Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Andy Pettitte, Cheater

Watching Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte in this postseason, I am struck by how he repeatedly gets away with balk moves. The announcers haven't ignored this, they just say that if you do something consistently, the umpires will tolerate it.

The announcers are really shirking their duty to the viewers here. They should state unequivocally that the umpires are not doing their job with their non-enforcement of the balk rule. The rule states that it is a balk if "The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery." Pettitte repeatedly starts to go to the plate, then switches in midstream and throws to first. There are other rules which apply as well, and Pettitte is allowed by the umpires to violate them all without sanction.

Pettitte is no fun to watch, he is a lousy cheater, and the umpires should be disciplined for their tolerance of his cheating. It is said part of the reason for the tolerance is that he is a veteran. Well, if it is a balk when a rookie does it, then it should be a balk when a veteran does it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

On Blackmail

A recent comment in "The New Yorker" questioned whether "blackmail", as we normally understand it, should really be a crime. He used the example of the TV producer who has been charged with extorting money from David Letterman, threatening to expose his affairs. Apparently what the threat consisted of was that he was going to make a TV movie about Letterman's affairs, unless Letterman paid him two million dollars.

The conceptual problem here is that blackmail makes it a crime to threaten to do something which you can legally do. If you can legally do it, then how in the world is threatening to do it a crime? Interpreted broadly enough, many acts which people do regularly may be perceived as "blackmail". But it should not be criminalized.

Wikipedia defines it thus: "Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing and/or socially damaging nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands in exchange for withholding it. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not."

Blackmail is to be distinguished from "extortion", which consists of threatening to do something criminal to the person if money is not paid. This clearly is, and should be, a crime.

I am reminded of the Kansas attorney who nobody liked and the bar was anxious to get rid of. He was disbarred for sending threatening letters to people prior to suing them, demanding money. The thing about this is that it is common, and the better practice, to send a demand letter prior to suit. This gives the defendant a chance to engage in negotiations toward settlement if he is so inclined. To sue somebody out of the blue, without prior notice, is certainly not good practice. And yet, the attorney was disbarred for this, showing just how far this nebulous concept of "blackmail" can be extended if you stretch it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"A Good Woman"

I typically do not like movies that are derived from stage plays. They come across as artificial, too talky, and too stagy. However, in perusing my favorite film list, I see there are some notable exceptions to this general rule. These exceptions include "Casablanca", "Inherit the Wind", "Judgment at Nuremberg", and "Fiddler on the Roof".

Halfway through "A Good Woman", I was ready to abort the viewing and send it back. But I persevered due to a desire to learn more about the genre of Oscar Wilde plays. There were a number of famous lines I had heard in the past, such as, in talking about opera, "Words that are too foolish to be spoken are sung", and "Men and women can never be friends".

Basically that is the only redeeming feature of this film, which I cannot recomend. It is based on Wilde's play, "Lady Windemere's Fan", and contains many memorable lines in which the characters are talking aobut relationships between the sexes. Coincidentally, I was reminded that I have a book of famous Wilde lines when my sister returned it after having borrowed it to read on the plane during a recent trip to Kansas. A better way to experience these lines is to read this book, rather than sit through a movie with unbelievable characters sitting around and gossiping, which is mostly what this movie consists of.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Profile of a Conservative

He came back from the Korean War and went to college on the GI Bill; bought his house with an FHA loan; saw his kids born in a VA hospital; started a hardware business with SBA loans and advice; got his electricity from TVA and, later, his water from an EPA project. His parents retired to a farm on Social Security, a farm on which they got their electricity from REA and their soil testing through USDA. When his father became very ill, the family was saved from financial disaster by Medicare and a life was saved with a drug developed through NIH research.

His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics and math in high school from teachers retrained in an NSF program, and were able to go college through the guaranteed student loans. He drove his car to work every day on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by the Army corps of engineers. When floods hit his town, a couple of years back, he took Amtrak up to Washington to apply for disaster relief.

And then--after all that was said and done--he sat down one day and wrote his Congressman an angry letter asking the federal government to get off his back, and he complained about paying taxes for all those programs created for grateful people who were getting a free ride.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Division Series Issues

1. Use of closer. In the Cardinals' second game, manager Tony LaRussa watched his starter, Adam Wainwright, pitch a masterful game, and after 8 innings the Cards had a 2-1 lead. So naturally, Wainwright went out in the 9th to finish off the game, right?

