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A Rally to Restore Anti-Climax November 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics, society, sports.
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Dedicated readers of Philly Bluejay—hi Mom—may have noticed that posts during this election season have been surprisingly sparse and that the occasional post has been either rambling or milquetoast—by the way, I love the word milquetoast, it just sounds so delicious. But back to my main point, how could a flaming liberal like myself sit on the sideline while the Boys and Girls in Blue are taking one revisionist insult after another and party stalwarts like Harry Reid and Russ Feingold are getting ridden out of town by clueless lunatics. Well, obviously that was not my the intent. The plan was to have a very digitally active election season, but somehow life, work, travel, and the constant stream of media blather got in the way. Every time I saw some outrageous piece and started to either fan or flame the author, a more outrageous piece came out which immediately caused me to suspend my previous piece and shift gears. As a result, my dashboard shows nine half-finished posts with titles like “Smokin’ TEA,” “The Sharron Angle,” and “Do Any Republicans Actually Know Why Deficits Are Bad?” Well, we’re down to the 11th hour of what must be the nuttiest midterm season since 1994. By the end of today, we’ll have the House we deserve, hopefully not the Senate we deserve, and zero shot of getting a serious energy bill passed in the next two years. On the bright side, the Dallas Cowboys are 1-6 and Donovan McNabb just got benched! A few personal notes from this election season:

Mrs. Bluejay and I attended The Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday. Or maybe it was The March to Keep Fear Alive. Or Scared-Dem-a-palooza. Actually, attended poorly describes what we actually did. First, we waited for 50 minutes on the platform at Van Ness while eight red line trains, each more packed than the previous, rolled by. On the ninth train, I power-rushed off left guard, pushed the pile forward, and then pulled Mrs. Bluejay behind me just before the doors decapitated her. On the train, the Mrs. and I figured out why so many people on the platform we actually taking the train in the other direction—they were hoping to catch the train further out in hopes of catching it while it wasn’t full. The ride was pleasant enough. I spent it chest-to-chest with a woman in a San Francisco Giants jersey—not my wife, she’s a Royals/Phillies girl—while getting a sensual massage from a sixty year old man on the other side. All is forgiven. Getting off at Metro Center, we attempted to swim our way to the mall. We got as far as 7th and Independence, largely because we slipped in behind a pulling block from an ambulance, and ended up not far away from this dude. From the angle, it looks like we were standing next to the person taking the video. The woman on the other side of us held a sign that said “Don’t tread on me, I just got a pedicure!” After about an hour of not being able to hear or see anything, but enjoying the second-hand high—the highlight of the hour was a woman heading to the meetup point because she got separated from her six-year old daughter—we decided to make our way back home. The highlight of the event was definitely the handmade signs. In addition to “DTOM,” other winners were “Is this the line for Georgetown Cookies?”, “Am I late for the Glenn Beck rally?,” “Actually, I’m pretty content!,” and “When I think about Christine O’Donnell, I touch myself!” In the end, it was pretty … milquetoast—there goes that word again. Just a little pre-Halloween party, notable mostly for the exaggerated ratio of hype to happening. Controlled experiments are obviously impossible, but it’s doubtful whether this particular Comedy Central special increases Democrat voter turnout much less turns any race blue. Someday, will I tell my kids I went to this rally? I didn’t even tell them where I went when I got home.

Speaking of insanity and anti-climax. Mrs. Bluejay and I missed the deadline to register for absentee voting in Pennsylvania’s 7th district by a scant three hours. And so for the last week, I have been monitoring theRCP poll aggregator—the new official website of Philly Bluejay—to see whether Sestak v. Toomey was close enough to prompt me to drive 360 miles round-trip from Bethesda, MD to Havertown, PA so I could vote. Early last week, Sestak was trailing by a point—well within the polling error margin—and six hours in the car was looking likely. Towards the end of the week and through the weekend, though, the margin grew to 4.5 points leaving me with the choice of violating my political principles or my environmental ones. In the end, environmentalism won—I am keeping my vote in my pocket and 190 pounds of CO2 in my gas tank. Mr. Sestak—I will see you in 2012. Mr. Lentz—keep Mr. Sestak’s seat warm for him, will ya? Mr. Easterbrook—I know you disapprove, and I will avert my eyes in shame the next—first—time I see you at Georgetown Bagelry or Moo Cow. But I will continue to bitch, moan, and parody. Because, as my daughter says, “I just like to.”

Finally, everyone has an explanation for the anti-Democrat backlash, but here’s one that caught me off-guard. And I don’t really mean the article. I mean the comment by Jennifer from Texas. Women are turning away from the Democratic party because they are still angry about Barack over Hillary in the 2010 primary? Because they are turned off by Democrats portraying Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell as clueless bimbos? Because they want to identify with a party that promotes strong women rather than discarding them? Wow. I always thought that calling Palin and O’Donnell clueless bimbos was an insult. But I thought it was an insult to clueless bimbos.

