Monday, November 1, 2010

The long awaited update

It's been a long time since I've last inked my pen, stretched out the mind and typed in the url for this blog, I know. So much has happened: Juan Williams was fired; that whacky senatorial candidate in Delaware did something headline-worthy somewhere at sometime; Halloween; Randy Moss was cut (again); Halloween.

So much fodder, so little time to come up with a compelling, unique perspective.

Instead I attended this weekend's Colbert/Stewart rally on the National Mall. While the jury is apparently still out on whether it was a political/nonpolitical/apolitical/anti-media event, my experience was that of a fairly nondenominational Saturday afternoon outing.

Because everybody was there: The Dems, the Republicans, the Tea Party, the anti-Tea Party, the anti-anti-Tea Party, the legalized marijuana folks (they brought demos with them, by the smell of things), liberals, conservatives, greens and libertarians. And everybody else. Apparently, there's an anti-Hitler Mustache as a Political Symbol movement afoot as well.

The largest denomination of folks at the rally were clearly in the "I like to Make Funny Signs" camp. They turned out in huge numbers. The same remains to be seen of tomorrow's election, where many of them will likely sleep late, scramble to work and have that nagging feeling of forgetfulness as they fight the evening commute.

Given my experience with rallies (none to speak of) Saturday was refreshingly vaudevillian, rather unserious and with the core message of: Why can't we all just get along and talk with indoor voices.

In fact, the only people I disagreed with were the folks who decided the rally would be a great opportunity for a Saturday afternoon picnic, blankets, pillows and all, and then got upset when the other 200,000 of us trampled on their "camp site" trying to get a better view.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Virginia welcomes you

It's official.

I took the plunge (read: I spent an hour or so at the DMV in Alexandria) and got my car registered. New license plates, an inspection sticker and several hundred dollars later, I am officially a Virginian.

Let that roll off of your tongue. Virginian.

Bill Pullman, a fellow UMass graduate (unless you read the fine print on those honorary diplomas, which I don't. Hurts the brain, it does), even starred in a movie called The Virginian.

In honor of my new state of residence - the second commonwealth I've resided in my scant few years - I've arranged some fun facts about Virginia:

1) Virginia was originally part of the Virgin Islands (British, not American) that broke away during the last ice age.

2) There are some mountains here, also trees. And squirrels. I saw a squirrel yesterday. Virginia is a squirrel-friendly habitat.

3) It's a commonwealth, which is derived from the word "Commonweal." Colonial-types often attached commonweals to their carts, forming Conestoga wagons.

4) Local government is seated at the county level, unless you live in Alexandria, which is an independent city. But if you live in the part of Alexandria that isn't Alexandria City, then you live in Fairfax County. If you understood any of that, you've spent time in Northern Virginia

5) NOVA is what those of us in the know call "Northern Virginia." See, abbreviations mean you're hip. Like saying "Noho" instead of Northampton.

6) Richmond is the state capital, or the capital of the Confederate States of America, depending who you ask.

7) Contrary to popular belief, state officials do not hand out firearms, liquor and fireworks at the border. That's only New Hampshire.

8) Virginia was originally settled by tobacco.

9) This state was built on an indian burial ground, ayup. They say there's a lot of history on that road. Sometimes dead is better.

10) The state motto is "Sic Semper Tyrannus" or "A pox on T-Rex."

11) The Commonwealth was named in honor of Sir Richard Branson, its original discoverer.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Road rash

Nobody knows how to drive in Northern Virginia. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Actually, they do know how to drive, in the sense that you get behind the wheel and the right peddle is "go" and the left peddle is "not go" (also "un-go" or "de-go," depending). They just don't know how to drive with each other.

Imagine a playground full of small children. Imagine all of these small children playing their own game with their own sets of rules. You've got kickball over here, dodgeball in that corner, basketball in the middle, maybe throw in a couple of jump ropes and a good game of high stakes poker. That's driving in Virginia.

