Sunday, December 28, 2008

That (Brilliant) Column Idea Seems Familiar, Sir

I'm sure it's just great minds thinking alike or coincidence or something, but this Donald G. McNeil Jr. column seems to echo an awful lot of my ideas from this piece for the Foreign Policy Association from last January (and which appeared in Cape Town's Cape Argus a couple of weeks later -- perhaps apropos of nothing McNeil is a foreign correspondent based in South Africa. Also: his argument about tribalism is dumb and self-contradictory.) I'm just sayin' is all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Starbucks, McDonalds, and Going Home

Over at the Cyber Hacienda Jaime has a great post putatively proclaiming Starbucks to be the "21st century McDonalds." But I think even more importantly the post serves as a reflection on change and personal history and the fluctuating yet permanent nature of the modern economy. And also how Starbucks is a good place for writers to work when on the road.

I would also add that the one huge difference between Starbucks and McDonalds is that Starbucks managed to help develop a coffee culture in America by taking a product that millions used, making it more sophisticated but also accessible, and charging a lot more for it than people would pay at Dunkin' Donuts. Seattle's greatest 90's-era contribution to the zeitgeist turned out not to be Nirvana and the grunge music but rather a business model that made people happily fork over insane amounts of cash for an espresso-based drink. McDonalds flourished by doing the opposite -- by making something that everybody loved and by doing it cheaply. And McDonald's is an unfathomably bad place to try to get writing done, which points out the other huge difference: Atmosphere. Starbucks has cultivated it. Yes, it's got a Starbucks-homogeneous feel to it, but in some circles that's simply known as branding.

(Some time ago I wrote a long post sort of defending Starbucks that is probably one of my top-five favorite of my blog entries of all time.)

On Recruiting

The New York Times has a great feature on the football recruiting process for one of the best prospects in the nation, Jamarkus McFarland, a defensive tackle from Lufkin, in East Texas. His choice came down to the heated Red River rivals, Oklahoma and Texas and he has verbally committed to Oklahoma.

It is hard to fathom what being recruited at that level must be like. My own experience twenty years ago, in a non-revenue sport like track & field (I was recruited by a handful of small football programs, but not with much zeal - smart programs) leads me to believe that for a big-time football or basketball player the frenzy must be both ego-boosting and seriously pressurized. By the fall of my senior year I was receiving letters and phone calls every day, mostly from DIII schools but from a number of DI programs as well, albeit mostly the Ivies and their ilk. And even for an athlete of relatively limited talents in a sport that does not exactly carry with it a great deal of status I learned quickly that recruiters run the gamut from the unctuous purveyors of sleaze to the genuinely kind, almost avuncular. One Ivy League coach called me weekly and by the time the recruiting process was done we could spend an hour on the phone. But the school was too close to home and I had decided on Williams, which was actually comparably low-key in the recruiting process.

My favorite recruiting story: I had just gotten home from football practice one afternoon when the phone rings at my Dad's farmhouse. I answer and it is the secretary from a major ACC basketball powerhouse track program. I was being recruited by their blood rival, which was another basketball power but not an especially prominent (read: "good") track program (and going to a subpar program was the only way I was going anywhere near the ACC). I assume my being on the rival's recruiting list explains the call. The secretary asked me to hold for Coach X, and as soon as he got on the line he addresses me in a Southern drawl out of central casting. He asked me about some of my performances, and then there was a pause so pregnant it could have been half of the girls in the sophomore class at my high school before he let out with this gem: "Son, that just won't fly with us." I was taken aback (being insulted is generally not part of the recruiting process, which usually involves lots of smoke going up lots of derrieres) and since I was clearly not in any position to blow a scholarship at this Tobacco Road redoubt I simply responded, "But coach, YOU called ME." I still root ardently against that team during basketball season.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Um, No

No matter what happens this weekend (and I have a hard time believing the Pats will go 11-5 and miss the playoffs, so I am going to predict an easy Pats win and a narrow Jets victory over the Dolphins to propel the Pats to another AFC East title) the Patriots are going to have a decision to make at the quarterback position. Already some (also including Thunderstick in a text message to me the other day) are beginning to spevculate whether New England would keep Cassel and trade away Brady. Let's not be premature.

Cassel has been a revelation, and has done a great deal to help vindicate Bill Belichick's coaching reputation (not that he needed it in sane circles). But it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Patriots keep him and jettison Brady. Now, that said, I would not be surprised if the Pats do something uncharacteristic by placing a vast percentage of their resources in the quarterback position by franchising Cassel in order to ensure that they have a healthy starter at the beginning of the year, and then perhaps trade one of them as things shape up, though I am not certain if it is legal to franchise a guy and then trade him, or whether a traded franchise player can be signed to a long-term deal by his new team.

