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A Rare Sports Post August 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, music, society, sports.
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Philly Bluejay is a bird of the people. Not an elitist who reads only about science, economics, politics, and other high-minded pursuits. He likes to read potty-mouthed rants about meaningless pursuits like sports as much as the next person. And no one does potty-mouth sports rants like fellow-blogger-turned-ESPN-columnist-turned-big-cheese-McGee Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons. If I couldn’t be Gregg Easterbrook or Chuck Todd—I couldn’t be Chris Matthews or even Keith Olbermann, but I could definitely be Chuck Todd, I even have the Chuck Todd goatee—I would certainly be Bill Simmons. I’ve been reading Sports Guy for over ten years. I like the conversational, college dorm tone, the pop cultural references—did you think I got my pop culture from actual pop culture? please, who has the time?—the sports-as-life-and-life-as-sports analogies, the “theories”, the arbitrary rankings for things—the thirteen levels of losing—the constant need to rank and re-rank, look at things from every possible angle, the mailbags, the trade suggestions, the “Sports Gal” cameos, and the endless parade of Federal Witness Protection Program buddies known only by nicknames like “House”, “Hench”, “JackO”, and “Bish.”

BS has written two books. “Now I Can Die In Peace” about the 2004 Red Sox—he’s a huge Boston sports fan—which I will never read. And “The Book of Basketball” which I recently finished. TBOB is a 700 page magnum opus about the history of the NBA according to Bill. The highlight is a new 96-man countdown of a new pyramid-style Hall-of-Fame topped by a “pantheon” of NBA demi-deities that can go only by their first names—Moses, Shaq, Oscar, Wilt, Magic, Larry, Kareem, Michael.

I can’t imagine thinking about basketball as much as BS does—did I mention that this is a 700 page book by someone who is essentially just a passionate fan?—but it’s fun/amusing/interesting to know that someone can. That he can. Perhaps my favorite part of the book were the incessant footnotes—just the footnotes themselves would be about 250 pages and would form a semi-coherent book. And my favorite footnotes were of the form “so-and-so was the starting on the all-time X team. The starters on the X team were who, what, and I don’t know, the sixth man was whathisname, and the coach was thatguyonthatshow.” X was “Afro,” “lefty,” “known alcoholic,” “white guy that played like a black guy,” and so on. In that spirit, I thought I would contribute a few obscure all-time teams of my own. I’m not an NBA historian so these guys are mostly guys that I’ve seen and remember myself—they all played in the late 1980s or later. I tried to fill in an actual team, with a player for each position. Here goes.

All ugly team: PG: Sam “ET” Cassell, SG: Kerry Kittles, SF: Scottie Pippen, PF: Tyrone Hill, C: George Muresan. 6th man: Dennis Rodman. 7th man: Popeye Jones. 8th man: Tom Chambers. Coach: Jeff Van Gundy. Hide the women and sheep. I could have gone another 20 here.

All Jewish team: PG: Jordan Farmar, SG: Jon Scheyer (should have been drafted), SF: Omri Casspi, PF: Amare Stoudemire C: Danny Schayes. Coach: Larry Brown. Commish: David Stern.

All ink team: PG: Stephon Marbury, SG: Allen Iverson, SF: Kenyon Martin, PF: Dennis Rodman, C: Chris Andersen. Coach: hmmm, hard to say here, but I will go with Larry Brown.

All Johnson team: PG: Kevin, SG: Joe, SF: Marques, PF: Earvin “Magic” (point power forward, the man could play all five position), C: Ervin “No Magic.” 6th man: Dennis. Coach: Avery.

All Abdul team: PG: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, SG: Tariq Abdul-Wahad. SF: Shareef Abdur-Raheem: PF: Alaa Abdelnaby C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 6th man: Al-Farouq Aminu. Coach: Larry Brown.

All girls team: PG: Avery Johnson, SG: Gail Goodrich—OK, I did not see Gail play, he retired in 1979, but BS did mention that had one of the all time “porn starlet” names—SF: Tracy McGrady, PF: Jackie Butler, C: Stacy King, 6th man: Stacey Augmon. Coach: Kiki Vandeweghe.

All Jackson Five Team: PG: Marlon Garnett (1998 Celtics) SG: Michael Jordan. SF: Jackie Butler. PF: Tito Horford (1988-1990 Bucks). C: Jermaine O’Neal. Another admission—I had to Google for an NBA player named Marlon. Surprisingly, the name Marlon seems to have gone out of style despite such worthy cross-over torch bearers as Brando and Wayans. On the other hand, I should get points for not having to Google Al Horford’s dad. Also, I think it’s fitting that best player of the bunch is named Michael.

All superhero team: PG: Dwyane Wade. SG: Stacey Augmon. SF: George Gervin. PF: John Salley. C: Dwight Howard. Get it?

Other teams I tried to put together, but couldn’t think up of enough players? The all Snow White team—I didn’t have a center to go along with a backcourt of Glenn “Doc” Rivers and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, and forwards Julius “Doc” Erving and “Happy” Hairston, with Eric Snow as sixth man. How is it that no one has stuck Bill Walton with “Dopey”? The all Jr. team—guys whose fathers played in the NBA, not necessarily whose proper name is so-and-so Jr.—but again I didn’t have a center to go with Stephen Curry, Damien Wilkins, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Al Horford. The all NFL team—guys who played basketball in college but became pro-football players instead. Not suprisingly, most college-basketball NFL players are power forwards—Julius Peppers, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez. The only one I could think of who wasn’t is Donovan McNabb who played backup point guard for Syracuse. The all dermatology team—guys with bizarre birthmarks or other skin conditions—again, I didn’t have a center to go with Delonte West (birthmark), Charlie Villanueva (alopecia), Terry Cummings (that same pigmentation disease that led Michael Jackson to bleach himself), and Shane Battier (what is up with his wavy scalp?). It just goes to show, a good center is hard to find.

