Thursday, August 28, 2008

Setting the baseball blogosphere on fire

A friend of mine posted to my facebook that I had "set the [Toronto Blue] Jays blogosphere on fire" with a question I wrote to The Toronto Star's resident baseball expert, Richard Griffin. I thought he was just gently mocking me for having been a neurotic enough baseball fan that I wrote the letter in the first place, but it seems like people have actually latched on to my question and Griffin's response - most of the comments (which are at the bottom of that link to the blog) that readers have posted are in support of my position, the blog Drunk Blue Jays Fans wrote a satirical game report based on Griffin's reasoning, and the question and answer has been picked up on the sports journalism blog FIRE JOE MORGAN. (Catchphrase: "Where Bad Sports Journalism Comes to Die")

Now the response was a bad one, though not because he gave a poor answer to my question. Rather, it was that the answer he supplied was to a question I didn't ask - I was questioning the reasoning behind the expression "a career year" for a given player, (in this case A.J. Burnett) and Griffin's response didn't address how or why the term it used, instead pouncing on my use of fantasy baseball language and chiding me obsessing over statistics.

The irony, of course, was that Griffin attempted to undercut my argument that Burnett's "career year" has actually been his worst year by producing more (and, I should add, more problematic) statistics - he arbitrarily divided Burnett's season in 7 "bad" starts and 22 "good" starts, arguing that the 22 good starts make him worthy of "career year" status. And the numbers do look good - Burnett has an ERA over 10 in the bad starts, while it's just under 3 in the good ones.

But, unsurprisingly, jettisoning the poorest 1/4 of a pitcher's outings makes any and every pitcher look far better. I posted a few examples of how this logic can be used for every pitcher to Griffin's blog, ending with the most damning example: Barry Zito. Zito, for those who don't follow baseball particularly closely, is in the 2nd year of a 7 year contract in which he is being paid about $20 million per annum to produce statistics which rank him among the worst starting pitchers in professional baseball. And while he's improved since a horrific 0-8 start, it looks like he's improved dramatically when I apply Griffin's formula: he's 8-15 with a 5.31 ERA on the season, but 8-8 with a 3.49 ERA once we remove his worst 7 starts from throughout the season. Incidentally, he's 0-7, 12.56 in those games. (Now we could do something that's not arbitrary at all and remove those first 9 games in which he went 0-8 and suggest that he's made improvements since then. But that's not what Griffin did so I won't do it either.)

I probably enjoy baseball math too much. But it's like any other discourse - if you're going to jump in and play, you should at least know the language well enough to spot the bad rhetoric.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dark and brooding redux

From the Wall Street Journal, on the proposed reboot of the Superman movie franchise:
Like the recent Batman sequel -- which has become the highest-grossing film of the year thus far -- Mr. Robinov [President of Warner Bros. Pictures] wants his next pack of superhero movies to be bathed in the same brooding tone as "The Dark Knight." Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.' DC properties. "We're going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it," he says. That goes for the company's Superman franchise as well.
This is, of course, a stupid idea. And not just because we, as comic fans, know that a string of "dark" superhero movies with "brooding tone" will inevitably lose the plot and fail to realize that what works for Batman won't (and shouldn't) necessarily work for Superman - and so recreate, in movie form, the same mess of ultraviolence-for-its-own-sake crap that comicbook readers had to wade through in the early 90s. (And 'exploring evil sides'? Where, exactly, was that in Christian Bale's Batman? Now they're just making shit up.)

This, after all, is the essence of Superman:

At home on the farm, sending (and receiving) Christmas cards with his parents as snow falls gently outside the window. He's Superman, so he could write them all super-fast and fly them around, but he won't - they are, after all, just like normal folks who do things the normal way. And they share loving glances as Superman drinks something hot to keep warm - even though, of course, he doesn't need to. And while it could be coffee or tea, it's probably hot chocolate. And no Lois to complicate things with the threat of sex or competition for Superman's affection - just the immediate family, a purely nostalgic moment for a simpler time when Superman did things like write Christmas cards and drink hot chocolate to stay warm - even though, of course, he never had to.