Anyways, post mortem tomorrow. Or Thursday. Or next week.

P.S. Here’s a top-15 list of “best blogging practices.” Philly Bluejay is a pathetic 5 for 15. You choose which 5.

P.P.S. Congratulations to Buster Posey, Pat Burrell, Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Drew, Barb, Charlie and Ty Kunz—that’s right kids, Ty Kunz—and Martha and Bill Brook on the Giants winning the World Series. You want to win the World Series? Get as many ex-Marlins on the team as possible.

An Open Letter to Rick Sanchez October 6, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in media, society, sports, television.
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Rick,

Can I call you Rick? You don’t know me from Adam and I don’t know you from Jonathan Leibowitz. I’ve never watched Rick’s List and I guess I never will now. Actually, I don’t watch any CNN. Not even 360 despite the fact that Anderson Cooper is a fellow Bull. I don’t even know where CNN is down here in the 20816. Not that I watch Comedy Central either. I get my television news from MSNBC, Joe in the morn—sadly I have to leave before Chuck and Savannah come on—Ed or Rachel or Matthews or O’Donnell in the eve. You see, I like my news with a heavy liberal slant but only 40% sarcasm, not 98%.

Rick, you got on my radar last week when CNN fired you for calling Jonathan Leibovitz a bigot and claiming that Jews are not a true minority a la Hispanics. You weren’t even on CNN at the time, you were a guest on a radio show. A sattelite radio show fagadsakes! The same radio service that broadcasts Howard Stern! No matter. You were out on the street the next day. That was wrong, Rick. Not what you said. Although that was also wrong. And ignorant. But firing you for it was wrong too. And vindictive. And petty. A reprimand, a public apology, and a week off the air would have sufficed. You are not the first member of the national media to make an inappropriate remark and you won’t be the last. CNN was wrong to make an example of you. It was a bully move. Bush league.

Rick, your parents fled Cuba when you were two years old. They came to America to give you a better life. In Cuba, you can’t look sideways at a picture of Fidel Castro without getting thrown in the slammer. Or worse. In America, we have the First Amendment! Here, you can say whatever you want! You can say that Michael J Fox is faking Parkinson’s. You can say that a presidential candidate attended a madrassa. You can shout “baby killer” during a congressional debate. You can say that former presidents committed war crimes when they ordered nuclear attacks on Japan. You can even say that another country has WMD’s as pretext for attacking them, kill thousands of American soldiers and foreign civilians, and plunge the country into debt we may never recover from—hypothetically, of course, no one would ever really do such a thing. In America, Rick, you can say whatever you want …

… except you can’t make fun of minorities. Even ones that aren’t disadvantaged. It’s not nice. It’s not politically correct. You can get sued. You can’t insult hispanics—although you can deport them! God help you if you mock blacks—see Imus, Don—and no it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. And, whatever you do, under no circumstances are you to defame, denigrate, or otherwise dis Jews! I mean, Jews control the banks, the media, and White House staff in this country! If you go after one of them, you are going down! You send one of theirs to the hospital, they send you to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way!

So, I’m sorry Rick. I myself am Jewish and I wasn’t offended by what you said about my people. I actually thought it was kind of funny. And really, something can’t be funny if it’s not also true. But funny has nothing to do with it. Sarcasm is for the news. Not for candid interviews on pay radio. You crossed the unspoken line and you got whacked. But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get picked up by FOX “news” in a few days.

Sincerely,

-Amir

P.S. Perhaps CNN firing you was karmic payback for the hit-and-run in 1990. How did you get away with that anyways? I know you were driving back from a football game, but were you actually playing in it?

P.P.S. Rick, the following P.S.’s are not directed to you, but rather to my six loyal readers. And to whoever Googles Rick Sanchez and scrolls to the 20th page of hits.

