Thursday, January 29, 2009

See Those Bootstraps? Pull Them Up

Ford Motor Company is apparently doing everything it can to lean out its operations and avoid taking government bail-out money. Despite posting an annual loss of $14.6 billion, Ford seems to have a viable plan for working through the economic downturn. Although it will be skimming just above the minimum operating reserve level for a while, it is trimming billions in costs and restructuring other costs to keep its head above water.

In my opinion, of the Big Three, Ford has the best products and the best hope for the future. Kudos to Ford management for buckling down, doing the dirty work of cutting costs while still designing and building above-average products (admittedly, the bar is set pretty low by the domestic automakers). The big players in the banking industry -- and the state of California -- should take note.

Good Hoops Tonight

Programming note: Number 1-ranked Duke taking on number 4-ranked Wake Forest made for good theater last night. Tonight, the lightly regarded West Coast Conference gets its momentum the national spotlight. No. 18 St. Mary's takes on No. 25 Gonzaga in Spokane on ESPN2. While these teams do not have Duke's pedigree, the action should be intense as St. Mary's tries to validate its 18-1 start against the only team in the conference that has attained any recognition outside of the region.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Thrill Is Back!

My favorite baseball player of my youth, Will Clark, has returned to the San Francisco Giants as a special assistant. The Giants make unusually good use of their former players. The greatest Giant of all, Willie Mays, is a fixture in the clubhouse, and legends like Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda make regular appearances with the team, minor leaguers and fans. Now Clark, the most prominent Giant of the 80's and early 90's and the lighting rod who sparked the Giants to success after years of ineptitude on the field (making the organization an attractive prospect for Barry Bonds), has returned to the fold in a similar capacity.

The position is little more than marketing, but the Giants' managing general partner correctly notes that a large segment of the Giants' fan base grew up following the Clark-era Giants. That generation is of season-ticket-buying age, so this is a wise move.

As a general rule, I don't fawn over professional athletes, but Will Clark is my one exception. I don't understand why, but any baseball fan who has that one guy he admires over all others knows the feeling. In my mind, everything good that happened with the Giants in that era flowed from Clark's talent and intensity.

Good things are starting to happen to the Giants as they shake off the Bonds era like a pleasant dream that ended with a sudden, inexplicable plunge off a cliff. Young, somewhat talented players (I have to be realistic), with truly talented players in the pipeline waiting to be called up, paired with a pitching staff that includes three Cy Young Award winners (including its most recent recipient) spells good things for the future. Adding The Thrill to the mix just makes it all the more sweet.

Digital Killed the Radio Star

I may be late to this party, but I'm no less enthusiastic for it. The neatest little program I've found recently is Pandora, which compiles and plays song lists for its user based upon the user's musical preferences. It has been around awhile, but I don't generally listen to music on the computer, so I haven't used it until recently. What makes it truly a killer app is that it is now available for free for the iPhone, the magical little iPod/phone/computer on-the-go. Now I can listen to a semi-random set of songs during my commute that includes music that goes outside my own collection.

(I have spared the world my feelings about the iPhone even though I have had one for a while. Giddiness doesn't translate well to the computer screen.)

I don't know how they manage the rights, but it is the best little radio station ever.

Starting with Toad the Wet Sprocket, in half an hour Pandora has given me the Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, Jack Johnson, Matt Nathanson, Coldplay and R.E.M. It's everything "sensitive college guy" needs! Of course, this musical suite is accompanied by a complementary set of "we shouldn't date, I wouldn't want to mess up our friendship, y'know?" tokens that are mysteriously distributed to all pretty college girls, who inevitably cash them in while happily having a study session so they can see sensitive college guy's meticulously crafted class notes.

Thankfully, once upon a time I found one pretty college girl who decided not to cash in that chip.

That Concludes the (Analog) Broadcast Day

The House has voted down a proposal to delay the date upon which all television stations must switch from analog to digital broadcasts. The switch, mandated by Congress in 2005 to occur on February 17, 2009, is intended to free up bandwidth for other commercial and emergency service uses.

Older TVs that pull in signal off the air must be fitted with a converter box in order to avoid being turned into complicated paperweights (cable and satellite customers, or those who use antennas with relatively new TV sets, will not be affected). There is a tempest in a teapot in Washington about poor, rural Americans who will suffer without a delay in the switchover deadline because they have been confused by this whole thing. That seems to be an unneccessary fight. Anyone who has watched a broadcast television station for more than a few minutes over the last year has seen public service advertisements notifying the watching public of the upcoming changeover and the government vouchers that are available to defray $40 of the cost of the converter box. The voucher system has run up again a spending cap that has been impacted by the vaporizing economy, but the converter boxes can be purchased without the voucher for as little as $40.

We have a television that will go dark on February 17th. Like most people, I suspect, I have been to busy with other things to apply for the voucher and pick up a converter box (translation: too lazy). We get snowy reception on that TV under the best of circumstances anyway, so it will not be too great a loss. We plan to run the satellite feed to that room eventually, which will cure the problem. Until then, we might just have to go without the Today Show with our morning Cheerios.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Internet Time Waster of the Month, Artistic Division

If you ever felt the need to search Flickr for images, this is an elegant way to do it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Internet Time Wasters of the Month

If you always yearned to be a shop foreman, coordinating the construction of widgets, here is the Flash game for you.

The key to the task is to get everything done in the right order; if one step is out of place, the whole thing fails. Frankly, it makes me a little tense. Fortunately, I can soothe my frazzled nerves with the free-flowing Loops of Zen.