No, the Cards brought in their closer to finish the game, a guy who was not in the flow of the game and not used to the playoff atmosphere at Dodger Stadium--50,000 noisy, towel-waving fans trying to distract him. Of course, he would have been through the inning with no problem if not for Matt Holiday's two-out error when he lost a fly ball in the lights (and possibly in the white towels being waved).

But even then, he had a runner on second with two outs, but still he couldn't close the deal. It is a mystery to me why a pitcher who is still going strong is taken out like this. It makes no sense, and oldtimers are no doubt turning over in their respective graves at this type of thing in the modern game. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel showed better sense than LaRussa when he allowed his game one starter, Cliff Lee, to finish the game. LaRussa should have done likewise with Wainwright.

2. Posada vs. Molina. This one really makes my blood boil. Yankees game two starter A. J. Burnett prefers Molina to catch him and has been doing much better this year when Molina catches him. So what's the big deal about starting Molina for one game instead of Posada? Posada reacted like he had some sort of entitlement to start every game, which is absurd.

The stats in recent years have revealed many situations where a team's pitching staff has allowed a whole earned run a game less with on catcher compared to the other catcher. And the irony is that it is usually the backup catcher with the better earned runs allowed stats! Teams usually go with the better offensive catcher as the number one, ignoring the advantage they would get going with the better defensive catcher.

I can't help thinking back to my Senior year in high school. We had an outfielder, Tim Warren, who was in my class and started the first few games. Then one game the coach started a Sophomore, Tom Basinger, instead. One of my teammates complained to me that he didn't see what Tim had done wrong. My reaction was, "well, what has Tom done wrong?"

One player is not entitled to anything compared to another. To say otherwise is to buy into the "entitlement mentality" that seems to have overtaken this country. The idea seemed to be that Tim should remain as a starter, unless he commits some horrible blunder. (Similar to government workers, who can't be fired unless they commit some horrible blunder, due to due process rights.)

Moina's lifetime batting average is .237, compared to Posada's .277. This means Posada gets one more hit every 25 at bats, or one more every 5-6 games. Is this really a basis to deny Molina the chance to catch more often?

3. Umpiring blunders. Phil Cuzzi missed a call down the left-field line, calling Joe Mauer's blast a foul ball when it should have been a double. I have written on this blog about Cuzzi before, he is a bum and should be removed as an MLB umpire.

A number of sub-issues here. First, the extra two umpires added for the post-season seem useless. It has been said that the third-base umpire running out to left field really has a better view of this ball than the left-field umpire, whose initial response is to get out of the way of the ball. If so, why have these extra two umpires?

Second, what is MLB's method for evaluating umpires, and why aren't the evaluations made public? MLB claims that every game is evaluated, but where is the transparency? MLB is so worried about the game's credibility that it continues to ban Pete Rose for placing some bets many years ago, and yet it does nothing about incompetent umpires. Again, the entitlement issue rears its ugly head.

MLB should make its evaluations public, for the good of the game. The K-zone data will show which umpires call a good game and which don't--why not make this public? And why don't announcers highlight the umpiring discrepancies more? I think I know the answer to this one--their network's contract to broadcast games will probably be revoked if they are deemed to be too critical of MLB. Or, the network will retain the rights but the critical announcers will be canned.

The third issue here is the replay challenge like football has. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has publicly advocated this, saying the manager should be able to throw a challenge flag, and if upheld, he should get the flag back to use again. If the challenged call stands, then he loses the flag for the rest of the game. It would certainly disrupt the flow of the game, but isn't it worth this disruption to get the crucial calls right?

In an ideal world the worst 3-4 umpires would be replaced each year by the best 3-4 from Triple-A. But we know this will never happen. When good cause is needed for firing someone, the hardest sort of good cause to establish is sheer incompetence.

