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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Blood of Angels

Until tonight, I think the last film I saw in a theater was "Little Women," which would have been December 2019 -- in Long Island, when COVID was secretly circulating in the greater NY area. We didn't get sick, but the pandemic kept me out of theaters for years. Inertia and home streaming kept me away even longer, though I live just a couple of blocks from a movie house.

Tonight, my spouse and I attended a local showing of "Blood of Angels" by Bobby Fowler (and friends), son of two of my colleagues in Political Science. It was a really fun evening and I'll be going back to the movies sooner rather than later. The movie seemed quite professional, and I mean that as sincere praise. 

Here's the trailer: 

 

It is a western, obviously, but also a thriller. Every scene was shot on the farm my colleagues inhabit -- and the film features their horses as well as their children. Mom has a prominent role too!


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Saturday, April 13, 2024

2024A Louisville Sluggers

This post is going to highlight the fantasy baseball team I've built for the first half (A) season of the OBFLB (Original Bitnet Fantasy Baseball League). As I've explained before, this is a 24 team league I joined in 1991 and we play 2 seasons each year, divided basically by the all-star break. There is an annual mid-year draft.

It features head-to-head competition in 10 categories. Five are offensive -- HR, steals, plate appearances, on base percentage, and "runs produced" (runs + RBI / ABs). Five are pitching -- ERA, WHIP, wins, innings pitched, and 2xSaves plus Holds. 

I'll note the 8 players I retained from last year in red and will indicate draft rounds for the other players. 

Lineup

C Will Smith LAD
1B Vinnie Pasquantino KC
2B Isaac Paredes TB
3B Gunnar Henderson BAL
SS Anthony Volpe NYY
OF Ronald Acuna ATL
OF Kerry Carpenter DET (10)
OF Will Benson CIN (14)
DH Jordan Westburg BAL (13)

Bench

C Freddy Fermin KC (26)
2B Michael Massey KC (23)
UT Zack McKinstry DET (21)
OF Trent Grisham (20)
OF Roman Anthony BOS (22)
OF Jason Hayward LAD (24)
OF Estevan Florial CLE (28)

Pitching

SP Sonny Gray STL
SP Nick Pivetta BOS (9)
SP Seth Lugo KC (11)
SP Luis Severino NYM (12)
SP Reynaldo Lopez ATL (15)
SP Clarke Schmidt NYY (16)
SP Keaton Winn SF (19)
SP Matt Waldron SD (25)
RP Adbert Alzolay CHC 
RP Hunter Harvey WAS (17)
RP Jason Adam TB (18)
RP Steven Wilson CHX (27)

My 2023B season team won the championship, which I'm fairly sure I did not previously note on the blog. I had also won in 2021 A (linked above) and the only carryovers from that team are C W. Smith, OF Acuna, and SP Gray. 

In total, the Sluggers have won 11 World Series (in 14 appearances) competing in 65 championship seasons. Another team (the Men of LA) has 10 titles in 16 appearances, but the teams have never met in the World Series. We have met at least once in the playoffs when Men of LA beat the Sluggers in 2021 B. Prior to 2012 the playoff matchups are not clearly delineated in the records.   


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Sunday, March 10, 2024

Oscars 2023


This is my annual post about the Academy Awards. I'm not predicting who will win, but instead ranking the nominations in my preferred order of finish. I'll only rank the films and performances I've seen and will update this list in the future once I see a film. Those changes will be noted in yellow highlights. 

You can find my post about last year's Oscars here and work backward if you want. 

Best picture

“Killers of the Flower Moon
“Oppenheimer”
“Past Lives”
“The Holdovers”
“American Fiction”
“The Zone of Interest”
“Maestro”
“Barbie”

Frankly I'd be OK if any of the top 4 win. They are all very good films. The Holdovers is the one I could imagine watching again in a few years because of the humor. Maybe Barbie too. Oppenheimer conceivably could be a film for my political science course.

Zone of Interest could also be a film for my course, but it is almost impossible to rate here. It is a singular work of art that is not meant to be entertaining. The other films that feature horrible deeds, including Killers of the Flower Moon, have moments of light humor. The Zone of Interest is unrelenting, but also masterful. See it once. 