At the same time, the reality is that Brady is almost certainly not going to be ready to be the player he was when the start of the season rolls around next September. This is simply the reality of the knee injury he suffered, an injury that not so long ago would have been career-threatening. And so that is where the dilemma comes in to play. Intellectually I understand the sentiment, and I know that the Patriots do not exactly operate based on sentiment. But I still have a really hard time imagining even hard-hearted Belichick placing Brady, who played a significant role in turning his hoodie-adorned head coach into a genius, on the trade market in favor of Matt Cassel, no matter how painful losing Cassel is likely to be. Whatever Brady's condition in September, it is a pretty good guess what he'll be by December. And December is pretty important in the NFL.

Uncertain Principles

I just realized that my friend and college classmate Chad's brilliant blog Uncertain Principles is not on my blogroll. It used to be on the blogroll of my old blog and then I changed blogs and he changed servers, and well, you know the age-old story. Chad is a physicist at Union College and is a really sharp guy with a range of interests. He's back on the blogroll and I promise you he is worth a daily read.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bad Predictions

Andrew Sullivan is holding a vote for his end of year awards. The Von Hoffman Award goes to the worst, most brazenly arrogant wrong predictions of the year. Here are the nominees. Sullivan also directs us to Foreign Policy's 10 Worst Predictions for 2008. Feel free to dig up a few of mine. I'm sure they are not all that hard to find.

The Paradox of the State University

A large swath of American institutions of higher learning are hugely dependent on tuition to cover expenses. This includes a sizable percentage of private institutions, including fairly elite ones such as St. Olaf College. But this also is the lot of many small state schools, such as my own, that do not draw in huge amounts of state money because they are not big enough to make up more than a negligible representation in state funding formulas. So the irony is that while increasingly applicants are giving schools like mine a second look, these schools are also finding our budgets cut preemptively out of a fear of what might happen. We are actually doing a good job of drawing students, are holding up our end of the bargain, as it were, and yet soon enough will be asked to do more with less. And of course as well all know from the last season of The Wire, you never do more with less, admin-speak notwithstanding. You do less with less.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Airport Eatin'

In today's Sunday New York Times travel section "The Frugal Traveler," Matt Gross, has a feature on eating at airports. Fortunately despite what it sometimes seems out there in the sterile world of airports it's not all Chili's Too and limited-menu McDonalds franchises. I'd also recommend the Oscar Mayer Weiner Hot Dog Construction Company in Atlanta's madhouse of an airport, which is operated by my friend and college teammate, Boogie. If you go and ask for Boogie, tell him that Vinnie sent you. (Ahhh, college nicknames. Though no one there will know who the hell you're talking about if you ask for Boogie. Ask for Stu.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Death Penalty and the Granite State

First off, let me be clear right up front: I oppose the death penalty. I do so ardently. The deterrent argument is absurd, the poor and minorities are disproportionately subjected to its whims, and the consequences of being wrong, as we increasingly know has happened in recent decades, ought to be unconscionable. And so when I saw that New Hampshire is set
to execute someone for the first time since 1939 I had more than a passing interest.

And then I saw that he is black. And I could not help but be cynical. New Hampshire is blessed by having pretty low violent crime rates. But those violent crime rates are not nonexistent. Yet the first person sentenced to death in the Granite State in more than fifty years (and those individuals did not die at the hands of the state because of the Supreme Court's decision more than a decade later that the death penalty was unconscionable) is black, in a state with an infinitesimal black population? Color me cynical.

Now there is the X factor. (And this might get me into trouble.) You see, Michael Addison killed a Manchester cop, and as we all know, killing a cop is a capital offense. But why? Why is a cop's life worth more than mine or my wife's or any of my friends or members of my family or the vast majority of the American population? I know the theoretical argument: Cops put their lives on the line every time they put on the uniform. But this is sort of bullshit. No, let me rephrase that: It's actually complete bullshit. I'd be very curious to know whether more cops died last year at the hands of assailants than did, say, construction workers doing their jobs. And I'd be especially curious to know how many cops killed people "in the line of duty" who maybe did not deserve to die, as opposed to how many, again, let's say construction workers, killed people.

