Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Getting to the Heart of the Matter - Part II

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. ~Mark Twain

When last we met, I was dramatically relating how I had reached the point of need an angiogram to check for possible blockages in my heart.

Don't worry, everything works out in the end.

Interestingly, the heart cath people have a little different approach than the echo and nuclear folks. They're all very nice, but the cath folks are a little more solicitous, if you get my drift. I mean, you wouldn't be there if there wasn't the possibility of something meaningful being wrong, so they know you just might be a tad nervous.

To begin with, they give you a little cup full of pills that are supposed to calm you down. I'm not a fan of tranquilizers because, well, they make me act goofy, which goes against the august image I try to portray. Even though the Wife knows the august image is a bunch of hooey, I hate letting other people know that. However, I took the pills because, a) they made me, and b) I got a drink of water which I hadn't been able to have for several hours.

Then the nurse started putting little ink marks on my feet. I looked at her and said, "Please tell me you aren't marking them 'R" and 'L' ." She made a face at me, and said, "No. I'm marking them 'L' and 'R'." Actually, she explained, she was marking where she was easily able to detect a pulse. The marks were so that someone could check there later, if they happened to be having a problem locating a pulse.

Oh, swell.

However, everyone was cool. They were so cool, in fact, that they let me keep my MP3 player on the whole time. Not just in the prep area, mind you, but the whole time they were doing the cath, I was bopping to the sound of Dave Brubeck at Carnegie Hall. At least, I was bopping whenever I wasn't dozing. In addition to the pills, they slipped a little something into the ol' IV bag that was very relaxing. Kind of a pity they didn't have anything for the Wife.

At any rate, now we come to the happy ending, because they didn't find any blockages. They told me this while I was in the cath room, but they told me again when I was a little more out of my stupor, in the presence of the Wife, so I'm p/>
My, how times change. The dressing they used had some miracle glue on it that sealed things up. I had to lay on the bed for a while (how long I'm not sure, because I was still dozing and grooving to Dave Brubeck). After that, I got wheeled into another room where I was set down in a lounge chair and handed a basket of goodies and some soft drinks. After about an hour, I was invited to get my butt out of there before I ate everything they had. Well, no, they weren't that way about it, but they were quick about getting me out of there.

All in all, I'd say we were out of there within four or five hours, which includes the original sitting around in the waiting room. Not too bad.

So, while I'll have to go see my original physician and figure out what's next (which I figure is going to have something to do with losing weight and doing some actual exercise), I'm feeling pretty good right about now. Except for one thing.

The only kicker about the heart cath is that they want you to do as little as possible for two days after the procedure. It's that artery business, you know. If that sucker springs a leak, it's not a matter of sticking a band aid on. It's "apply a lot of pressure while someone dials 911." That is not an option that I would care for, and it's one that the Wife absolutely wants no part of. Therefore, I have been watched carefully by both the Wife and the Son for the last two days. At one point, the Wife didn't want me carrying by water jug into the next room.

I have a small roll-around table on which the laptop that I'm using now rests. When I use it, I turn it toward the TV set, because, well, you can't type all the time. I am not allowed to roll the table the four feet it takes to put it in that position, until tomorrow at the earliest. That sort of thing drives me crazy.

It's not that I don't appreciate that my family actually cares whether I start bleeding all over the carpet or keel over from some sort of heart calamity. I really do; it's nice to know that everyone cares. But, I am a lousy patient. I admit it. I don't cotton to not being at 100% (or as close to it as an overweight, 59.9 year-old person is going to be), and I want to get on with things.

Heck, I'm even ready to go back to work. Well, sort of. See, we have Tuesday off for Veteran's Day, so I took Monday as a vacation day.

Hey, if I'm going to be feeling better, I'm entitled to actually enjoy a day off, rather than spend it worrying about my heart.
retty sure that really was what the cardiologist said. Which brings me around to why I am so bored at the moment.

You see, if you are unfamiliar with a heart catheterization, what they do is shoot some die into an artery in your leg. Punching holes in arteries is not a recommended practice unless it is done by a doctor, which, fortunately it was. But, even then, certain precautions have to be maintained. Back when Dad had his, he had to lie quite still for several hours with a heavy bag draped over the dressing on his leg. I fully expected to do the same.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Getting to the Heart of the Matter - Part I

To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable. ~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I have been undergoing enforced idleness of late. Ordinarily, I wouldn't mind that situation, but this was brought about by a health situation, which required consultation with a cardiologist. Both the cardiologist and my regular physician kept saying the wonderfully contradictory things that make being less than well so much fun.

"It's probably nothing serious, but stop doing your Tai Chi exercises." Tai Chi is about as low impact as it gets, so that's a bit scary.

"I'm going to set up a consultation with a cardiologist." Now that is a whole lot scary.

"Oh, sure, you can go back to work. Unless that's been a source of stress, in which case you should stay home." Well, whose work isn't a source of some stress, for crying out loud? "Oh, you can telecommute, then definitely do that." Okey-dokey.

Fortunately, my job can be done to some extent by telecommuting, and my boss was willing to go that route, since there had been others who had worked from home while undergoing some health trauma or the other.

While I was working online, I felt I was doing things and, while I curtailed my physical activity a little, I still could take a brief walk now and then and do some light Tai Chi. Yes, that was against doctor's orders, but, dang it, it made me feel better.

So, over the last two weeks, I've been testing. First was the echo cardiogram, which is, quite frankly, pretty cool. Aside from the mild discomfort of having some hair shaved off my chest for those electrode stickies and being liberally gooped up with something akin to KY, I had a ringside seat to watch the whole process. The echo cardiogram control panel looks like something from NCC 1701. It was all I could do to keep from asking the technician to set course for Rigel V.

At any rate, I got to watch my heart beat in 3D, occasionally with colored light show effects. Hmmm, does red or blue mean good or bad things? And what about that little yellow lightning burst down there? As it turned out, all the colors were apparently right, because I found out later that I passed that test with flying colors.

A couple of days later came the stress test. Excuse me, came the nuclear stress test. Apparently, just marching along on a treadmill isn't enough these days; you've got to be radiocative while you do it. I'm pretty sure I saw a B-picture like this when I was a kid. Somewhere during the test, my eyes should start to glow, I start knocking things down, nurses start screaming, and I end up 50 feet tall -- or something like that.

Well, none of that happened, but because the process involves not one but two injections of the radioactive material and not one but two picture sessions, one on either side of the actual stress part of things, the whole deal takes around four hours. Oh, and you have to bring breakfast with you because you can't eat or drink anything after midnight, but I guess they want to have something on your stomach to absorb all those isotopes -- or so you won't keel over from hunger during the treadmill test.

Anyway, when I finished, I asked when I'd hear something and the nurse said, "Oh, probably in about 7 days." Now, if they could wait a week to tell me something, surely I couldn't be in THAT bad a shape, right?

That was Tuesday, so I went back to work on Wednesday, feeling pretty decent about things. Until about 10 AM when the cardiologist's nurse called and said she had "good news and bad news." That is not the sort of thing one wants to hear a cardiologist's nurse say. It turned out that I did real well on the tests except for slightly anomalous circulatory results at the end of the stress test. Translation: We gotta check you for blockages, kiddo.


Now, my father, rest his soul, had enough blockages to rent his circulartory system out to a medical school as a training aid for future cardiovascular practitioners. He started having his problems in his late thirties. I had gotten to 59.9 years of age without any problem; I really didn't see any good reason to start now.

I was at the hospital when he had his heart catheterization, and I remember the exchange between the heart surgeon and Dad. The surgeon was already miffed, because Dad had left out a few things in his medical history, like recurring chest pains for the last twenty years. Now, after telling my Dad about the major blockages around his heart, he was listening to Dad trying to weasel out of doing anything about it. Finally, Dad said, "Look, if I don't do anything what could happen?"

The surgeon looked him in the eye and said, "If you're lucky, you'll have a massive heart attack and die. If you're unlucky, you'll have a massive heart attack and be an invalid. Take your pick." Believe it or not, Dad took a week to make up his mind to have the bypass surgery. I can tell you very honestly that, as I waited to get my own cath, no surgeon was going to have to say anything like that to me. If he said, "You have a blockage," my next words were going to be, "Well, what the hell are we doing sitting around here talking about it? Get me somewhere where you can fix it!"

I loved Dad, but he could be an idiot. That didn't mean he raised one.

Once again, though, I was getting these mixed signals from the cardio folks. They could squeeze me in Friday, or, if I wanted, I could wait a week. WAIT A WEEK? Hell, even if there isn't anything wrong, the stress would kill me! Let's go, lady!

As it was, I still had the rest of Wednesday and all of Thursday to think about the whole thing. What was really scary was how solicitous everyone was being, especially the Wife and the Son. I couldn't lift a finger without someone worrying I was going to induce the Big One. Even though I hadn't even had a little one yet, for crying out loud. That was the good news the nurse had mentioned.

