Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Getting to the Big Dance

There are really only two plays: Romeo and Juliet, and put the darn ball in the basket. ~ Abe Lemons

The NCAA basketball tournaments (men's and women's, although you have to search a little sometimes to find the women's games) are in full swing. Unlike the fiasco that is the BCS Championship, the basketball players, like all other NCAA sports settle the matter by playing it out.

Of course, each year there is a debate about who didn't make the tournament and about some who did make it who might not have deserved to be there. I don't get too worked up about it one way or the other, because the borderline teams aren't going to be around at the end in all liklihood anyway. But, on the other hand, it's a thrill for those same sorts of teams to make the "big dance", as it's called by all the sports afficiandos. And, once in a blue moon, one of these teams makes a lot of noise and upsets some applecarts.

This year's brouhaha revolved around Syracuse, Air Force, and Drexel, for the most part, featuring Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim crying huge crocodile tears about the injustice of having to go to the NIT instead of playing for the big prize.

You remember the National Invitational Tournament, don't you? Years ago, it was the premier tournament, bigger than the NCAA championship. Now it stands for the "Not Invited (to the big dance) Tournament".

A few people fumed about the absence of Drexel, with loud cries against ACC-favoritism and major grumbles about Stanford making the show. Well, Drexel played pretty poorly in their opening (and finishing) NIT game, losing to -- guess who? -- the ACC's North Carolina State. Once Drexel went down, a lot of the griping ended, and the general consensus seems to be that the Tournament Selection Committee did a pretty good job.

Well, maybe.

Just prior to the tournament, I heard some discussion about the old question of whether a 16-seed would ever beat a 1-seed, which has not happened since the current seeding system went into effect. The point was made that the margins of victory in these opening round games have steadily decreased, reaching an average about 14 points last year. This year, though, the average margin was 31.25 points. In fact, the 2 vs 15 seed games, all won by the 2 seeds, were won by an average 18.75.

So did the committee do well or poorly?

On the one hand, if a seeded competition was set up perfectly, the number 1 seeds would all make it to the finals. This would indicate that the organizers really knew their stuff, and that the teams played up to their normal standards throughout the contests. Well, this year, as we enter the round of sixteen, the lowest seed is a 7, UNLV, which would mean that the seeding has held true, so the committee must have done a bang-up job.

People who fill out bracket sheets are also ecstatic, because they tend to play favorites, so they are still in the hunt. CBS is overjoyed, because when people's brackets are busted, they lose interest, and viewership drops off. It's a sad commentary on sports in this country that gambling interest outweighs interest in the games themselves.

On the other hand, people love Cinderella stories. Last year, George Mason (an 11-seed, I think) made it to the Final Four. A lot of folks were rooting for them, although most of these appeared to be people who didn't bet much. At any rate, each year as the tournament unfolds, a lot of folks look for an underdog who might make a lot of noise because, frankly, it's fun to see a David knock off a Goliath.

But this year, there were no Davids. And it seems some people are happy about that. "Everyone can stop looking for the next George Mason and enjoy watching heavyweights," says CBS Sports. Me, I like overachievers; I like them less when they knock off my teams, but I still appreciate the kind of effort it takes to succeed against the big programs.

So how did the committee do? Well, in my mind, not so good. It's tough, I realize to pick the best sixty-five teams in the country. But when league tournament winners like Belmont and Niagra get waxed, while North Carolina St. or Air Force are playing in the NIT, it brings into doubt some of the methods for picking teams.

I don't think the at-large picks are all that bad (okay, Stanford may have been a weak choice, but they didn't embarrass themselves), but this business of the Mideast North Central Western Conference tourney winner being guaranteed a spot means that there are some pitifully weak teams getting an automatic pass into the big show.

League tournaments are big money and aren't going anywhere, which is fine. Some of them are really exciting, but giving them an automatic tournament bid just isn't right. Let's get the 64 best teams (and dump that stupid play-in game) and have at it.