We can deconstruct the ways in which this sort of image, and Superman himself, invoke a number of conservative ideologies about family, America and Americans, etc. The point is, though, how do you do a "dark" version of that featuring Superman's "evil side" without blowing the whole thing to hell? Not that it wouldn't be interesting to watch, I guess.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The absolute nuttiest Olympic sport: an introduction

(Note: This flurry of Olympics-related posting will, of course, subside as the event comes to a close, at which time I'll return to writing about more appropriately nerdy subjects.)

Quick - name an Olympic competition that you would dub indicative of "true Olympic sport" or that you might describe as the "sport that most accurately conveys the ideals of Olympism." One that the International Olympic Committee has described as having "a long and distinguished history" which is "steeped in culture and cultivated in the Olympic spirit".

Did you guess wrestling? Or something in track and field? A team sport, maybe? Because you sure as hell didn't guess modern pentathlon, right?

I refer to modern pentathlon as the "nuttiest" Olympic sport with good reason. It combines a long-distance cross-country race, a short swim - and now it gets a bit weird - pistol shotting, epee fencing, and show-jumping. (Yes, the kind that you do with horses. And, in this event, with randomly chosen horses that you've never met, much less ridden before.) The combination seems bizarre and pointless now, although it was meant to seem relevant when it was first created about a hundred years ago: Baron Pierre de Courertin designed it to "simulate the experience of a 19th century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines". So extra nuttiness points for the origin and the fact that this "modern" event is already two centuries outdated. Anachronisms of this sort are actually a bit endearing when only the hot-ticket event ever get broadcast on TV and every athlete with legitimate medal aspirations has at least three corporate sponsors.

Modern pentathlon is also actually far more dramatic than the other multi-talent events, like the triathlon, "traditional" pentathlon, decathlon, or gymnastics' all-around competition. Where those events rely entirely on counting points, the points for the first four events of the modern pentathlon are translated into seconds and applied to the 3km cross-country run, where the leader starts by him/herself and the others are staggered according to how far they trailed the leader. And with those adjustments made, it's simply a matter of the first person to cross the finish line winning. And it's all done in one day, too, which sounds more like an elementary school track-meet or carnival day - or an episode of American Gladiators - than an Olympic event.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to knock the sport. If it sounds unreasonable to expect someone with little chance of sponsorship money to waste their time with modern pentathlon, then it should come as no surprise that the CBC describes it as "the domain of the idle rich", noting that "elitist overtones have prevented it from gaining widespread popularity", especially outside of Europe. And while the athletes must be competently skilled at a number of disparate disciplines, they rarely excel at any single one. As Frank Gosling, past president of Modern Pentathlon Canada, explains: "There are lots of people who aren't quite good enough to qualify for the Olympics in those events [swimming and running, from which modern pentathletes are often recruited], but if we can teach them to ride or fence or shoot, then they have a chance to go to the Olympics as a pentathlete." So it sounds like you need a bit of athleticism and a lot of free time. And lastly, it remains open to the charge that it's simply a stupid game and/or no longer relevant - even more so than events like equestrian or the discus, which at least have a long history on their side.

Interestingly, there's been some noise among athletes and organizers to remove that most elitist and least athletic element - the show-jumping - and replace it with mountain-biking. (Naturally, there's also a lot of resistance to any change at all.) But why stop there? Why not continue to honor the spirit in which it was created, and reimagine it as a showcase for the talents that a 21st century soldier caught behind enemy lines would have to employ? (If I made my own list, I'd have to fight the urge to veer into something hopelessly ironic and/or mocking, so I'll simply leave the question open.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beijing 2008's phantom protests

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, yesterday:

I believe these Games have opened up the country. [...] the Chinese definitely have experienced that they cannot live in splendid isolation.

Ariana Eunjung Cha in the Washington Post, today (emphasis mine):

In response to international pressure, China said it would allow protests in three parks during the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games. Earlier this week, the official New China News Service reported police had received 77 applications but none had been approved.

