, I think, because if an ad is funny, you don't mind seeing again and again. As Shelley Berman once said, “Television is a visual medium. They SHOW it to you ... and show it to you and show it to you and show it to you.” Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail.

Take Geico. The gecko ads have been around in one form or another for years now, and they just get better. A current ad says it best when the gecko answers a question by saying, “People trust advertising icons.” And so the little green bugger has become. The character is funny, yet understated and says just enough about the company to make sure that you never forget what the product is. They've also made enough of the ads to rotate them sparing us some of the endless repetition for which commercials are so notorious.

Besides, the animation is fantastic; have you noticed him drumming his “fingers” on the table?

Yet Geico also can miss the boat. The Neanderthal ads are tiresome. They made two of them, endlessly showed the first for months, and now endlessly show the other. The first one was a little funny; the second one isn't. Maybe it would be if the caveman with no appetite would rear back and toss a spear through the spokesman.

So the same company can do well yet turn around and screw up. It's almost like they have two ad agencies, and maybe they do. If they do, they should fire the one run by the Neanderthals.

Years ago, Volkswagen did one funny ad after another. This time around, they're having a little trouble finding the mark. Recently, they go for pretentious or insulting. The crash ads are pretentious. Hey, look, they say, if you're babbling to your passenger instead of paying attention, we'll probably save your butt.

Then they tried the “stereotypes are bad” ads, which I guess were supposed to get you to think people would think you're special if you drive a VW. This campaign disappeared rather quickly, not long after the one where the black guy asks the white guy for advice on dance moves, thereby insulting two racial groups with one ad. They decided to go back to the crash ads. Interestingly, they didn't go back to the “pimp my engineer” ads. I guess a guy who sounds like a Nazi out of a 1940's movie trying to sound like a rapper didn't fly all that well either.

For pure stupidity, though, few ads can beat the latest ads for the Hummer. Hummer is your essentially useless vehicle, way too expensive to buy and operate and homely to boot. They've tried to make Hummer owners look cool and fancy free (since most of their owners are millionaire athletes, movie stars, and California governors, it's not hard for them to be fancy free; they can afford it). Apparently that hasn't worked, so now they're going with the “join the jerks” campaign.
In one ad, a mother has her kid shoved out of the way by another mother who pushes her kid ahead in some line. When the mother is leaving, she sees the Hummer and knows that if she is going to survive amongst the jerks of the world, she must be one herself. Her next stop is the dealership.

Or there's the one with guy at the supermarket buying healthy food. The next guy in line has loaded up on cardiac arrest goodies and looks at Mr. Tofu with total disdain. When Mr. Tofu gets to the lot to get into his fuel-efficient little car, he sees the Hummer and realizes the error of his clean-living ways. If he must eat healthy, he can at least waste energy resources, by golly, so he heads for the Hummer dealer. You can imagine that on the way, he stops at a burger joint to get two triple cheeseburgers and a lard shake (yes, fast food joint “shakes” are made with flavored shortening; that's why they call them “shakes”, not “milkshakes”).

Other products have portrayed people who use their product as idiots. Coors for years alternated Pete Coors (recently arrested for DUI) pontificating about drinking responsibly with spots showing young adults getting blasted on his beer and obviously cruising for some casual unsafe sex. Dodge trucks featured two complete dorks lusting after one of their hemi-powered trucks, interspersed with the obnoxious guy teaching his kid to say “hemi”. In fact, in the first couple of ads, he came across as a probable wife-beater, though they toned that down later.

One set of spots I rather like are the credit card ads featuring the barbarians trying to cope since people have started using Capital One. I have this little fantasy when one of the obnoxious commercials is shown that the barbarians suddenly arrive on the scene and start lopping heads off.

I think I've been watching too much TV.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

A Sigh Of Relief

I've come to the conclusion that the two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen. ~Bob Lemon, 1981

Bruce Sutter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30, and that's good. He certainly had to wait long enough, 13 years to be precise. A baseball player becomes eligible for the Hall five years after retiring as an active player. He then stays on the ballot for 15 years, assuming he gets a certain minimum of votes. It's been a lot of years since I've seen the voting setup, but the way it used to work is that voters (mostly sportswriters) pick 10 names from the list. If you appear on 75% of the ballots, whether as number 1 or number 10, you're in.

Now, many years, I'd have trouble picking 10 names worthy of enshrinement. Other years, it seems like there are obvious choices. But the voters are just plain weird. For example, Willie Mays, inarguably one of the greatest to ever play the game, was not named on all ballots his first year of eligibility. He still made it in handily, but how could anyone not put him on a ballot?

(There actually used to be a small hard core bunch of voters who never, ever voted a for a guy the first year he was eligible. Hopefully, those guys are all dead now.)

Where Sutter is concerned, the real issue seems to have been: Should a player who never appeared on a starting lineup card be in the HoF? Sutter is the first such player ever inducted.