“Anatomy of a Fall”
“Poor Things”

Directing

Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”
Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”
Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon”

Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”

Actor in a leading role

Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers”
Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”
Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”
Colman Domingo, “Rustin”
Bradley Cooper, “Maestro”

Giamatti was excellent. He may not win, but the performance was award-worthy.

I've seen a lot of Murphy in 2024 because my spouse and I have watched several seasons of Peaky Blinders on Netflix. He's talented and I would not be disappointed if he won.

Wright and Domingo were also excellent though I have not heard serious buzz about their winning and I probably would vote for one of the other performances. But this is a tight category. 

Cooper was fine but the movie really didn't click with me. 

Actor in a supporting role

Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer”
Robert De Niro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction”
Ryan Gosling, “Barbie”

We were well into the movie before I recognized Downey in his role. It's a very good performance. 

DeNiro played his usual type, a type he has long perfected. Brown was excellent too. I hope this pushes him into larger roles.

Gosling has had many better roles.

Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”

Actress in a leading role

Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Annette Bening, “Nyad”
Carey Mulligan, “Maestro”

Last fall, my spouse and I saw Gladstone in a 2016 Kelly Reichardt film, Certain Women. It was a strong performance and I'm not surprised she delivered an Oscar-caliber performance this year. It's not as loud as Bening's role. If I had to re-rank them from scratch, I could just as easily put Mulligan over Bening. 

Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

Actress in a supporting role

America Ferrera, “Barbie”
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”
Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”
Jodie Foster, “Nyad”

I don't have strong feelings here though apparently Randolph is the overwhelming favorite. She was very good in her role. I've seen Ferrera's speech more than once on TV and wonder if it will carry her to a victory. It was impressive. 

Blunt was fine, but the role was perhaps not Oscar-worthy. Surprisingly, Foster was somewhat mannered in Nyad, delivering a character not a lot unlike some others she has performed in the past. 

Danielle Brooks, “The Color Purple”

Documentary feature film

So far we have not seen any of these. There's work to do, no none of them sound especially uplifting. Most are available on streaming services that we can access, so it is inevitable that I will see some.

“Bobi Wine: The People’s President”
“The Eternal Memory”
“Four Daughters”
“To Kill a Tiger”
“20 Days in Mariupol”

International feature film

United Kingdom, “The Zone of Interest”
Spain, “Society of the Snow”

I've discussed The Zone of Interest above. I am curious as to why it is listed as UK rather than Poland, which is credited in the film.

Society of the Snow is an interesting film (on Netflix right now) that had me recalling the press coverage of the crash and aftermath. 

Of the others, I really want to see The Zone of Interest, which is also on the top list above. 

Italy, “Io Capitano”
Japan, “Perfect Days”
Germany, “The Teachers’ Lounge”

Animated feature film

I have not watched many animated films the past few years. I saw a few minutes of the new Spider-Man at a brewpub and will probably see it before any of the others. 

“The Boy and the Heron”
“Elemental”
“Nimona”
“Robot Dreams”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”


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Thursday, February 22, 2024

American Feelings

I used some "Feeling Thermometer" data in a class recently and was struck by an insane result reflected in the recent data. You'll see that below, where I've linked to the original polling agency, 

First, definition: A "Feeling Thermometer" is a commonly used research measure. Here's a reasonable definition from a recent piece of scholarship:
The feeling thermometer, or thermometer scale, is a rating procedure to measure respondents’ feelings about an issue using a scale that corresponds or makes a metaphor to temperatures in the thermometer.
Political scientists often derive these numbers via public opinion polling. Sometimes, respondents are specifically asked to provide a number on a scale (0 to 100 is typical) and the results reflect averages, often broken down by specific demographic information.

For example, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asks Americans in a regular poll what they think about foreign countries. 



As this data reveals, Americans feel quite warmly about Canadians, but have quite cold feelings about North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China. Likely not coincidentally, these are four states specifically identified as threats to American interests in the Director of National Intelligence's annual (public) assessment report. Question for another day: which way does the causal arrow run?

With those numbers in the 19 to 32 range in mind (and 85 for Canada), take a look at this next polling result, showing how Americans feel about other Americans -- limited by their political party. Americans like other Americans of the same political party just a little less than they like Canadians.

