SOME OF YOU know that from time to time, I have dabbled in the unpredictable but highly compensated sideline known as "damage control," often (if not quite accurately) described by laypeople as spin.
The damage-control specialist is the kind of person who would write, of a nuclear blast that vaporized Manhattan, "Many species of rodent pests that have harassed New York residents for decades were finally eliminated yesterday when..."
Well, the U.S. Department of State has issued one of its occasional travel advisories, this one pertaining to vacationers who'd planned to visit Mexico, which is lately beset by serious street crime on the part of druglords and their marauding gangs.* Though the State Department doesn't mention it here, this crime sometimes has included not-quite-random acts of violence directed pointedly at visiting U.S. citizens (carjackings, a now-and-then rape and/or murder, etc. Although in fairness, these are more likely to occur in places like Haiti).
The Mexican government, intent on defending its honor, has released a statement in which it says there's no need to worry, because "innocent bystanders aren't usually affected." Now there's a line that's bound to inspire confidence in would-be travelers! I can hear the conversation already:
Wife: "Honey, didn't I hear something about how it's dangerous to go to Mexico now?I also got a kick out of the "tips" that one helpful TV station gives to spring break-minded college students who may head south of the border, particularly this:
Husband: "Nah, I wouldn't worry about it. The Mexican government says the automatic-weapons fire usually misses bystanders, or only hits them in non-life-threatening areas of the body."
Wife: "OK then, I'll get the suitcases out. Oh, don't let me forget to pack the snorkles for the kids!"
"Don't stay out after dark."Riiight. Also: "Avoid alcohol at all costs."
By the way, if you're a serious thrill-seeker and you're looking to plan a getaway that might include the chance of, say, a beheading or the explosion of a nearby car bomb, here are some destinations that are sure to get the juices flowing.
And here, also, is a press release from Mexico's Board of Tourism regarding the construction of a half-billion-dollar beachfront resort. You'll note the release makes no mention of rumors that the new property will be bulletproof and will include, in its basement, a morgue...
* Does anyone else maraud besides gangs? You always seem to see those two words used in combination.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Friday, February 27, 2009
Reading Consumer Reports' list of the Ten Best Cars for 2009 got me thinking back to the time, a few years ago, when I was lucky enough to land a one-on-one visit with David Champion, who runs CR's test track up in East Haddam, Connecticut. (And is there a better name than David Champion for a man whose job it is to push cars to the limit? He insists it's his real name, too.) I'd missed the usual Media Day, when hordes of giddy journalists descend on the pastoral town to watch Champion and his staff put the hot cars through their paces, so he was nice enough to offer a personal tour of the facility. And what a tour it was. What I most recall is sitting shotgun as Champion showed off the capabilities of a fiery red Audi (much like the model above) and asking him—foolishly—whether it was possible to roll a car with such impeccable road manners. He got this maniacal gleam in his eye, and I actually think he proceeded to try; it sure felt like it, anyway, from where I was squirming.
Another vivid memory from that day was Champion's unapologetically patronizing, almost snide attitude towards American cars*. And when you're a Brit, which he is, and you're snide, it sounds that much...snider. At one point he brought me inside to where they disassemble some of the cars to check for manufacturing gaffes, structural integrity and such; he opened the rear hatch of a shiny new Buick SUV, pulled out an ill-fitting bolster, then reached in and grabbed a handful of thin, poorly installed sound-deadening material. "Here," he said, holding it forth for my inspection as if it were a decomposing mouse. "Look at this shit."
And on that note, we return to this year's list, which features only one domestic vehicle. In all these years of trying, why can't we build cars that compete with the very best from overseas? People who reply, "Oh, foreign cars have a certain mystique just because they're foreign, that's all it is," forget (or are too young to remember?) the way Toyotas were perceived when the company brought its first-generation boxmobiles to our shores. People made fun of them; it was automatically assumed that if you drove a Toyota Corona**, it was only because you couldn't afford anything better (or maybe you were one of those nut-cases who worried about gas one day being in short supply). The first Toyotas, aside from being inexpensive, were also tinny and suspect in their road manners. Indeed, as recently as 1990, when Toyota rolled out its entry into the luxe-car market—and is there a better name for a status car than Lexus?—people would say, "You're seriously going to pay $40,000 for a Toyota?"
Nobody says that anymore. From day one, Lexus blew people away. Today, the big Lexie in particular, the 400-series, is widely regarded as the best overall car on the road, certainly dollar-for-dollar and possibly at any price. The Toyota marque as a whole has become synonymous with reliability, economy and quality fit-and-finish.
You've come a long way, akago. (Why haven't we?)
Meanwhile, we all know about the German cars. Yeah, Beemers, Benzes and Porsches can be touchy about things like maintenance; if you don't keep them up to snuff, they'll begin sulking. But when they run, man oh man do they run! Hell, even when you're done driving and you get out of the car and shut the door, you're rewarded with that nice, solid, reassuring thwump that tells you you're in possession of a serious, well-honed piece of machinery.***
I'm thinking it can't be an engineering thing, because America has always been able to engineer; in fact, the usual progression in almost all technological settings is that we invent, then others (notably the Japanese) clone/copy. It can't be a brain-drain thing, either, because some of the top minds in global automotives continue to work in Detroit and its environs. Processes? Who invented the assembly line in the first place?
So what's the problem? In particular, why is it that for so many years, America has specialized in turning out cars with an appalling number of initial defects and/or long-term gremlins? When you get a chance, pick up a copy of CR's Used Car Buying Guide and take a look at the entries on American "status cars" from, say, the 1990s. Look especially at the frequency-of-repair records. Why should Cadillac engines blow up after 75,000 miles (if that)? These are Cadillacs, after all, not Ford Pintos.
