Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Month That Was - May 2007: You will have already noticed the quick and dirty redesign. This place should look a good deal cleaner now. The business of having boxed off sections was so 2002. Cleanliness and simplicity are the watchwords these days; better to keep focus on the content. Also things should look a little better in IE7 now; specifically the Google bar at the top should not obscure anything.

Memorial Day was perfect. The earlier portion of the big weekend was a rainy mess, but Memorial Day itself was about the best weather I have ever encountered in my life. And so the summer begins.

Tons of pics this month. And some additional reading: something I have been promising to write for a while: a guide to a Michigan summer vacation -- just in time to stop you from making Disney reservations. On with the show...

Last in line to review Moneyball
Photo slop: DC edition
Vegas: Hooter's as a leading indicator
Wasps be gone
Omit needless basicallys
The 95-MPH Brushback of Reason: I am almost certainly the last person on the planet to read the now classic baseball tract, Moneyball. I was a fool for not reading it sooner; now I'm all geeked about it but it's old news to everyone else.

In case you've been living in a cave, Osama, Moneyball is about how stats geeks finally got a foothold in professional baseball after years of dwelling on the fringes and in the rotisseries. You see, for many years, stat geeks knew that virtually everything everyone thought they knew about baseball was wrong. All the conventional old-school myths, the inane platitudes and clichÇs announcers constantly spew -- it's almost entirely rubbish.

In Moneyball, the heroes are the people who stormed the castle of the ultimate old boys club with only facts and truth on their side and managed to survive. Longtime readers know of my penchant for playing the odds, for following reasoned probability and analysis despite a universe that always presents the enough random chaos to make you feel like you've gotten a wedgie from a bully for being so smart.

The godfather of all this is, of course, Bill James, who not only had the insights, the timing, and the outright defiance required to get the whole thing started. Anti-social and quite prickly, James went around for years on his jihad and gathered some brilliant followers, but was never able to break through the wall of ignorance. His story is really quite inspirational for anyone who believes in reason and ideas and finds they have to fight an ignorant, thoughtless, and even hostile status quo. According to James: "It is a wonderful thing to know that you are right and the world is wrong. Would God that I might have that feeling again before I die." For most of us that would not be true. It would be insufferably lonely and frustrating.

But James' concepts grew slowly in visibility over the years -- to a great extent only after he exited the battle -- until the perfect storm of Billy Beane's personality, Paul DePodesta's computer, and the Oakland A's financial realities allowed these ideas to be put into practice. Even despite the remarkable successes the new way of thinking has achieved, there is still overwhelming pressure from the old boys club to de-intellectualize the game.

I may have a colored view of this as it is a concept so valued by me, but it would be difficult to imagine someone coming away from Moneyball without an appreciation of the energy and passion author Michael Lewis brings to the table. The characters he describes are, well, characters. And he doesn't mince words about folks on the wrong end of the debate.

From the afterword:

The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you're very good, you don't survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that baseball has structured itself less as a business than as a social club. The Club includes not only the people who manage the team but also, in a kind of Women's Auxiliary, many of the writers and the commentators who follow it, and purport to explain it. The Club is selective, but the criteria for admission and retention are nebulous. There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job isn't one of them. The greatest offense a Club member can commit is not ineptitude but disloyalty.

To this day there is enormous resistance to statistical based analysis. For how long it can continue I don't know. There are basically two types of successful baseball organizations anymore. One of them pays attention to its stat geeks (A's, Blue Jays, some others). The other has more money than god and just buys whatever it needs (Yanks, Red Sox). But the small market clubs that just send out beat up old players to scout for talent are doomed whether they want to admit it or not.

I would tell you that if you ever have had a passing interest in baseball Moneyball is a must read, but if you have a passing interest in baseball, you have already read it.
Photo Slop DC: I took an all too brief weekend down in DC to visit missus Kate and Anna. Stayed up in Dupont Circle for the first time (usually I stay down by the mall) and I wouldn't hesitate to stay up there again.

I have to give my highest recommendation to the Hotel Palomar. It's one of the Kimpton group of hotels that are my absolute favorites -- free wine and snack happy hour every day; eclectic, irreverently styled with animal print bathrobes, just for kicks. A hip, happenin', groovy-cool place.

I had the best pizza I have ever had in a little spot called Pizza Paradiso. Sweetest tomato sauce ever, reminiscent of the sauce at Pizzeria Uno but without the heavy-handed crust or mozzarella (I had feta). Truly spectacular. It goes on the must-do list for future visits.

My celebrity story is that I was in the Corcoran visiting an exhibit on the history of modernism, which was a mixed bag, when who do I spot out the corner of my eye but none other than Mr. Ben Stein -- you know: "Beullar? Beullar? Anyone?"; Win Ben Stein's Money; Clear Eyes, etc. Ben is political journalist and something of a bigwig economist in his spare time so I can only guess it was for professional reasons he was in town.

