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LeBlog is LeBack July 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, drama, society, sports, television.
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I realize I have not posted in a little while. I was going to write an entry about Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not A Gadget,” but then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced that book. And then I started another book. Then the air conditioning in my house died—on a 102 degree day no less. And I hurt my finger which makes it hard to type. And the neighbor’s dog—I don’t have a dog—ate my laptop’s power cord. And. And. And. Speaking of and, here is a nice quote from Martin Gardner courtesy of little brother Bluejay.

“Wouldn’t the sentence ‘I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign’ have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?”

Not having posted in over two weeks, there’s lots to talk about. But the thing I wanted to weigh in on today is last night’s climax of the year-long LeBron James circus. In case you are either from another planet, comatose, or simply one of those people who cares more about the World Cup than you do about the NBA, you know what I am talking about. LeBron James, arguably the most coveted free agent in NBA history, is leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, where he will team up with fellow superstar Dwyane “Dwayne” Wade, superstar-wannabe Chris Bosh, and nine guys from the Boca JCC to form an NBA juggernaut. LeBron announced his decision in a one hour ESPN special called “The Decision.” It was the highest rated show in its slot—network or pay. I watched it. You watched it. Not you, mom. But everyone else!

What can I say about this that hasn’t already been said? By LeBron’s former owner, Dan “I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burned down to the GROUND!” Gilbert. By Orlando Magic general manager Otis “My Man” Smith. By Bill “The Book of Basketball” Simmons and his readers. By less-interwebs-savvy Cavaliers fans. By Daily Rundown. By All Things Considered. By Marketplace—that’s right, back-to-back NPR shows had LeBron segments. Probably nothing. But let me rehash the tripe anyways.

Point one. LeBron made a bad basketball move. It makes no sense on any level. There was a better surrounding team in Chicago. A bigger challenge in New York. More money and more honor in Cleveland. Now? He joins Dwyane Wade’s team. The same team that just four years ago won a championship without him. LeBron could win the next six championships in a row. Wade will always have one more. And each of Wade’s will always be worth more. Teaming up with Wade is the weakest move LeBron could have made. The only weaker move would have been to join Kobe and the Lakers—not that Kobe would ever sign off on such a move. Can’t beat ’em? Stop trying and join ’em. By switching teams to join another superstar player who already has a ring, LeBron has effectively admitted that he doesn’t have what it takes to lead a winner. That he doesn’t have the drive and killer instinct to be an all-time great. You could tell during the show. He looked like he was going to throw up. Because individual play affects the outcomes of basketball games more than it does in other team sports, NBA greatness is measured by championships. The NBA’s inner circle is reserved for playoff killers. Bill Russell. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. LeBron has voluntarily taken himself out of the conversation to join that inner circle. When he came into the league, his ceiling was Michael Jordan. Actually, he had no ceiling. Even Jordan wasn’t that good that young. Now? His ceiling is Wilt Chamberlain—an athletic freak who couldn’t win if he was the best player on his own team and didn’t really care that this was the case. A prediction? LeBron’s professional arc will start to go down. Oh well.

Point two. LeBron obviously doesn’t care about being great. He also obviously doesn’t care about his “brand.” There is no other explanation for “Decision 2010.” Thinking that his decision warrants a one hour prime time special made him look narcissistic. Dumping his hometown team on national television made him look loutish. Pretending that he had made the decision that morning rather than months ago made him look disingenuous. And saying that “true fans” will understand made him look clueless. In between, he made third-person self-references—Bluejay would never stoop to such depths—talked about “his talents” and “everything he had done for the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise,” and threw up in his own mouth about twelve times. Not the most likable NBA star to begin with—he’s not a misanthrope but he’s not Magic or Barkley or Shaq either—LeBron is now seriously unlikable. Another prediction? LeBron’s marketing arc will go down as well. No tears here.

Point three. Is it really possible that professional sports matter this much? Is it really possible that 25-year old professional athletes matter this much? Is it really possible for NPR to run LeBron-themed segments in consecutive shows? Is it really possible that the Cleveland economy will suffer significantly because of this? Have we lost all perspective? The fall of the Roman empire comes to mind.

Point four. Dan, I feel for you. I think Coughlin said it best: “Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”

P.S. It’s only fitting that “The Decision” would be spun as a charity event and held at the Boys-and-Girls club of Greenwich, CT—the US town that least needs a B&G.

P.P.S. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died last year when we was thrown off the back of a moving pickup truck driven by his girlfriend. Autopsy on his brain shows that he wouldn’t exactly have had a healthy and happy life going forward even had he lived.