For those of you who know absolutely nothing about baseball, Bruce Sutter was the prototype for the modern closing relief pitcher, the guy who comes in and seals the win. Sutter wasn't the first, but he was the best for the longest period of years. His key pitch was the split-fingered fastball, which does nasty things as it comes to the plate. Just as the batter thinks he's about to crush the grapejuice out of the ball, it darts downward, leaving the batter swinging at air.

Baseball has changed a lot over the years. For most of its first 50 years (counting from when the American League joined the National League to form Major League Baseball), relievers were washed-up starters, pitchers with worn-out arms who came in to mop up when the starter let the game get out of hand. Starters were the finishers back then. Teams went with a four-man rotation; if they were lucky enough to have a decent number 5 pitcher, that guy would do relief pitching in winnable situations. Mostly, though, he was just keeping sharp between double-headers (remember those?) when he'd be needed to fill the gap as a starter.

In the late '40's, the Yankees starting using Joe Black (I think the name was) primarily as a reliever. He was actually a good pitcher, who did start once in a while, but he got a lot of relief appearances, too. Gradually, more relief specialists began to appear, although they either were guys who weren't successful as starters, or they were young pitchers who worked relief until they could work their way into the rotation. No pitcher wanted to be known primarily as reliever.

For example, the Cleveland Indians were one of the first teams to have an effective righty-lefty combination coming out of the pen. Don Mossi and Ray Narleski generally alternated relief appearances, but who came in often depended on whether the opposition had mostly left-handers or right-handers batting. They were a very effective duo, but Narleski was dissatisfied with pitching out of the bullpen. He wanted to be a starter. As I recall, the Indians tried him as a starter a few times with unhappy results. Despite his lack of success, he continued to complain so he was traded to someone who would make him a starter. He didn't hang around for too long after that.

As we got to the sixties, teams started converting guys who were starters into relievers. Usually, the pitcher had had some arm trouble and couldn't be counted on to go a full nine innings any longer. The bullpen, with its three-inning-or-less stints, was perfect for a guy who had pitching smarts and knew he only had to go all out for a short time. Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, both HoF members, were examples.

Goose Gossage was a one-pitch pitcher, a blazing fastball. That's great a couple of times through the lineup, but once batters get the timing on that fastball down, it starts to leave the park faster than it arrived at the plate. But, if you come in at the eighth inning, following a tiring starter whose fastball has been dropping in velocity, and throw 95 MPH BB's, batters are going to have a tough time adjusting.

Sutter, though, never started a game in the majors. He came up as a reliever and retired as one. Like many relievers over the years, he would have three or four very good years, followed by a down year or two. Successful relievers would get into a lot of games, often tiring their arms over the course of a couple of seasons. Then it might take a season to get some life back. Relievers got traded a lot because of those down years, only to make the team that traded them look bad when the arm recovered. Sutter had a lot more good years than bad ones.

Voting relievers into the Hall is going to be a tougher decision in years to come. The game has changed again. Starters aren't expected to be finishers any more. They'll go five, six, or occasionally seven innings. If it's five or six innings when the starter leaves, we have a “middle-inning” guy come in who can hold onto things until the eighth inning, when the “setup man” comes in. Then, in the ninth inning, the closer saunters onto the field. Where Gossage, Sutter, et. al., might come in with tying runs on base and the other team's top hitter coming up, the closer today generally starts the inning fresh with a two or three run lead. If the lead is more than three, someone else, probably another setup guy, will the call, saving the closer for tighter situations.

So the closer pitches even fewer innings. Does that detract from his worthiness for the Hall? And how about those setup guys? They don't get wins, they don't get saves, they don't get noticed. How are they ever going to get credit for a job well done? I guess if you're good enough at being a setup man, you might get to be a closer some day.

All this specialization is at least partly the fault of Sparky Anderson, who had great success managing Cincinatti and fair success running the Tigers. Anderson, known as “Captain Hook” for his willingness to yank a pitcher out of a game, really set the standard for having specialists in the bullpen. Sometimes it seemed as though he had a guy who was his “seventh-inning-face-a-left-handed-batter-with-one-out-and-two-on” pitcher. People complain about the length of games today (although that's mostly due to the increased number of commercials between innings), but a game featuring Anderson on one bench and Dick Williams, another great believer in situational pitchers, on the other, could go on forever with one pitching change after another.

Teams used to carry eight or nine pitchers: Four starters, a fifth-starter and part-time reliever, and four more-or-less full-time relievers. Early in the year, some times might only go with seven pitchers. Last night, I was watching a game, and an announcer mentioned that one team had 13 pitchers on the roster. That's at least four less position players for a manager to work strategy with. The strategy is in the pitching now.

For good or for ill, that's the game as it is today, and Bruce Sutter helped make it that way. When a player has that sort of impact on the game, it shouldn't take 13 years to vote him into the Hall of Fame.

Congratulations, Bruce.