P.S. Red October 2.0 started in Phine Phashion with Roy Hallady no-hitting the Cincinnatti Reds! It can only go down from here! There is much to like about Roy. He’s a non-complainer—10 years and 280+ starts in Toronto with not a sniff of the postseason and not a single complaint. He’s a throwback horse—more complete games than any other National League team. And he possesses a filthy arsenal—then again, as far as I can tell, the 80 mph batting cage pitching machine does too—the second pitcher to throw two no-hitters in the same season. But he has a bad nickname—Doc. Presumably after Wyatt Earp sidekick John “Doc” Holliday. Don’t get me wrong, Doc works. Halladay isn’t spelled quite right—perhaps Matt Holliday should sue Roy for the rights to Doc—but most baseball fans can’t spell anyways. And it gives us “re DOC tober.” Alas, it’s already taken. By Dwight Gooden. Who legally changed his name to Doc by the way. And you just can’t recycle bigtime nicknames, no matter how well they fit. It’s wrong. There is only one Babe, one Wizard, one Sandman, one Rocket, one Kid, one A-Rod, one Hebrew Hammer, two Pudge’s and two Whitey’s. And only one Doc. Roy needs a new nickname! Maybe a play on another famous Holliday—Billie? Matt? Jrue? Perhaps a play on the word holiday—Happy Halladay? High Halladay? Federal Halladay? Or maybe a play on Doc—most doctors are specialists today—the cardiologist? the podiatrist? the proctologist? the gynecologist? I got it—”the dentist!” After all, that’s how John Holliday became “Doc.” Red entistober everyone!

P.P.S. The Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb/Kevin Kolb/Michael Vick tetrahedron spins on! Week 4: Washington at Philly. The hype. The drama. The anticipation. The clock mismanagement! Michael Vick is out with torn rib cartilage—I broke a rib snow-boarding two years ago and couldn’t sleep for six weeks much less play professional football, of course I couldn’t really play professional football even when perfectly healthy but that’s besides the point—and castoff 2.0 Kevin Kolb is back in! Andy Reid immediately announces that Vick will start as soon as he is healthy—because of course you can’t lose your job to injury—unless of course, Mike Kafka looks really good running the scout team this week! Anyways, Donovan McNabb exacts sweet revenge on the Eagles by being the worst quarterback on the field but leading the Redskins to an upset by “establishing the running game,” “throwing only one interception,” “trusting his defense,” and “using Jedi mind tricks to coax another all-time brain-fart from Andy.” Actually, you don’t need any Jedi mind tricks for that.

Baseball Tidbits September 6, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in sports, war.
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Philly Bluejay is not a sports blog per se—a quick look shows that only four of 61 posts so far have had sports as the primary topic—but I did want to comment a few generally interesting—and strangely inter-related—stories from the world of baseball. Bear with me.

First story. Lou Gehrig is one of the most iconic figures in baseball history. One of the best players of the pre-war era. The man who “protected” Babe Ruth in the “Murderers Row” Yankees lineup of the 1920s and 30s. The “Iron Horse” who held the consecutive games played record before Cal Ripken broke it so ceremoniously about ten years ago. The man who gave the reverberating “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” retirement speech even as he was dying. The man who eponymously gave Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) its nom de guerre and Curt Schilling’s son his name. Now it turns out that Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease after all! Instead he may have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a buildup of protein in the brain due to repeated concussions. Lou played in the pre-helmet baseball era and reportedly kept playing after numerous “beanings.” It is now well known that concussions are like ligament sprains—once you have one you become more susceptible to having another one, especially in the weeks immediately following. The study in the NYT article says that professional football players are diagnosed with ALS eight times more frequently than the general population. Eight times! Former eagles fullback/battering-ram Kevin Turner was recently diagnosed with ALS. It is possible, even likely, that many of them have CTE instead. Brian Westbrook, I hope you’re reading Philly Bluejay. Aren’t two concussions in the span of a month enough? Do you really want to spend your a shortened post-football life a la Stephen Hawking? In the mean time, maybe SNL can do a third Lou Gehrig-themed skit—in this one the doctor tells him that he doesn’t in fact have Lou Gehrig’s disease! By the way, I did not mean to offend Stephen Hawking or sufferers of ALS or their families and friends—I actually have a friend whose mother died from ALS a few years ago.

Second story. Washington Nationals rookie-phenom/100-mph-flamethrower/50-million-dollar-man/face-of-the-franchise Stephen Strasburg will miss the rest of the year—and ostensibly a good part of next year as well—after undergoing ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction aka “Tommy John surgery.” Other than time lost, this is not terrible news. Tens if not hundreds of pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery and the large majority—at least of recent patients—have come back as good if not better. Former Phillie/Diamondback/RedSock and father-of-Gehrig Curt Schilling came back from Tommy John throwing harder! Evidently the procedure tightened up something in his elbow and gave his arm better “whip.” Who knows perhaps Strasburg comes back from the operation throwing 105! As fast as Cincinnati-Red-callup/105-mile-per-hour-blowtorch/future-face-of-the-franchise/Tommy-John-surgery-waiting-to-happen Aroldis Chapman! But then again, after his own Tommy John operation, perhaps Chapman comes back throwing 110! Oy vey! With the remarkable success of Tommy John, Philly Bluejay 20816 wonders whether future prospects will have elective Tommy John surgery to improve their stock! Why wait for injury? Just have a second ligament put in there and fire away! One final thought about Tommy John, it is fortunate the the first pitcher to successfully undergo the operation had a name as singsong as TJ. “Dan Schatzeder surgery” doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well. One final final thought about Tommy John, what if several years from now research will show that Tommy John didn’t in fact have Tommy John surgery after all?