P.P.S. On a somewhat happier note, here is a CNN article about Gordon Murray’s T.25—a 4′ wide car that gets 0.013 gpm (74 mpg). Almost as innovative as the T.25 is the method used to manufacture it.

P.P.P.S. This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I did finally finish the 5,000 piece puzzle of Breugel’s (the elder) “Tower of Babel.” It took over two months. I have so much free time now, I hardly know what to do with it!

P.P.P.P.S. Want to regain some perspective? Here.

Obama’s Katrina June 10, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, crime, drama, environment, politics.
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Several in the media—translation: mostly FOX “news”—have suggested that the BP oil spill is “Obama’s Katrina.” By this they mean that Obama’s milquetoast response to the disaster is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and is a similar indicator of weakness or an inability to lead. By the way, “Obama’s Katrina” is not to be confused with “Obama’s Vietnam” (the War in Afghanistan), “Obama’s Waterloo” (the Health care bill), “Obama’s Watergate” (the alleged White House job offered to Joe Sestak quid pro quo not opposing Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary), “Obama’s New Deal” (ARRA), “Obama’s Hindenburg” (ARRA or Healthcare reform), “Obama’s Rasputin” (first Jeremiah Wright then alternatingly David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel), “Obama’s Ginger Rogers” (first Hilary Clinton then Chris Matthews), or “Obama’s Exxon Valdez” (strangely, Jeremiah Wright and notthe BP spill). It is, however, to be confused with “Obama’s 9/11.

What is the biggest difference between “Obama’s Katrina” and the rest of them? At least the rest of them fit. Kind of. Other than the fact that it is happening in the Gulf, how is the BP spill anything like Katrina? And how is Obama’s response now deficient in a way that Bush’s deficient response then? Different op-eds I have read and watched have accused POTUS BO of: i) not being harsh enough with BP, ii) giving BP too much time to try and fix the problem on its own, iii) not doing enough to help Gulf communities, iv) not being harsh enough with deepwater offshore drilling, v) being too harsh on deepwater offshore drilling, vi) abetting the disaster by not enforcing offshore drilling regulations strictly enough, vii) paying too little attention to the disaster, viii) paying too much attention to it, and ix) not taking sufficient advantage of the disaster to pound the message of alternative energy sources and to push through alternative energy legislation. At least we can all agree that he wasn’t actually on the rig during the explosion.

First, what could POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—have done to prevent this disaster? Yes, they could have regulated offshore drilling more stringently and enforced safety measures more vigilently. But was there an outcry for this prior to the spill? I don’t recall one. Meanwhile, experts for years had warned that NOLA’s levees would not withstand a direct hit by a category 5 hurricane, but those warnings were ignored because that confluence was perceived to be a “100 year event” and 100 year events—perhaps incorrectly interpreted as “events that will only happen 100 years from now”—are a low priority item in the federal budget. Yes, the drilling industry has an overly cozy relationship with its oversight agency—and you can bet this will change—but this wasn’t perceived to be a bigger problem than the relationship any other industry has with its oversight agency. Or with congress for that matter.

Second, what is POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—supposed to do to help plug the leak or mitigate damage to coastal communities? Should POTUS BO don a deep sea diving suit and push golf balls into the leak by hand? Should the US Army Corps of Engineers get involved? Should other companies be allowed to try their hand? Who knows! But seemingly—as incompetent as they may appear—the entity with the best shot of fixing this problem—not to mention the entity most motivated to fix the problem—is still BP! And as for mitigation? There isn’t enough plastic boom to contain the spill and protect all the areas it will affect. Plastic boom doesn’t work in rough seas anyways—just in time for hurricane season! And there is doubt about whether any remediation actions make sense before the flow of new oil is stopped or safely diverted to container ships. In the meantime, all we can do is hose down birds. As for the human inhabitants of coastal Gulf communities? Their lives are not in danger. They have not been rendered homeless. They are not without adequate drinking water or medical supplies. They have lost livelihood and real estate value and for that they should be compensated. By BP! But the US government is not failing these communities now the way the Bush administration and FEMA failed the residents of NOLA in 2005.