Somehow, that wasn't making anyone feel any better.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Don't Hate James Bond

Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: Nooo, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!
~ from Ian Fleming's Goldfinger

I admit I live in a little world all my own most of the time, but I suspect I'm not alone in being a little surprised that the BBC would get all worked up over whether people should hate James Bond. I mean, really now. Ian Fleming started writing those stories in the fifties, and I guess the movies have been around for over forty years. Someone must like them.

Certainly, the Bond franchise has had its critics over the years, what with all that casual sex, blowing up things, and improbable villains. And, yes, are we not all exasperated at those villains, who have been smart enough to create world-wide organizations that appear to have lots of money and brilliant technology achievements, those same villains will try to kill Bond in some Rube-Goldberg fashion that will guarantee Bond's escape? Instead of just shooting the guy, they tie him up to some complicated apparatus that will drop a sixteen-ton weight on him when the six o'clock newscaster says, "Brilliant." Then they walk away and leave him there, but not before they explain their entire plot, divulge their immediate plans, and provide Bond with the names and addresses of all their agents.

So, Mr. Bond wriggles about, finds some handy-dandy device in his pocket that Q gave him and asked Bond pretty please to not destroy this time, and, using it in a manner that completely melts the thing, makes his escape. Alternately, the villain's femme-fatale co-conspirator, who has been captivated by Mr. Bond's suave brand of raw sexuality, simply walks in and releases him.

Personally, I've always preferred the times he melted Q's thingy. Ummm... Perhaps, I could have put that better, but you get the idea.

Let's face it: We love a certain amount of escapism in our lives, and there is little more escapist than imagining that you are the suave spy saving the world from evil people who really don't seem to know what they would do with the world if they got it. Movies have a long history of suave good guys, who wow the ladies, and get the bad guys in the last reel, all the while tossing off clever quips one after the other. Just thinking about it briefly, I can think of several such characters.

The Saint -- George Sanders, who surely would have played Bond if he had been born a couple of decades later, was the suave detective, who skirted the borders of the law, seemed equally comfortable with criminal low-lifes and upper-crust swells, is probably the original prototype for James Bond. I don't know if Ian Fleming has ever said that, but just watch any of the movies in the series and you can't help but detect similarities. Sanders also played a very similar character called the Falcon, although he was killed off around the third movie and replaced by his on-screen and real-life brother, Tom Conway.

Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe -- As played by Humphrey Bogart, these are the same guys. Marlowe might be a little crustier, but the scene in which he is chewing out the DA and suddenly turns to the little guy taking down the conversation and says, "Am I going to fast for you, son?" is a line James Bond would have loved to use. As Sam Spade, in the Maltese Falcon, he is the ultimate in cool, facing down all the baddies in his apartment, setting them up for the fall, then turning over Mary Astor to the cops for killing his partner. Now that's a guy with ice-water in his veins.

A digression: Do you know that no one knows who killed the chauffer in The Big Sleep (the Marlowe movie)? At one point during production, an argument broke out over who did the guy in, so the director, I think it was, called Raymond Chandler, who wrote the story. Chandler thought about it for a while, then admitted that he didn't know either.

Peter Gunn -- He could move from seedy nightclubs to penthouses with ease. One moment, he's calmly explaining how Big Ernie got it, the next he's plugging the bad guy. Always calm and cool, Craig Stevens was in control. And Julie London's character had the hots for him. It doesn't get a lot better than that.

Sherlock Holmes -- Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Jeremy Brett all played him with a detached air (although Rathbone could get a little excitable). Conan-Doyle's great detective had the original ice-water-in-the-veins approach to everything. The only thing he lacked was the sex appeal with the ladies. Of course, there was that Irene Adler thing ...

Now Bond had many of the elements of all of the above plus he was a spy, when spies were really cool - as long as they were your spies. Maybe that's what bothers his critics. Because that occupation leads to be another complaint against Bond, that his villains all spoke with foreign accents. Well, let's see, Bond works for the British Secret Service, and, last time I checked the last major spying involving English-speaking enemies of the British would have occurred around 1812. What else are the bad guys going to be, except foreigners?

Let's face it. Our spies are good guys working for truth, justice, and the American Way (or the British Way, if you're James Bond). Their spies are evil double-dealing, unprincipled scoundels bent on the destruction of everything decent people hold dear. Unless, of course, they're making the movies.

Look, all you people worked up about James Bond, he's a fictional character. Real spying doesn't work like that. There are no criminal masterminds out there working to take over the world. So get over it and enjoy the movie.

Besides, think about this. Think of the people who run the governments around the world. Now imagine them faced with a criminal mastermind capable of organizing a world-wide operation, making bags of money and using technology that government military organizations can only dream of.

The only thing that would have stopped Blofeld would have been the aneurysm he'd have gotten laughing at them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One More Time: Replay Doesn't Fix Bad Refs -- Or Umps

The umpire must be quick witted. He may not, like the wise old owl of the bench, look over his gold-rimmed eyeglasses, inform the assembled multitude that he will 'take the matter under advisement,' and then adjourn the court for a week or two to satisfy himself how he ought to decide. No, indeed. He must be johnny-on-the-spot with a decision hot off the griddle and he must stick to it, right or wrong - or be lost. ~ A.G. Spalding

If I were to rank the performance of officials in sports from worst to best, the list would look like this:

Soccer - The world's most popular sport suffers from the world's blindest officials. Every time I watch another schlemiel draw a penalty by taking a dive and writhing on the ground (only to be saved by the trainer's magic sponge), I understand why soccer fans are so violent.

Basketball - Pro or college, it doesn't matter. They can't make up their mind about what constitutes a foul or goaltending. They get confused about the clocks. They make calls to please the home crowd (the imbalance in the NBA is so bad, it was hard to detect a ref who was out and out cheating). And they can watch replays so long that you'd think they took a break to watch Gone With the Wind.

College Football - What is it about the pass interference rule these guys can't get straight? Worse, why do they change their weird interpretation as the game progresses? And don't even get me started about holding.

Professional Football - Only by a whisker, since the pro refs seem to have a consistent pass interference call, and the pro replay rule doesn't allow them to dawdle around waiting to get a buzz from the replay official.

Hockey - I haven't watched a hockey game in a couple of years, since the NHL decided to implode, but hockey is still the fastest paced game of them all and the officials do a creditable job of trying to have eyes in the backs of their heads.

Baseball umpires - For years, network replays have shown them to make accurate calls. Yes, the strike zone wanders around, but you can blame the Lords of Baseball for a lot of that as they try to inject more or less offense in a given year.

Of that bunch, only baseball had held off instituting replay, mostly I think because the spirit of A. G. Spaulding's dictum ruled the game. Now along comes Bud Selig, whose brilliant decisions have included making the All-Star game decide World Series home field advantage and moving the Montreal Expos to Washington D.C. (which hasn't been able to support a baseball franchise since the Truman administration). Despite the aforementioned evidence of replays over the years, based on the results of one game, he decided that we must have the ability to hold up baseball games as we hold up all other sports by having instant replay.

Okay, I vented about all this not long ago. But two things have got me all hot and bothered again. First, the gang on Mike and Mike in the Morning have tried to start the bandwagon rolling to get calls besides home runs and fair/foul calls reviewed. Mike Greenberg, in particular, seems obsessed to have every close call that comes along covered by replay. Which is one of the things I was especially concerned about. Can you even begin to imagine how long a game would take with every close play on the bases being reviewed?

This morning, the local newspaper had a headline saying that the Lords of Baseball have announced that they won't expand the scope of replay. Of course, they instituted replay in the middle of the season (essentially changing the rules of the game in the middle of a pennant run), so we can hardly trust the integrity of that statement.

Once you let the replay genie out, it's only a matter of time. Yes, I know that hockey and soccer have limited replay to judging goals, but I still expect replay to someday be used on offsides calls (as soon as someone can be found who actually understands the arcane interpretations of offsides in both sports). At that point, the average soccer game will last 4 hours; "stoppage time" will be replaced by "replay time." Hockey games will have to be played over several days.

The other thing that got me going was this story by Peter King in which he tells us that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had a pep rally to tell his officials what a great job they're doing. Here's a bulletin, Commish: They aren't doing a great job. Replay can be thanked in great measure for this decline in performance.

What really gripes me is that, once again, Ed Hochuli is being sited as being a great official, and isn't it a shame he blew that one call which replay isn't allowed to fix. I beg to differ. Mr. Hochuli is not a great referee. His crew is not a great crew. They are about average in blown calls and lead the league in unnecessary conferences that stretch games out and kill momentum.

Let's put it this way: If Mr. Hochuli and his crew are the best or among the best in the NFL, then NFL officiating is pretty bad, perhaps even worse than Big 10 officials (who frequently appear to be watching some other game than the one on the field).

