Sunday, April 30, 2006

Last Dance?

It would appear that the University of Illinois' administration and trustees have finally and with finality received the deus ex machina that allows them to blame someone else for pulling the rug out from under Chief Illiniwek.

The NCAA handed down a decision on Friday that would disallow the U of I from hosting any NCAA championship events -- in any sport -- as long as Chief continues to appear at football and basketball games. When you consider the fact that Illinois has never hosted an NCAA mens basketball tournament game in Assembly Hall, as well as the fact that it never will under any circumstances anyway (it is both geographically and capacitously undesirable -- and yes I realize that capacitously is not a word) this really means that Champaign will never be a venue for non-revenue sport championships. Honestly, I can't say for sure that U of I has ever been host to the NCAA championships of anything, other than some early rounds of mens tennis. Wrestling, maybe?

In other words, the possible NCAA sanction would seem to be of very limited punitive value. But that is certainly not what you hear from the administration.
"The inability to host NCAA championship competition would have an unbelievably negative effect on our program," [Athletic Director Ron Guenther] said. "The university has invested large amounts of resources in facilities, scholarships and coaches in our [non-revenue] sports."
None of which is recouped by hosting non-revenue sports -- hence the adjective -- but anyway.

In the end, it's probably for the best. As much as I love Chief, and as much as I enjoy his part in the halftime show, he is a relic of bygone sensibility, one that does the University something of a disservice on the national stage. If the NCAA edict allows the University to retire Chief without taking too much of a hit from disgruntled alumni donors, then this may be for the best.

And anyway, to be honest, if they still allowed us to go out to our cars for a cold one at halftime I probably would never even miss him. Guess that would be the price for me to throw him over.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Scottie, Deconstructed

"...but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press! Politics demands assent, on one hand, and attack on the other. (And those are your choices with Bush and Rove: assent or be attacked.) The very notion of persuasion conceded more to democratic politics than the Bush forces wanted to concede."

The Wizard Of Floyd

I've heard about this for...ever, but had never bothered to set it up and watch it. Now someone has done it for me.

And I'm glad I hadn't bothered. WTF? I'm sure that something is missing here, but what could it be?

Oh yeah! THE DRUGS!


Aw C'mon, It's Only One Word

OK, so maybe he's not the only idiot at the White House:
The meeting between Hu and President Bush began with a gaffe when an announcer referred to China by the formal name of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. "Ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of the Republic of China, followed by the national anthem of the United States of America," the announcer said as Bush and Hu stood at attention outside the White House. China is known formally as the People's Republic of China.

-- AP Report from yesterday's meeting between the President and President Hu Jintao of the PRC.
Not that the Chinese are likely to take any offense at that.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Problem(s) With Bush

Once again Steve Chapman has managed to write a column in today's Tribune that says exactly the right things.

It's ostensibly about why the President will never fire Don Rumsfeld, but it's larger context is how those reasons reflect everything that's wrong with his presidency in its entirety.
If you want to know what went wrong in the presidency of George W. Bush, you could find plenty of candidates. There is its ineptitude, as when it ignored warnings about Al Qaeda until Sept. 11, 2001, or when it ignored warnings about Hurricane Katrina until New Orleans was under water.

There is its Soprano-style approach to critics and even in-house skeptics--from Joseph Wilson, whose wife was outed as a CIA agent after he questioned the case for war, to Lawrence Lindsey, the economic adviser canned for admitting the war might cost $200 billion, an estimate that turned out to be laughably low.

There is its peerless gift for self-delusion, as when the vice president said our troops in Iraq would be greeted as liberators and the insurgency--in May 2005--was in its "last throes." There is its brazen dishonesty, which is on exhibit every time the president and his budget directors claim to be practicing fiscal restraint, even as spending grows faster than Las Vegas.

All these traits flow from the same source: a self-congratulatory narcissism that is utterly impervious to events in the real world. The defining moment for this president was his "Mission Accomplished" pageant, where he jumped at the chance to strut in the glory of victory, not noticing that the victory was already beginning to unravel.