And Americans' feelings about members of the opposing political party are comparable to their feelings about North Korea!



Some recent political science research is particularly interesting about the meaning of such data, suggesting that these positive and negative feelings can have real-world consequences, at least in international politics:
This research note utilizes novel country feeling thermometer data to explore the [Democratic Peace Theory] debate’s micro-foundations: the underlying drivers of international amity and enmity among democratic citizens in the US, UK, France, and Germany.
No wonder some scholars are studying the allegedly growing risk of American civil war.



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Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Best films of 2023

The graphic below identifies the top 25 films from 2023 that critics ranked on their end-of-year "best of" lists. The full list goes to 100 and if you are interested in seeing it, I'm sourcing the list from a different website this year. The methodology for compilation is ostensibly the same. Here's the detail:

Films are sorted by the percentage of lists they are included on.* This is typically the same as sorting by number of lists included, but can vary when films make lists across multiple years.  For example, if one film makes 10 lists in a year with 100 lists available, it’s ranking will be higher than a film that makes 15 lists when 200 lists are available.  The times a film appears at the top of a list is used as a tie-breaker.

*punctuation errors corrected 

Basically, this is an annual best films comment that I'm posting for 2023. This is the post about the best films of 2022. Below this graphic, you'll find my rankings of these films (by tiers) with a list of the ones I still need to see. As I watch them over time, I'll edit the post but note the changes with yellow highlighting.  

This "best of" comment is distinct from both the annual post on "films of 2023," which is my end-of-year musing about all the films I saw in a calendar year and my annual Oscar post. 


Top-tier films. These are very serious Oscar contenders:

Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Past Lives
American Fiction
The Holdovers
May December

I've seen all but May December since the new year, which means they were not on the December list for 2023. The top 4 5 on this are excellent and are well worth your time. Warning: Oppenheimer is exceptional, but it is both very long and about a subject that I have studied off-and-on since the 1980s. Your interest may vary from mine.  

Incidentally, I joined Letterboxd last October and you can find  my brief reviews of films there. I think I backfilled for all of 2023 and most of the films used in my political science course. 

Second-tier films. These are very good and may garner Oscar support:

Maestro 
Showing Up
Barbie

Maestro was well-made and well-acted, but I wasn't nearly as interested in this story as I was in the stories from the first-tier of films. I didn't find Bernstein's life especially interesting.  

The 2 films after Maestro were both calendar year 2023 viewings. Honestly I thought about putting Barbie in the following tier. 

Third-tier films. These are entertaining but flawed films:

The Killer
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Asteroid City

Again, nothing new here yet. My spouse and I are trying to find time to see the Oscar nominated movies. 

Fourth-tier films. I found these to be disappointing and do not recommend (if necessary, could remain blank):

N/A

Films yet to see (16 of 25 as of today):

Afire
All of Us Strangers
Anatomy of a Fall
The Boy and the Heron
Fallen Leaves
Godzilla Minus One
John Wick: Chapter 4
Passages
Poor Things
Priscilla
Saltburn
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The Zone of Interest

Glancing through the rest of the top 100, I've seen the following films already and rank them roughly in this order:

Tar (tier 1, a remnant from last year's list for some critic)
Fair Play (tier 2 or 3)
They Cloned Tyrone (tier 2 or 3)
Reality (tier 2 or 3)
Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I (Tier 4 material)



Sunday, December 31, 2023

Films of 2023


I didn't watch that many 2023 movies this year, particularly through October. However, I did sign up for Letterboxd and have been writing brief reviews there. It obviously serves to log all the films I've seen, not merely those released in 2023. It appears I watched 86 films in 2023; thus, the list of new films below reflects only a small portion of my total movie viewing. 

As longtime readers know, this is an annual list and here is a link to last year's post if you want to work backwards through my viewing experiences. 

Films from this first set will probably receive award nominations, or at least deserve strong consideration.

Leave the World Behind
May December
Scrapper
Master Gardener
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Showing Up

I doubt Leave the World Behind is the best picture of 2023, but I think it is outstanding and am certain to see it again -- and will strongly consider it for viewing in my class on Global Politics Through Film. Amidst all the paranoia are some interesting reactions to uncertainty, threats, cyber-terror, and ecological catastrophe. 