And maybe my bias comes from being a native of a small town in New Hampshire where cops most decidedly did not put their lives on the line, but did take their power to its very puffed-up limits whenever dealing with, well, anyone. I guess at the end of the day, I'm pretty sceptical of the heroism rhetoric. You know what I'm talking about. It's the whole post 9/11 dialogue that has done a pretty good job of chilling dissent. Cops and firemen and soldiers have become heroes not by virtue of what they actually do as cops and firemen and soldiers, but simply by virtue of being cops and firemen and soldiers. In another political climate, this standard would be simply silly, and in reality it is inane and ought to be called as much. People become cops and firemen and join the military for a whole host of reasons. And in the line of duty they act in a host of ways, some, but relatively few, heroically.

In any case, New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the country, is about to execute the first person the state has put to death since 1939. And that person is a black male. Forgive me for being cynical. But I am calling bullshit on my home state.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blog Meme: Stuff You've Done

Via Itinerant Thinker comes this blog meme. Highlight in bold all the stuff that you've done. (I've added bold parenthetical asides for those I've come close to but not actually done in the most literal sense):
1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain

9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort

25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping

27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset

31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person

34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language

37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance

47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (I echo IT's question: why are so many of these about Paris?)
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling (I'm assuming that grabbing a snorkel and swimming in shallow water at the beach as a kid does not count)
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater

55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma (Though donating blood, or even having blood tests where they take more than trace amounts really makes me sick)

65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial

71. Eaten caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle

79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book (You can order Bleeding Red here or Freedom's Main Line here! Yes, I'm shameless.)
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car (Closest is my current car, which was basically a dealer car that I bought with 4000 miles on it. I'll probably never buy a brand-spanking new vehicle if there is something available with really low mileage on it.)
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper

85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House (Like IT I've never gone inside)
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox (I honestly have no idea)
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury (I have done jury duty but have always gotten excused before the moment of truth)
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club (I'm assuming they mean some sort of reading club, and not History Book Club or something like that.)
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee

100. Ridden an elephant (Though I do have some good elephant stories from Africa.)

By my count either 53 or 54 depending on my chicken pox status.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stadiums and Terrorism: Self Indulgence Alert

The latest issue, published this week, of the new online magazine The Public Sphere includes an essay of mine, "Stadiums and Terrorism," in which I address the piecemeal, showy-but-empty approach to combating terrorism that we continue to take more than seven years after 9/11. I use stadium security as a backdrop. Here is a sample:
Prevention of a stadium attack will come in the form of vigilance, intelligence, and competence, rather than slapdash and showy efforts to appear tough. A little sanity would also go a long way in bringing a level of reasonableness to our discussions. When you enter a stadium on a hot day and are drinking a bottle of water, scare stories from the news notwithstanding, the odds that your water will become a deadly weapon are almost nil. It is hard not to be cynical about a policy that happens to profit the concessionaires who sell overpriced drinks without demonstrably increasing safety. It also inspires less, not more, confidence if our official approach to matters of terrorism and security seems reactive to news stories or rumors rather than part of a rational and comprehensive strategy. Meanwhile, if I had hidden a gun in my waistband, security would not have noticed because they did not bother checking. In terms of odds, I would surmise that an attack at a big game will more likely come from someone wielding a gun than someone wielding a half-empty bottle of water.

Let me know what you think. And read the entire issue -- it is a publication very much worth your while.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ranking the College Bowl Games

Because even the most insane among us cannot watch them all, Stewart Mandel ranks the college bowl games from the best (Oklahoma-Florida) to the worst (the December 28 Independence Bowl, featuring 7-5 Louisiana tech versus 6-6 Northern Illinois).

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Darfur Crisis (Self Indulgence Edition)

The Foreign Policy Association has published a lengthy piece that I have been working on for quite a while, "Never Again," Again: The Darfur Crisis. It is also available in .pdf, with footnotes, here.

The Opening paragraph:

The pattern is relentless, bleak, frustrating, and odiously predictable. The leadership of Sudan and its murderous minions engage in brazen and cynical acts of murder and foment chaos, either directly or by proxy. The rest of the world responds tepidly if it responds at all. Sudan oversteps, the world criticizes, hinting of ramifications to come. Sudan backs off just long enough for the goldfish-length attention span of the western powers to turn their attentions elsewhere. And then the self-preserving thugs in Khartoum return almost immediately to their cruel and rapacious ways.
[Crossposted at the FPA Africa Blog.]

