Friday, February 26, 2010

Citius, Altius, Fortius ... Fecundius?

Olympic athletes represent the pinnacle of human physical ability (except, perhaps, for curlers). "Faster, higher, stronger" is an apt phrase for the Olympic motto.

Olympians do not confine their prodigious capabilities to their chosen sporting arenas, apparently. The 7,000 athletes and officials have nearly exhausted their supply of 100,000 complementary condoms. That's 14 condoms per person, gone. In news sure to ease the concerns of all involved, an emergency supply of 8,500 additional prophylactics has been rushed to Vancouver.

This is in Vancouver. A lovely little city on the cozy west coast of prim, polite Canada. What will happen to the world's stock of latex in 2016, when the summer games take place in Rio de Janeiro, whose very name is synonymous with sensual decadence? NBC will have to run its telecasts at night just to guard the morals of our youth. So the International Olympic Committee got its knickers in a twist over a few female Canadian hockey players swigging beer on the ice after they won the gold medal? Committee members had better pack some defibrillators when they head to Rio.

The Horror

Due to some technical glitch, I was without e-mail or Internet access for six hours yesterday. That was the day, of course, that I also left my iPhone at home for probably the second time in 18 months I have had it. That left me with absolutely no ability to contact or hear from the rest of the world, other than my office telephone.

Please don't take my interwebs away again.

Except for those rare occasions when I will intentionally substitute an ever-present connection to the Internet with overpowering natural beauty (camping in the high Sierras, sipping daiquiris on a South Pacific beach), I'm afraid I am too far gone to be saved. I have been assimilated into the technological web. The temporary inability to look up random facts on a whim, like the altitude of Nepal's capital city or Sandy Koufax's winning percentage (Kathmandu, 4,600 feet - surprisingly low - and .655 - highest in history, respectively) left me with the shakes and clammy hands.

As that noted blogger, Scarlett O'Hara, tweeted, "As God is my witness, I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be offline again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be offline again!"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adventures In Advertising

The sport of basketball, and especially its collegiate variant, is particularly vulnerable to influence by gamblers. Although it is a team game, individuals have a much greater effect on the outcome of games than in other popular team sport. Football squads are too big for a single player (other than, perhaps, the quarterback) to influence the outcome of the game. Although baseball is nominally a team game, its unique structure boils down to a series of individual confrontations between pitcher and batter, with random outcomes dictated by where the ball happens to be hit. In contrast, only five players are on the floor in basketball at any one time, which allows each of them the opportunity to have a significant impact on game action. Basketball is particularly prone to point shaving, the preferred illicit tactic of professional gamblers.

The NCAA has an uneasy detente with gambling interests. It educates its student-athletes about the dangers of gambling and tries to prevent gambling scandals at its institutions. However, the annual NCAA men's basketball tournament is one of the biggest and most popular gambling events in the world. People who have never set foot in a casino or horse track routinely throw a few dollars into their office bracket pool every March. It is a practice that the NCAA, the IRS and the FBI are powerless to stop.

College basketball players, like college students of all stripes, are particularly vulnerable to influence the gamblers because they are, generally speaking, poor. The promise of a cash payout for simply having a bad shooting night can be difficult for a morally conflicted basketball player to resist. Many institutions with prominent basketball teams have fallen victim to point shaving scandals, most recently Arizona State.

All of this makes what I heard on the radio yesterday particularly jarring. Stanford, rightfully known for drawing the best and brightest to its campus, aired a radio ad for its men's basketball team. The tagline at the end of the ad was, "we’re all in." Of all the slogans Stanford could have used to express enthusiasm and commitment to a cause, why use a well-known poker phrase?

I have no particular beef with gambling, but I think the dangerous influence major gambling interests can have on college student-athletes is obvious. For that reason, the "appearance of impropriety" that governs the ethical conduct of judges and lawyers is a concept relevant to collegiate athletics. Stanford is needlessly relying on gambling terminology to advertise its upcoming basketball game, unnecessarily dragging a shadow over its sport and institution. Stanford's opponent in the game advertised on the radio? Arizona State.

(Could it be that Stanford's clever band of tricksters in the athletic department intentionally alluded to gambling because the opponent is Arizona State? I'd say there is a slight chance of that; if it were confirmed that any member of the notorious Stanford band was involved in the production of the radio spot, that likelihood goes straight to 100%.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Overdue Thanks

As the news industry turns its focus to economy's struggle to survive under its own weight and the intensified war in Afganistan, let's not forget the work of our men and women in Iraq. Thankfully, the military's activities in that region have largely disappeared from the front pages, not because its efforts are not worthy of comment, but because the customary criteria for major coverage (failure, real or perceived) has not been applicable in quite some time.

Among the many units over there, the Oregon National Guard's 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team has been serving with distinction in Iraq since last May. The best news is the last line in the linked report: "The 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team will return to Oregon in May."

Well done, Sgt. Beverly. Keep up the good work, and come home safe and on time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Least Surprising News Story of theYear

File this under the category "Dog Bites Man":

"Man on 'bad trip' found hugging tree in Santa Cruz."

A 23 year old transient was picked up in Santa Cruz for public intoxication, hugging a palm tree while on a self-described "bad LSD trip."

Turning now to other equally shocking news, there are reports coming out of Beverly Hills that a Mercedes Benz parked next to a BMW. And in Omaha, Nebraska today, McDonald's sold a cheeseburger.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sparkling Vistas

As the eastern seaboard hunkers down under record snowfalls, Los Angeles is bidding farewell to its latest bout with crummy weather. The unexpectedly heavy rainfall this past weekend finally loosened the La Canada hillsides denuded by last fall's wildfires.