4. Baserunning blunders. There should never be blunders in the major leagues like we've seen during the past week. The Twins, so proud of their attention to the fundamentals, were guilty of two monumental blunders during the 3-game sweep by the Yanks. One guy, Gomez I believe, overran second base and was tagged out before the runner ahead of him scored, costing he Twins an important run. Then yesterday in game 3, the runner Punto rounded third too far and was thrown out at third, rally costing the Twins as they were in the process of rallying back in the late innings.

At least two of the baserunning blunders I've seen recently have been committed by pinch-runners. Again, this illustrates the problem of taking out a player who is into the flow of the game, and replacing him with someone in who is coming in cold.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"The New Season", by George F.Will

Unlike his other books (at least the ones I'm familiar with), this one is not a collection of Will's columns, but rather is a series of five long essays on politics, written in 1987, before the candidates for the 1988 election were selected. In fact, the subtitle is "A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election."

Will loves politics, saying early on that "All American elections are entertaining. They, like baseball, are dull only to the dull." In his first essay, entitled "Introduction", Will expands on this concept, saying "Politics as Americans practice it is a serous business because it is about ideas. So pay attention to the words. The public utterances of politicians, not the private machinations, are the important story."

In line with this thought, Will distinguishes between the "outside story" and the "inside story". Will cites approvingly the work of Richard Brookhiser, who argues that journalists have become too preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of political activity, i.e., the inside story. As a result, journalists have been shortchanging the outside story, which concerns the "words, themes and ideas that are the most important ingredients in elections".

Will goes on to state that "A theme of this book is that politicians' words--the most public acts of public people--matter and should be taken seriously by serious students of politics. But this does not mean that words are invariably reliable indices of a politician's probable behavior." Will says the discrepancy between the words and (later) actions is not that the politician is lying or being misleading in some way, but that "words, especially those spoken in campaigns, often express values and intentions out of the context of responsibility. This does not make the words unimportant. But it does mean that words must be examined in the cold white light of the expectation that between words and deeds fall the shadows of compromises....The problem is just that words, although important, often are not the last word in politics. Conditions often speak last and loudest."

We can certainly see this discrepancy today with Obama. Many of the things he said he wanted to do (what some would rudely call "campaign promises") are things he has not been able to accomplish. Just this morning NPR had a story on "don't ask, don't tell", which Obama clearly stated during the campaign that he wanted to abolish as it has resulted in some 400 soldiers being thrown out of the military. As Obama prepares to speak to a gay rights group, he will surely be asked about this, which seems so simple to do. I am reminded of JFK who in 1960 said that segregation in public housing was wrong and could be removed by a simple "stroke of the pen". Well, it took JFK almost two years after he became President to pick up his pen and accomplish this "stroke" to eliminate segregation in public housing. This does not mean JFK was "lying" when he made his comments, just that reality intruded.

Also in the news is word that Obama will likely not be able to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January as he said he would. Again, reality has intruded. Same for getting out of Iraq. And the biggest headache of all, Afghanistan, which Obama stressed during his campaign, is looking now like it will become Obama's biggest test in office. Will he stick to his campaign rhetoric of military action and send the additional troops being requested, or he listen to his advisers who are pointing out there is no clear strategy for success, no reasonable prospects for success, and certainly no exit strategy. What are we going to do, stay there forever and try to build a government in a country that has never been governable in the past, and is really a collection of hundreds of tribes rather than an actual nation? This truly is Obama's biggest test, and how he handles it will determine what sort of President he will be.

Will applies this principle to Reagan, and concludes that if you look at his actions rather than his rhetoric, he comes off as not nearly as radical as his rhetoric would imply. Unlike other conservative commentators who blamed Congress rather than Reagan for the huge budget deficits during the '80's, Will correctly points out that "Congress has spent about what Reagan has requested. And Congress has enacted only as many balanced budgets as he has submitted." Will goes on to say that "Reagan has supported almost all the water projects President Carter tried to kill, has supported 'swollen farm subsidies and generous farm-loan guarantees, has supported subsidized electric power and grazing fees for his Western friends, has pledged that he will 'not stand for' cuts in the biggest sector of big government (Social Security), and wants some new deficit-enlarging programs, such as tuition tax credits."