Third story. About 6% of major league baseball players are switch hitters—hit either left handed or right handed depending on whether they are facing a right handed or left handed pitcher, respectively, what did you think I meant? No one in major league history has been a switch thrower or more specifically a switch pitcher—supposedly, Boston RedSox catcher Victor Martinez is completely ambidextrous and can throw 80 mph with either hand—but we may be getting close. Yankees switch-pitching “prospect” Pat Venditte is now in AA ball! The ESPN piece claims that this may be as far as he gets because Venditte’s “fastball” is not “major league”—only 88 from the right side and 85 from the left! But so what? Wouldn’t that be overcome by the fact that he could have a builtin advantage against every hitter he faces? Not to mention the fact that if he blew out one arm and had to get Tommy John surgery, he wouldn’t have to go on the disabled list. He could just pitch with the other hand! Imagine the possibilities and logistics if Pat ever made it to the majors? Would he be forced to choose which hand he threw with in a given appearance or would he be allowed to change? How often would he be allowed to change? Once? Every inning? Every hitter? Every pitch? What would happen if he faced a switch hitter? How would he keep two arms warmed up? At the beginning of every inning, would he get eight warmup pitches per arm or eight pitches total? Where would he keep his other glove? The mind boggles.

Fourth story. Brian Cole was a star outfield prospect for the Mets about ten years ago. Along with Torii Hunter, and Jose Reyes he was supposed to form the core of the Mets lineup. Unfortunately, Cole died in a single vehicle accident in 2001. He was leaving a spring training event, going 80 mph when he veered off the road, turned the steering wheel 295 degrees, and rolled his Ford Explorer three times. Cole was not wearing a seatbelt. He was thrown from the car and died. A passenger who was wearing a belt walked away. Last week, Cole’s family won a 131,000,000 dollar judgement against Ford. Huh? Presumably the judgment reflects Cole’s projected lifetime earnings profile. One can only assume that if Cole was a middle school teacher the judgement would have been for 1,300,000 dollars. Or there would have been no judgement at all. After all, there would have been no collective dreams of the entire Cole clan to be dashed on the asphalt. Philly Bluejay is cynical, but not callous. I do not mean to exploit another family’s suffering for readership such as it is. At the same time, I do not feel that I am exploiting this unfortunate episode any more than the Cole family itself is. As for Ford, what exactly have they done to deserve this? Say “no thanks” to government bailouts? Perhaps the judgement would have come down differently if Ford had taken bailout money. Perhaps the court would have been more reluctant to hand over taxpayer money to the Coles rather than corporate money.

P.S. Philly Bluejay has recently become obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war epic “Saving Private Ryan”—perhaps the all time leader in on-screen body count. SPR was on TNT a few nights ago—stretched to four hours by the commercials—Philly Bluejay was there. He then rewatched the first 20 minutes or so—the opening of Dog Green sector on Omaha Beach—on YouTube. If you aren’t already convinced that war is hell … Anyways, throughout SPR, Ranger Charlie Company Captain John Miller—Tom Hanks’ character—has uncontrollable shaking in his right hand. A telltale sign of the onset of ALS? Is it possible that Miller was so chill throughout the action—except for the time he broke down after medic Wade was killed about two thirds of the way through—because he knew he had only six months to live anyway?

P.P.S. Philly-Bluejay-hero/ESPN-TMQ-boss/now-fellow-Bethesdian Gregg Easterbrook has a new blog. This one on Reuters. As if Philly Bluejay needs more ways to waste time! Thanks Gregg!

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.

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.

Post Father’s Day Post June 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in family, politics, sex, society, sports.
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A belated happy father’s day to all the fathers, dads, pops, papas, and old men out there! Bluejay Jr. and Little Miss Bluejay, thanks for making mine. You’re the cat’s pajamas and the cat’s whiskers! You can choose which one is which. And you Mrs. Bluejay, you’re the cat’s purr. I know you were behind the gifts, what with Jr. being only five and not having the wherewithal to find the security code on the Amex so that he could order them online.

Onwards. If there are two things I am fond of, they are double entendres and The Atlantic. Particularly interesting issue this month. I could do a post about each and every article. And I might eventually do one about neo-colonialism—Paul Romer’s idea for development in third-world countries. But the one I wanted to hit today is Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men.” The article is long, but the gist is short. The modern world—at least its developed third—is better suited to women than it is to men.