If the number 1 seeds are that good, let them earn their way to the Final Four.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Apologizing - a very desperate habit - one that is rarely cured. Apology is only egotism wrong side out. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am getting tired of these endless apologies for things that were done years ago by another group of people in another time. For example, it appears that state legislatures, having solved all other problems, are falling over themselves to apologize for for slavery.

To my knowledge, not a single person alive today had anything to do with the purchase, sale, mistreatment, or general support of enslaving the people who became known as African-Americans. The people who trade in slavery today, on the other hand, aren't apologizing to anyone.

Americans apologizing for slavery is slightly silly anyway. The British and the Dutch were kingpins in the slave trade. The British also enslaved their own citizens in something called "indentured servitude", although there was some possibility of getting out of that system. But even these countries can't take the full blame for the evil of slavery, because they were getting their supply from African tribes, who sold their captives to them in the first place.

So when can we expect an apology from Nigeria?

Nobody benefits from these apologies. They seem to be the favorite of certain groups, though:

-- Politicians who want to make it look like they're addressing the inequities of society, when they are, in fact, doing nothing at all;

-- People who use the excuse of apology to continue their discriminatory practices;

-- African-American leaders who want to distract from their own failures of leadership in the last thirty years or so;

-- And a little handful of lawyers and litigants who think they can collect "reparations."

The sad thing is that there are so many things that need apology, but no one is offering. If I were looking for a little contrition, I'd be looking in these areas:

-- From the President for the last six, going on seven, years of ineptitude.

-- From Congress, state legislators, and local politicians for having let our educational system tank.

-- From Congress, for being on the take from every major lobby on the planet.

-- From NASCAR, for lousing up a great sport.

-- From millionaire athletes, for snorting their fortunes through their nose or blowing their money on glitz when there are people who are homeless, unclothed, and starving in this country.

-- From the mainstream news media, for abrogating their responsibilities; also for using blogs as a news source without bothering to check if the stories are even accurate.

-- From television executives, for having created so many terrible programs that we actually appreciate the increased number of commercials that interrupt them.

-- From major corporations, for having tossed product quality and customer service into the dumpster while paying their executives obscene amounts of money.

-- From the energy companies, for being greedy jerks and for buying Congress.

-- From political and religious Conservatives, for thinking that the Constitution applies only to them.

I'm not holding my breath waiting on any of these characters.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Anonymity and Information

I'm not sure blogs are necessarily the best place to get a pulse on anything. ~ Steve Ballmer
The blogosphere is always upset about something. One of the things upsetting it right now involves a newspaper tracking down an anonymous blogger and outing him. Paul McNamara, one of my favorite tech writers, covers the story in some detail. Basically, it goes something like this.
Some person started a blog blasting a local politician, who, from the limited information in Mr. McNamara's article, is something of an idiot. The blogger, like so many, hid behind a pseudonym. A local newspaper took the tack that anyone publishing articles about a public figure is fair game to be identified, particularly where politics is concerned. This is sensible, because, as we have seen in recent election campaigns, people will come out of the woodwork claiming to be “concerned citizens” who are actually being paid and/or prodded by one of the parties concerned.
Therefore, any time people start criticizing politicians in a public forum, it's reasonable to know who they are and what their motivations might be. For example, the blogger might actually be a rival trying to unseat the politician.
Mr. Anonymous, no brain trust himself, comes into the paper to buy a full-page ad criticizing the same idiot and is caught on a security camera. So the paper published the video on their web site and asked anyone who knew his identity to call them.
There are people in the blogosphere, according to Mr. McNamara, who are having kittens about the whole thing. In particular, the chant is being heard of violating First Amendment rights.
The Founding Fathers fought and sacrificed to create a nation where someone could stand up and say what they wanted without fear of retribution. They did expect there would be reasonable limits on such speech. For example, libelous or slanderous speech is not protected, nor is it okay to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined).
There is also a risk associated with airing the dirty laundry of one's company, as some bloggers have learned. This is to be separated from whistle-blowing, a practice which is not performed in a blog but by contacting the proper authorities. Whistle-blowers are brave people, but they seldom resort to blogging to try to correct the deficiencies they see.
There's nothing wrong with pseudonyms, but when it comes to political criticism in this country, it is wrong. First, to properly judge someone's statements, we need to know if the person is speaking from real knowledge or expertise. Second, we need to know if they have some personal ax to grind. Finally, we need to know if we're reading an impartial analysis or a partisan statement.
So, if Joe Blow wants to say that the Mayor of Montgomery, AL, is doing a great job, it's nice to know if Mr. Blow is an ordinary citizen, a seasoned impartial political observer, or a member of the Committee-to-Re-Elect-Bobby Bright.
The recent nonsense over at Wikipedia should be a lesson to us all about the dangers of Internet anonymity. By now everyone knows about “Essjay” who claimed to be a “tenured professor of religion”, who in fact had no degrees whatsoever. That little discrepancy didn't prevent him from being a significant editor at Wikipedia.
The blogosphere and the Wikipedia have this in common: As a source of information, they both are no more than starting points at best. At worst, they're blind alleys filled with inaccuracies. Therefore, the reader or researcher should exercise proper judgment, and authors should own up when they make purported statements of fact. Information wants to be free, but it also wants to be correct.
Let the websurfer beware.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Mayor Plays Dirty Harry