So China continues to ignore ineffectual "demands" for some recognition of basic rights, and their contempt for both their own people and the international community is more or less condoned by a media that refuses to make this front page news, and so is complicit in allowing it to happen. I mean, I had heard about these official protest zones when the Olympics opened, but I hadn't heard that not one person had actually been cleared to use them.

That said, I've also stopped being surprised that no one seems to notice or care.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Custom board-gaming

So Monopoly is not the best board game ever. Granted. But there's a certain familiarity to it and a nostalgia that makes it a decently fun time. With that in mind, I recently made a custom Monopoly game for Victoria, which took an exhaustingly long time because I decided to embed pictures on to each property space on the board - exhausting because I'm not a fantastically skilled Photoshopper and my computer is old and slow. But it turned out well so I thought that I should plug the template and designer - Brad Frost - that made the process easier than it would have been and the end result far better than I would have imagined. (Just click his name to go directly to the template, which is on his blog.) And if you decide you want to give it a try, too, feel free to ask a relative novice like me for advice - or ask Brad himself, who was quite kind in helping me out.

(To maintain some shred of Marxian-hipster integrity, I decided to change the dollar amounts in the game from economic to cultural capital. Which actually works quite seamlessly with Monopoly money, since there are only numbers on the bills.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Guilty displeasure

What's sure to be a new favorite term, from Carl Wilson's (of Zoilus) book about CĂ©line Dion, A Journey to the End of Taste:
If guilty pleasures are out of date, perhaps the time has come to conceive of a guilty displeasure. This is not like the nagging regret I have about, say, never learning to like opera. My aversion to Dion more closely resembles how put off I feel when someone says they're pro-life or a Republican: intellectually I'm aware how personal and complicated such affiliations can be, but my gut reactions more crudely tribal.
Wilson later links guilty displeasure to Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject - but Kristeva's writing is not really ideal for what's supposed to a semi-accessible blog, so I'll quote Barbara Creed instead: "The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self." It is, in short, something that is a part of you but which must also be denied, these denials being as important in your ability to fashion a coherent identity for yourself as are your affirmations.

Wilson's examples of guilty displeasures work for me, too, though I find myself struggling to find less obvious ones: the idea of patriotism, probably, since I'm sure that it's more nuanced than it seems in many cases but I'm nonetheless eager to dismiss its usefulness on the whole. Maybe I'll come back to this post and either add some items or add them in the comments as they come to me - more banal and poppy stuff. Though I'd love to here about what other people find a guilty displeasure, too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fabricating the "flawless": A lesson in irony from Beijing

The most recent, and most ridiculous, controversy at the Beijing Olympics deserves some kind of mention. In case you hadn't been paying attention, it turns out that the incredibly adorable 9 year old (left) who sang "Ode to the Motherland" at the opening ceremonies didn't actually sing it. Instead, it was a 7 year old (right) who wasn't given the honor or recognition because she was deemed too unattractive.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what Chen Qigang, the music designer for the opening ceremonies, told Radio Beijing: "The reason why little Yang [the girl on the right] was not chosen to appear was because we wanted to project the right image, we were thinking about what was best for the nation. The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression."

This is, of course, unintentionally hilarious: while his job was, in part, to push this image of the exemplary Chinese child as a perfect one, he's subsequently been forced to admit that this ideal Chinese child that was paraded on stage is not simply exceptional, but that she in fact does not actually exist - that he had to fabricate her from the parts of real children, discarding what didn't fit. That the irony of this doesn't seem to occur to the people running the games is, I think, a little bit sad and a larger bit distressing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"Lost" projects: Get Back's first mix

Over on Geoff Klock's blog, Scott wrote a post about 'lost' projects - be they books, films, or albums - that have accrued a magical aura due to some obstacle that prevented them from ever being realized, completed, or released. I responded with a couple of lost projects that interest me, though I want to write briefly about a project that was shelved but not technically "lost", since it would subsequently emerge in the form of bootlegs - the original cut of the Beatles' Get Back sessions. (Which would, of course, eventually become the sometimes-dreadful but generally more listenable Let It Be album.)