Yeah, I know, we're "getting better." I'm sick of hearing that. We've been getting better for decades now. We should be best.
I'd really like to know what's going on. And it's not like this is unrelated to our economic woes. One of the major problems we have is that we've migrated from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. America simply doesn't make enough things anymore. So at least it would be nice if the things we made were worth buying.
* These days, the label refers more to philosophical ancestry than to place of manufacture, since a number of popular foreign models, notably including many Hondas, are actually assembled in the U.S. Still, much of the money goes back to places like Nagoya or Minato.
** The model doesn't exist anymore, at least in the U.S.
*** There are exceptions to the foreign-is-better rule. Yugo comes first to mind, but the notable one is the Jaguar, which, when the Brits were still making it, could never be induced to run for long. The joke about Jags was that they "looked great on the lift..." To his credit, Champion would be the first to admit that the vehicular offerings from his home nation, excluding the elite brands (but even including some of them as well), have never been very durable performers.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
The more I try to wrap my thinking around this whole deal with the New York Post and its controversial cartoon, the more I go 'round and 'round till my head wants to explode. My first reaction, I suspect, was not unlike yours: Oh COME ON, that's as clear-cut a case of racism as I've ever seen! Shame on you, Rupert Murdoch. I mean, a chimp? (Murdoch has now apologized on behalf of his paper, his editors, and his beleaguered artist. Al Sharpton is not satisfied.)
But then I started thinking about it, an enterprise fueled this morning by an article in my local paper about the artist, Sean DeLonas; turns out he lives just up the road from me in Bethlehem, graduated in 1984 from a college at which I once taught, and also, for the record, writes children's books. Anyway, the official stance of the Post and DeLonas (though he declined to be interviewed for this morning's piece) is that the cartoon was meant to lampoon the berserko* nature of the $787 billion stimulus package, which the Post had already denounced as reckless and probably ineffective. When that chimp went nuts in Connecticut, the event presented the artist with a perfect opportunity to say, more or less, "The stimulus bill is the kind of legislation that only a whacked-out chimp would've written, right before tearing off some lady's face."
If you buy that explanation—and I have to admit, I'm still skeptical in some knee-jerk way—then DeLonas would have drawn the same cartoon even if the president signing the legislation were George W. Bush, and even if the animal who'd gone nuts was, say, a pit bull or a llama or some other creature with less racially charged overtones. By the way, the cartoon shown here, an evocation of the familiar "see no evil" theme, was the impetus for allegations of racism in the U.K., after it was used to depict the supposed ignorance of union leaders, some of whom happened to be black.
So, today's question: Doesn't the fact that somebody could draw a cartoon like that—and a group of editors at a paper with its fair share of black employees could approve it for publication—indicate exactly the kind of post-racialism we're supposed to be celebrating in the aftermath of Obama's election? Which is to say, Is the cartoon inherently racist? Or are we the racists for reacting to it as we do? You'll note that such questions form the substance of my latest poll question, top right.
But maybe we'll give the last word to another cartoonist, Darrin Bell, creator of the comic strip Candorville: "Monkey metaphors aren't new to editorial cartoons, but context is everything.... Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black person's administration if you don't want the inevitable perception that you're a bigot to obscure what you were really trying to say."
* from a Murdochian point of view.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
I'm sorry to keep harping on this; I know it can get tedious. But tonight, two different network-news shows hit the theme long and hard, and I just can't let it pass without comment.
To set the scene: The market is tanking. A number of once-golden financial-services firms have simply ceased to exist. Major, historic bank franchises like Citibank and Bank of America have crashed and are bleeding out. (And those are the basically reputable financial firms we're talking about. Then we have the Bernie Madoffs; Bernie himself made off with about $50 billion, wiping out whole families' retirement plans.) One-third of us, according to a new ABC News poll, have either lost our jobs or had our hours/wages cut, or know someone who has lost his job or had his hours/wages cut. If you have a home you want to sell, chances are you can't get a fair price for it, and if you find someone who's actually willing to pay a fair price, chances are that person can't get a mortgage. By now the travails of GM and Chrysler are common knowledge—but perhaps even more telling, Toyota's losing money, too. Looming in the background is the health-care nightmare, and Obama made it clear last night that we're going to have to do something, eventually, about social security. (Did you notice the careful, cagey way he phrased that part of his speech? That sound you thought you heard was false teeth rattling all across America.)
But you know what the biggest problem we face is, according to the intelligentsia at network news?
That's right! The problem isn't tangible and factual; it's certainly nothing as trivial as those disappearing jobs or those bad mortgages or all those companies (if not whole industries) going belly-up. Nahhhh. It's just fear. And those of you who thought we were weathering an economic recession are way off base. Uh-uh. It's a crisis of confidence. (I know because Charlie Gibson told me himself, and Charlie Gibson doesn't lie. He even had a famous psychologist on to reinforce the point.) See, everything would get better—we probably wouldn't be in this pickle!—if people just had hope. Sure! If we had more hope we'd go out and continue to buy houses and sportscars we can't afford, and $500 purses to complement our $250 shoes, and we'd never let the mere loss of income get in the way of upward mobility. Right? We'd just keep borrowing and spending and eating out and charging vacations and...
Oh, wait a minute. Isn't that what got us here in the first place?
God help us.*
* But no, for the record, He won't either.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
World News Tonight has released some of the text from Obama's speech—which will go on for a while; the networks have allocated 90 minutes for coverage—and apparently it will end with something like, "But we're America. And we'll come out of this stronger than ever."
Where is Jordan Brown when you need him? (Note to any Secret Service agents who may be reading this: I imply that I need him to put me out of my misery, not to go after the president, whom I voted for, and who I know "means well," whatever good that does us.)