A tip o' the hat to Meg.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Share My Pain

Being a parent means losing all the poise and dignity you spent a young lifetime building up, in small, jagged fragments, one teachable moment at a time.

Kelly is taking a music appreciation class that has ignited her appreciation of the wide world of music for the first time. The course has covered everything from Bach to the Beastie Boys. I love that she has begun to learn the cultural language with which I am so familiar: Beatles, Mozart, jazz and rock.

It's all great until my sweet daughter says as she examines the lyrics to a song in her materials, "Dad, I know I've heard this song, but I can't think of how it goes. Can you sing it?"

I've sung many times, with many people, in front of many more people, in many countries. I long ago lost any trepidation about singing. I did not, however, think I had any more shame to lose.

Until Saturday morning, when Kelly asked me to sing "Stayin' Alive."

I had actually never known the lyrics until I started belting them out in my best BeeGee's falsetto at the breakfast table. Michael's cereal spoon slowly returned to his bowl as he watched, mouth agape, as I ripped through the ridiculous 1970s ultra-white wanna-be-tough-guy disco lyrics. Kelly thanked me, but I think it was just so that I would stop.

The worst part was not the weirdness of belting out a BeeGees tune to my daughter, who reacted with the expected amount of "oh geez, Dad" facial expression that I expect to see much more of over the next few years. No, the worst part is how quickly and tenaciously the song fastened itself to the forefront of my consciousness, following me around like a light fog for the rest of the day and most of the next.

"Whether your a brother or whether you're a mother you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Ah ah ah ah stayin' aliiiiiii iiiiii iiiii iiiive..."


What's Old Is New Again

Stirring, forceful words:

... [O]ur distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

A preview of President Obama's inauguration address?

Not exactly. It is an inauguration address, though ... from March 4, 1933, FDR's first.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Good Times for Local Hoops

The college basketball season is in full swing, and life is good in the Bay Area. Not only are the Cal Bears ranked No. 23 in the country, but our local St. Mary's Gaels have cracked the top 25, grabbing the 25th spot in the ESPN/USA Today poll. St. Mary's, which is a tiny college five minutes from us, sits atop the West Coast Conference, the same conference as the annual March Madness darling Gonzaga (not ranked). St. Mary's features an Australian Olympian and one of the country's leading rebounders, and appears poised to make a run deep into March.

We planned to go to the first home game of the conference schedule last Friday. We forgot that a team that plays in what amounts to a mid-sized high school gym is likely to sell out its games, especially when playing so well. I discovered too late that the game was indeed sold out. We missed a dandy. The Gaels beat local rival Santa Clara with a three-point basket with 2.6 seconds remaining in the game. We need to get over there to be a part of the great atmosphere that comes from a good college basketball game, especially in a small gym; there is little in the world of spectator sports that compares.

I can't help but notice that among the victims of St. Mary's 15-1 start is a little school called the University of Oregon. Interestingly enough, before Ernie Kent returned to his alma mater to coach the Ducks in 1997, he spent seven years coaching ... St. Mary's. How do you like them Gaels now, Ernie?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

If There Are Helicopters Overhead, It Can't Be Good

Oakland is staging its own Rodney King revival, albeit in a much more tragic way. A 22 year old man was shot and killed at a BART station by a BART policeman in the early hours of New Years Day. The man was being restrained by several BART policemen, who had been called to the scene to break up a large altercation on the train. There have been reports that the officer may have thought he was pulling a tazer instead of his gun, and it is unclear how much the victim was resisting arrest or to what degree the charged atmosphere with numerous angry youths contributed to the escalation in the use of force. The undeniable end result, however, was a horrible mistake by the officer and a terrible tragedy for the victim's family.

The event did not become a major story until video taken by several witnesses on their cell phones surfaced some days later. The videos have been widely viewed on the internet, which has fueled a new storm of outrage. Yesterday afternoon, a protest at the BART station where the shooting took place turned into a full-blown riot by early evening. Later in the evening, the demonstration/riot transitioned to downtown Oakland. A number of store windows were broken half a block from by office, among other places. TV and police helicopters spent much of the morning today overhead, monitoring what I presume was another march, likely starting from the BART offices.

There is no way for this to end well, unfortunately. It begins with the basic tragedy of the death of a young man who, though he may not have been cooperating fully with the police, did not appear to be placing the officers in mortal danger. What makes it far worse is the belief some people have (some of whom are self-acknowledged anarchists) that the appropriate way to respond to an event like this is to destroy things. This article from the San Francisco Chronicle paints a bleak picture of the base motivations of the people behind the random violence. To pick one example, one person participating in the riot, described in the article as a young black woman, had no sympathy for the black woman who owns Creative African Braids, a hair salon a couple of blocks from my office that had its windows broken. "I feel like the night is going great," the protester said. "She should be glad she just lost her business and not her life,"

It is easily understandable that community outrage would follow what appears to be a totally unjustifiable use of force by a police officer that resulted in the death of a young man. It is not unexpected that cries of racism would be a prominent feature of that outrage, since the victim was black and the officer is not. It is shameful, however, that some people believe that the best way to express outrage is to injure, loot and destroy the property of innocent bystanders, especially when many of those bystanders share your race and your outrage.

This will probably calm down for the time being, until the trial of the officer (who has not yet been charged) takes place. I was in the Bay Area the weekend the Rodney King verdicts were announced. Even though the biggest riots took place in Los Angeles, San Francisco was a ghost town as people stayed inside until the tension dissipated. If the officer is aquitted, or found guilty of a crime less than murder (the charge the community is clamoring for), this will be a very tense place for a while.