That was a triumph of arrogance, which my dictionary defines as "an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions." And if you want a human embodiment of that trait, you can hardly do better than Rumsfeld, who was happy to take credit for the initial success of the invasion but pretends that anything that may have gone wrong is way beyond his control.
The problem doesn't lie with Rumsfeld so much as with those above him. Worse, firing him would establish the principle that those entrusted with power are accountable for their failures. And if we followed that policy, who knows where it might lead?

These are almost to a one the set of problems that I have with the man as President. The arrogance of an entitled upbringing combined with a bewildered and bewildering ineptitude, all topped off by a supremely annoying messianic streak.

He has said on many occasions that he was placed in the presidency by God. But does anyone really want to believe that? That of 100 million or so possibilities (35+ year-old, U.S.-born citizens) this arrogant greenhorn was actually chosen for the job by God himself?

I, for one, think he could do better.

Metric: Poster Of A Girl

The Sopranos Goes Antiquing!

In what has surely become one of the stranger story lines in TV history, The Sopranos has decamped to Vermont for some johnnycakes & homemade sauseech.

A week after seemingly seeing his burgeoning role as heir apparent to Tony come crashing down with an unfortunate sighting in a leather bar, Vito: "The Wideguy" (really, is he any less wide than he was before? I'm not seein' it) takes on an even more pronounced role as Vito: "The Wideguy Who Is Now Out And Starting To Love His New Lifestyle."

Not since Ellen macked it up with Laura Dern has TV seen a character outed with as much notoriety as this one.

For the moment, The Wideguy seems to have made a decision to "Live Free or Die," while also perhaps making a decision to put his eye for antiques to its fullest expression.

Unfortunately for him, this is still The Sopranos, so chances are that his motto will soon be "Live Free -- for a little while and then, when you least expect it -- Die."

Monday, April 17, 2006

Another Guv Bites The Dust

To the long list of convicted felons who were also Governors of Illinois we can now officially add George Ryan.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney who built the case over eight years, called the verdict gratifying but the widespread corruption that it revealed "disturbing."

"Mr. Ryan steered contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "When he was a sitting governor, he lied to the F.B.I. about this conduct and then he went out and did it again."

But Mr. Fitzgerald said the most appalling part of the corruption was Mr. Ryan's reaction upon learning that bribes were being paid for licenses, putting public safety in jeopardy. Instead of ending the practice he tried to end the investigation that had uncovered it, Mr. Fitzgerald said, calling the moment "a low-water mark for public service."

Mr. Ryan spoke briefly to reporters afterward, saying he was "disappointed" in the verdict.


Well, we celebrated the Easter story in the most religious way possible -- driving to Minneapolis for a volleyball tournament!

Cait's club team played in a tournament at the Minneapolis Convention Center, along with 88 (or so) other such teams from Florida to Colorado (at least those were the furthest we saw).

Some pics from the tourney (click to enlarge):

Our hotel choice was dictated by the fact that we were bringing the dog along, but the Holiday Inn Metrodome actually turned out to be a great find.

Located in an area called Seven Corners, it was right on the edge of the University of Minnesota campus, but still close enough to walk to downtown. And the best part of Seven Corners is that there is a bar on every one of the seven corners -- although I only ever counted five corners, and this was before we visited any of them -- and they were packed every night (mostly students). Our fave wound up being the Town Hall Brewery, right next door to the hotel.

A view of Seven Corners:

As the hotel's name might suggest, they seem to do a lot of weekend business with fans coming in for games at the Metrodome, and we saw plenty of Yankees fans as well as Twin fans from the far-flung corners of the state.

Got a little sightseeing on Saturday morning. The wife & kids drove out to the Mall of America, while Tibby and I spent a couple of hours wandering around the U of M campus. U of I grads will feel very at home on campus, as it is virtually a clone -- right down to the quad (they call it "The Mall," anchored by an Auditorium on one end and the Union on the other. Some pics.

The campus perched on the river bluff:

The Northrup Auditorium:

The Coffman Memorial Union:

The Mall:

A boy and his dog:

A view of downtown from the campus (that's our hotel in front of the Metrodome):

A couple more very nice ones at Town Hall al fresco, and then back for more volleyball.