May December is an interesting film with strong acting performances and both subtle and unsubtle messages. At least the filmmaker had something of potential importance to say.

Scrapper is sort of a British version of The Florida Project, though I think the young girl lead actor is older in this film. The story is interesting, there are some funny moments, and the human connections seem real. 

Master Gardener was one of the stranger movies I've seen in awhile and the romantic connection that the title character ultimately forms is unpredictable, but believable.  Joel Egerton is a talented actor that I also saw this year in The Stranger. He plays very complex characters in both films. 

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (based on the Judy Blume book) was entertaining, despite the fact that I was likely not the target audience. Kathy Bates steals her scenes, which are often hilarious. 

Showing Up is a character study with a thin plot and terrific acting performances. The artists in the film are friends and family who inspire and infuriate one another, depending upon the moment. In the end they seem to be able to live with that dichotomy even if some are particularly gifted and have talent that "shows up" others. My spouse and I are big fans of director Kelly Reichardt. Check out her other films, perhaps beginning with First Cow or Wendy and Lucy. We saw Certain Women a few weeks prior to seeing Showing Up.  

These films were quite good and might receive award consideration:

Sharper
The Killer
They Cloned Tyrone
Reality
Barbie
The Pez Outlaw (documentary)

Sharper is a pretty good crime film with con-man (woman) vibes. The Killer is well-executed, but ultimately the story is a basic revenge plot for an unsympathetic character. It lacks heft. They Cloned Tyrone isn't really a comedy, despite Jamie Foxx's performance, but it is entertaining and fairly clever at times. 

Reality was interesting and based on a true story, but the true story felt a little thin for a feature film. 

Everyone saw Barbie, right? I liked it, more or less, but there are significant shortcomings inherent in the source material. This film's success proves that Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling have enough star power (and talent), and Greta Gerwig sufficient directing skill, to make an entertaining film out of almost nothing substantial.  

I would have liked to see those 3 remake something like The Pez Outlaw as a feature film, rather than a small documentary. Bet that would be interesting. It's a fun tale on its own. 

These were less interesting to me:

Asteroid City
No Hard Feelings
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Asteroid City is an interesting visual experience, but Wes Anderson's mannered style becomes a bit tedious in this mediocre film. In all honesty, I didn't think that much of Wes Anderson's previous film, The French Dispatch, and wonder if he's trying a bit too hard to be quirky at the expense of story-telling. Keep in mind that I loved Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also saw his short The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar this fall and found it merely OK. 

Jennifer Lawrence is always worth watching, and there's much of her to see in No Hard Feelings (you probably read about the beach scene even if you didn't see the movie), but this is not a particularly funny comedy. Maybe it would have been better in a theater. 

Nothing in Indiana Jones seemed particularly novel, but I guess it was worth using the IP for one last payday. I kind of wish the character Jones had been handled more like James Bond, with younger actors portraying him after a few films with more frequent releases. An adventuresome archaeologist is a great premise, but they could have used more creativity reflecting on the world. 

I'm obviously missing a large number of highly rated films from 2023 and plan to see them through 2024 (and beyond). I used to provide a list (and I still might) of top-rated films that I have not yet seen, but I didn't do it last year and no one complained. 



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Saturday, December 30, 2023

Books of 2023


This is my annual post listing books I read in the most recent year. It seems kind of hard to believe, but I have produced such a post since 2005. This ia link to the 2022 list if blog readers want to work backwards.

Also, I posted short reviews of most of these books at Goodreads

Non-Fiction

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement; Climate Change and the Unthinkable

Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction

David Maraniss, Clemente; The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

Satchell Paige, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever

Bill James, Bill James Handbook, Walk-Off Edition

Sean Forman, The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues

Anne Jewell, Baseball In Louisville

Jeff Silverman, The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told: Thirty Unforgettable Tales from the Diamond

Buzz Bissinger, Three Nights in August; Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager

Robert D. Kaplan, The Tragic Mind; Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power

I read several books about climate change this year, but Ghosh's book is the only one that is not fiction. Ghosh writes a great deal about the need for artists to create content about climate change and he emphasizes the importance of imagining some of the catastrophic potential outcomes.  