He was enthusiastically watching an old video about the 1939 New York World's Fair called "The World of Tomorrow" which was an extended old black-and-white promotional film for the Fair. I'm pretty sure Ben, like me and everyone else watching, stood in awe of the total lack of irony, cynicism, or negativity. How very different things are today. Could anyone born after 1960 even imagine such a sincere narrative tone?

By the way, in real life Ben doesn't look nearly as nerdy as they make him look on TV. He was dressed in a perfectly conservative dark blue suit like a proper DC insider, although he finished his ensemble with a pair of brown suede Pumas. Dude has his own style.

Meanwhile, trolling around the city, I brought my camera...

No idea what this building is, but it's in Dupont Circle

Lion in front of the Corocoran

Another beautiful building I can't identify from memory -- DC is an architectural treasure trove

The Eisenhower Building (I remembered this one)

A shot of the metro, highly stylized in Photoshop

Pigeons in motion

Kids, don't be hippies or this is your fate

The White House from Layfayette Park -- I love how this one flows from the girls on the lawn to the protester to the tourists to the White House to the Washington Monument

I love the detail in this tree blossom

A very tall tree in the National Zoo

More flowers, enhanced slightly in Photoshop

A shot of the Smithsonian Castle that I mangled in Photoshop while trying to make it look more gothic (I have a lot to learn)

Through the WW2 memorial, past the reflecting pool to the Jefferson Memorial

A huge panorama of the WW2 memorial - you'll have to expand it to real size in IE to get the full effect (I need to remember to take the camera off Auto before I get all creative)

This would have been a great street scene if it was in focus

Another street shot -- the confluence of signs cracks me up

A Dupont Circle panorama - be sure to expand

The young girls next to me on the lawn posed absolutely perfect with knowing it

Older girls this time, also posing perfectly (also perfectly self-referential, isn't it?)

I took a ton more pics than that, I may link up some more next month. I 've been taking photos at such a rate I can't keep up. One day, maybe I'll be good.
Still Worried About The Vegas: More evidence that the Vegas bubble has burst. Apparently Hooter's is sagging (heh-heh). According to my peeps over at Hotel Chatter, Hooter's Hotel and Casino is struggling and looking for a buyer. Faced with anemic revenues the current owners are running for cover. This doesn't surprise me. Hooter's is a bit off the beaten path, and more importantly, it was a flawed concept from the start. Hooter's runs restaurants and a small airline. They have succeeded by taking mundane, unpleasant experiences such as eating deep fried pub food or getting packed into coach seats like sardines and distracted their customers from their discomfort by surrounding them with flirty women of ample cleavage. This is their core product. Essentially, Hooter's tag line could be, "You have an ugly task before you, so here are some boobs to take the edge off."

Problem one is that visiting Las Vegas isn't what you'd call unpleasant, even in a slightly sub-standard property like Hooter's. So you've removed one half of the equation -- the ugly task part -- from the start. Problem two is that large-breasted women falling out their shirts are already in oversupply in Vegas. The whole business model collapses (so to speak). So much for your competitive advantage.

Hooter's is a minor loss, though. The biggest blow to the future is the total breakdown of the "Harmon Corridor." Harmon Ave. is a main thoroughfare that runs perpendicular to Las Vegas Blvd. (The Strip). It was going to be the next big area of hotel and casino expansion. The Clooney's late project, Las Ramblas, was going in there as was the new W hotel. Clooney's project famously fell apart when he and his partners realized that while it would be cool to say you own a hotel in Vegas, the day-to-day running of it and making a profit were actually hard work. So they folded and sold the property to the Starwood guys so they could have an even bigger W hotel. Now the Starwood guys have packed it in and the whole dream of Harmon Corridor is in the crapper.

Actually, the more I think about it, this may be a positive development. One thing I previously identified as a red flag for Vegas' future was overbuilding. Maybe it's good the Harmon projects fell apart before they had actual buildings to worry about. I'm still worried about the future, but I have more hope now for a gentle landing than an outright crash.
Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?: By now, we all know what's up with the dwindling bees, but what about the wasps? Every summer I can count on one thing: the area I live in will be wasp central. There is always nest in between the gutter and the outside wall just outside my balcony. There is always a nest in my garage -- I tend to leave my car outside in summer, so there is not much garage activity to disturb them. There is always a nest in the base of this one light pole at work, where the metal is slightly twisted giving them a safe little gap. Not so this year. Not only are they not in their usual places, they aren't anywhere at all. Not even hovering menacingly around public garbage cans like they always do. I think I can safely say I have not seen one wasp all year. Weird.

Not that I mind. I hate the ornery little buggers and am glad to be without them. I'm just curious how it came about.
Basically, Cut It Out: Just stop saying "basically" every other word, OK? "Basically" is the new "you know" or "it's like".

Basically, as I write this, I basically just got out of a meeting where basically everyone interjected a "basically" basically four or five times per sentence.

You know who you are. Just stop it.