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. ~Plato

[Note from October, 2013:  This sort of thing apparently runs riot in Alabama.  The Mayor of Birmingham, William Bell, pulled a similar stunt a few months ago.  At least in his case, his police bodyguards were driving.]

Jim Byard Jr. (pronounced "bird") is the mayor of Prattville, Alabama. He has been an astute politician, a reasonably competent city official, and a fairly accomplished leader. He is also a blooming idiot.

Let me explain. Last Thursday, Prattville police engaged in a high-speed chase to catch a purse snatcher. Mayor Byard was in his car with the city engineer and the city planner when he heard the chase on his car radio. It turned out that the chase was headed right for him. An intelligent man would have gotten out of the way and let the police do their job, but not Mayor Byard, Justice East of Autauga Creek.

With the city engineer screaming, "Go, Go!", Mayor Byard headed right toward the chase, finding himself face to face with the suspect's vehicle headed straight toward him.

I should note that the city planner was the only person in the car with a brain. He was urging the mayor to pull over and get out of the way.

Fortunately for the mayor and his passengers, the vehicle being chased darted into the other lane, after which it was stopped by city police vehicles. When Mayor Byard arrived, those in attendance burst into applause, with some calling him "Little Emory."

To explain that last, when Emory Folmar was mayor of Montgomery, he used to show up at crime scenes packing his own heat. Folmar was ultimately voted out of office, although his gun-toting was not a factor. The arrogance that led him to feel he could play Junior G-man, on the other hand, was a factor in his defeat.

Mayor Byard should take note.

High speed chases give me the hives anyway. I worked with a man who was in critical condition for weeks and out of work for months because of high speed chase in Montgomery. He was minding his own business when the fool being chased crashed into him, damn near killing my co-worker.

While chases look cool on TV, they are potentially deadly in real life, often to people who are not actual participants in the chase.

So here are the Prattville police, risking the lives of the populace to catch a purse snatcher, of all things, and here's the mayor of the city coming close to getting himself and two other city officials, killed while playing cops and purse snatchers.

I live near Prattville (but outside of its jurisdiction, fortunately) and I work for the City of Birmingham. Mayor Bernard Kincaid of Birmingham gets plenty of photo ops without feeling the need to intervene in dangerous police situations. Mayor Byard needs to talk to his publicist about safer alternatives to getting column inches in the "Montgomery Advertiser."

So, tell us, Mr. Mayor, if you had crashed head-on in this incredibly dangerous alleged criminal, what good would you have done for the City of Prattville? Worse, if your action had caused an innocent bystander to killed, how would you feel now? And to the Prattville Police Department, someone in your group should explain that applauding foolish actions, even those by the Mayor, is highly inappropriate. Perhaps the Chief of Police might take time to explain to Hizzoner what the mayor's job entails and how it doesn't include getting involved in dangerous police activities.

You might want to stop basking in the glory of your press clippings and think about that for a second, Mr. Mayor.