Everything starts with the economy. Traditional economic ballast sectors like agriculture, construction, and heavy manufacturing—with job descriptions that emphasize manual labor—are eroding. Modern economic growth is almost exclusively service-oriented. An ever increasing fraction of new and total jobs—many of these in areas like health care, education, finance, and law—do not value physical prowess at all. Today’s economy is all about intelligence. And Lawrence Summers’ arguments about gender differences in intelligence variance aside—and really, I still don’t know what quite to make of them—the relevant fact is that in the thick portion of the bell curve, men have no inherent advantage. In fact, they may be at an inherent disadvantage! Not only do today’s economic growth emphasize neurons over myofibrils, but the kind of synaptic skills it require—communication, inter-personal relations, cooperation, and the focus, maturity, and self-control needed to acquire formal credentials—are more developed in women! It’s that last bit which should really scare men. Forget about getting ahead in today’s economy. Even standing still requires a bachelor’s degree. And women are just better at getting these than men are—not to mention Masters degrees, MDs, and JDs. And not just slightly better. I think it’s a well-known fact that more women than men go to and graduate from college—what might be somewhat less known is that the ratio is much closer to 60/40 than to 51/49. 60/40! And as degrees go, jobs follow. More than 50 percent of today’s jobs are held by women. And this includes management jobs. Yes, executive management is still male dominated—Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are exceptions among Fortune 500 CEOs. But that dominance should start to fade given the changing demographics of mid-level management. And while growing the number of F500 CEOs from a handful to 250 may take a little time—especially if Meg and Carly leave the corporate ranks for congress—correcting another distortion should happen faster. The shelf life of unequal pay (for equal work) is getting shorter. If not by bottom-up market forces, than by top-down legal action. There are now a record number of women in the House (74) and Senate (17) and there is about to be a record number on the Supremes (3 if Elena Kagan is confirmed). The day in which women account for the bulk of economic output is coming. Soon.

Society both follows and reinforces the economy. As women gain economic power, they are asserting themselves to a greater degree in the family, pushing men further out to the margins. A staggering 40 percent of children are now born out of wedlock. But the really staggering part of that statistic is that a growing fraction of these are born to post-teenage, educated, working women who simply don’t want husbands or don’t want to settle for the kinds of husbands they can find. For women, it used to be that marriage was the only path to financial security and the freedom to rear children. No longer. With more workplaces flexing to accommodate the single mother, more women are choosing that path. If men aren’t providing financial security, why put up with the raised toilet seat? Even the old bromide that “every child needs a father” is losing leg. An involved father is obviously not necessary to become president of the most powerful country in the world—at least I think the US is still the most powerful country in the world. And recent research shows that lesbian couples may make the most effective parental units! Gender preference is also starting a heavy tilt towards girls. Nearly 75% of couples and women who use artificial insemination with gender selection choose XX chromosomes for their baby. And in Asia, the historic gender bias towards male children is starting to erode. Good news for China and India, which are currently staring at a surplus of 200,000,000 single men standing on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder.

Are we headed towards a society with a male to female gender ratio of 10/90? It’s not hard to imagine either the final state or the path to it. As demographics shift more and more towards women, heterosexual women will co-habitate and form quasi-familial platonic structures with other women. Most pregnancies will be the result of highly selective artificial insemination, with gender being only one of the criteria. A small number of men will be kept around to stock the sperm banks, satisfy residual demand for heterosexual intercourse, program the computers—although that may no longer be necessary either—and play professional football. Will Earth become Amazon? Or will it simply become Amazon? Both options are perhaps preferable, but less likely, than Earth becoming Eaarth. Either way, we should savor father’s day while we still have it.

P.S. Speaking of father’s day. I remember going to a 76ers game in the early 1990s with my dad to watch Manute Bol. At 7’7″, Manute was the tallest player in the history of the NBA. And now that I think of it, he may still be—although Gheorghe Muresan may also have been 7’7″. At 220 pounds, Manute was definitely the skinniest player in the history of the NBA. I remember cringing every time he tried to block a shot at the basket, fearing that the opposing player may snap his arm on the rim. I also remember my father and I talking about what Bol family pick-up games might have been like—Manute was a Dinka, his father was 7’10” and his older brother 7’8″. Finally, I remember talking about the fact that, sadly, Manute would probably not live a long life as his kind of extreme height often puts undue stress on the body’s core systems. Well, Manute died this weekend at the age of 47—succumbing to a combination of kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome—one of the most painful conditions imaginable. Like fellow African and former 76er Dikembe Mutombo, Manute was a humanitarian first and a basketball player second. Whereas other NBA players—Eddy Curry, Antoine Walker—go bankrupt spending their ridiculous salaries on even more ridiculous lifestyles, Manute used nearly all of his earnings to support peace, health, and education in his native Sudan. In the NBA, Manute was a novelty. A sideshow. But I always got the feeling that he knew that and that he was “using” the NBA—both financially as well as to gain figurative stature in his homeland—as much as the NBA was using him. There aren’t many happy days in Sudan, but today is especially sad.