Hochuli and his crew are simply symptomatic of the general decline in officiating caused by instant replay. We are now reaching the point where the instant replay officials are declining as well. In the Oklahoma-Texas game yesterday, the replay guy (or guys) blew two calls, one that would have helped Oklahoma and one that would have hurt them, so it came out in the wash, but ask Oklahoma about Pac-10 replay guys and see what kind of reaction you get.

Hint: Be ready to run.

Games are played by human beings, people. They should be officiated by humans. We need at least one sanctuary from technology.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Trouble on the Plains

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that. ~ Bill Shankly

Let's begin with a word about Ohio State. I caught the very end of the Wisconsin game last weekend. As anyone who follows college football knows, OSU has had problems, mostly because of Beanie Wells being injured and partly because Todd Boeckman can't figure out that he isn't Craig Krenzel. Coach Tressel seems to have casting about for some offense. Evidently he found it in Terrelle Pryor, who, while rough around the edges, engineered a pretty late touchdown drive to win the game. What was impressive was that the drive was not easy; there were some lost yards, a fumble, some incompletions. But, Pryor just kept coming back.

He's a confident young man.

Ohio State ain't out of the woods yet, but at least one can see hope if Pryor continues to develop.

Auburn isn't so lucky. When Tony Franklin was hired last winter, there was great excitement that the "Tony Franklin System" was coming to the Plains. For those of you who don't know, that means the so-called spread offense.

The reason I say "so-called" is that the spread is just like the "west coast offense" and the "fun and gun" and all those other gimmick named offenses that keep popping up. I've seen a bunch of spread offenses, and they all look like old single-wing or double-wing formations, with a little triple-option stuff thrown in. Some teams run the spread and rush a lot; some run it and pass a lot. It's just another offense.

Unfortunately, at Auburn, Coach Franklin's offense didn't run or throw much. In fact, they are currently ranked number 104 out of 119 Division I schools. That's one reason that, as of this afternoon, he is out of a job. As to the other reasons, you have to go to the rumor mill for the moment, because no one is talking.

Oddly, as recently as yesterday afternoon, head coach Tommy Tuberville was saying they were committed to the spread offense. Now, they may still be committed to the spread; they just aren't committed to having Tony Franklin run it.

I have no idea what caused things to tip over the edge, but I can tell you what has bothered me since early in Franklin's tenure at Auburn. The very first thing he did was get Chris Todd to come to Auburn. It seems that Mr. Todd ran the Franklin System in high school and was committed to Troy, where Franklin used to coach. For whatever reason, he was in junior college when Franklin got him to transfer to Auburn. With a bum shoulder.

Now, whether you're running the spread, the double wing, or Knute Rockne's box, a quarterback coming off shoulder surgery is a scary option. When said quarterback, in spring practice by all reports, throws with all insufficient force to dent tissue paper, alarm bells should go off. When it further becomes clear that said quarterback isn't much of a runner (a must for the spread), the alarms should grow louder.

When it becomes abundantly clear that the offensive coordinator will start this guy ahead of a healthy, potentially talented quarterback, it's time to question his judgement. From all appearances, Franklin would have started Todd even if a young Peyton Manning was on the bench.

I saw Todd play against Tennessee. The announcers began apologizing for continually pointing out that Todd's passes seemed to be lobbed softly. They could hardly avoid mentioning it. On some of his passes, you would think that the ball had "Hindenburg" printed on it instead of "Wilson." His lack of throwing strength was pathetically obvious. Given the absence of a throwing threat, Todd's lack of mobility as a runner made the decision to start him look even stranger.

Now, I don't know. Maybe someone other than Franklin insisted on Todd starting. Given the emphasis Franklin made on getting him and the high praise the coach gave him, that seems unlikely.

Not only does the decision to start Todd look funny, the decision to simply ignore Kodi Burns, which appears to have been Franklin's approach, looks even worse. Okay, you want your guy to do well; once it's obvious he physically can't do it (and that was obvious in spring practice, remember), it's time to bite the bullet and get the other guy ready.

And that's only what I saw. Add to that the fact that players were complaining openly to the media about confusion amongst themselves and amongst the coaching staff and the visible evidence of some of the worst play I've seen by a big-time football program. The wonder is that Franklin wasn't fired before the season started.

The ultimate irony is that Auburn's defense has been spectacular, especially given that they spend the bulk of the team's time on the field. With any sort of offensive output, their record would be perfect, and they'd be ranked in the top 5 at worst. Ironically, Franklin had complained that the offense wasn't running enough plays because they weren't moving fast enough. Apparently, it didn't occur to him that if you are constantly three-and-out that you aren't going to run many plays no matter how fast you get to the line.

So Tony Franklin is gone, and Coach Tuberville, known as a defensive specialist is going to be more involved in the offense, which, at this writing is going to be run by a committee.

This coming weeks could be very rocky on the Plains.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Appreciating the Bard

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts ... ~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

I was watching Looking for Richard last night. This movie was done as a labor of love by Al Pacino, in part to show how actors work, in part as an homage to William Shakespeare. In particular, it's about what may be Shakespeare's most complex play, Richard III. Personally, this is one of my favorite Shakespearean works, because Richard is so absolutely evil, and there's something very fascinating about such people.

In the course of the film, Pacino talks to some folks on the street about how they like Shakespeare. The short answer is that, at least of those shown in the film, they mostly don't. Shakespeare is boring, and the Elizabethan-style language is too difficult to understand, so why bother?

Curiously, in the last few days, I happened to be talking to a couple of reasonably intelligent fellows who echoed much the same thoughts. I found this to be depressing, because I'm always depressed when people shut out something wonderful from their lives.

Now I don't love everything Shakespeare ever wrote. I'm not a pure poetry buff, so the sonnets do little for me. Also, I'm not that crazy about the comedies, because how much mistaken identity and women disguised as men can anyone take.

Yes, I know it was convenient to do that sort of thing in Shakespeare's time, since many women's roles were played by men. It's still a plot device that I've never cared for, from Shakespeare or anyone else.

Furthermore, some of Shakespeare's plays really are dull. Coriolanus will put anyone to sleep. No playwright has ever written nothing but great work. But when Shakespeare was on, boy was he on. Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, some of the other historical plays (like Julius Caesar and Henry V), and Othello (with perhaps the nastiest villain of them all, Iago) all capture my attention.

Well, Hamlet does aggravate me a little. I mean, the ghost of your father tells you he was murdered by his brother, who has usurped the throne you should have gotten, and it takes you forever to decide to do anything about it? Please. Sir Lawrence Olivier put it best in the introduction to his movie adaptation of the play: "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind."

I think there a couple of reasons why people don't like Shakespeare and other classics. First, people are lazy. They don't want to take the time to understand a story that doesn't involve copious amounts of explosions and special effects. They don't want to read books; they want those single page pithy paragraphs found on the web. The pity is that they don't realize how much they're cheating themselves.

The other reason people don't want to read or watch the classics is the way they were introduced to them. The way literature is taught by most teachers is almost criminal. Perhaps it's changed since the stone age when I went to high school, but, given the reactions I mentioned above, I doubt it has. And, it's because of this teaching that people don't realize what they're missing.

The problem is that students can't simply read and enjoy the work. The teacher emphasizes the "analysis" of the story, pounding on the symbolism to be found (whether it's there or not), expounding on the overarching cosmic themes until the average student is so sick of the work, they'll never look at it again. Worst of all, the teacher gives little or no leeway on the analysis, providing the "right" answers, which the student had better parrot back if he or she wants to get a good grade.

Now, not every teacher is like that. When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have a teacher in my junior year who left all the analysis to us. If you could justify what you thought, that was good enough for him, whether it was what conventional teacher wisdom held or not. Unfortunately, my teacher during my sophomore and senior years felt very differently. During class discussions, we got our say, all right, but if what we said wasn't what she had in her notes, we were told to try again. Come test time, you had better have her notes memorized. If she said it was important, it didn't matter what the student thought.

My sophomore year we read Moby Dick. By the time we were done plowing through the book and answering the standard set of work questions she gave us, the joy of Melville's story was gone. A couple of years ago, I sat down and read it for the first time in forty years. You know something? That is a great story! I couldn't put it down.

I've reread a number of classics over the years, finding out just how much I missed when teachers over-taught us.

Shakespeare poses an even thornier problem. Let's face it, Elizabethan English isn't what we're used to. Now, if you dropped an Elizabethan person into a modern theater to watch, say, a Neil Simon play, they'd have exactly the same problem, because modern English usage would be as confusing to him as his Elizabethan argot is to us. So, a here's a student trying to make sense of, say, Hamlet, and he's trying to figure out the symbolism of the ghost and analyze the metric pattern and wondering who the hell this Gonzago character is and what he has to do with the King (the live one, not the ghost; or is it the other way around?). Oh, and in class, he's trying to figure out which of these is going to be important for the exam.