The Klar and Krupnikov book I got via ILL and read it for a project I'm working on with a colleague. The Maraniss and Paige bio and autobiography are definitely worth your time. I was inspired to read about Clemente after attending a Pirates game in Pittsburgh. 

I've purchased just about every book Bill James has written about baseball, including the annual Handbook (he is a contributor), but this book was disappointing. I realize the publisher is ending the run of this book because the stats are virtually all available on the internet, but I like to have them all together in one book that I can read at my leisure in my living room without a computer or device. This book does not include very many of the stats long associated with the book. The essays are fine, but the product is below the standard set by the prior editions.

The Silverman edited volume has some great pieces, but I'd previously read most of the best ones. Some of the entries are not that great. 


Literature and Genre Fiction

Larry McMurtry, Terms of Endearment

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Nick Hornby, Just Like You

John Updike, Bech is Back

Jenny Offill, Weather

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We

I don't know why I've only recently read Terms of Endearment. I read the prior book in the Houston series decades ago. And I saw the movie with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson soon after it appeared. Oh well.

Anne Tyler and Nick Hornby are always worth reading and I enjoyed both these books a great deal. 

The Bech book is really a set of short stories. It's OK, but uneven for this reason.  

The Offill book didn't really click with me, though it occasionally mentions climate change. Zamyatin's We is a classic, but it seemed to fall short of my expectations for dystopian fiction. 

Genre fiction:

James Kestrel, Five Decembers

Kurt Anderson, True Believers 

Colson Whitehead, Crook Manifesto

Walter Mosley, Bad Boy Brawly Brown

Michael Connelly, Trunk Music

Jason Matthews, Palace of Treason

Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open

I'd say these books were the cream of the crop. Kestrel's book is excellent and I urge everyone to read it. Kestrel, Anderson, and Matthews have all written books featuring spies and espionage so it was another good year for reading that sort of fiction.

Whitehead, Mosley, Connelly, and Raymond work in the crime genre and these are captivating examples. 

Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

M is for Malice, Sue Grafton

Joe Gores, Hammett

R.D. Rosen, Dead Ball

Richard McGuire, Here

Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Donald Westlake, Brothers Keepers

Donald Hamilton, Death of a Citizen

Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), Slayground

David Goodis, The Wounded and the Slain

Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Robert B. Parker, Taming a Sea Horse

Loren Estleman, Angel Eyes

Ross McDonald, Sleeping Beauty

Donald Westlake, The Hook

Claudia Davila, Luz Sees the Light

Carl Hiaasen, Star Island

Christopher Buckley, Make Russia Great Again

Jack Handey, The Stench of Honolulu

Many, actually most, of the other authors are familiar from past iterations of this summary report. You'll find books here from the Kinsey Milhone, Easy Rawlins, Spencer, and Lew Archer detective series, which I'm generally reading in order. 

There are a couple of graphic novels about climate change on this list. Here is an interesting concept as the artist has drawn the changes over time to a single plot of land. The Luz book is for children, which means it is a quick read. 

Many of these books were OK, but most were so-so and had some serious flaws. I'm not going to be detailing all of those here, but you can probably find out on my Goodreads account. 

Buckley and Handey prove that it can be difficult to be funny. 


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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Kissinger, Finally Dead

Over the years, I've collected a number of unusual images that I occasionally hang on my office walls. I am a student of political satire and ridicule and images sometimes convey complicated satirical ideas in a single frame. After all, a picture is worth a 1000 words, right?

As an example, I long posted a fun picture of Cuban socialist leader Fidel Castro playing golf, the country club sport. I'm not sure this is the exact one, but it's similar:


In the mid-to-late 1980s, I found a discarded paperback about Henry Kissinger that included many images of the Nobel Prize winner with numerous celebrities, including many beautiful women of the 1960s and 1970s. He dated many of these women prior to his marriage to Nancy Maginnes in March 1974. 

Sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I put some of those photos on my bulletin board. Here he is with Elizabeth Taylor. 



Why did I post those images? Where is the satire or ridicule? 