P.P.S. General McChrystal, Sir! Haven’t you heard of WikiLeaks?

Spec-Tak-Le May 17, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics, sports.
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Bluejay fans—hi mom—I will try never go this long between blog posts again. It’s been a busy week and some. End of the semester. A few trips to Washington, DC. Also, this 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle is kicking my ass a little bit.

But it’s time to get back to business, put my thinking hat on—actually I don’t wear hats because someone told me once that they accelerate hair loss—and rant a little bit about Tuesday’s primary. If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you may have guessed that I am a registered Democrat. Actually, maybe you guessed that I am registered with the green party, but you would be wrong. As long as the de facto two party system remains, I will affiliate myself with a party that has a chance at some decision-making power. It’s not a coincidence that I picked Bluejay as the totem of this blog. I would never pick a Cardinal or any other red bird. My only choices were Bluejay, Blue Heron, Bluebird, and Indigo Bunting. But a Blue Heron is not really blue. I’ve never even seen a Bluebird. And Philly Indigo Bunting has terrible cadence. Not to mention the fact that few people would know what an Indigo Bunting is.

Anywhos, there are several Democratic primary races. There’s a “race” for the state house to replace uber-popular current Governor Ed “The Gov” Rendell, who’s prohibited from seeking a third term by state law and who will presumably take a permanent position anchoring Eagles Post Game Live on CSN. Dan Onorato has lapped the rest of the primary field in the polls—although The Gov has endorsed Philly-area State Senator Anthony Williams—but is polling about 10 points behind likely Republican candidate, attorney general Tom Corbett. Doh! In the 7th congressional district—where I live—lawyer-slash-Iraq-war-vet Bryan Lentz is leading political consultant Terese Touey for a chance to go against unopposed Republican Pat Meehan for a chance to replace the retiring Joe Sestak.

But the interesting race and the one that matters most from a political leverage standpoint is in the Senate—isn’t it always? The incumbent is 80-year old 4.75-term Republican and 0.25-term Democratic senator Arlen “Magic Bullet” Specter. The challenger is the 59-year old, 1.5-term congressman and former Navy admiral Sestak. The two are polling at a dead heat, with different polls reporting different leaders and all leads within the 3% margin of error. Many Democratic bigshots including The Gov and New York Senator Charles Schumer have predicted a slim victory for Specter. So who gets the Bluejay vote?

As I see it, the two relevant questions are: (i) which candidate is more likely to beat presumptive Republican nominee Pat Toomey in the general election? and sadly to a lesser degree (ii) which candidate will be a more effective Democratic Senator if he beats Toomey? Let’s start with the former. Sestak is a winner. He whipped Republican incumbent Curt Weldon by 12 points in 2006—I know that was the year of the anti-Bush midterm backlash, but still—and Republican challenger Wendell Williams by 20 points in 2008. And he is polling better than Specter against Toomey head-to-head, trailing by 5 points rather than 9. Meanwhile, Arlen Specter changed party affiliation in 2009 not for ideological reasons, but to avoid Toomey in the Republican primary! But this doesn’t actually mean that Specter is less likely than Sestak to beat Toomey in the general election. Specter reasoned correctly that he is too moderate for the new Tea Republican Party and would not be able to beat him in a Republican-only primary. That does not mean he couldn’t win as a Democrat in a state that has grown increasingly blue. And he has won five of these races before.

As for who would be the more effective Democratic Senator? Specter is a renowned deal-maker and power-player and has been voted one of the ten best Senators as recently as 2006—again the year of the anti-Bush midterm backlash. Despite being a Republican, he has maintained a centrist position over most of his tenure, and has even shifted to the left on social issues. He is pro choice. He is against the hateful Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against impeaching Bill Clinton. He called out the Bush White House on illegal wiretapping of US citizens. And since switching affiliations, he has voted with the White House a staggering 95% of the time! But Sestak is no slouch either. He is an up-and-coming player who House majority leader Steny Hoyer called “the most effective Freshman Congressman.”

Both Specter and Sestak have heartstring-tugging personal stories. Specter survived Hodgkins lymphoma. Sestak’s daughter Alexandra survived the same kind of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy. Sestak was born and raised in Delaware County, PA, where I currently live. Specter is from Wichita, KS, not far from where Mrs. Bluejay was born. Specter loves football, having given Roger Goodell a talking to regarding the NFL Network. Sestak and I share a birthday. Ay karamba! It’s enough to make Bluejay use third-person self-reference again! Why can’t we send both of these guys to the Senate and ditch Bob Casey?