Look. Inasmuch as we're on the topic of hope, I hope you'll permit me to say that people who are reassured by that kind of all-purpose, flag-waving, stump-speech pabulum should follow the instructions in the headline I chose for this post, because they're clearly brain-dead already, so they have no business wasting the increasingly precious oxygen that the rest of us sapient beings rely to nourish our neurons.
Seriously now. That is what we want to hear from our president at this point in time? That will make us feel better?
(I mean, what's he gonna say otherwise: "Sorry people. We're screwed. Royally. Game over! Fact is, I'm headed back to Canada on the next flight out. It's kinda nice up there.")
It's like this afternoon, the stock market rallied, we are told, because Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (probably on instructions from someone higher up, though the Fed chairman is supposed to be autonomous) announced perkily that the recession should end in 2009, if the steps we've taken so far work. That's an awfully big if. So big that I think it's safe to say that the condition invalidates the premise. After all, what prevents Obama from announcing tonight that "the recession will end on May 19...if all of our problems are solved by May 18!"
Again: Show us the plans. Give us the numbers. Explain the reasoning. Go borrow Ross Perot's charts and diagram it all out for us. Or if the information is somehow too "sensitive" for general release, then at least tell us that you've gone over the data, and you've analyzed every recessionary trend since 1605, and based on that analysis the prognosis isn't as bad as you thought; maybe we've got another 18-20 months of hard times, and then we'll see some daylight. Tell us that kind of thing (assuming it's true).
Just please, oh please, stop with the clever bullshit.
If you've been paying attention at all, you know that Barack Obama, your president, who will talk to you again tonight about the state of your union, is under great pressure to lie to you. The sentiment is fairly ubiquitous, though its most overt expression came recently from Bill Clinton, who I think believes he's at least 25-percent president again, maybe even the unofficial president, now that Hillary is secretary of state. Anyway, Bill said, in an open plea to Obama, "You have to give the people hope." I assume Clinton reasons that, since Obama ran on a campaign of hope, he'll have defaulted on some emotional debt if he slacks off on that message. (Do you see the degree to which SHAM-based thinking has penetrated public life? It's remarkable: We now hold politicians accountable for their ability to inspire us. And we don't just want it; we expect it. We've created emotional entitlements at the federal level.)
In reality, if you look closely enough—something many of us are disinclined to do—there are indications that the American economy is not far from collapse. It really wouldn't take much to do us in, and I don't think that's alarmism talking. Consider that in roughly one month in office, our new CEO has spent almost $1 trillion that we don't have*, yet it doesn't appear that the colossal sum has shored up, or can shore up, a damned thing. Knowledgeable observers, if they agree on nothing else, seem to agree that the $1 trillion (a) isn't enough and/or (b) won't actually filter down to the places where the funds are needed and/or (c) won't end up being used for the purposes for which it was allocated. Speaking of (c), the major American banks who last year extorted $700 billion out of Washington**, supposedly to free up credit markets, haven't freed up the credit markets, remain insolvent anyway, and are on the verge of being nationalized as we speak. (And won't that be fun to watch, if it happens—Washington running the entire banking system!—given the political quagmire that is the Beltway, with its inchoate philosophies and incompatible agendas?) Bill Maher, in his season-premiere show, joked that he went to his ATM to withdraw $60 and got back a note that said he'd have to wait till the bank "moved some money around..." The stock market, meanwhile, having found nothing to like in what Obama has done so far, is tanking, closing yesterday at a dozen-year low. Major companies—hell, major industries—are facing bankruptcy (and would, in fact, already be bankrupt and perhaps out of business altogether had not Washington stepped in).
But what the people need is hope?
How about a solution? And an honest, unflinching assessment of where we stand.
Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this way, but if we are indeed at the precipice of a Mad Maxian implosion, I would like to know it, so I can make provisions to weather the storm. I would like to know The Truth, as best as anyone can tell it to me.
As for this idea that hope itself is what's going to pull us through... People: Hope is what got us into this mess.
"I hope we can pay for this mortgage."And on and on.
"I hope we have the money for the credit-card bills we're piling up when they come due."
"I hope our house appreciates enough in value to offset the home-equity credit line we keep tapping."
"I hope I don't lose this job, because I need to have some way of paying for all these frilly things I keep buying in order to look more successful than I really am."
"I hope my union's demands for another $5/hr. wage hike and better benefits don't put my employer in the position where it's no longer cost-effective for him to try to compete with foreign manufacturers."
I've said it a thousand times and I'll say it again: Hope—stripped of a plan of action—is worse than cynicism. At least cynicism tends to help people prepare for the worst. Hope, when it's blind (and deaf, and dumb, and mute), leaves people terribly vulnerable to an unforgiving environment that doesn't give a flying fark about them and their hope. What I find especially galling, as a thinking person, is this notion that the government, my government, which I helped elect, feels that it needs to lie to me in order to protect me from myself as I continue to fulfill my responsibilities as a consuming American.
I voted for Barack Obama in part, yes, because of hope, but not just because I wanted him to keep giving me nothing but hope. I voted for him because his message of hope, taken together with his obvious intellect and grasp of the subtlest esoterica of governance, made me think he could actually do something once he got in office.*** If you bring in several contractors to give you bids on some major upgrades in your home, you may end up hiring the person you hire because he inspires confidence...but then once the work starts, you want more than mere confidence. Now you want the competence. And you want to know just how bad the problem is so you can make appropriate decisions. You don't want him to give you some blue-sky appraisal at the outset and then spoonfeed you the bad news bit by bit as he continues to work. In fact, you'd be furious if he did that.
Well, that's pretty much where we are nationally.
The time for hope in its pure state is past. You're in office now, Mr. President. Tell us what we need, and deserve, to know.
* and that somebody's going to have to repay, eventually, which is another whole can of worms that we don't even want to open here. How many future generations of Americans must we burden with overwhelming debt in order to implement emergency measures that may fail regardless?