That question is particularly difficult in this instance for obvious reasons. After all, musician Tom Lehrer once said that "satire died" when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize. 

I'm not so sure. To my thinking, the images that used to hang on my office walls helped demonstrate Kissinger's faults. I meant to ridicule Kissinger by posting images like this one, featuring Jill St. John



These photos reminded me of movies featuring mobsters with beautiful young mistresses -- or perhaps even better in this case, of global villains like 007 James Bond's Auric Goldfinger surrounding himself with attractive young female employees. Stereotypically, the women in these situations are shown to be with the men because the relationships were transactional, rather than built on romantic love. They were built on jewelry, cash, and jet-setting.

Over the years, much has already been made of the novelty of Kissinger's dating life and there are strong hints that even Kissinger recognized the material exchange implicit in his situation. This note from his AP obituary attempts to explain the phenomenon: 
Kissinger, who divorced his first wife in 1964, called women “a diversion, a hobby.” Hollywood executives were eager to set him up with starlets, whom Kissinger squired to premieres and showy restaurants, according to Isaacson. Jill St. John was a frequent companion. Others he dated included Shirley MacLaine, Marlo Thomas, Candice Bergen and Liv Ullmann.

In a poll of Playboy Club Bunnies in 1972, the man whom Newsweek dubbed “Super-K” finished first as “the man I would most like to go out on a date with.”

Kissinger’s explanation: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
These images could be interpreted as living proof of that explanation. Why would beautiful women be attracted to Henry Kissinger if not for his political power? 

On the other hand, a feminist reading of that quip might be that Kissinger had a greatly distorted view of both gender and power relations. HE was attracted to power (and women) for the same reason(s). 

This image of Kissinger with musician (and far superior human being) Dolly Parton readily conveys his desires -- and they are just as awful and problematic as his policies towards Cambodia, Chile, or Indonesia:






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Saturday, November 11, 2023

Rochester (NY)


Last month for fall break, my spouse and I visited our oldest daughter in Rochester, NY. That picture above is actually from our 2022 trip, when we also went during my University's fall break. And we went back again for Thanksgiving when our youngest daughter could join us.

This year, we took in a couple of tourist attractions that we had not seen on those prior trips, including the George Eastman house and the Museum of Play. 

Eastman, of course, was the man behind Kodak. In other words, he was the business force behind the popularization of cameras and film. Here are some of the cameras on view in his museum home:


The Museum of Play is interesting, though we went on a weekday that happened to be a no-school day for the locals (and part of Canadian Thanksgiving weekend). In other words, it was crowded and kind of loud in various play areas. 


The museum website confirms something I read elsewhere recently -- baseball cards were just inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame. I collected thousands when I was younger though I haven't acquired any in recent years. I probably lost some thanks to the house calamity, but have not had a chance to sort through that stuff. 

I took quite a lot of photos at the museum, including this one of an original Monopoly game from the inventor:



This set of popular games were in my closet as a kid (and teenager), though I had an even older version of Risk:




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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Passing notes

I previously blogged about a quote from Louis Masotti that I referenced many times when I was a college debater. My junior year affirmative case concerned police use of deadly force and my colleague and I noted that police shootings often spark riots. Masotti speculated about the dangers of mass riots in a 1969 book. We made use of his hyperbole. 

I mention this because my spouse's fall 2023 Northwestern alumni magazine notes that Masotti, a retired faculty member, had died. His Chicago Tribune obituary is behind a paywall, but I found this brief bio. 

Incidentally, that same alumni magazine noted that Jerry Springer had died. You probably know who he was because of his longrunning TV program. Springer had a law degree from NU. 

Disclosure: I taught political science classes as a term faculty member at NU from 1989-1991. My American League fantasy baseball league had its origins in the debate squad room there and I'm still friends (and league competitors) with many people who met in that context. 


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Friday, September 29, 2023

Natural disaster

On August 25 the huge oak tree in front of our house dropped a large branch during a microburst from a storm. Later that night, it rained and rained and rained. 