The payoff for storms in LA, though, is the natural beauty the area displays after it has been scrubbed clean by rain. In the winter, that includes snow in the mountains that form the northern boundary of the region.

The Mt. Wilson webcam that supplied dramatic views of those oncoming wildfires even as it seemed to chronicle its own demise seems to have survived just fine:

In larger form, this is my new desktop picture.

Friday, February 05, 2010

An Epic Journey

Two months from now, we'll be on the biggest adventure of our lives. We will be taking a trip, over the kids' spring break, to carry through on our promise to visit our old friends wherever they find themselves posted by the United States State Department . We visited them twice at their first post, in the Bahamas. Go figure.

Like the classic Clipper Pan Am routes of old, at the beginning of April we will be winging our way from San Francisco to our friends' current assignment Shanghai, China.

Today we booked passage on one of these:

Don't recognize it? It is the livery of Asiana Airlines. One of Korea's two major airlines, Asiana is generally considered to be one of the finest airlines for customer service in the world.

Our original travel preference was for a 13-hour nonstop United flight between San Francisco and Shanghai. However, because of uncertainties about medical bills a couple of months ago, we were unable to commit to the trip when that flight’s prices were at its lowest. With that flight now 40% more expensive, we were forced to look at lower-cost alternatives that still did not unduly extend the total travel time. For a while, we were considering an Air China flight that was only three hours longer because of a stopover in Beijing. However, the online reviews from various sources are uniformly terrible for that airline. If you are going to be trapped in a metal tube for 13 straight hours, basic comfort and cleanliness take on greater importance than they might otherwise for short haul trips.

By the time we started to have real misgivings about the Air China option, only three tickets were left, which took it out of contention. The next lowest cost flight was a combined United/Asiana flight that was significantly longer and had two stops. However, the more we looked at it, the more we realized that it might work very well for us. The first leg is simply a United flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles late in the evening. We were planning to take the kids out of school for Thursday and Friday of the week we left anyway; we realized that we could also travel late Wednesday night if the flight scheduling required it. The second leg of the flight, on Asiana, goes from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea. After a moderate layover, it is only a one-hour hop to Shanghai, arriving Friday morning.

By taking this flight, we would be able to arrive about eight hours earlier in Shanghai than we originally expected, without taking any additional time off from work or school. More importantly, not only is the flight cheaper than the nonstop we originally targeted, but we may well have a more pleasant travel experience. Everything we have read about Asiana and Seoul’s Incheon Airport suggests that the travel itself might actually be a pleasurable part of the trip, not simply something to be endured. The airport, in particular, sounds like a marvel for the weary traveler. Having the opportunity to refresh ourselves before the short hop from Seoul to Shanghai to see our friends could prove to be very beneficial.

The delights of the Orient await. This trip will undoubtedly be a lifetime highlight for each of us.

That doesn't mean we aren't already looking forward to our next visit to our diplomatic buddies. Their next posting: the Barbados.

China is exotic and all, but there are some real attractive advantages to becoming a specialist in Caribbean issues.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Boys of Summer in Winter

It is common knowledge that elite athletes become so through a combination of God-given talent and sheer hard work. At the youth level, there is a long-established dual track system of recreational leagues and competition leagues. Up until now, both kids have been involved only in recreational leagues, which generally require 60 to 90 minutes of practice a week plus a game on the weekend. The amount of competitive fire in the team depends solely on the motivations of the individual players. Having fun and learning the sport are the hallmarks of recreational leagues

Starting this week, Michael stepped up to a competitive league for baseball. He loves the sport and has been excited to do this ever since last season ended. We bought all the gear, attended the preseason meetings, and hit the ground running on Monday.

And running.

And running.

As he got into the car on Tuesday evening after his second 90 minute practice in as many days, Michael sighed and said "I had no idea baseball was this much work." Michael's practices have consisted of simple throwing and catching drills and footwork/running drills, all conducted at a high pace. (There are not too many other ways to keep 12 eight-year-old boys engaged in any activity for more than an hour.)

Because the school district is fanatically protective of its fields, all of the league's teams have been forced to practice on blacktop this week due to a little bit of wet weather. Given the basic nature of the skills Michael and his teammates need to develop, this has not been a serious impediment. It has not prevented them from working very hard at those basic skills.

The only kid at the practice is smaller than Michael is the coach’s six-year-old son who tags along (and, frankly, shows more skill than all but about three of the players actually on the team), but Michael's throwing and catching are among the best on the team, and the others are improving rapidly. Michael is reasonably quick as well, but he is so small that it is all he can do to keep up with some of his taller teammates (i.e., all of them). This weekend, Michael will have another four hours of practice. Weather permitting, the boys will be allowed to use the fields and start hitting for the first time. That is sure to be chaotic but great fun as well.

The progress all of the boys have made in just two days of practice is remarkable, and illustrates the most fundamental difference between recreational leagues and competitive leagues. There is simply not enough time in recreational leagues to practice enough to develop skills quickly or significantly. In a competitive league, the pace and duration of practice is dramatically higher, with corresponding results. In addition, the teams will practice for a month before games begin, so that their skills will have developed significantly before they have to learn to use them in game situations.

Thankfully, Michael loves baseball. He is tired after practice, but he plays because he enjoys the game. As long as that remains true, the extra workload will be a joy, not a burden.