How's about we change our methodology? For starters, before the class reads the first line of Act I, Scene I, they should be given a reasonably detailed summary of what the story is about. If some historical background is needed, that should be provided, too. For example, Richard III becomes a little less confusing if you know about the War of the Roses. It's also a little easier to understand if you realize that the characters are referred to variously by first name and by title. For example, Richard is also Gloucester, because he is Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Clarence is George, Duke of Clarence (which explains a whole lot about why Edward throws him in the Tower to begin with).

The biggest advantage, though, to telling the story is that students can find out just how interesting the plot is.

Once you know the story, it's easier to parse out the Elizabethan lingo. Further, as Mr. Pacino points out in Looking for Richard, you don't have to understand every word. It only matters that you get the gist of what they're seeing. Then, in class, discuss what's happening in the story as the students read it. And, if you must talk about techniques like all that iambic pentameter, just say so. It is not necessary to make them parse sections of the play. Better to spend the time in class discussing key passages and the relationships and motivations of the characters. Finally, when the test rolls around, teacher, remember, there are no absolute correct interpretations in literature.

Who knows? Some of those students might find that they actually like Shakespeare. Wouldn't that be better than their knowing the symbolic significance of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Updating Clue

He would make a lovely corpse. ~ Charles Dickens

Is nothing sacred? Hasbro, which purchased Parker Brothers a while back, has decided that the venerable old board game, Clue, needs updating. Mr. Boddy still gets offed at the mansion, but now it's during a posh affair rather than a sedate dinner party. The mansion now has a spa, a theater and a guest house. Presumably, "modern" players wouldn't know what a conservatory and, heaven forbid, a library are.

What's worse is what's been done to the characters. Colonel Mustard is now Jack Mustard, a former football player. Professor Plum is now a video-game designer. No library, no professor: What does that tell us about the opinion "modern" players have about intellectual pursuits? Even the cook has been replaced by a child movie star.

Apparently, "modern" players don't understand that someone who lives in a mansion might have to have hired help.

Even the weapons have changed. Evidently, the lead pipe wasn't eco-friendly, so it's been replaced by a trophy, an ax, and a baseball bat. The "modern audience" likes more variety in its mayhem. Perhaps these new "hip" players are expecting to actually see the murder acted out? I mean, dead is dead. How many different ways do you need to have available to kill the poor guy.

Also, the revolver is now a "pistol", for reasons that are completely unclear to me. I guess the vocabulary of "modern" players has gotten so narrow that "revolver" is too archaic. I'm surprised they didn't just use "gun." Or "9 mm Glock", which everybody who watches CSI would understand.

However, it could have been even worse. Our cracked--er--crack reporting staff here at Gog's Blog (pat. pending) have uncovered a top secret internal Hasbro memo that listed some other ideas that the marketing brains considered but mercifully decided to leave out.

  • If you make an incorrect accusation, the person you accuse could sue you for defamation. On the other hand, you could file a civil suit against the person you falsely accused for "negligent responsibility" in the murder. Discarded because the game would go on for ten years.
  • Set the game in Los Angeles. Discarded because to set the game in the last time period the LA DA actually convicted anyone in a high-profile murder, the weapons would have had to have been a musket, a tomahawk, a rock, a bowie knife, and a bow and arrow.
  • You could take DNA samples of someone you suspected. Discarded because everyone would have to put a blood smear on their character card
  • Give Mr. Boddy a background as a lawyer or a an oil company exec. Discarded nobody would have cared who did it.
  • Discarded alternative weapons: AK-47 (clashes with formal wear), bazooka (won't fit into the female characters' purses), various pharmaceutical products that have "causes occasional death" as a side effect (Hasbro didn't want to get sued).
  • Characters would all have "Facebook" pages. Discarded because idiot murderer would post that they did it with the trophy in the spa on their own page.
  • A new character was going to be added to make up for the loss of the cook: A butler. Discarded because everyone knows the butler did it (sorry).
Personally, I'd have gone with the bazooka thing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cuffing the Purity Police

Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot. ~ Eugene O'Neill

It was 4 1/2 years ago that the great "wardrobe malfunction" occurred during the Super Bowl 38 (you work out the Roman numerals) halftime show. The show, which had already featured a rapper groping himself endlessly (apparently to take everyone's mind off his "lyrics"), brought together Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Unfortunately for CBS, it brought them a little too close together. Timberlake was supposed to rip off a bit of Jackson's costume; regrettably, he ripped off a little too much, exposing a Jacksonian breast.

At least, I heard he did. I was watching the show with the son (the best Super Bowl commercials are often aired at halftime), and, quite frankly, neither one of us saw a thing. The son, who is a fully grown adult and knows what a breast looks like, only noticed that something appeared to go wrong at the end of the routine. Beyond that, we forgot about it, thankful that one of the worst halftime programs in Super Bowl history was over.

Well, by golly, some people saw it. In fact, every conservative in the country must have Tivo'd the thing and played it back 20 or 30 times to work into a proper righteous rage. Once they were fully worked up, they wrote en masse to the FCC to punish those profligate souls in charge of CBS. And yea verily, the FCC did smite CBS to the tune of $550,000.

For a boob getting flashed for less than a second. Accidentally. During a live broadcast.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that the FCC acted "arbitrarily and capriciously", which is a nice legalistic way of saying the regulators don't know their heads from a hole in the ground.

Generally speaking, censorship gives me the hives. It's not that the networks don't try to get away with everything they can. Regular programming is full of language that would have made my parents blush -- not because they didn't know the words, but because there's a time and a place for it. And putting the stuff on TV when the kids are watching isn't it.

However, CBS wasn't intending for Janet Jackson to flash the crowd; rappers can grope themselves (seriously, the guy looked like a poster boy for a jock-itch ad) and all the songs can have suggestive lyrics (which every kid watching had heard when the songs first came out) but everyone knows that the female breast is a complete no-no on "family" programming. For the FCC to hand down a half-million dollar fine was ridiculous.

Worse, it seemed to set off the Purity Police, those viewers who force themselves to watch these awful adult-oriented shows just to complain to the FCC. It apparently hasn't occurred to these people that if they choose not to watch, they won't have to be offended. Nobody asked them to be our watchdogs. In fact, society is in no need of such watchdogs.

If people don't like such programming, all they have to do is not watch it. Feel free to write the network to tell them you aren't watching. But don't try to decide what I should be watching. And especially, don't try to get the FCC to exercise de facto censorship by demanding that they issue egregious fines for minor incidents.

Like the boob flash that most of us wouldn't even have known about if you hadn't made such a big deal about it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Wild Party That Wasn't

My favorite thing about the Internet is that you get to go into the private world of real creeps without having to smell them. ~Penn Jillett

It's a typical Internet story. Idiot kid posts on "social networking" site how he or she is having a party, and everyone on earth is invited. A significant number of everyones, ranging from a few hundred to the population of Karkow shows up. The house is trashed, there's plenty of gratuitous sex and free booze, and the cops call in the 43rd Airborne to quell the riot. Such an incident is reported here. Another day, another stupid Internet act.

You may find that the link doesn't work, because, according to the kid's mother, it never happened.

Well, not exactly. The idiot kid did make the posting inviting the world plus dog to her party. And the same idiot kid made a posting claiming all sorts of wild, lascivious things went on that required the local gendarmes to step in. It just turns out that she was having a little fun with everyone on the Internet -- and in the media.

According to a letter written by her mother to the newspapers that published stories about the bash, there were no police called in, the family had private security personnel on hand, and none of the sex, boozing, and other illicit activities took place.

And, oh, by the way, she's suing all the publications that published the stories.

At the time of the C/Net article, only TimesonLine had removed the piece. Others (including the link I provided) still had the story on their sites, although that could change.

This is wrong on so many levels, it's hard to figure out where to start.

First of all, if none of this happened, why in the world did the kid and her friends post all these fantasies on their Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, and who-knows-what-all pages? Is this what passes for "fun" these days (at least among those whose parents can afford over $8000 per week to rent a $9 million Spanish villa)?

Then there are the newspapers that published the story. Did none of them actually contact the Spanish authorities to find out if they were called to the villa? And how desperate are these so-called reporters that they are reduced to cruising kids blogs for news items?

Oh, well, I suppose it beats outright stealing from blogs -- but not by much.

When I read and hear, nearly every week, how newspapers are going away and mainstream journalism is in trouble everywhere, I begin to understand why. A newspaper is supposed to have for-real reporters who verify facts and report something that approximates the truth. Yes, I wasn't born yesterday. I was alive when the Cleveland Press almost single-handedly convicted Sam Sheppard, a conviction that was overturned. I am certainly aware that any publication or other news medium has an agenda.