And finally, what is to be the economic, regulatory, and political aftermath of this disaster? This is still to be played out of course, but a few outcomes are obvious. BP will emerge significantly diminished, if it emerges at all. You will not see me write a post with the title “BP Doesn’t Deserve This” the way I defended Toyota back in February. The Toyota scandal mushroomed quickly but blew over almost as fast because evidence of criminal negligence or malfeasance on Toyota’s part was scant. Toyota stock is down 20% off its one-year high but Toyota posted record earnings last quarter. I even got new floormats! Meanwhile, evidence that BP is guilty of criminal negligence is accumulating quickly. BP stock has lost over 60% of its value, shareholders have filed suit against the company, and Tony Hayward is holding on to his job simply because no one is willing to take his place—would you take over this mess? would you like to appear before congress to explain how this happened? BP can only hope that its payouts are not proportional to the amount of oil leaked. But things could be worse. If BP were an American company, it would probably ask for—and get—a Federal bailout! Offshore drilling safety should improve significantly. And this should happen with no revamping of the MMS. Eliminating the ridiculous 75,000,000 dollar Federal cap on liability—which may as well be a 75 cent cap for all practical purposes—will do the trick. The real question is will offshore drilling be scaled down in favor of more expensive but less EXPENSIVE energy sources. Moratorium or no moratorium, in the short term the answer is no. His outrage or lack thereof aside, POTUS BO will not pee on the embers of the economy by throwing an oil shortage on top of the current jobs crisis. But in the slightly longer term, one can only hope that this disaster is the final straw that turns the US away from oil and towards clean sustainable energy. That is the only possible silver lining in this brown plume. And it’s the only way in which Obama can detach the monikers of “Katrina” and “9/11” from it and replace them with one of his own choosing.

P.S. My favorite response to the BP oil spill so far has to be Rand Paul’s “accidents happen.” Is this guy really going to be a Senator? I might have to start DVR’ing CSPAN!

P.P.S. First, Al and Tipper call it quits. Now, Karenna and Andrew are on the rocks. At least Rush Limbaugh’s marital life is going well.

P.P.P.S. You know, Joran, you have to kill three people in order to officially be considered a serial killer. Looks like you’re only going to make it as far as “sick freak.”

Undo! Undo! April 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in drama, food, politics, religion, technology.
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Every self-respecting publication has a retractions section. Bluejay is nothing if not self-respecting (which I guess makes it nothing) and so here is the inaugural retractions section.

Several hours ago I posted about the Catholic Church’s new harder stance against sex-offending priests. That led to a comment about Stephanie Ragusa. And a short-ish rant about the lack of a double standard in statutory rape laws. My view was, there should be a double standard—currently there doesn’t appear to be one—because young boys are less psychologically damaged by sex with older women than young girls by consensual sex with older men. Well, I thought it over on the drive home. And I retract. That’s a knee-jerk, narrow view that smells of David Lee Roth’s (no relation) “Hot for Teacher.” Stealing is stealing, whether it’s stealing from rich people or poor people. And statutory is statutory, whether you’re “Hot for Teacher” or not. On the web—as in life—there is no undo. There is only strike through. And so I am striking through rather than deleting the retracted part of the previous post.

Also heard and pondered on the drive home, this entry’s post-scripts are brought to you by WHYY, Philadelphia and NPR. National. Public. Radio.

P.S. Big round for Family man Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for making Congress eat dogfood. For the urban-dictionary-impaired: eating dogfood means playing by the same rules you set for other people.

P.P.S. As it turns out, there is a new weed out there that is resistant to each and every herbicide approved for use in the US. Farmers have had to resort to weeding by hand! Ha! Take that! How exactly did this super-weed develop? Apparently because of overuse of Roundup. And why is Roundup overused? Apparently because of the proliferation of Roundup-resistant genetically modified crops! Evolution, evidently, is not only a bitch, she’s a bitch with a sense of irony.

P.P.P.S. Twitter is going to start advertising. In other news, toilet paper is going to start advertising.

Baby Killer March 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in drama, politics, society.
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The house health insurance reform bill passed last night, 219-213. Ending the truly evil practice of coverage termination or denial due to pre-existing conditions. Allowing young adults to stay covered under their parents’ plan until the age of 26. Helping small businesses buy health insurance for their employees. Temporarily saving the Obama presidency. Oh, and providing health insurance for 32 million currently un-insured Americans. By 2019. And there was much rejoicing. Especially by Nancy Pelosi.

This bill, which must still clear some hurdles before it becomes law, has elicited some venomous response from right, right-center, and even center. Ten states are planning a federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. And this includes Pennsylvania. Which has a Democratic governor! Come on, Ed, you’re jeopardizing your chance for a night in the Lincoln bedroom! But the most famous sound-bite of this episode has to be  “baby killer“, shouted by Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) while Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) was explaining that he was voting for the bill in exchange for an executive order retaining the current limits on federal funding for abortion. In a brilliant rear-covering stunt, Neugebauer claimed that he was referring to the deal between Stupak and the White house as BK, not to Stupak himself. Of course, this doesn’t make any sense Stupak is anti-abortion and the deal maintains the status quo regarding abortion funding. I wasn’t calling you fat, I was calling your reflection in the mirror fat! But that’s not important. It sounds good!