Will says that the era of "big government", if you will, started by FDR in the 1930's has been embraced by every President since, both Republican and Democrat. The idea that there was a Reagan Revolution", as idiots like Sam Donaldson like to call it, is quite false, as Will amply demonstrates. Rather than a revolution, Reagan kept us going along the same path we had been, with minor corrections. Implicit in this is the idea that there are few true conservative in politics these days, and that Republicanism today has strayed far away from its stated conservative philosophy.

The experience with the 1980's-era Grace Commission is instructive. This was a much-ballyhooed group of private citizens who were to study government and recommend ways to make it more efficient and economical. The commission came u with 2,478 recommendations. Will says the bulk of the savings were to come not from correcting "waste, fraud or abuse", but rather would involve changing policies which had been embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. The largest single chunk of savings--14% of the total--was to come from cutting federal pensions, both civilian and military. Of course that recommendation went nowhere, and Will says if Reagan had acted on, or even endorsed, the dozen or so most important of the recommendations he would have lost all fifty states when he ran for re-election in 1984.

Will acknowledges that Americans have a lot of growing up to do, and need to be talked to in a frank way instead of pandered to as both parties usually do. The disconnect which afflicts American conservatives can be illustrated by a story Fritz Hollings used to tell, which I have reproduced in the post "Profile of a Conservative".

Will then moves to the Democrats for his fourth essay. Here he discusses Arthur Schlesinger's cycle theory, which says the cycles come in 20-year intervals in American politics. This theory would have predicted a switch to the Democrats in 1988. Instead, the Republicans got four more years, but there *was* a switch in 1992 with Clinton so Schlesinger's theory holds up pretty well IMO. And the idea that the cycles can be explained by the fact that one generation of leaders inspires the next, who then come to power when they are old enough 20 years later, seems to have been demonstrated: FDR to JFK, JFK to Clinton and Obama. Of course, the bad news here is that after Obama we will get someone who was inspired by Reagan.

Will compares the Democrats to a family which inevitably has to lay down the law to its kids about use of the F-word. Yes, that rascally 4-letter word which wreaks such havoc in families. After thus teasing us, Will reveals that the dreaded word is "fair". At the end of this essay Will sums up the Democrats' task: "Just as the party must acquire foreign policies that acknowledge that the world is dangerous and there is little the United States can do to make it less so, the party also must acquire domestic policies that accept the fact that life is a corduroy road and there are limits to what government can or should do to smooth it."

I can't help but think of something Martin Dickinson, my tax law prof, once said. He said "You can't have both simplicity and fairness in the tax laws". This illustrates the Democrats' dilemma nicely. In an effort to take too many factors into account the tax code has become so complex that nobody can hope to understand it all. These complicating factors are almost all put there to make the code more "fair". (I have to put the "almost" in there, as Professor Dickinson showed us a provision inserted by Louisiana Senator Russell Long which benefited a single university in his state.)

The Democrats have attempted to smooth the corduroy road of life, to use Will's terms, and in the process have created a monster with the tax code (and other needless laws and regulations). Going to the "flat tax" advocated by some is surely going too far in the other direction. But can't we find a happy medium somewhere?

In his final essay, "Conclusion", Will again expresses his sense of wonder at the American system: "Americans have more fun than any other people, in part because their politics--their collective conversation--is so astonishingly amicable, and, all things consider, intelligent. America's political system--the day-to-day success of it, the mundane miraculousness of it--is the big news of he modern world and, I think, of human experience."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Twins Move On

Wonderfully exciting game last night between the Twins and the Tigers. Technically it was the last regular-season game, as the two teams tied for the AL Central title and needed the one-game playoff to break the tie. But it certainly had the feel of a post-season game.

Adding to the drama was the fact that it was the last regular-season baseball game in the Metrodome, as the Twins will move into their new home next year. Further drama was supplied by the Vikings game Monday night, featuring Bret Favre against his former team, the Packers. This Monday Night Football game pushed the baseball playoff game from the usual Monday to Tuesday.

Adding still more to the intrigue was that the Tigers had led the divison almost the whole season, since early May, and the Twins caught them on the final Saturday with a furious 16-4 run in September, including making up 3 games in the final 4, the first time this has ever happened.

Then there is the Tigers first-baseman Miguel Cabrera, who had provided the Tigers with a huge distraction when he got into a dometic violence situation with his wife over the last weekend of the season, getting home at 5 AM and winding up at the police station after she called the police. As it turned out, he bounced back from this and had a good game last night.