But, there was a time when a report of some sort of wild party, if it was reported at all, would have been thoroughly checked out. It could be regarded as factual. Evidently, in the continual cost cutting that newspapers are undertaking, one of the things they have eliminated is fact-checking. They may have eliminated reporters for all I can see. All they need is some minimum-wage part-time high school kids surfing the web, looking for sensational postings to edit a little and roll out in the "At Press Time" or "News Briefs" sections. Or maybe the Life Styles section.

It will be interesting to see if the rich-kid's-wild-party story actually turns out to be true or false. Either way, the kid's mother should take the kid out to their well-appointed woodshed.

Better yet, deduct the attorney's fees from her allowance. That'll teach her.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Internet Ain't Such a Much

The Internet is so big, so powerful and pointless that for some people it is a complete substitute for life. ~Andrew Brown

I ran across this article by Clifford Stoll the other day, in which exposes the Internet for the over-hyped fraud it is -- back in 1995.

Now the person who posted the link was, of course, having a big chortle over how completely wrong this guy was 23 years ago. Ha-ha, ho-ho, it is to laugh at his quaintness. I am assuming he didn't read the article, because, to me, it made a lot of sense. Mr. Stoll didn't bat 1.000, but he comes pretty close to the mark in a number of ways.
He points out, as I have on occasion, that, yes, there's a huge amount of information on the Internet. A monumental amount. Lots. Unfortunately, much of it is drivel, whether provided by bloggers (except this one, of course) or by mainstream media. Some of the stuff on CNN, ABC, FOX, or MSNBC will bring tears to one's eyes, sometimes from laughter that supposed professionals can be so stupid. I mean, how else to explain the I-69 brouhaha, the home computer picture that's actually a submarine, and other silliness that the media has spread based on Internet gags and rumors? I've tried to track down some outre stories a time or two and found all of them linking back to the same suspect source.

It's like all those Bermuda Triangle books that mention the ill-fated Navy flight that disappeared, supposedly due to the infernal forces at work in the Triangle. All of them quote supposedly official transcripts of radio communications. Except that the genuine transcripts don't contain all those juicy comments about everything being "upside down" and all the instruments being crazy. Seems those statements were invented by the author of one of the first Bermuda Triangle books and quoted by every subsequent "believer."

The Internet is a lot like that.

Mr. Stoll does underestimate the extent to which politicians would use the Web. Why wouldn't they? Politics and the Internet are a perfect union. If you make a strident dubious statement that's reported in a newspaper or on TV, the reporter is liable to say something about the statement's accuracy. On the Web, it's up to the reader to check the accuracy, which most won't.

As to computers replacing teachers, Mr. Stoll is dead on. Computers are a useful tool, just like a sliderule or a film, but a good teacher makes the difference, not a computer.

When it comes to the Internet economy, he hits and misses, but on one point he is dead on. The Internet isn't replacing bricks and mortar any time soon. Now I buy a lot of stuff on the Internet. I also buy a lot of stuff in stores. I live near a city of around 30,000 which is building it's third new shopping plaza in three years, to go with the other two that were already in the area. I'd say a lot of people are still going to stores.

(Booth's mercantile center consists of one stop 'n' rob and a motel. But it was like that before the Internet, too.)

Look, people used to buy from catalogs. Now they buy from the Internet. The bricks and mortar boys got smart and dumped catalogs and went on the Web. There's a lot of money to be made on the 'Net, but you can still make money in a store -- and a lot of people are doing it.

A lot of people want to make the Internet out to be something that's changing mankind. Mankind ain't changing any time soon.

Supposedly, the 'Net was going to be this marvelous aggregation of "communities" where there would be love, peace, and mutual understanding. R-i-i-i-i-ght. I took a shot at this fantasy a long time ago. Basically, I said that people take their prejudices and pettiness with them right to the web, and they can do anonymously.

Some sites have become such cesspits of vulgar language, vituperative flamings, and general hooliganism that, a while back, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales (king of that bastion of anarchy, Wikipedia) tried to push a Code of Conduct. Don't remember? I'm not surprised. It didn't exactly excite the "community." (I did think the sherriff's badge was kind of cutsey though.)

You want to know about the Internet community? Let me break a rule of mine here, and talk about my work. I got a call today from a detective. He wanted to alert the system administrators (of which I am one) that his division was conducting a sting on a singles site to track down predatory types who use these sites for something a lot more rotten than dinner and a movie. He gave me his IP address so we wouldn't be turning him in when we saw some of the sites they were being sent to by these creeps.

Know what's really bad about this? A few months ago, I got a similar notification from another detective who was conducting a sting where he posed as a 12-year old to catch pedophiles.

Now we all make jokes about half the people on some "social networking" sites being perverts and the other half being cops pretending to be teenage girls. But the sad fact is that Internet "communities" suffer from the same ills as regular communities and have to be policed the same way.

The real problem here is that, as Mr. Stoll points out repeatedly, what matters is human interaction. Whether it's a salesperson, a teacher, or just other human beings, we need people.
The Internet is no substitute for that, never has been, never will be.

And don't even get me started about e-mail.


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Knuckling Down

You don't catch the knuckleball, you defend against it ~ Joe Torre

I ran across a link to a good read over at SI about the dearth of knuckleball pitchers in this modern day and age. The piece is well written and a nice little history of knuckleballing pitchers, but it's premise is that somehow there used to be a ton of knuckleball throwers and now there aren't.

According to the article, there have been 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Let me tell you, that ain't many in over 100 years of the sport. So having only one currently (Tim Wakefield) ain't such a big deal. It is possible, though, that we won't see many for a while for a number of reasons.

First, there's too much organized sports now. Kids start playing ball around 4 years of age or something like that. They learn to throw fastballs. Lots of fastballs. In fact, in Little League, the ideal pitcher is the biggest kid on the team who can throw harder than anyone else. Kids are around coaches who teach them the basics: Fastball, changeup, and later slider and curveball.

It wasn't always this way. Pitchers used to pick up all sorts of pitches playing in sandlots, sometimes from other kids, sometimes from dads and granddads. By the time they got to the big leagues, they had palmballs, fadeaways, screwballs, forkballs, and other weird pitches. Of course, there were also those who had spitballs, greaseballs, and emery balls. Not legal, of course, but they had to catch you first.

I think I'd have loved the olden days when pitchers could throw just about anything. There's a turn-of-the-century story I read many years ago about a catcher who kept rolling the ball back to the mound after each pitch. The umpire finally asked him why he was doing that. The catcher said, "It's the only way I can get the goddam gum off the ball."

Gaylord Perry, of course, was the last of the great greaseball pitchers, but the pitch he threw I loved the most was the "puffball". He threw it in one game, against the Indians. When he came out to pitch, he picked up the "rosen" bag, which was about three times bigger than the usual bag and bounced it on his hand repeatedly, sending huge clouds of something into the air. The "something" turned out to be flour. When he released the ball, it came out of a puff of flour. Surprisingly, the Indians let him get away with it for a couple of innings before complaining. The umpire went out to the mound and took the flour bag away from a laughing Perry.

Beyond the standardization of pitching, another reason you don't see many knucklers is that it's a devilishly hard pitch to throw. It's not thrown with the knucles. It's thrown with the fingernails. Hoyt Wilhelm, perhaps the best known knuckleballer after Phil Niekro, once had to go on the disabled list due to a broken nail. At any rate, getting the release point right and throwing the thing with any degree of consistency is not easy and takes a lot of practice. I suspect any kid trying a knuckleball out in Little League or even high school would find himself getting chewed out by the coach.

The knuckleball may be hard to throw, but it's damn near impossible to catch. Years ago, Bob Sudyk, then Indians beat writer for the Cleveland Press, decided he'd find out how hard it really was. He arranged to have a little session with Eddie Fisher (the pitcher, not the singer) at Cleveland Stadium. The team insisted that he put on full catcher's gear, mask, chest protector, and shin guards. Sudyk objected, figuring he couldn't get hurt trying to catch a 45 MPH pitch, but the team insisted. It's well that they did. The paper published a truly hilarious set of photos. In one, Sudyk is reaching out to his right as the ball hits in the left shoulder. In another, he's reaching down as the ball caroms off his mask.

When Wilhelm pitched for the Orioles, someone got the bright idea to make a specilal glove for the catcher, which was basically two pieces of leather about the size of a large pizza sewed together. The catcher didn't try to catch the ball; he smothered it. The idea caught on, and other teams also developed larger and larger gloves. The mitts got so large that baseball had to pass a rule on the maximum size of a catcher's mitt.

To get a feel for how players have felt about the knuckleball, both attempting to hit it and attempting to catch it, check out this site. My favorite quote came from Rick Monday, who said, "It giggles as it goes by."