But here’s what doesn’t sound good. The fact that such a deal was necessary to pass the bill in the first place. Some media outlets will have you believe that the deal was in fact not necessary to pass the bill, it was only necessary to pass the bill by a sufficient margin to protect vulnerable Democratic house members from being labeled as the “swing vote on the health insurance bill” by their Republican opposition come November. I’m sorry, but does anyone actually believe this? I’ve seen bigger cushions in a monastery! The deal was needed to pass the bill at all and that’s really sad.

There is a lot of hypocrisy and self-righteousness in this country. No issue makes these rear their ugly head like abortion. Not immigration. Not even gay marriage. And no recent incident illustrates this better than the Stupak amendment. You see, it’s the same people who want to protect the rights of an unborn child on one hand who don’t want to give that child health insurance on the other. America, 99% of the civilized world has gotten over the abortion issue, legalized it in all reasonable cases, and … moved on to more important problems! The only countries in which abortion is illegal are either predominantly Catholic, predominantly Muslim, or predominantly Neanderthal. And I don’t know this for a fact but I imagine that no political party in any country plays the abortion card as often and as heavy-handedly as the GOP. Similarly, I imagine that in no other country do politicians hold their own party hostage over this issue like we do here in the US. People, we have real problems to solve! Jobs, education, energy, climate change, immigration, health care for G’s sake! Federal funding for abortion is not one of those problems! Can we please let this abortion thing go so that we can make some progress on real issues?

P.S. In other news, wow! I can’t wait to see the next move in this game.

The Art of Failure February 8, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, drama.
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A few weeks ago I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, a collection of his New Yorker essays. WTDS is different than Gladwell’s first three books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and it’s a better read and better food for thought than the more recent two. There are many good essays in WTDS, “Blowing Up”, “Connecting the Dots”, “Late Bloomers”. But the one that made the biggest impression on me and which will stay with me the longest is “The Art of Failure,” which looks and how and why people fail when the stakes are high.

In this little vignette, Gladwell makes a distinction between “panicking” (panicing? that doesn’t look right) and “choking.” Panicking is what happens when your mind goes blank and you start doing random stupid things. Novices panic. People who are in a situation for the first time panic. Choking is overthinking. Thinking about things that should come naturally and fluidly such that they come awkwardly and haltingly. Professionals choke. People who have been in a situation hundreds of times choke when the stakes are raised on that situation. Gladwell gives JFK Jr.’s small plane crash as an example of panicking (Jr. had no experience with flying in bad weather, flying at night, or instrument landings and had to do all three for the first time together) and Jana Novotna’s Wimbledon loss to Steffi Graf as an example of choking (Novotna was up handily and blew her lead because she was in awe of the moment and of Graf). Choking is the “higher” form of failure. The more sympathetic form. But in many ways the more twisted and painful form. Fascinating.

WARNING: self-flagellation ahead. Children, people over the age of 60, and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant may wish to quit reading now. If you are taking nitrates for chest pains, consult your doctor before continuing to read. Continued reading may result in headaches, nausea, blurred vision, painful urination, and certain sexual side effects. Erections lasting longer than four hours require immediate medical attention.

The reason this essay stuck with me is that I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with my failures, past and future. I spend an inordinate amount of conscious thought (and probably a significant amount of sub-conscious thought as well) analyzing and re-analyzing past failures and attempting to diagnose and avoid impending ones. It’s a wonderful way to be. I recommend it. It’s like going to Disney World, if you are someone who really hates Disney World.

Now I have a fun new self-analysis game. Here it is. Many of the failures that have troubled me most, both as they were happening and afterwards, have been failures to think my way out of, through, or around a problem. The stakes usually aren’t high other than in my own mind. Also, no one is watching other than me. This was just me alone, trying to come up with an idea or an approach and just getting nowhere. When this happens, my mind starts to race, jumping from thought to thought, essentially it panics. But when it happens, I also think not only about the problem itself but about my way of thinking about it. In other words, rather than just thinking (which presumably should come naturally given that the problem is in my domain of expertise) I think about thinking. And I think about the fact that I am thinking about thinking. And this is the definition of choking. So, what is happening during those times? Am I choking? Am I panicking? Am I choking on my panic? Choking on my panic about choking? I can’t figure it out. I can’t even tell which conclusion I would prefer. Then again, when this happens maybe I am not choking or panicking. Maybe I am just reaching the end of the internet.

NEXT UP: a self-flagellatory review of “The New Boy Network.”