** Remember that one? And those funds, of course, have nothing to do with the current $1 trillion.
*** And let's be clear: By no means am I saying that I've already given up on him, for crissake, just one month later. I'm simply saying that his job is not to b.s. me. His job is to do his job.
Monday, February 23, 2009
The case of 11-year-old Jordan Brown presents us with another crucible for how we really feel about juveniles and justice in America. Brown, if you haven't heard, shot his father's very pregnant girlfriend in the back of the head with a shotgun as she slept, then calmly put his 20-gauge away and got on the bus to go to school, as might any normal fifth-grader on any normal day. The theory is that Jordan was jealous of his father's absorption in the woman, who already had a 4- and 7-year-old of her own; presumably the sibling-to-be was the last straw. Once again here, prosecutors have said they intend to charge Jordan as an adult. Pennsylvania is one of a dozen states that set the minimum age for such handling at somewhere between 10 and 13. Ten other states set no minimum age at all.
A crime like this gives elected officials a chance to posture and bluster and show us how tough they are on crime; gives them a chance to call press conferences at which they tell us how important it is to "send a message" to those who refuse to live peaceably among us. Once again the rationale seems to be that the crime was horrible, ergo, somebody's gotta pay big-time; we need a commensurately extreme punishment to provide closure and balance. And since juvenile punishments are just too wussy, we have to charge the kid as an adult.
To which I would reply: A kid is a kid is a kid. If an 11-year-old somehow got hold of nuclear weapons and destroyed Los Angeles, he would still be 11 years old. (Hell, I know people who'd say he deserves a commendation.)
I was particularly struck by this reaction quote from Patricia Papernow, a child psychologist and expert in blended families: "It looks awful from the outside and sort of unspeakable, but these are the kinds of feelings that are pretty normal in a new step-family. You just hope there's not a loaded gun around."
I agree with her, both about the normalcy and the gun, which we'll get to. I think there are many people, much older than 11-year-old Jordan Brown, who are capable of terrible, split-second atrocities. I think that humankind as a species is not quite as civilized as we like to believe, and given the right/wrong provocation in the right/wrong context—as well as access to the right/wrong weaponry—we are capable of horror. Even the "sort of unspeakable" kind.
Here's the thing: All of us experience the emotions we experience, and we experience them individually. That sounds a bit circular, and maybe it is, but if there's one concept I wish I could impress on people, that would be it. We experience the emotions we experience, and when those emotions are overpowering, we are simply overpowered by them. Circular or not, that's the plain truth. A mother comes home to discover that her 12-year-old daughter has just been raped by an attacker who's escaping out the back door. And even though the act is complete and the man is in the process of fleeing, she grabs a gun and shoots him. We understand that. We even empathize with it, because we can see ourselves doing the same thing. (Apparently that is the standard by which we judge behavior: Could I see myself doing that? Then it's OK.) So that act, though we recognize it as "possibly criminal," is also, in a sense, forgivable to us. But it is quite possible that the intensity of emotion young Jordan Brown felt was just as powerful to him in that moment. He was jealous. He was furious. And that jealousy and fury (as well as, perhaps, a video-game understanding of life and death) drove him to blow his father's fiancee's brains out. (Do we understand that? Maybe, maybe not.) And it is also quite possible that the emotions Colin Ferguson felt when he shot those white people on the Long Island Railroad were overpowering to him. They'd been seething, roiling inside him for years. Then they erupted. Do we understand that, too? Somehow I think that's where I just lost a whole bunch of you. But why? Think about it. Why?
How do we decide whose "overpowering emotions" we detest, and whose we "sort of" condone?
Which brings me back to my gripe against guns. There are a lot of incendiary situations where the absence of a gun is the only thing that prevents overpowering rage from flowing into unspeakable violence. Granted, when you're talking about a sleeping victim, I suppose 11-year-old Jordan could've just as easily grabbed a knife and stabbed the woman (though a stab wound is still less likely to be decisively fatal than a shotgun blast to the back of the head). But in other settings and situations, the catalyst, the sine qua non, the thing that facilitates the tragedy, is the gun itself. You can only stab someone who's within arm's length; most of us can throw a heavy rock only so far. Your intended victims can see a Molotov cocktail coming and even with just a few seconds' notice, can probably hide behind something sturdy or get far enough away. For most of us, it is a gun and only a gun that allows killing, even mass killing, at a distance.
Jordan's shotgun, by the way, was a "youth model...designed for children." I found that perversely funny.
Don't know if you watched the Oscars last night; I didn't, or more specifically, couldn't, as I found the pomp, circumstance and glitz a bit unseemly given what's transpiring across America at the moment. But without going off on a whole new rant, I did see one or two presentations, and I was struck again by The Amazing Evolution Of Jennifer Aniston's Face (Nose in Particular, But Lips And, I Think, Eyes As Well). What is the story with this gal? She looks nothing like herself, and that's not said offhandedly: I honestly don't think I'd recognize the girl I saw last night, if I saw her on the street, as the girl I used to know from Friends. Her face has become characterless and generic.
Put another way: In this obsession with perfecting herself, she has lost her Self.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
(Shown, left: Rare photo of A-Rod publicly administering a dose of self-confidence.)
"I'm not sure what the benefit was. I will say this, when you take any substance or anything, especially in baseball, it's half-mental and half-physical. If you take this glass of water and you say, 'I'm going to be a better baseball player,' if you believe it, you probably will be."
—Alex Rodriguez, at a spring training news conference this past Tuesday, on his years of juicing in Texas.
The media have jumped all over this quote in their customary (that is, gullible and unthinking) way. That same night on MLB Network I heard Harold Reynolds deliver a lengthy dissertation about the so-called mental game, and how "anything that gives you a mental edge or that you even think gives you a mental edge [?] is going to help you at the plate." And of course the other members of the panel all nodded like the uncritical Sportsthink cultists they are. Even Bob Costas nodded, which saddened me greatly.