P.S. Still on sports. If Mr. Clemmens can get three months for intentionally vomiting on two people at a Phillies game, then I figure disgraced Illinois governator Rod “I’m not evil, I’m just goofy” Blagojevich should get about 1,750,000 years for intentionally vomiting on the 14 million residents of Illinois.

P.P.S. There are few sports figures I find less annoying than Brett Favre. And not just because he pronounces his name a non-phonetical Farve. Yes, he’s a freak of nature—the Wolverine of quarterbacks. Yes, he’s won a SuperBowl and three most valuable player trophies. Yes, he has child-like enthusiasm for playing, a Mississippi drawl, rugged-looking crewcut and stubble, and a wife who beat breast cancer. But in the ultimate team sport, Brett is the ultimate me-first diva—a selfish limelight hog who lets his teammates do the hard work in training camp and his organization scramble for replacements while he contemplates his future on his farm, and invariably rides in on the owner’s private plane to save the season and grab the credit. Would you want to play with someone like this? Or even be around him? And did I mention that he’s a terrible actor? And where does he get off acting like this? Yes, he was truly great in 1996-1999—and miraculously in 2009—but in 2000-2008 he wasn’t even a top-10 quarterback anywhere other than in his own mind. Well, guess what? The fifth consecutive Summer-of-Brett has officially begun. And I seriously hope that Brett decides to go for good, takes down a promising season for the Vikings who were completely unprepared for this—and why would they be? the previous four retirements were promptly retracted—and leaves us with the lasting image of the egotistical prima donna he is.

P.P.P.S. Congratulations to Mark and Megan, recently upstaged by Marc and Chelsea—is it just me or does Chelsea look like the girl from The Exorcist in this picture, complete with all white eyeballs? Yipes!

P.P.P.P.S. Want to feel old? Did you know that Tom Petty is 59? Still throws a mean—albeit short—concert though. And still draws in the teeny-boppers. And their moms. And grandmothers. And bikers.

Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

Siberian Khatru February 18, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, family, music.
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I was the YES concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC on Monday night. Row B. About 15 feet from Chris Squire. 12 feet from Chris Squire’s gut. And only 8 feet from the speakers. Oy, my ears! It’s been two days and there is still a low-grade ringing! Also, I had the flu and on the drive down could hardly bend my fingers around the steering wheel. But ears and flu aside, it was amazing.

Despite collectively being 180+ years old, Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White absolutely wailed. White did a 5 minute drum solo in the middle of Astral Traveler. Howe (one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock history) was ridiculous. I spent half the night just watching his fingers. The other half I spent watching his face. He looks like the Crypt Keeper. And this is actually less freaky than he looked when he was younger. Squire rocked too although at times I thought he was bass-syncing. The three original members certainly out-wailed the two younger “replacements.” For this tour (or maybe even permanently), Rick Wakeman was replaced by his son Oliver. Or maybe a time machine brought circa-1980 Rick to the present. Either way, except for Siberian Khatru (one of my favorites) and Astral Traveler (another) he wasn’t featured prominently. Jon Anderson was replaced by a French Canadian named Benoit David who was separated at birth from Peter Scolari and who doesn’t sing at the nearly-female register that Anderson did. A quick Google search performed seconds ago shows that Benoit is the lead singer of a YES tribute band called Close To The Edge. Hmmm. If I were to form a YES tribute band, and I would if not for my lack of musical talent, it would be called MAYBE. Actually, I don’t need to form my own YES tribute band of my own, Close To The Edge must be looking for a frontman. Call me, guys! I know the words! Mostly.

The audience was as ridiculous as the band. I had floor tickets for a Violent Femmes concert once. I was also on the floor at a Bowie concert. OK, so this wasn’t like either of those. But it was pretty wild considering I must have been one of the ten youngest people there. The median hair color at the concert was gray. Going in, there were multiple faces I recognized. I am not from Washington and I am not a YES groupie despite what you might think from this post. One of them may have been Eric Bach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Eric, was that you?) But the others must have been politicians or other national figures. Steven Chu? Rahm Emmanuel? Who knows! There was a 50 year old behind me who screamed “WE LOVE YOU!” after every song and sometimes within songs. YES songs are long. Behind him was a 90 year old guy in a wheelchair with his two 70 year old sons. The sons knew the words to every song. The guy on my left was wearing a YES hat, a YES tie, had a YES license plate with Bill Bruford’s signature on it and watched most of the concert with is eyes closed. During the encore a bunch of 50 year old women rushed the stage. One of them may have been Michelle Bachman.

But the most amazing thing about the concert was that my little brother got us the tickets. When I said to him “I didn’t know you liked YES” he said “I have YES on the brain from growing up with you.” Not that you read this blog, E, but I love ya. Oh, and thanks for letting me crash on Monday night.

P.S. While on the subject of Washington, DC … happy birthday American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What would we have ever done without you? Maybe things would have been much worse. Possibly. Maybe things would have been the same. Possibly. Maybe things would have been better. Not likely. At any rate, you are now just a political football and a $862 billion check my kids will pick up. Cheers!

P.P.S. Great article about teachers in this month’s Atlantic. Actually, most Atlantic articles are great. This is just the only one I’ve read from this month’s issue.