Get Back's first cut/mix (Glynn Johns - George Martin's assistant, who produced the session - made two "final" mixes before quitting. You can see the track listings here.) is no masterpiece. In fact, as uneven as Let It Be is, Get Back is worse. And how could it not be? The Beatles told Johns that they weren't going to overdub any of the songs, and so Get Back reveals that they had become sloppy and unfocused performers. To his credit, Johns rolls with it - if he couldn't cut the recordings into a tight "live" album like those the Beatles were able to produce early in their career, then he would make it sound like a 45 minute session, including the studio banter, missed notes, and false starts. This might be interesting - even entertaining, to a fan like me - but it doesn't make for good listening.

And if such an amateurish product weren't reason enough for the Beatles to want it shelved, the way in which it was revealing of their in-studio tensions probably was. The most notable of these reveals - Paul's version of the unbearably awful song "Teddy Boy" (which would end up on his solo album) - also showed up in a similar version on Anthology 3, as John shows his disgust for the song in both versions (or maybe it's the same moment, but cut to fit both performances?) by breaking into the song with a square dance lyric: "Take your partner, dosey doe..." and so on and so forth. It's a hilarious disruption of an awful song, but one can imagine that Paul was enraged and/or humiliated to hear it in the final mix.

That said, the album was worth seeking out - at least prior to McCartney's own revision of the
Get Back sessions in Let It Be... Naked - solely because it was the only place where one could find the un-Spectorized versions of "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be". But it also proves Spector right in some regards: his decision to speed up "Two of Us" was the right one, something had to be done about John's awful bass in "The Long and Winding Road", and these songs were not releasable without some serious overdubs. Though while Spector's ability to identify the problems is inarguable, his solutions - at least in the latter two cases - are far less agreeable to me. And so, perhaps strangely, my affinity for the incredibly flawed Get Back is actually somewhat greater than it is for the far more polished official release.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Because I love the game but the blogosphere would never know it...

It should surprise no one that I'm an incredible big geek. What might be surprising is that I'm also a bit of a sports nut - especially baseball, and especially when it comes to making sense of statistics and talking strategy.

I last played baseball proper when I was 20 years old - in part to win a scholarship (based on academic merit and not athletic ability - yes!) but also because I missed playing the game. That season reminded me that baseball didn't exactly miss me back: in representing my home town in the all-too-appropriately named Northern Elite League, I helped (?) my team win 2 of 17 games, and my batting average was embarrassingly low. (I won't tell you how low, except to say that it was nearer the current average of Andruw Jones than Adam Jones.) And though it's no real consolation, there were about as many players on my team with a worse average as there were with a better one. Oh yes, we were awful.

Over the past four years, I've played softball at the University of Toronto with the English grad students' team. (I was only enrolled in the department for one of those years, but they've been kind enough to keep inviting me back.) For two summers in row, I've also played in a softball "beer league" (which is a misnomer - we can't actually consume alcohol on city property) with my older brother and some friends (one of whom blogs) on a team that I named The Blitzkrieg Boppers. (It's a pun, but at least it's halfway clever, right?) I've also joined another University of Toronto intramural team, this time to play on a team that represents a program that I have never been a part of - Pharmacy. (For reasons that I'll eventually get to on the blog, I'll never be able to play games this often again, so three teams seems an appropriate degree of overkill. I just hope that my ailing ankles and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-esque throwing elbow forgive me.)

There are at least two things that make softball a marked improvement over baseball: First, it allows someone like me, who is not particularly fast on my feet, to play shortstop and center field because the fields are smaller and the players are similarly out of shape, where in baseball I was relegated to the corner infield positions. Second, and simply put, I like hitting home runs, and that's a) nearly impossible in real baseball, but b) seems to happen for me a couple times a week in softball.