At the end of the day, it may not matter. Whoever wins the primary may get taken down by Toomey. Who knows, maybe in a year or two Toomey will change political affiliation to avoid a head-to-head primary with the political ghost of Rick Santorum.

P.S. I’m sure you’ve seen these, but I hadn’t until Mrs. Bluejay sent this link. No commentary necessary.

P.P.S. And from the world of sports, I would not have predicted that the NFL would have a player from China before MLB. Who knows, maybe MLB will win the race for the first Indian player. Meanwhile, despite fewer total players—750 to 1696—MLB is dominating the NFL in terms of number of Jewish players. Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun (the Hebrew Hammer), Scott Feldman, Gabe Kapler, Ian Kinsler, Jason Marquis, Scott Schoenweiss, Mike Lieberthal, and 15 years from now, Bluejay Jr. (you heard it here first) vs. Sage Rosenfels, Jay Fiedler (is he still playing?), and Mike Rosenthal (is he still playing also?).

Earth Day Midlife Crisis April 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, economy, football, sports.
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Earth Day turns the big four-oh today. And like any self-respecting forty year old—I am fond of the term “self-respecting,” I don’t care what that says about me—it is having somewhat of a midlife crisis. The “Clean Tech” sector is churning, for lack of a better word, and universities are greening their campuses and re-aligning their science and engineering programs with the climate/sustainability axis. At the same time, the federal government is not likely to pass an energy bill that includes meaningful steps like an escalating carbon tax—which I think will be more effective than a cap and trade, and certainly simpler—or a larger pile of cash than the one that rescued AIG cum AIU and America at large is showing no signs of breaking its addiction to more. Of anything. Like a true forty year old facing a midlife crisis, the US is toying with changing careers, getting in shape, or finally learning to play the guitar. I only hope that it doesn’t eventually do what a true forty year old would, which is buy a BMW but otherwise continue with business as usual.

P.S. Bluejay got 617 views yesterday. That’s almost twice the total number of views it had previously, 377. Only 7 of these views were by subscribers. The rest were by people searching for pictures of lightning from the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud. I posted a link to one such picture. And boom. We’re already at 238 hits today. People, read the posts! I have important things to say! And I have more pictures of Iceland volcano lightning.

P.P.S. The first round of the NFL draft is on tonight in prime time. And I could not be more excited for a sporting non-contest. I think I may add Mel Kiper Jr. to my Mt. Rushmore of Platonic forms, right between Gregg Easterbrook and my mother. With Mt. Crushmore now at capacity, the next idol will have to bump someone off. I can only hope that said next idol arrives after POTUS BO’s second term.

P.P.P.S. Feeling blue and unfulfilled by your job? Find a neighborhood construction project and volunteer for a day. Nothing beats six hours of digging, hauling, measuring, drilling, sawing, and hammering for instant gratification.

Quants Overtake Sports April 16, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, sports.
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Have you read Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball?” At its face, the book is about Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s and how he used “sabermetrics” (advanced baseball statistics, sabermetrics is a phoneticization of SABR metrics and SABR stands for Society for American Baseball Research) to build a team that games at a rate much higher than would be suggested by its payroll. But really, the book is about how advanced statistical analysis is changing the ways in which baseball players are evaluated, and the basic structure and composition of baseball front offices. Organizations that used to be dominated by ex-players and professional scouts (most of whom are also ex-players, at least ex-minor-league-players) is now heavily populated by average-fan-stat-geeks with no playing experience above tee-ball. Billy Beane is a stat-head, but he also played in the majors, albeit not very well. Theo Epstein has been running the Boston RedSox (perhaps the second cushiest gig in all of baseball, right behind the Yankees) since 2002 when he was 29 years old! His credentials? He graduated from Yale with a degree in American Studies! He didn’t play baseball for Yale. He didn’t even play baseball in high school. He just graduated from Yale. I graduated from Yale dammit! I demand the Philadelphia Eagles give me executive power over player personnel decisions immediately! Move over, Howie!

The story of advanced statistical analysis and baseball is pretty fascinating. Essentially for the first 100 years of its existence, baseball kept relatively detailed statistics, but evaluated players using only a few of them. Offensive players were evaluated based on batting average, home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases. Defensively, they were evaluated on the number of fielding errors they committed at their position. Pitchers were evaluated on innings pitched, strikeouts, wins, saves, and ERA (earned run average) or how many “earned” runs—runs that aren’t the result of their own teammates’ errors—they gave up per nine innings of work. That was the hard data. The rest was scouting reports. “This guy can’t hit curveballs.” “This guy doesn’t change his pitching pattern from one turn through the order to another.” Stuff like that.