The simple truth is that an analysis of A-Rod's career stats leaves no reason to assume that anything changed in Texas other than his physical strength, and perhaps not even that.
Texas has some rather cozy hitting conditions, and is therefore considered a relatively easy park in which to hit home runs. (And by the way, non-fans or even just casual fans would be amazed at the time and brainpower that true baseball addicts put into sorting and analyzing stats of all types, including those that tell us which ballparks are the easiest in which to go yard. Take a look at this.) Beyond that, it strikes me as silly to credit confidence when the more obvious factor is improved strength. That's a little bit like saying that you've been working out like a fiend, and you feel much better about how you look in the mirror, and that's why you're now suddenly able to lift a lot more weight—rather than that the reason you look better in the first place is that your muscles are growing and getting stronger.
So let's look at some stats where confidence might be expected to have an impact on hitting, but didn't in A-Rod's case. Take, say, strikeouts. In his final three years in Seattle, A-Rod struck out 351 times. During his three years of admitted steroid use in Texas he struck out 395 times. Unlike most baseball fans, I've always been somewhat dubious about stats—whether we can infer from them what we think we can infer—so I don't know whether that increase can be considered statistically meaningful.* In other words, I don't know if it can be used as an argument for why A-Rod actually became a worse hitter in Texas. I do know that if confidence has any role at all to play in hitting, you'd certainly expect it to show up in one's ability to avoid striking out. The nervous hitter jumps at pitches, digs himself into a hole at-bat after at-bat, ends up hitting the pitcher's pitch. The confident hitter (or so it goes) is relaxed, gets a good pitch to hit, and hits it.
Now you might say, "Well, wait a minute. Maybe Alex was so confident that he just swung at everything because he knew he'd crush it, and that reckless abandon accounts for the extra strikeouts along the way." Sorry. A-Rod also began walking more in Texas: 249 times vs. 201 times in Seattle (even including his last year in Seattle, in which he walked a career-high 100 times). So if confidence was a factor, it was the quiet kind of confidence that allowed him to sit back and wait for his pitch.
Batting averages? His numbers for his final three years in Seattle were .310, .285** and .316. His three juiced seasons in Texas he batted .318, .300 and .298. Again, that's pretty much a wash. In fact, in 13 full seasons in The Bigs (leaving out 1994 and '95, when he saw limited playing time) A-Rod's average annual numbers, adjusted on a 162-game basis, are .306 with 34 doubles and 44 homers.
His Texas numbers were .305, 30 and 52.
Where's the huge skew everyone appears to be talking about? To me, it basically looks like the only difference is that a few more of his "doubles" began clearing the fence in Texas. That's about it.
In any case, I defy Harold Reynolds or Bob Costas or A-Rod himself or anyone else to explain any of this as the byproduct of anything but physical strength...if that. Sure, in Texas his HR output jumped to 52, 57 and 47, an average of eight extra dingers per year. But (a) as noted, Arlington is a hitter's park, certainly more so than the Kingdome, (b) everybody was hitting more balls out back then, a happenstance that some attribute in part to the ball itself***, and (c) A-Rod smacked 54 home runs again in New York in 2007, when he was presumably drug-free—and when he was coming off a year that, by his own admission, had shattered his confidence.
Again I ask: Where is the "Confidence Effect" in all this?
On an unrelated note, but apropos of the long piece I just finished for Skeptic, could someone explain why all of this damning evidence against Casey Anthony is being released prior to trial? Seriously. Do we need to know this now? (Sure, the press got it from court documents, but those documents could've been sealed, and the judge could've issued a gag order along with harsh penalties for breaching it.) More to the point, how can anyone argue that the pool of jurors who could honestly give Anthony a fair trial, or even the mere presumption of innocence, hasn't been tainted out of existence?
* But since statistical comparisons form the crux of the anti-juicing argument, we have no choice but to bring them up here.
** This is the lowest average of his career once he became a regular and, we can assume, is an "expected" variation covered under the Bell Curve. Rodriguez also hit .286 in 2004, his first season with the Yankees.
*** though MLB has consistently denied this.
Monday, February 16, 2009
If this is true as presented—and I emphasize, if this is true as presented—then I don't understand how it could have happened or gone on for very long. First off, the mind boggles at the notion that an organization of any size in this day and age would actually (and habitually) fly males first-class while sticking the females back in steerage. But let's even assume that ESPN is one of the last bastions of unapologetic macho piggery; how do they expect to get away with so visibly discriminating against someone on the apparent basis of gender? That's why I think there has to be more to this. It could be, for example, a question of rank, or more specifically, RHIP. It's noted in the stories that Dales (shown with the legendary Dick Vitale) belongs to a reporting team that includes Paul Maguire, Bob Griese and Brad Nessler. Though the circumstances aren't exactly parallel, one could also say that sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya belongs to a reporting team that includes Al Michaels and John Madden, but I don't think anyone would dispute that Michaels and Madden are the stars—the "draw"—and that they probably expect, and receive, commensurate treatment and perks. I'm sure they get better hotel rooms and more lavish expense accounts, and even get to sit in the very best section of the cross-country bus.*
Now, it's true that certain environments have an inherently sexist tinge to them, and one doesn't take a job in those environments without understanding and—to my mind—accepting that. You don't go to work for Playboy and then complain about all those pictures of nude women (or even, I would think, about the guys in the office whistling at Miss March's "nice rack"). If you work at Hooters, you can't realistically object when people, possibly including your boss and male coworkers, stare at your ass. I don't think it's fair to accept employment in such settings and try to force compliance with the usual rules against hostile environment. Judges have tended to agree with such a view in the occasional cases that are filed, though clearly there are limits.