The game was back and forth the whole way, with the score even at 4-4 after 9 innings, then the 10th inning ending with the Twins' Alexi Casilla getting thrown out at home after he failed to tag up properly on a fly ball to right. His run then would have ended the game, but as it was it went into the 12th, when Casilla turned from goat to hero by driving in the winning run for the Twins, sending the packed house into a frenzy.

The Twins are quite the story. They have won the divison something like 5 out of the last 8 years, depsite being a small-market team, in an era in which small-market teams supposedly are not able to compete. How they do it should be a lesson for other teams. The Tigers, on the other hand, are loaded with high-priced stars, but couldn't quite hang in long enough to close the deal this year. Now the Twins get the Yankees in the Division Series, another team with loads of high-priced talent.

Play in the Division Series starts today with three games, the first starting at 2:30 P.M. The games are staggered so that one can watch them all. They are on TBS, which I can watch now that I have full cable (the last two years I've been limited in which post-season games I could watch). Let the games begin!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fall Arrives

Last Wednesday night (Sept. 30th) we had the year's first frost. I am looking forward to much more color from the trees now; before all we had was the dull yellow and dull brown of the Box Elders and the Mulberries, but hints of the red and orange to come are appearing now on the Oaks and Maples.

Speaking of trees, a couple weeks ago my daughter and I hiked out to the college nature preserve, and we found scads of Pawpaw trees, which I had not identified before. And the other day I found a Basswood along College Avenue, between Spring and Lawn.

First frost also means I can again sleep next to the outside air, which I haven't been able to do since August 19th.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"He's Just not that into You"

In an effort to dissuade me from keeping this movie on my Netflix queue, my daughter found a negative review by Richard Roeper and printed it out for me. I wanted to give the film a chance and I got it anyway.

Roeper must be in a long-term marriage, because he seems totally unable to empathize with the problems of single people, as depicted in this film. I will refute his many objections.

He objects that the characters are played by good-looking actors, so their problems therefore are not believable. Does Roeper not understand that being good-looking does not mean you will have no trouble with relationships? Give me a break.

He objects that the women are "clingy and often desperate". But doesn't this describe many women we all know? Of course it does.

The narrator, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, is obsessed with trying to figure out what every little thing means that a man says or does when with her. This does get a tad annoying, but the movie shows a capacity for growth in that she does eventually make a move on the man she really likes and does end up with him in a successful relationship. And some self-awareness is good; my own history shows a singular lack of self-awareness. Twice I have been asked "are you married", not realizing till later the intent behind this. And twice men have asked if I wanted to "come home for a nitecap", and I failed to realize the import of this till much later.

Roeper objects that "virtually everyone in the movie seems to be living in fabulous, spacious lofts, even though they have seemingly average jobs". First, Roeper doesn't know that the rent on these would be high-dollar, as the neighborhood is not really defined. Second, the jobs are not all "average". And third, who cares? What's the harm in showing an attractive and interesting setting for the homes of these characters.

Roeper objects that the women sit around at work and talk about personal things, but never seem to actually work. First, we all have personal conversations at work. And second, what would Roeper do, have the director clutter up the movie, which Roeper already says is too long, with scenes showing the boss yelling at them to get back to work? Again, give me a break!

The real drawback of the movie is it attempts to do too much, to show us too many characters. It is hard to develop a caring attitude towards any of them, when the movie keeps jumping around from one character to the next. In particular, it is hard to see what the Drew Barrymore character is doing in this movie.

The characters border on the cartoonish, but the one who is the most unlikeable and cartoonish is played by Jennifer Connelly, who Roeper singles out for praise, calling her "particularly strong"!

A better movie, in my opinion, would have been to focus on the Justin Long-Ginnister Goodwin relationship, and have the others come in only as they relate to that main relationship. This would allow us to devlop a caring about those two characters, and then enjoy the payoff of seeing them get together in the end. After all, many men and women go through a period of "delayed adolseence" before growing into adulthood. This is essentially what these two characters do, they grow into repsonsible adults from the adolescent clingy and desperate woman and cavalier and uncaring man that they are at the beginning of the film.