There was a period when we did seem to have a bunch of these pitchers. Wilhelm, both Niekros, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and others who threw the knuckler less often seemed to proliferate like crazy threw the last four decades, but, for the reasons I've discussed, the pitch is out of favor now. But, all things seem to go in cycles. Probably, some pitcher will resurrect his career throwing the thing, and suddenly other marginal pitchers will decide it's a way to extend his big-league lifetime.

Then we'll get the fun of watching a pitch that giggles again.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

There Ain't No Nirvana in Sports

To think of playing cricket for hard cash! Money and gentility would ruin any pastime under the sun. ~Mary Russell Mitford, 1823

We have weird ideas about the "purity" of sport. Take the Olympics. People have this weird idea that athletes are just thrilled to merely compete against their peers from all over the world and to represent their home countries. Now, this may be true of the Jamaican Bobsled team, but for U.S., Russian, or Chinese athletes, among others, winning is what it's all about. Winning a major event like the 100 meters or the pole vault is a ticket to fame and fortune. Losing is all about becoming a footnote in sports history which will look nice on the old obituary.

In fact, it's always been like that. Consider this little piece where some professor has the temerity to point out that in the ancient Olympics, athletes competed for prize money, had their own touring circuit, and used "performance enhancing potions" to try get an edge.

About those potions: One would think that one's performance would be enhanced just by the threat of having to take a potion containing wild boar's dung, much less by actually drinking it.

So, athletes have been in it for the money and taking drugs, not to mention cheating, since the first laurel wreath was awarded. What a surprise. And whose fault is that?

Well, the first group that comes to mind is the sports fans themselves.

Once fans get hold of a sport, corruption is soon to follow. Consider college football. There is big money involved because sponsors follow fans. So teams stand to make a lot of jack by winning a lot of games. Players stand to become independently wealthy by getting drafted by pro teams and lasting just long enough to collect their pensions. When money is involved, purity is out the window.

If you want purity in sports, you need to follow the women's sports. Women's basketball is still played as a team sport, where passing actually occurs between shots. Softball (there is apparently no men's softball in college) is played with serious passion in front of tiny little crowds of family and friends. Even college baseball still harkens back to some sort of sports ideal, since baseball has few scholarships, hence no recruiting scandals, and few fans (until the playoffs), hence less pressure to do something illegal in the first place.

Put it this way. Fresno State just won the College World Series, becoming the lowest seeded team in NCAA sports history to win a championship. That's in any sport. Fresno has never won a men's title (although they won the softball championship once). When Fresno State or some similar school plays in the BCS National Championship game, I'll believe that some sort of ideal sports environment has been achieved.

Yeah, yeah, I remember George Mason in the basketball tournament. There's always a Cinderella team in basketball because one great player, or one player just getting unconciously hot during the playoffs, can propel a basketball team to near the top. But all the Cinderellas turn into pumpkins, even in basketball. Fresno St. is the first to get to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

The fact is that sports is a business, and football is the biggest business of the bunch, with basketball close behind. That's what's wrong with college sports. We knew professional sports are a business, so the cheating and drug-taking should be no surprise. But college football has been in the same boat for years. In fact, steroid use probably started there and migrated to the pros.

Supposedly, all that drug use is cleaned up (oh, yeah, and I've got a couple of acres of swampland I'd like to sell you), so the scandals have now moved to recruiting and arrests.

The University of Alabama keeps making news for getting players busted. Until recently, it's been mostly disorderly conduct or being boozed up and driving around. The last two, involving armed robbery in one case and drug dealing in the other, are downright scary. It's getting popular to blame all this on Mike Shula because most of those arrested were his recruits, but the fact is that Nick Saban recruited at least one of these convicts-in-training, and he's not doing much to find out what the rest of the team is up to.

How could he? He's spending all his time recruiting. When he's not recruiting, he's looking for loopholes in the recruiting rules to exploit to his advantage. He doesn't have time to worry about the character of his players. Heck, he doesn't even have time to coach the team. Most of that role is handed to assistant coaches. Coach Saban is not alone here. Steve Spurrier recently decided he couldn't call plays any more because of all the recruiting and booster-schmoozing he has to do would preclude him from participating in developing a game plan.

Hey, here's a crazy idea. Why not let the players call the plays like they used to? Then the coaches wouldn't have to do anything but teach them the game, whenever they weren't out recruiting.

The only way to enjoy sports any more is to watch the games and not spend time ascribing any noble motives to the players or their coaches. They're out there to win; we want them to win. Let's let it go at that.

Let the commissioners, the leagues, and the powers that be worry about the other stuff.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tempting Murphy

Murphy was an optimist. ~ One of a zillion or so corollaries to Murphy's Law

Last Sunday, I was aching from head to foot. This sad state of affairs came about because of the effort it took to replace the mower deck on my lawn tractor. I was replacing the deck because the old one was so perforated by the debris that the wife and the son roll over when they mow the lawn that more grass and junk came UP through the holes than came OUT the side it's supposed to.

Yes, yes, I know. I should be glad they mow the lawn at all, but lawn tractors aren't cheap. Holes in the deck, though, are dangerous, so I decided to do something about it. It turned out that for considerably less than a new tractor, I could replace the entire mower deck.

Now I felt pretty good about that because, before the mowing season started, I had replaced the belts on the old deck, which requires that the deck be removed. That turned out to be considerably less painful than I expected. Unfortunately, once the son and I had completed that process, I had an attack of hubris.

"That went well," I said. I'm old enough to know better.

Sure enough, the next day, when I changed the old and fired up the mower, I was presented with a steady stream of gasoline whizzing out of the fuel line. That should have been enough to remind me not to tempt the fates. But, no. After replacing the fuel line and ordering a new deck, I intoned, "Well, since we had no trouble with the old one, putting on a new one should be straightforward."

One might as well spit in the wind, tug on Superman's cape, and pull the mask off the ole Lone Ranger.

Anyway, having survived the experience, albeit with knees that are screaming and a back that is reminding me of my advanced years, I figure it's appropriate to sound the warning to those who would tempt Murphy's Law. Don't. Avoid the following sentiments at all costs.

  • "Should be a piece of cake." Only if you favorite cake is marble -- the rock, not the pastry.
  • "No problem. It worked like a charm in test." Said prior to a major upgrade on several servers. None of the patches worked as smoothly in production as they had in test, and one server decided to blow out its motherboard. That was two years ago; some parts of that upgrade have never been finished.
  • "We've never had a problem before." You will now.
  • "It should take 15 minutes, but we'll tell them an hour just to be safe." You better tell them a day to be accurate.
  • "If we do it the way we did it before, it should be fine." Except that you won't do it the way you did it before (that's what did us in on the mower deck), and the shortcut you think you can take will tie you in knots. Granny knots.
  • "I can't imagine what could go wrong." Of course, you can't. If you could, you wouldn't say stupid things like that.
  • "We've prepared for every eventuality." You'll be amazed at the eventualities that can occur that you never thought of. A system admin co-worker of mine some years ago plugged a vacuum cleaner into a circuit that was a) supposedly 30 AMPs and b) NOT the circuit that our file servers were on. It a) wasn't and b) was.
Don't say you haven't been warned.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Unfragrant World We Live In

The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs. ~Charles de Gaulle

I haven't been blogging much lately because a) I'm lazy and b) even I get tired of being a curmudgeon all the time. Sadly, current events continually reinforce my surly lack of faith in mankind.

A long time ago, I wrote about Ray Ray McElrathby, a find young man who had escaped his drug-addled mother and gambling-addicted father through football, getting a scholarship to play at Clemson. If that wasn't impressive enough, he got guardianship of his then sixth-grade brother to get him out of the environment, too. Aside from wanting to give credit to a man working hard to do the right thing, I also wanted to smack down a smartaleck sports talk show jock who claimed that the evil NCAA was working to keep Ray Ray from getting financial support from voluntary donations being made by South Carolinians.

Of course, it turned out that the NCAA did nothing of the sort, and the McElerathbys got to use the donations and accept the help of coaches. All's well that ends well, right?

In a pig's eye.

Clemson, in a show of classlessness that beggars belief, has taken away Ray Ray McElrathby's athletic scholarship. Did they do this because his academics were poor? No. Was he inspired by the Alabama football players and get arrested at 3 AM at some bar? No. Did he do anything wrong? Not in the least.

It seems that Clemson signed more players to scholarships for next season than they have available. Now this is not an unusual state of affairs; teams routinely sign more players than they are actually allowed to because some will not meet academic requirements, some will leave early, and some just haven't done well enough on the field. Evidently, Mr. McElrathby was deemed to be one of those expendable for on-the-field performance, so they docked him his scholarship so they could give to some hotshot incoming freshman.

Note that they weren't cutting him from the team. If he wants to pay his own way, he can still be a member of Clemson's football factory. Clemson is more than happy to have him; they just don't want to pay his way any longer.