So: What is a sideline reporter's true raison d'etre? The species has come a long way since the days of Jill Arrington (above left), when sideline reporters were eye candy, basically centerfolds who happened to be standing somewhere near the coaches and players, and were there purely for the amusement of male viewers who might otherwise grow bored with the (on-field) action. Bottom line, if the circumstances are as Stacey Dales alleges, then this is deplorable. Perhaps even the basis for a federal lawsuit.
Here's another way of looking at it—and a more pertinent question, perhaps: Was Dales getting paid anywhere near what Tony Siragusa reportedly gets** for standing on the sidelines, looking obese, and now and then saying something marginally interesting, no doubt by accident?
Ironically/tangentially related: A kind word or two*** from Columbia Journalism Review on my February Playboy piece about NFL officials.
* That's not entirely a joke: Madden, as many sports fans will know, refuses to fly.
** I don't have the number handy and I couldn't find it in the quick web search my schedule permitted me this morning, but I remember hearing his salary mentioned, and it was a lot of money. Enough to keep Goose in pizzas for a long, long time.
*** Follow the link and scroll down, if you care to.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Today's blog is growing by the minute, but I just realized that the New York Post finally ran its Page 6 Magazine* feature on A-list celebs and their favorite gurus. I'm quoted in the write-up on Deepak Chopra (in connection with my December Journal piece on alt-med and his caustic response in Huffington Post) and again in the item on Rhonda Byrne. The quote the writer used for Deepak was taken out of context and is an unfortunate choice, I think, as it implies accusations that were not lodged specifically against him, but rather the SHAMscape as a whole. (Chopra is a licensed MD, and may feel that he's been unfairly maligned.) Should be interesting to see what, if anything, evolves.
With the unemployment rate in the Greater Lehigh Valley now topping 7 percent for the first time in some years (nationally, we're at 7.6 percent), the so-called employment section of my local newspaper has no actual jobs to advertise, so it fills the space with a long how-to article on prepping yourself for a serious assault on the nonexistent market. I'd venture that there are several thousand words in the piece, and many of those words probably would be quite helpful; but I also find the article disturbing, because it makes clear that you are unlikely to be taken seriously in your job hunt unless you leave interviewers thinking of you as confident, positive and a team player.
I'm sorry—and yes, before you write to tell me, I know that I'm going against human nature here; I've already been informed of that by the wife—but I don't think those vague, highly subjective personality judgments have any place in hiring decisions. It shouldn't matter if someone "seems confident" or "exudes a sense of camaraderie." What has the person achieved? People should be hired based on their resumes (which should be truthful), by what they can document in black and white, by their demonstrated grasp of the subject realm during the interview process. Frankly, I don't even think it should matter whether or not people come across as likable. Can they do the job, and can they do it better than candidate X or Y? That's all that should matter. (Just as, in court, a person shouldn't be convicted of a crime because the jurors dislike him. And yet that is what often happens, suggests the research materials for my article on crime for Skeptic. The evidence is secondary. If the jury doesn't like you, you're toast.)
To the list of desired prerequisites we expect in a candidate, we have now added all sorts of touchy-feely attributes drawn from SHAM doctrine; the tragedy here, as I've written at length in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, is that there's no evidence that people offering those attributes (confidence, PMA, etc.) perform better at their jobs than people who, say, have a strange gleam in their eye and seem they might have dead sparrows or a bloody awl stored in the glove compartment of their car. The only evidence for a link between confidence and success is tautological in nature: We're more likely to hire and promote "confident" people, therefore they're more "successful." Tall people and nice-looking people are also more successful. Is that fair?
So, "What's wrong with confidence?," then, is that it misguides/misdirects. It gives people who merely seem capable an unfair edge over people who are. Further, because it's a lot easier to affect confidence than to actually be excellent at the skill set required for any given job, it waters down the standards for society as a whole.
If you own a business, whom do you want working for you? The most talented workers? Or the most "optimistic"? As a business owner or high-level manager, do you really care that much if someone is "a team player" as long as the work gets done in a way that allows you to beat the competition? I've said this repeatedly about sports (and I once got into a bit of an email war with ESPN editor John Papanek over it), but most of the attitudinal qualities that we worship in our star athletes are totally irrelevant**. It doesn't matter if a guy is a team player; if he can hit, he can hit. This is why I've come to love White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. To my knowledge, among all MLB managers, he is the only one who openly dismisses all the hype about attitude as nonsense, except Ozzie uses a different term.
As Guillen himself might put it (I've said this before, too, and I'm going to keep saying it till it catches on): Give me nine sociopaths, all of whom refuse to hit behind the runner, high-five (or even talk to) their teammates—but who bat .320 with 40 home runs apiece—and I'll bring you home a championship trophy every year.
On an unrelated, "technical" note for writers/avid readers only: I am reading, or trying to read, John Grisham's The Innocent Man. Though I've seen the films adapted from his work, several of which were quite good, to the best of my recollection I've never read any of Grisham's books (which, I guess, makes me unique among living Americans and many of the dead ones, given his sales numbers). And so I must ask: Is it me, or is Grisham the Kenny G. of writing? Which is to say: very little artistic talent or craftsmanship—to the point where I'm almost embarrassed for him in spots—but he's got "that certain something" that resonates with an audience? Jesus, the book even has tracking errors. (For the novice, that means we don't always know exactly where we are in the story in some chronological, geographical or thematic sense.*** That is considered unforgivable in narrative writing.) Enlighten me please....
* which is now going quarterly, or going under, depending on who you listen to.
** or at least, they haven't been proven relevant.
*** And no, he's not doing it "on purpose," like, say, Joyce or Pynchon.
Friday, February 13, 2009
By now you've heard about the plane crash in Buffalo, New York, and also the ironic wrinkle that a 9/11 widow was among the victims.