The tree punctured our roof in multiple places, crashed through a bedroom window, and even managed to pierce the internal ceiling of two upstairs rooms. The rainwater eventually found its way to our lower floor, which we noticed by the multiple drips and small puddles from the living room ceiling. A few days later huge hunks of plaster fell in that space. An old crack in our basement foundation also seemed to expand and allowed water into our storage areas for the first time in 32+ years of living in the house. 

It's been a trying five weeks:







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Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Beach week and DC Stopover



My family returned to the Delaware beaches this summer for the first time since 2017. My spouse's sister and her family also came over from the UK and so the vacation was also a family reunion. Moreover, the two families stayed together in a big condo at a golf resort favored by some friends who long ago lived on the same street as my wife and her sister. When everyone got together, as we did for pizza one evening and in various combinations on the beach, with spouses or partners and their mostly young-adult "children," it was a sizeable assembly. 

I'm not really a fan of the sun, or sand, so I did little more along the ocean front than walk along the beach slathered in sunscreen. I did very much enjoy being with family and friends, drinking the regional craft beer (and visiting a nearby brewpub), and consuming the locally grown produce (the corn this year was spectacular). I should not forget to mention the excellent crab cakes my sister-in-law produced one evening nor the excellent novel I read while enjoying the freedom to do nothing. 

On the return from Delaware, my spouse and I stopped to visit one of her oldest friends who lives in Arlington. While in the DC area, I connected with one of my oldest friends who lives in nearby McLean and we spent part of an afternoon visiting the National Portrait Gallery and taking in the special Leonardo DaVinci exhibit at the DC Public Library. Among other attractions at the Gallery was a special exhibition for Frederick Douglas. 






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Saturday, August 05, 2023

20 Years Later: 3 Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger

This book has been on my radar for a long time. It was published to some acclaim in 2005 and concerns a three game baseball series that occurred August 26th to 28th, 2003, involving the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. In that era, these were two of the best teams in the National League. It's been on my shelf for a good while after I eventually acquired a used paperback copy complete with an Afterward published in December 2005 that includes the framing of the book as a counter-take to Michael Lewis's terrific Moneyball, which I read soon after it originally appeared. I finally decided to read this book when visiting St. Louis for the fourth of July weekend earlier this summer. 

The book tells some interesting stories and offers some revealing insights into the way Tony La Russa managed baseball games. Though the book focuses on a three game series, it also covers some of La Russa's personal baseball history dating back to his first job as a manager in the late 1970s, continuing through the 1980s with first the Chicago White Sox and then the Oakland A's. La Russa was hired by Sox owner Bill Veeck, who bought his first baseball team in 1941 and was the son of a man who was president of the Cubs in 1918! After this book was written, La Russa managed Cardinal teams that went on to win the 2006 and 2011 World Series. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014. 

The book also features stories about several star players that continue to be relevant two decades later. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was arguably the greatest hitter in baseball when this book was written and he retired just this past off-season, ending his career with a bit of a bounce-back season in St. Louis in 2022. Another prominent member of that 2022 Cardinals team, Adam Wainwright, is briefly mentioned in the book's Postscript because he was part of the return for a trade involving JD Drew, a talented Cardinal player of 2003. And Scott Rolen, who hit a key home run in one of the book's three games and made timely defensive plays as well, was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. La Russa himself returned to managing the White Sox in 2021-2022, winning a division title in 2021, but not completing the season in 2022 because of health reasons (after mediocre results as well). 

The reader gets a good feel for how La Russa and his long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan prepared for games and thought about various tactics, strategies, and statistics. The events in the book occurred prior to the Statcast era, but many of the ideas La Russa and Duncan have about pitch sequence and selection are now readily testable by anyone with an internet connection given the trove of data Statcast publishes online. 

These are the best elements of the book. But there are some important weakness too:

First, the book barely scratches the surface on the steroids scandal that greatly influenced baseball in this era. The game had already agreed to employ anonymous PED (performance enhancing drug) testing in 2002 and the results announced after the 2003 season revealed that 5 to 7% of samples were positive, triggering a new random testing policy. Bissinger knew all this when he published the book and yet devotes only a few pages to the issue. I attended SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) meetings in Boston in the first months of 2005 and this was the center of a tremendous amount of discussion. 