One final note: I organize the batting music for the Boppers, editing songs into 9-12 second clips and burning them on to CDs that we play as our team members walk to the plate to hit. (Just like the professionals, of course.) It's absolutely silly, but it offers a perfect source of levity (for those who like to laugh and relax before an at bat) and excitement (for those who need to feel pumped up). Or, for me at least, a little bit of both, since my personal favorite tracks tend to hit hard but not without irony. My top 3:

The Stooges' "Search and Destroy" where Iggy sings "I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm" (because, naturally, I am)

The opening to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" (the emphasis on "bomb" serving as inspiration and striking fear into the opposition)

And most recently, Gowan's "Strange Animal", the iteration of the chorus - at about the 1:43 mark of the video - that begins with Gowan screaming "How can I get enough?" (because, uh, I'm a strange animal who can't get enough? really, this one is just here because its an awesome song that makes for perfect batting music)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Celebrating "The Golden Girls"

Twice in the past week, I've made reference to the Golden Girls; both times, the 20ish year old guys that I was talking to seemed utterly confused. The first time, in tutorial, I mentioned that I thought the Golden Girls was probably the funniest program ever shown on TV - the student that I was talking to had never heard of it. (And, additionally, was stunned that it was about a group of old women.) The second, at a Future Shop of all places, I approached one of the guys standing among the media aisles to ask if they had any seasons in stock (there were none in the appropriate section), to which he responded - "It's a TV show?"

So in honor of Estelle Getty's recent passing and because the world clearly needs to be reminded just how alternately (and simultaneously) clever, absurd, and vulgar a show starring four middle-aged and elderly white women could be, I'm tossing in some clips with minimal commentary. The show had a certain formula to its humor - Dorothy's comedy was dry and cynical, Rose was dopey and naive, Blanche was pompous and risque (even now - no, especially now), and Sophia was, to quote the paperboy, "just a mean old lady" - albeit a hilarious one. They also their standard bits: Sophia's related to childhood stories of Sicily, which would often end with a revelation about someone famous. Like in this clip:

It's tough to find a clip that's only a couple minutes long and yet captures a little bit of everything. But maybe this one will work:

Friday, August 01, 2008

Miley Cyrus, teen sexuality (gasp!), and 'growing sideways'

I've been meaning to write something about this for weeks and just never got around to it: the career-threatening scandal (say what?) surrounding Miley Cyrus and various pictures that she's taken which suggest she may not be the ideally asexual teen that her TV and stage representations make her out to be.

(In case you're in need of catching-up: Cyrus is 15, a pop music and TV megastar among her child and tween audience. Two examples of her alarming popularity among young girls should suffice: with the help of this relatively small (but, evidently, disproportionately powerful) demographic group she's managed to debut both her albums at #1 on the American Billboard charts and the concert film that Disney released in movie theatres posted a record opening weekend for a film on fewer than 1000 screens - over $8 million.)

And the controversy? The accusations that she was less than an apt role-model started with an Annie Leibovitz shot:
That some people would be made uncomfortable by a teenaged girl wrapped in a bedsheet is, I suppose, predictable. But I don't think it's the bare skin or sheet that actually freaks them out - I think it's the hair and the smirk. She doesn't look vacant, innocent, or wholly ignorant in the way that most overtly-sexualized starlets are made to appear - she looks too aware of what she's projecting. And what's worse, she looks like she's enjoying it.

And more fuel was added when (apparently) her cellphone was hacked and pictures were stolen from it. There are a lot of them, but this is about as bad as it gets:

The controversy here baffles me even more. They're ostensibly pictures taken of herself, for herself or her friends, not the sort of thing that strangers - us - were ever supposed to see. They're also almost exclusively pictures of only Cyrus herself. And if people can't handle a teenaged girl flashing her abs for her camera, god only knows what they would do if they learned that teenagers masturbate - and even have sex.

Kathryn Bond Stockton has written of the way in which children's sexuality is denied to them - they are assumed to be 'not-yet-straight', that is presently asexual but presumptively straight - and suggests that when they can't "grow up", they instead "grow sideways". But this is not to say that growing sideways is necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it seems to me that growing sideways is actually a fairer representation of how people (like Miley Cyrus?) actually grow - not from presumptively heteronormative innocence to straight adulthood, but with hiccups, leaps, and sidesteps toward an uncertain endgame. That is, if there's actually an end.