I wonder if her heirs now think they have another $2.08 million coming from Uncle Sam.
At first hearing that probably sounds like nothing more than a zinger, a cheap shot, and a pretty tasteless one at that. Think about it, though, because it's an honest question. What's the difference between these deaths and the deaths that occurred on 9/11? Are the widows and widowers of the loving husbands and wives on this Continental flight any less bereaved or deprived of their livelihoods than the folks who were widowed or orphaned by what took place on those doomed United and American flights? For that matter, why are we just talking about airplane tragedies? Is any life really less valuable than another?
I don't think I'll ever quite understand why we turned arguably the most tragic event in American history into the biggest Lotto jackpot ever paid out.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
This morning as I sat here watching pieces of my house blow away amid near-hurricane force gusts, hoping the winds would be merciful, I read something that stopped me in my tracks.
Understand that over the years since 2003, when I signed to write SHAM, I've read probably millions of words about hope, PMA, the will to win, etc. I've read them from top gurus, I've heard them on Oprah, I've seen them codified in "formal" programs-for-daily-living like those posed in The Secret or Your Best Life Now. I've also expended hundreds of thousands of words, counting the book and the blog and the radio/TV I've done, trying to debunk the curious notion that hope is its own reward.*
Which brings us to this morning, and a line from an obituary I read in my local paper, the Morning Call. The line consisted of 15 words. And I realized that those 15 words said it all. The words are as follows:
Although she lost the fight against cancer, she never lost hope that she could win.Little that I've read so perfectly embodies the absurdity and fundamental silliness of today's Culture of Hope. I ask you: What do those 15 words even mean?
For the record, technically, here is how the line should have read:
Although she hoped she could win the fight against cancer, she died anyway.Yes, I realize that no one would actually write that, least of all in an obituary. Obits exist for the living, who are supposed to draw comfort from them. So let's talk about that. How much comfort can "those who live on" find in a hollow line that, if you think about it, depreciates the value of hope and, some could argue, makes a mockery of everything that genuine human striving is about? Yes, she's dead, poor soul...but don't worry, she never lost hope! As if that would've been the bigger tragedy than death itself.
Personally, I would never want anyone to write that about me. I would not want people remembering an image of me with my head in the clouds (or sand), talking excitedly about my plans to attend this year's World Series, when they knew I was living on borrowed time as it is. I've already written about the way we deceived my father—flat-out lied to the man about his prognosis; I've written about how my sisters and I sat there exchanging uncomfortable glances as Dad spoke about what he wanted to do "when I come home." He wasn't coming home, and he, of all people, was the only one who didn't know it. And I'll tell you something else: Had he known, he wouldn't have been in that hospital in the first place. Dad always had stuff to do. Always. If he'd had any say in it, he wouldn't have chosen to spend his final days and weeks in a cancer ward, connected to plastic tubing, talking foolishly about baseballs he and his son would never get to throw to each other.
Getting back to the obit, I could see if they said she never lost her spirit, her joie de vivre. I could see if they said she smiled to the very end. (She is a pretty woman with an inviting smile, a smile that suggests you'd like her if you knew her. There's a pic with the obit.) I could even see, maybe, if they left out the part about how she still thought she "could win"—if they stopped the quote at hope. I just can't see wording it as they did.
You say I'm "overthinking it"? No. I'm just thinking it. Because this isn't an isolated case. Even if this was a mere instance of careless wording, the implications are far-reaching.
Don't get me wrong. Hope is good. I like hope; I use a lot of it myself. But there's difference between hope and hallucination. And when we pretend that hope itself is the be-all-and-end-all of living—even if we're pretending "for a good cause"—we devalue and disincentivize the activities, attitudes and behaviors that are more likely to result in the good things we want to happen.
Hope didn't prevent Oprah from getting fat again. Hope didn't prevent this pretty young woman with a sweet-looking smile from dying. Hope won't keep pieces of my house from continuing to disappear into the evening skies. Hope, in most cases and settings, is just hope, as wispy and fragile as whatever is (or isn't) holding the remaining shingles to my roof. Nothing more and nothing less.
* There are some purely emotional realms where this may be true. But that is a very different scenario from the way hope is now packaged for mainstream consumptions.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Anyone else following this running feud between Barron's and Jim Cramer? Just to provide some background for those who aren't heavy into finance/the Market, Barron's is, well, Barron's, and Cramer is, well, Cramer. There...that clear things up for you?
In all seriousness, it's not so much a feud as a one-sided war of words being waged by the elite business magazine, which carefully cultivates (and probably deserves) more of an "insider" rep than the like of Forbes or Fortune. And really, most of the sniping has come from a single Barron's staffer, senior editor Bill Alpert. In August 2007 Alpert did a cynical cover piece on the pop-culture stock guru and host of The Street, who's known for his voluble, animated nature and—shall we say—his sense of self. (If you haven't seen Cramer, he comes across as the Billy Mays of personal investing. Here he is in fine form, going off on Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.) Alpert argued that Cramer, for all his ranting and raving and presumed familiarity with even the darkest alleys along The Street, has lagged behind the Dow in his overall scorecard. The piece generated some buzz in finance circles, and though several people rallied to Cramer's defense (including his bosses at CNBC), the mouthy one himself had surprisingly little to say. Well, Alpert is back, this time to inform us that again in 2008, the year of the bear, Jim Cramer—the savant, the know-it-all—still ended up about 5 clicks short of the Dow. The implied question: How could someone as supposedly savvy as Cramer manage to finish behind the rest of Clueless America during a terrible year, the kind of year where even a modicum of specialized knowledge could make all the difference?
Without diving unnecessarily deep into the muck of Shamer vs. Cramer, I think there's an instructive lesson here. Actually there are two of them.