The Assist

There is a specific genre of books that I'll fall for every time. The writer embeds himself with a team for a season, or a year, or longer, providing the insights not only of the dynamics of a sports team, but in the best cases, also of the humanity at the heart of sports. The latest of these, and one of the best, that I enhaled pretty much in one sitting is Neil Swidey's The Assist, which follows Charlestown (Massachusetts) High School's basketball team over the course of three years. Heartbreaking and tragic, it also just came out in paperback with a new epilogue, meaning that just weeks after buying the hardcover I am going to have to shell out for the paperback. (In other words: One of you may be receiving The Assist for Christmas.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Utah v. Boise State

Awesome! Now that the DI college football season is done, and given that one of the justifications for not having an actual national championship tournament is that the regular season is in effect a playoff, I am thrilled that we will have a legitimate national champion decided between the only two undefeated teams: Utah and Boise State!

That should be a great game. And by going undefeated, you've earned your opportunity!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Advice

When the nice lady who owns the Thai restaurant warns you that the hot version of the meal you are ordering is "very, very hot," you should probably trust her.

That's some friendly Friday advice from dcat, who is weeping openly as his tongue blisters.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai, America, and the Global Community

This David Ignatius column in The Washington Post on the Mumbai terrorist attacks asks some important questions. I am always astounded when I hear about how safe Bush administration policies have made us. And I am reminded of how profoundly we have devalued our alliances these last eight years. For while there have been no attacks on United States soil (note: We went longer between attacks on US soil during the Clinton administration and into the first eight months of this one, so the "kept us safe" meme is a bit fraudulent in any case) our allies have certainly faced the horrors of terrorism. Madrid, London, Mumbai, and of course Israel have all faced terrorist attacks. American solipsism has led too many to assume that 9/11 somehow made us singularly victimized and thus singularly virtuous. If, as many have asserted, 9/11 ended the American holiday from history, perhaps 1/20 will mark the end of our holiday from the responsibilities of (and not just expectations from) our alliances.

David Ignatius is right that we, the United States, almost certainly will face future threats of terrorist attacks. But it is equally important to recognize that we, as part of a larger world, have been facing these challenges regularly, and that triumphalism about supposed successes on the home front should not cloud our judgment as to the realities of the world.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Obama Fills the Cabinet

This Michael Gerson column in The Washington Post commends the moderation of Obama's choices for cabinet and other positions thus far. But I am truly unclear what Gerson (whose column is actually quite good) or anyone else expected. Keep in mind: the attempts to paint Obama as a dangerous radical did not work, and they did not work largely because, foundationless as they were, such accusations were idiotic. Obama's judgment and temperament are his strengths, neither of which attributes could be credited to John McCain by the end of the campaign.

Obama is a serous person who, up to now, is making serious choices. The only people who should be surprised by this are people who continued to insist, after the longest, most in-depth election cycle in history, that we did now know who Barack Obama was.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The BCS Mess

Courtesy of this guy comes the heads up about a blistering Jason Whitlock column in which the Big sexy takes square aim at ESPN and fires repeatedly. Now Whitlock has more than his share of sour grapes about ESPN, and his hook into the column, the (he believes overlooked and dismissed) success of Ball State's football team comes with the caveat that Whitlock not only is an alum of Ball State, he played football for them. That said, many of his criticisms hold true.

Whitlock's column once again reminds us of the problematic nature of how the NCAA decides its postseason in college football. In every other sport, indeed in every other division of college football, championships are decided by players on the floor, field, track, pool, court, pitch, or what have you. But not big time college football, where these things are decided (the passive voice is intentional) by an unwieldy agglomeration of polls of journalists and coaches and a secretive computer program. And yet every week during the season the pollsters get it wrong, then blithely go back on tv or in their columns and explain why this time they have it right and how dare you question their judgment. the computers don't have a much better success rate.

And as we've seen this year, with three undefeated teams from non-BCS conferences, two of which are almost certain to be shut out of the BCS bowls, even an 8-team playoff would not do the trick. I still advocate, as I have in the past, a 16 team playoff whereby every conference winner gets a bid to the tournament, with remaining spots chosen at-large by a committee very much like the one that chooses the Big Dance for college basketball. One of the main arguments in favor of the current system is that every week there is a de facto playoff, and the regular season means so much. Which is hogwash. Otherwise the three undefeated teams from non-BCS schools would populate those top four spots with Alabama, Texas would rank ahead of Oklahoma, having beaten the Sooners when the two teams played on a neutral field, and USC and Penn State would have every opportunity to compete for the national championship with their one-loss teams, rather than almost certainly be relegated to also-ran status because people have decided that a one-loss team from the SEC or Big Twelve is better than other one-loss teams.

A (minimum) 16-team playoff is the only plausible and legitimate solution. Too bad we are years away from sanity prevailing.