Somehow, baseball survived. But there were player evaluation and valuation inefficiencies. The SABR statheads, led by baseball outsider Bill James, noticed first. And Billy Beane was the first major league general to actually use these advanced statistics to gain a competitive advantage over his fellow general managers. Unlike the other major professional sports, baseball operates without a salary cap and has guaranteed contracts. This puts small-market low-revenue teams, like Beane’s Oakland team, at a great competitive disadvantage against large-market high-revenue teams like the New York Yankees, Boston RedSox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, etc. Ingeniously, Beane looked to these advanced statistics to try to discover under-valued individual performance factors—factors that weren’t widely valued but which correlated well either with team success, either in scoring runs or preventing them—and to acquire under-valued players. In fact, his favorite maneuver was to trade overvalued players for undervalued ones to other contending teams at the midseason trade deadline, effectively strengthening his own team while weakening the competitor at the same time.

Essentially, Beane was the first “quant” in baseball. And he had the same advantage that the first quants on Wall Street had. From the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s Beane put together teams that played way above their payroll. The A’s didn’t win a World Series during this period. They didn’t even go to the world Series. But they won a ton of games. And at least made the playoffs every year. But just like on Wall Street, in traffic, and nearly everywhere else, the “fallacy” of composition eventually takes over and first mover advantage shrinks when others in the market start to copy his tactics. To stay ahead, the first mover has to constantly innovate and look for an edge. Standing still is falling behind. And other teams did start to copy Beane’s tactics. Several teams, like the Dodgers and Bluejays (no relation), hired his assistants. Others, like Boston hired new guard GM’s who valued advanced statistical analysis.

Beane gained his initial advantage by valuing on-base-percentage (OBP) over batting average, essentially realizing that getting on base in any way is a more directly correlated with team scoring than getting on base by hitting. Essentially, Beane understood that drawing walks is a vastly undervalued skill and assembled teams with players who were proficient in this skill. In retrospect, this is obvious. In fact, it’s so obvious that walks are now part of official boxscores on ESPN, CBS sportsline, CNN SI, and MLB.com and ESPN prints OBP, number of pitches seen and slugging percentage too. It’s been this way for a couple of years. 15 years ago nobody cared. After the OBP arbitrage window closed, Beane exploited defense, college power pitchers,  stars in the middle of the last year of their contracts, stars in the first years of long term contracts, and aging position players on one year deals. But the marginal advantage of each move was smaller than the previous one, and the number of teams that weren’t employing advanced stats was shrinking. By the mid 2000’s Beane lost his advantage and the A’s regained a place in the standing more commensurate with their fiscal wherewithal—last. If you want to get a taste of the kind of statistics used in player evaluation article read this little piece by longtime statistic denier Bill Simmons aka “The Sports Guy.”

Anyways, baseball is not the only sport being overtaken by quants. The NBA’s Houston Rockets GM is Daryl Morey. Morey doesn’t have a basketball background. He is a computer science major from Northwestern and has an MBA from Sloan. He’s a stats geek. The NBA is using more advanced statistics too. Rebounding rate. True shooting percentage. Points created per touch. Turnovers per touch. Individual plus/minus and plus/minus for each five-man combination. The Philadelphia Eagles new general manager is Howie Roseman. Howie went to Florida—and so at least he went to a football powerhouse school even if he didn’t play there—majored in who-knows-what and has a JD from Fordham. Detailed individual player stats are hard to come by in football except for select positions like quarterback, running back, wide receiver, but statistical analysis is becoming more widespread anyways. Just look at this analysis of the recent trade of Donovan McNabb from the Eagles to division rival Washington. I could probably give you an example from hockey, but I don’t know the first thing about that sport, nor do I care to learn it.

It’s amazing advanced quantitative analysis can provide temporary advantages and transform valuation practices and organizational charts in pretty much any competitive market. And what market is more transparently competitive than pro sports?

P.S. What’s the next leverage point in baseball? My guess would be pitcher injury risk. There is a great little website called drivelinemechanics.com which analyzes the motions of different pitchers, assesses the strains and stresses on their joints and ligaments, and estimates their chances of future injury. I found this website early last summer. At the time, it predicted that New York Met John Maine would suffer an elbow injury within the next two seasons because he had an “unsustainable” flinging-style motion. Maine was lost for the season the following week!

P.P.S. Rut-ro!

P.P.P.S. It’s too bad Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty.

P.P.P.P.S. Iceland is back up to #1 on list of places I wanted to visit (it was temporarily displaced by Hong Kong).