One could say that Clemson has the right to give scholarships to whomever they wish, and one would be correct. But, when you have a truly deserving individual who has to be contributing to the character of the team and is doing some very tough things in his life, one would also think that Clemson could have sacrificed the 25th-best incoming player. In this instance, one would be wrong.

The irony is that, back when Clemson was portraying itself as such a good Samaritan, one of the coaches was quoted as saying,
"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.” As I pointed out in my earlier piece, this is bullpuckey. the help available to those not fortunate enough to be in a big-time football program have far less resources available to them than Ray Ray would.

Now, Clemson is essentially letting him find out how those students would fare. Hopefully, the donations he received in 2006 allowed him to set some money aside until he can get his brother through high school.

What brings this sort of thing into stark relief is the sad fact that people with loads of money who could come to the aid of those who need help seem to think that squandering it on nonsensical ventures is a more sensible thing to do. For example, some noodlebrain with more money than brains named Marcus Katz decided that it would be a wise use of his resources to start yet another football league, the All American Football League. The brilliant plan here was to place teams in big college stadia because college fans, used to watching teams like Alabama and Michigan play for national titles were going to be enamored of watching players who never made it to the NFL playing semipro-level ball.

The league has "suspended operations" prior to opening its first season. This is a fancy way of saying that the league has folded. The likelihood of coming back from tanking your opening season is somewhere between slim and none. To achieve this state of affairs, Mr. Katz has flushed $29 million down the proverbial toilet.

Does anyone care to speculate how many people could be helped by a contribution of $29 million? The city of Birmingham, Alabama, which was going to be host to one of these pitiful AAFL franchises has 2500 homeless people. What would an infusion of $29 million do to the agencies that help these people get work, find housing, and get off the street?

It's easy to pick on Marcus Katz because he's such a visible fool being parted from his money. I could have picked on many successful professional franchises giving millions to guys to play kids' games, or I could have chosen to pick on Warren Buffett who's willing to part with his fortune when he dies by giving it to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Mr. Gates, whatever I may think of Microsoft, is parting with his money while he's still alive, assisting libraries and schools and providing medical assistance to places that never see doctors.

Unfortunately, for every Bill Gates, there's a bunch of Paris Hiltons. Or Clemsons.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Telecommunications Irony

Monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist of wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate. ~ Adam Smith
I regularly check out the RSS feed from Paul McNamara's blog because he manages to come up with something interesting almost daily. Today he confused me a little.

He quotes the following bit of stuff that used to be found at variation Bell Telephone locations back in the 1980's:

There are two giant entities at work in our country, and they both have an amazing influence on our daily lives. . . one has given us radar, sonar, stereo, teletype, the transistor, hearing aids, artificial larynxes, talking movies, and the telephone. The other has given us the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, the Great Depression, the gasoline crisis, and the Watergate fiasco. Guess which one is now trying to tell the other one how to run its business?
Then he adds a short comment: "Priceless. And timeless."

Now I regard Mr. McNamara as an astute observer, but, in this case, I would have expected him to note the irony of AT&T's self-agrandizement.

For example, how about all those wonderful things Ma Bell gave us? Radar and sonar came about because of one of those wars they decry, and a lot of the money to develop them came from the government they're bad-mouthing. I'm not sure when AT&T gave us talking movies, but if they want to claim it, so be it. The transistor came out of Bell Labs, which AT&T dumped long ago because it didn't generate immediate profits. And, of course, the ultimate irony is that the telephone company was not responsible for the invention of the telephone. The telephone invented the telephone company.

I find any self-portrayal by the regenerated telecommunications oligopoly to be disingenuous at best. Yes, the government is a highly imperfect instrument, which has gotten a lot more imperfect since the AT&T's and Exxon's have virtually bought and paid for our leadership. But on it's good days, it gave us rural electrification, a national pension plan, and greater opportunity for all. The phone company has given us charges for the Korean War tax for decades after the war ended, a surcharge for "universal broadband access", and increased rates in the form of various cute little surcharges.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about trying to find someone at Bellsouth who could tell me if and when DSL was coming out to my neck of the woods. I did get a reply after filing my complaint with the FCC. A very polite lady called to tell me that, basically, DSL would come to my neighborhood when it could reliably be determined that Hell had frozen over.

The only difference in the situation now that AT&T has nearly completed their reassembly by purchasing Bellsouth is that the cost of my dialup has been increased. AT&T apologized profusely for this but advised me that I could always upgrade to DSL -- which is not, of course, available in my area.

There's no cable here either, if you were wondering. I guess a hundred or so families who live a couple of miles outside of the limits of coverage don't count - even if we do pay a monthly surcharge to AT&T for "universal broadband."

So I can pay through the nose for satellite access, pay through the nose for wireless access, or stumble along at 56K.

Y'know, one of the things the government used to do is either bust monopolies or regulate them. There were rules about how much a utility could charge and what was expected in the way of improvements to the system. That's why Bell used to moan about "being told how to run their business." They were responsible to their customers. They don't have to be anymore because their customers don't have much choice.

My electric bill is over twice as high as it was a couple of years ago. Today, in my bill, there was a little flier touting the utilities efforts to use "green" power. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they would generate power using recycled trash, and the entire environment would benefit. If I wanted to participate it would cost me $2 per kilowatt-hour.

I wonder when AT&T will mandate some sort of environment-saving surcharge on their bill.

Without giving me a choice of whether I want to pay or not, of course.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Roger and Roger Go to Congress

Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what's going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate? ~Will Rogers

I'm not going to go over the litany of things that Congress should be doing these days instead of worrying about whether Roger Clemens got HGH shot into his butt or why Roger Goodell destroyed those New England Patriots tapes. After all, any idiot, except the ones in Congress, knows that they have better things to do. I am, however, going to indulge in one last rant about just how stupid all of this is, just because if I don't, the top of my head might blow off.

Now that I think of it, I think a case could be made about discriminatory practices against Congress: They obviously have it in for people named Roger. Oh, never mind, Congress isn't bound by its own discrimination laws.

Roger Clemens said he never took HGH or steroids. His former trainer says he shot his (Clemens') rear end just chock full of the stuff, not to mention stick a needle or two into Mrs. Clemens as well.

Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn.

Let's presume that Clemens is lying. HGH, which is supposed to be his main vice, does not promote muscle mass. It can reduce body fat, which will make the muscles you have stand out better. Roger Clemens does not look like a man who has lost much body fat, but even if he took the stuff, it wasn't going to make him into Superman. More likely, if he took the stuff at all, it was to promote healing and recovery.

By the way, HGH is not illegal.

Clemens won around 360 games. While helping his injuries heal and improving recovery time from the wear and tear of pitching would have been a factor, HGH didn't improve his ability to throw a curve and probably didn't do anything to increase the speed of his fastball. More likely, the fact that he was able to sign contracts that let him take the first two months of the season off was probably more of a factor in extending his career than HGH ever was.

And, by the way, gentlemen of the U.S. Congress, what kind of a deal is it where you beat a guy to death using someone's deposition while not having the author of that deposition face the same sort of scrutiny? What sort of kangaroo court is this? Sort of makes you understand where George Mitchell (former U.S. Senator) developed the methodology of using hearsay and unsubstantiated reports as the basis for his report.
The bottom line on all this steroid and HGH use is this: If most players were (or are) on the "juice", then the whole thing evens out. Stronger pitchers face stronger batters. Stronger defensive linemen face stronger offensive linemen. The games aren't affected. It's the lives of the players that can get loused up. That's why steroid use without a doctor's care is illegal. HGH, as mentioned, is not.

Then there's Roger Goodell and the mystery of the missing tapes. Good gravy, says Senator Arlen Specter (Idiot, PA), that evil Bill Belichick has been taping since 2000? Who knew? Well, Eric Mangini, coach of the New York Jets for one. That's the same Mangini who waited a couple of years to complain about the practice (inspired not by justice, but by the fact that his lousy Jets got smeared by Belichick's Patriots). Dick Vermeil snortingly offered that everyone has been doing this stuff for years.

And remember most of all, there is no rule in the NFL anywhere against the stealing of signs. I wish someone would remember that once in a while. Belichick broke a rule against taping from the sidelines. There were ways he could have legitimately taped that would have enabled him to gather the same "information"; the sidelines were just easier and more logical.

Why did Goodell destroy the evidence? Most likely, because the "evidence" didn't reveal very much. Since he had already tossed out his heavy fine and lost draft choice penalty, he'd look pretty stupid if someone got hold of those tapes and posted one on YouTube showing lots of shots of cheerleaders.

This is all so ridiculous. Who is being hurt by Belichick's taping and Clemens (and any other athlete) taking drugs? Not the fans, because everyone cheered for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. They'd have cheered for Bobby Bonds if he actually had a personality. The players may be hurting themselves, not with HGH, but with over-the-top steroid regimens. That's why steroids were made illegal. Baseball was way too slow in imposing penalties compared to football, but they've done it. So what's the problem?