Bissinger's neglect of this topic is important for multiple reasons. To begin, he describes La Russa as an avid opponent of steroids who lamented their effects on the game and on young lives. Yet, we now know that La Russa's A's and Cardinals featured stars that were among the most notorious users -- sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Bissinger quotes La Russa as saying he could tell which players were using and that Canseco wasn't! While the identities of the users had not been revealed by baseball in 2003 and 2004, by December 2005, when the Afterword was written, Canseco's book had acknowledged that he had been a user. Moreover, Canseco named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (a Cubs star in 2003) as users too. In March of 2005 McGwire and Sosa, along with Rafael Palmeiro (later suspended for PEDs) and Curt Schilling testified before Congress about steroids

Second, rather than enter into the steroids controversy, which seems like it would have said something important about the "humanity" of baseball, ostensibly Bissinger's goal in writing the book, the author instead takes the opportunity to attack Moneyball. He attacks the statistical analytical perspective promoted in Moneyball early in the book but the theme becomes the centerpiece on p. 269. I believe Bissinger focuses on the trees rather than the forest, devoting great attention to criticizing (with very little context) the specific players selected by the Oakland A's in the 2002 amateur draft. It's always dangerous to discuss a draft in the first few years after it occurred, but Bissinger makes fun of the Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton initial two selections even though both turned out to be a pretty good players who spent a decade or more as major league regulars (or in Blanton's case as members of a major league rotation). Swisher made an All-Star team and both men played in a World Series. Many other selected players enjoyed decent careers and the draft was not a bust. This is now easily confirmed with a simple Google search. 

The real problem, however, is that Bissinger completely misses the point about Moneyball. He treats the book as if the Oakland A's use of various strategies and tactics to pinch pennies is inherent to the approach. That organization is notoriously cheap and Bissinger points out that money can buy winning players regardless of how smart the Harvard MBA GMs are. However, in this century, wealthy teams like the New  York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers have won numerous division titles, pennants, and championships by using the kind of advanced statistical analysis that Moneyball entails and that Bissinger explicitly hates. Yes, low budget teams like Tampa and Cleveland have also consistently succeeded (KC did as well in 2014-2015) by employing some of the same tactics, but the tactics themselves are not solely about saving money. Rather, they are about analyzing the game statistically to reveal previously unexploited advantages and inefficiencies. 

Third, Bissinger's critique of advanced statistics also seems pretty hypocritical given that he devotes so much attention to the kind of small-N data that Earl Weaver allegedly used to  employ in the 1970s. Apparently La Russa and Duncan kept track of whether a particular hitter was 5 for 19 against a certain pitcher (and whether pitchers mostly succeeded against certain opposition hitters), but we have known for a fairly long time (dating to the work of Bill James in the 1980s) that these kinds of small sample statistics are not very meaningful. In any case, Bissinger seems to love revealing these and other less important stats throughout the book.  He repeatedly mentions batting average, RBI, pitcher wins, and other traditional stats that are now widely recognized as less meaningful. Much of this was known in 2003, discussed prominently by Bill James and Michael Lewis and less notably by many hundreds of stats-drunk baseball nerds on the internet in the 1990s. Why convey so many stats that do not say very much about winning baseball games? This book isn't really an anti-statistical diatribe, it is a attack made with a head-in-the-sand approach. Bissinger simply refused to keep up with the field's use of more meaningful stats but relies upon older, less revealing, stats. Was this true of La Russa too?

These are not the only shortcomings and contradictions of this book. On p. 217 of the paperback, Bissinger writes about how pitcher Brett Tomko is laid back and sleepy. On the very next page he mentions how lost Tomko is in high pressure situations, implying a high strung response. Can an observer ever really know a player's psyche and situational reactions? 

On pp. 270-71 Bissinger criticizes then-Baseballprospectus.com writer James Click's article evaluating and critiquing the use of the (sacrifice) bunt. Bissinger favorably quotes Hall of Famer Frank Robinson who objected in part because of his personal experience on the field as player and manager, something Click never had. I guess Click got the last laugh since he was the GM of the World Series winning Houston Astros in 2022 and the sacrifice bunt has practically disappeared from the modern game. In 2021-2022 while managing the White Sox, La Russa himself used the bunt less than half as often as he did when this book was written. 



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