1. Looking at the stock market makes one mindful of the famous William Goldman quote about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." Meaning, the Bel Air Mafia walk around talking like they have their collective finger on the pulse of things, when in fact the reasons why a movie works or doesn't work, clicks or doesn't click, are a mystery to all. So too with stocks.In further evidence of the point: One of the reasons I write for a non-living is named Andy Tobias, an erstwhile financial journalist* who more recently has devoted his time to little things like serving as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. I met Andy when I was selling wall mirrors in Manhattan—selling wall mirrors in Manhattan being one of those surprising lowbrow ways in which a person could pull in $50,000 a year back in 1980. Andy had called to get the foyer of his ultra-nice Central Park West co-op done. (He then lived right up the street from the Dakota, best known as the place where John Lennon lived and ultimately died. I was working just a dozen or so blocks north, on the lower fringe of Harlem, the night it happened.) When you first walked into Andy's place, he had a little display case tucked demurely off the corner where the foyer turned into his living room. Positioned with utmost care in that case were his best-sellers: The Funny Money Game, Fire and Ice, and The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need.** I hadn't known who Andy was before making that turn and encountering that display, but I was duly impressed, so I began peppering him with questions about the writing life; he was patient, expansive and helpful, and within six months I'd launched my own assault on the realm, kicked off by a piece for Harper's that recounted my selling exploits. Which, come to think of it, means I should look Andy up and ream him out for having the nerve to inspire me. Dammit, it took me a decade to climb back to the $50,000 I'd been earning in sales.
2. Because of (1), most people have no business screwing around in the Market, especially if they're doing it with funds they might need in order to avoid having to subsist on cat food and Social Security someday.
Anyway, in the last of those books, Only Investment Guide, Andy wrote at length about the folly of trying to beat the market or even explain its gyrations in any kind of cogent, orderly way. (He advised readers who wanted to secure their futures to pass up stocks and instead buy things like tuna fish and toilet tissue in bulk, on sale, and the cognoscenti gave him some grief for it.) In the book, Andy cited a famous experiment that pitted a group of seasoned investment types against a chimp with a dart board. The investors were asked to analyze the charts and provide their consensus picks for besting the broad market; the chimp was asked to throw the darts at the board, to which the NYSE charts had been affixed. It took a while to get the chimp to cooperate, but finally he made his picks. The two groups of stocks were then tracked for, I believe, six months and...do I really need to tell you whose portfolio outperformed whose?
(HINT: See photo, top right.... And you thought that was Cramer? Or Andy?)
* But an extraordinarily commonsensical one.
** And talk about your basic "evergreen"! Last time I spoke to Andy, maybe 10 years ago, he told me that the book, published originally in 1978, still sold "3000 to 5000 copies a month." There are well over 1 million copies in circ now. In fact, the original hardcover from Harcourt-Brace, though long out of print, remains Amazon's #60 best-selling personal-finance book by virtue of being traded back and forth on the "used book" market. And here's the final kicker: Even though it's the "only" investment guide you'll ever need, that didn't stop Andy from publishing a sequel, Still! The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, in 1983. By that time he'd added a fourth best-seller, Invisible Bankers, on the insurance industry. Like all of Andy's work, it's a wonderful and hilariously pointed read that will change the way you look at insurance and the idea of risk in general.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Interesting, isn't it? The other day when it was announced that we'd lost some 600,000 jobs in January, the Dow jumped over 200 points. Today, as the Senate passes its version of the stimulus bill, The Street tanks. Almost 400 points lost.
Anyone who's accumulating evidence that Wall Street dances to its own rhythms and is utterly disconnected from the day-to-day foibles of Main Street* should file those two juxtapositions in a prominent place in the folder.
* I'm not saying that Wall Street is unresponsive to the overall condition of the economy. Clearly that is not the case. I am saying that things that seem like bad news to the rest of us may not necessarily be seen as bad news on Wall Street, and vice versa. Either that or Wall Street considers the news irrelevant, or has factored it into the mix a long time ago, based on projections and inside info.
Monday, February 09, 2009
So. With the current all-time home run king under indictment for offenses related to steroid use, and the crown prince today having admitted it (after being outed by SI)...what does baseball do now?
Understand what is happening here. Look at the names on the list of those who've either fessed up to juicing or are strongly suspected of it. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Rodriguez (A-Rod and Pudge), Canseco, Giambi, Pettitte, Clemens, Tejada, Palmeiro. It's the A-list, now including the A-player. Think of all the eyebrows that raised, all the indignant denials that spewed forth from clubhouses (and law offices) everywhere, in 2005 when Canseco was promoting his book and alleged that up to 85 percent of all MLB stars were juicers. The eyebrows don't shoot up quite as high these days, do they.
For a while, fans have been saying offhandedly that the steroid mess wipes out an entire era of baseball; just makes it hollow and meaningless, its stats unworthy of being counted. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree—I'm still on the fence—the idea doesn't sound nearly as offhanded anymore. It sounds more like a suggestion: Let's just wipe out all those stats. Let's say it never happened. The news about A-Rod changes things somehow. It's one thing to reflect on that whole 1998 pas-de-deux between McGwire and Sosa and think it now seems more like some crazy circus act than the miracle season that "saved baseball." But when you're talking about an active player, a guy who's just halfway through his career and is fully expected to own the most prestigious record in all of sports by the time he's finished... I repeat: What do we do now?
By the way—to give you some idea of where iconic sports stars rank in this culture—A-Rod's admission to ESPN is the lead story on Google News, before the fate of the stimulus package and the tragic Australian wildfires. It is also the first thing out of Charlie Gibson's mouth on ABC's World News Tonight.
Scheider famously spoke the line in Jaws.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 5:52 PM