Perhaps the betting interests are the problem. If there's one group that doesn't want hanky-panky going on in sports, it's the bookies. That is, unless they're the ones pulling the hanky-panky.

Why isn't Congress worried about the effect of gambling on sports? I don't see an investigation of the NBA official who was on the take from gamblers. Not a single Senator wanted to drag Pete Rose in front of a committee to rip him about betting on his own team. In fact, not a single savior of our national morality has issued a single care about these very real threats to the integrity of sports.

These same Congressmen haven't been particularly upset about the fact that the NBA has no testing for marijuana, despite estimates that over 50% of NBA players use weed. Last I heard that stuff was not legal.

In fact, I haven't heard anyone getting upset about these two very real problems. Not the fans, not the media, and most of all not the Lords of Foggy Bottom.

Personally, I don't have anything against legal gambling. As to marijuana, I still expect it to be legalized someday. But, it's not legal now. When gamblers start affecting the outcome of games, that has a far worse impact on the integrity of sports than steroids Combine gamblers and stoned athletes, along with a crooked official or two, and the ramifications are mind-boggling.

Pity the media, Congress, and the pious hypocrites among fans (many of whom are gambling illegally) don't think any of this is important.

Enough. I'm done with this. I only wish the sports media was.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Foggy Bottom Is Still Foggy

Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. ~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Paul McNamara, one of my favorite columnists, hits the nail wonderfully on the head once again with his comments concerning Senator Arlen Spector's (Idiot, PA) intention to waste the Senate Judiciary Committee's time bullying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about destroying those tapes they confiscated from the New England Patriots.

Those of you who think professional sports are dumb and find other things to do with your lives may not be aware that, earlier this year, the New England Patriots football team was accused of violating NFL rules by videotaping the opposing sidelines, ostensibly to steal signals. As I recounted at the time, what they in fact violated was not a rule of professional football but one of the so-called stadium rules against filming from the sidelines. There is no rule against stealing signals. Anywhere.

After levying what Roger Goodell considered to be appropriate punishments, the NFL ordered the miscreant Patriots to turn over said tapes to the NFL. The NFL, in a rather strange move, then promptly destroyed them. Equally strangely, no one seemed particularly put out by this. Personally, I figured that the reason the tapes were so promptly dispatched is because they showed absolutely nothing of consequence.

The New England Patriots, obviously severely damaged by their inability to engage in clandestine video taping, have struggled into the Super Bowl with a miserable 18-0 record, becoming the first team with a chance to win 19 games in a single season. Lord knows how well they could have done without the distractions.

Apparently, Senator Spector, who isn't running for anything this year so far as I know, has been seriously distracted for some months now. How else to explain that he just now heard of an event that occurred in September? It is only my inherent cynicism that compels me to think that it might be possible that a Senator from from a state containing a team that lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh) and contains an NFC team (Philadelphia; New England is in the AFC) might be trying to pick up a little political capital with the home folks, especially by timing his announcement to fall during Super Bowl week.

Conveniently, new allegations against the evil Patriots have surfaced, this time involving taping the Whatever-city-they-were-in Rams walking through their final workout prior to the 2002 Super Bowl, which was won by the Evil Patriots. It seems that this was reported anonymously and, according to Roger Goodell, had been previously investigated, with no wrongdoing have been discovered. Again, only the cynic in me suggests that Congressional Champion of Goodness Arlen Spector or his office could have had anything to do with anonymous release.

This is the same Congress that has wasted taxpayer dollars "investigating" the use of steroids in Major League Baseball. This is the same Congress that now, based on the unsubstantiated evidence of the Mitchell Report, wants to start investigating the same nonsense all over again.

To the members of Congress: Baseball players used steroids, HGH, uppers, downers, and just about anything else they could get hold of. While your collective breast-beating may have had something to do with MLB finally getting around to passing rules as the NFL did years ago, it's likely that it would have happened without your interference.

Further, members of Congress, it's interesting that you rather enjoy public displays of threatening to subpoena people who are being accused in a star-chamber proceeding like the Mitchell Report. It's interesting because, while the Mitchell Report is rather short on corroboration or real evidence, you're willing to investigate specific players while you are NOT willing to investigate the oil cartel, a vice president who indulged in secret meetings with said cartel and other energy concerns without telling us what they did (although based on energy cost increases ever since, I think we know what they talked about), and a president who flat out lied to the nation to get us embroiled in over 6 years of war in Iraq.

Congratulations, Senator Spector, you've managed to trivialize Congress even further than those events did.

Actually, I don't know how the NFL and MLB can keep missing the boat here. All they need to do is use the energy lobbyists to do their talking for them. A few well-place words from the oil cartel (along with a few well-placed campaign contributions) should keep Senator Spector and his colleagues at bay for the foreseeable future.

It's worked for Exxon for years.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blogs As News Sources? Puh-leeze!

Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country - and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians. ~Charles Krauthammer

I've been reading Scott Bradner's Network World column for years. Unlike Al Gore, Mr. Bradner really was there at the birth of the Internet. As a result, his insights into what goes on in technology, telecommunications, and the Internet are worth reading. I think, though, he may have taken a sip of the old Internet Kool-Ade (TM) this time.

According to the story, the fun folks over at Pew Research have done a study (doesn't everybody these days?) on where people get their presidential campaign information. In this study, they found that most people still get the bulk of their information from traditional sources like CNN. The Internet, though, is coming up fast on the rail, increasing from 9% of respondents in 2000 to 24% in the most recent study. It also seems to show that, if you're an old booger like me, you get your information from traditional sources (TV, newspapers, gossip over the back fence). On the other hand, if you're in that demographic sweet spot of 18-29, you big source tends to be things you read on your computer.

Now that's interesting as far it goes, but Mr. Bradner uses that information as a springboard to warn against the dangers of using the Internet as a primary information source, especially blogs. Now, he admits that bias is a part of news reporting; it would be hard to deny that. Back when I was in high school, I took a current events course. As part of that we all subscribed (at a suitably low scholastic rate) to a news magazine.

Yes, they had magazines back then.

At any rate, I don't recall which magazine we took, but I recall the teacher explaining that each of the major choices (Newsweek, Time, and US News and World) all had biases and that he had selected the least biased (at least back then) of the three. But, even with that, we were always alert to the fact that any publication, including the one we were using, might provide its own slant to reporting.

Mr. Bradner acknowledges that any news outlet, CNN or Fox or anyone, has an agenda that is going to color what they report. The danger, he seems to say, is that, while viewers of, say, CNN, have enough experience with the outlet to know its leanings, they won't recognize those leanings from a casual visit to some blog or an another.

In other words, even though we can recognize bias on TV, we believe everything we read on the Internet, especially if you're 18-29.

However, let's take a closer look at the Pew data. The 32-page report has a breakdown of all the questions asked with responses collated. As an old Quality Assurance practitioner, I always like to dig into some of the raw numbers just to see if there's anything interesting, and this report did not disappoint. Allow me to direct your attention to question 34:

Thinking about news websites and other sources of campaign information online… Please name some of the websites where you get information about the presidential campaigns and candidates?
And what do you think people said? It seems that traditional news sources are still their number one choice. First is MSNBC (NBC News) followed by CNN. Yahoo News and Google News come up next, but they primarily aggregate traditional news sources. Small percentages of respondents (3 and 2 percent respectively) claim to get news from MySpace and YouTube.

Blogs don't enter into it.

Now some individual blogs may in that 20% of "Other", but those people are also probably checking out one or more of the so-called traditional sources (people were asked to name up to six sources). But, it would appear that the specter of blogs being viewed as reliable news sources is just that -- a specter.

I am not about to say that there aren't dummies who believe everything they see on the Internet; the news media themselves are proof positive about that. There have been more than enough occasions when some satire or just off-the-wall piece has been picked up by AP or CNN or whoever as gospel. So why shouldn't the average users fall for one occasionally? But, it appears that, if the regular news sources get it right, the vast majority of Internet surfers are going to see them often enough to get some legitimate info.

Of course, they're going to be getting a lot of political fluff from the candidates in the process, but that is in no way different than things are now.

I hate to disagree with Scott Bradner, because he's a smarter person than I am, but I'm just not ready to believe that the wild-west part of the Internet is a significant source of opinion for surfers. Sure, blogs are viewed by millions (well, except for this one), but that doesn't mean they're taken any more seriously than they would some local TV anchor giving an op-ed piece.

Now YouTube could be something else. Just remember how dumb John Kerry looked trying to play football. It seems that a stupid video moment carries more weight with the electorate than any statement of positions on the war in Iraq or child health care.

The Internet isn't going t make some voters any dumber than they already are.