Sunday wrapped up the tournament and headed home. Beautiful weather the whole weekend and a very nice time for all -- even the doggie had a nice time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Why Iraq Was a Mistake"

As the Bush Administration makes preparations for the next war, it might do well for them to examine the many, many ... many strategic errors that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld have made in Iraq.

Not holding my breath for that, but helpfully, retired Marine Lt. General Gregory Newbold has recounted them in a recent Time Magazine article.
From 2000 until October 2002, I was a Marine Corps lieutenant general and director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After 9/11, I was a witness and therefore a party to the actions that led us to the invasion of Iraq--an unnecessary war. Inside the military family, I made no secret of my view that the zealots' rationale for war made no sense. And I think I was outspoken enough to make those senior to me uncomfortable. But I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat--al-Qaeda. I retired from the military four months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11's tragedy to hijack our security policy. Until now, I have resisted speaking out in public. I've been silent long enough.
What we are living with now is the consequences of successive policy failures. Some of the missteps include: the distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, the initial denial that an insurgency was the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq, and the continuing failure of the other agencies of our government to commit assets to the same degree as the Defense Department. My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions--or bury the results.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Forensic Economics Meets Pure Apathy

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a couple of posts on his blog regarding Barry Bonds and "Game Of Shadows," a book that recounts the history of BALCO, and Bonds' involvement with it.

More generally, Gladwell discusses how sports should react to the deleterious effect of performance-enhancing drugs on the record keeping & seeking aspect of the games. Basically, how should Bonds and his records (single-season and possible all-time Home Run leader) be treated, and beyond that how can we retroactively determine which records should be taken seriously and which should be discounted as drug-induced.

His solution is to employ a variation on forensic economics, examining the relevant numbers within a standard historical context to make determinations about what is to be expected and what is so completely an outlier that it can't be considered to be untainted in some way.
Forensic economics look at large data sets and draw surprisingly sophisticated inferences about behavior and intention. I think we should loose the forensic economists on all record-setters, and require that athletes pass a statistical plausibility test in the wake of their achievements.
Bonds is his most obvious and relevant example, but he discusses FloJo in some detail as well. Both had late career great leaps forward that have and continue to set off all kinds of alarm bells.
Florence Griffiths Joyner, in 1988. Before that year, her best times in the hundred meters and the two hundred meters were, respectively, 10.96 and 21.96. In 1988, at the advanced (for a sprinter) age of 28, a suddenly huskier FloJo ran 10.49 and 21.34, times that no runner since has even come close to equaling. ... any statistical analysis of the career marks of world class sprinters would have told us that marginally world-class 28 year-olds do not, in the absence of some kind of help, suddenly turn into the greatest runners the world has ever seen.
Bonds had the second, ninth and tenth greatest offensive seasons in baseball history at the ages of 36, 37, and 39 respectively—and the average age of everyone else on that list (Gehrig, Foxx, Ruth and Hornsby) is 27. No one—no one—turns himself into one of the greatest hitters of all time in his late 30’s. His home run record should have been denied as statistically implausible.
My reaction is that Gladwell's idea is interesting, but hardly necessary. Look, we know Bonds is using, or at least was using, just as we know that Mark McGwire was using back in the late '90s. Hell, you don't even have to look at their records (although that is certainly sufficient to know), you just had to look at them and, you know, pay attention.

The question is, what are you going to do about it? Forensic economics can confirm, at least to the degree that statistical probability can confirm anything, that someone was using, but does that really offer proof?

In the end, you're left with two things. The first is context. For me, two of the most remarkable records in sports are Wilt Chamberlain's 1961-62 scoring average of 50.4 points per game, and Pete Maravich's career college scoring average of 44.2. Both are remarkable for the same reason, an outrageously high level of accomplishment over an extended period of time (80 games for Chamberlain, 83 for Maravich). To put it another way, consider a situation where each scored 30 in a particular game. Put up 30 and you've had a decent game in either college or the NBA. Trouble is, to get back to their averages the next night, Maravich would need to hit for 58 -- Chamberlain for 70!

In short, these are ridiculous numbers.

But, once you start putting them into some context, not so ridiculous. Leaving aside the fact of Chamberlain being an athletic anomaly, consider that his team scored 125 points a game that year, and that half the league averaged 120+ ppg. Last year in the NBA only 20% of the teams in the league managed to average 100 ppg. The Phoenix Suns were considered run 'n' gun freaks for averaging 110. Likewise, Maravich's record becomes a little less bizarre when you consider that during the same 3 years that Maravich was playing Calvin Murphy and Dan Issel were also setting scoring records that still stand.

In both cases, the context is that the game was different. A lot less defense, basically. So you can decide for yourself how amazing the records are, considering the context. For myself, they're both still pretty freakin' amazing.

The same goes for McGwire and Bonds. So Bonds may well eventually hold both significant home run records. How much creedence to I give that, given the context of clear evidence of steroid use by Bonds and many others? Not much.

Which leads to the second possible reaction. Ignore it.

Records like this really aren't (or shouldn't be) the point of the exercise. Sports are interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but records aren't one of them. Bill James put it best back in the day, when he said he wouldn't bother crossing the street to see Pete Rose break Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. The hit itself meant nothing. A meaningless single in a meaningless game -- made all the more meaningless by the fact that the only mananger in the National League at that time that would pencil in Pete Rose's name as his starting first basemen was Pete Rose himself.

So in the end I guess that the question of whether or not Barry Bonds was using as he set his records is pretty much moot for me. Do I believe he was using? Absolutely. Do I care? Not so much.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


We spent last week in Savannah and Hilton Head.

I have to say that Savannah is great. Very southern, mossy, gas-lit salon-ey, very Berlioz & Pagannini and 1830's-ish.

Once you get used to the smell, that is. Paper mills really do smell like nothing else.

Got into Savannah on Friday and walked around a little bit. The next day we wandered around a bit more -- all of it downtown and all of it very cool (click on pictures to enlarge).

The real highlight of the day, though, had to be the Savannah Candy Co. Two stores downtown, and we hit them both. Fresh, fresh candy of every kind -- taffy to die for, brittle, pralines, fudge, chocolate-covered anything. You name it, it was in stock and in-credible. Biggest regret is that I didn't get more of that taffy -- just so damn good!

The rest of the week was spent on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina -- a state that apparently has the highest combined number of churches and strip clubs of any state in the country.

The weather started out kind of crummy but did get better as the week went on.

Couple of trips to the beach. One on foot:

And one on bike:

Little golf:

Little horseback riding for the kids:

A little time poolside. A little SC BBQ & Seafood. A lot of, ummm, "additional activities."

The trip back was a little bit more non-traditional than the trip in. We get to the Savannah airport at 6am, only to find out that our 7am flight was cancelled (with no explanation, of course). The problem here being that on a spring break weekend the flight system is so jammed to the gills that the next open seat out of Savannah was on the following Tuesday!

So rather than attempting to rig a set of connections that would get the four of us (and our luggage) home, we decided to rent a car and drive homw instead.

Turned out pretty well -- the refunds from United paid for the car. It was fitted with Sirius, which makes long-distance driving a whole lot easier, and a route through Lexington allowed for an overnight stop-off to visit the 'rents and the sibs (Johnny was in town, so it was a full-fleged reunion) and a return home just in time to almost get killed by lightning (see below).


So we're back in town for a couple of hours on Sunday when a tree in the neighbors' yard gets hit by lightning. It basically exploded half the tree off, from the top to the ground. Chunks of wood all over both yards -- and some very large chunks of wood at that.

Long story short, it zaps the cable junction box outside (although not the electrical or the phone -- strange...wonderful) ending both TV and internet cable for what turns out to be three days. It also zaps a couple of TVs, a DVD player, a stereo mixer, a sound card, a cable box, a cable modem, a cable splitter, the AV output plugs on another TV ... basically a lot of stuff, but not as much stuff as might have been expected.

See, here's the thing about nature. It doesn't give a rats-ass about anything, and it can be very powerful and very, very scary. Sort of like Paulie Walnuts in the most recent Sopranos.

Well, anyway, welcome back internets. I missed you.