I blame it on the clash of cultures.

New England is a great case study. Folks in Massachusetts drive one way, in New Hampshire they do it another. Everybody hates Rhode Island drivers; they're the worst.

But at least they understand the rules of the game (in Massachusetts the rules are: every man for himself; it's full contact sport; and "you don't talk about the driving rules in Massachusetts.") So when you're buzzing through Boston you know certain things. Like stopping for a stop sign is really rolling through it unless there is a cop, in which case you probably stop. Most of the time. You also expect the person taking a left after a red light to shoot out first, so as not to disrupt the flow of traffic.

Down here, you get a mix of that, toss in some obnoxious New York City motoring shenanigans and a touch of the Mass Turnpike on a busy day. But you've also got the southern hospitality factor.

The southern hospitality factor means slowing down for yellow light, so as to obey the letter of the law. Southern hospitality means deciding who will go first at a four-way stop needs negotiations reaching the Camp David Accords level. Southern hospitality means the speed limit is 25, dagnabbit, and that's the way it is, y'all understand?

On the roads, these people don't play nice.

While their interaction is amusing to watch from afar, when you're actually in the midst of it, these people will drive you to white-knuckle driving. Now I understand why people here don't stray out onto the streets if there's a snowstorm. Hell, I wouldn't either. Why risk it?

I don't know, when approaching a changing light, whether I can hit the gas or the brakes. I don't know whether I'll be able to roll through a stop sign or have someone cut me off. Frankly, it's unsettling.

And I don't think I'm the only one left unsettled. How else can you explain the Metro raising its rates again? $2 and change is a decent price for living a few minutes longer.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Draft night

It's that time of the year. Children are heading back to school, college kids are pretending classes don't start for another week, the leaves are changing (in New England, not so much in Northern Virginina where the temperature is dropping regularly below 80 degrees for the first time since April) and preseason football is on television: It's draft night.

I'm phoning it in this year, a marked departure from the last six years. My draft blog diary, a la Bill Simmons is below:

8:22 We're debating adding an extra tight end to the roster. Not sure how this is going to work on the field as there are only so many players allowed on the pitch at any one time. Someone needs to call the commissioner. Also, is pitch a soccer-only term? Discuss.

8:23 Debating whether to keep three or four players from each preceding season. Four sort of defeats the purpose of having a draft, in my book. But that's me. The downside of a keeper league is seeing all the best players taken off the table before the draft even starts. That's depressing. Exponentially so if you've invested in any fantasy football magazines.

8:31 We're still discussing changes in the rules. The league pushes for the extra Tight End. I disagree, arguing that if we're going to add another position it ought to be an extra running-back. I am told that, since I'm not there, I have no vote. The league laughs heartily over this.

8:32 Negotiations over draft picks begin. Shea reminds the group that this should have begun weeks ago. The league again laughs heartily.

8:38 We learn that Cooney doesn't have the money to throw in our annual pot this year, because he doesn't have any cash on him. This is after they've ordered pizza. The league is not pleased.

8:41 It's hard to figure out who is keeping who [in terms of players] when everyone keeps describing each other in not very pleasant terms using various ethnic slurs at the same time.

8:43 Maybe the quote of the night: "If we have to search for who you're keeping [this season] than you already know you have problems."

8:44 Should have bought more beer. On my end.

8:45 Cooney keeps Larry Fitzgerald (WR-Arizona). Too bad that team doesn't have a quarterback. Oh they do? But he's not good, right?

8:47 The league is discussing money options. Apparently, too much pizza has been purchased with too few dollars.

8:49 Some sort of disagreement has broken out over whether we should be using highlighters or pens to cross off our picks. Also, what color highlighters, if we were to use highlighters, would determine what. I'm using pencil. I'm like that.

8:53 Here come the war stories of legend, various players getting injured, arrested or killed right after drafts/trades. I have the ultimate trump card: Tom Brady, 2008. That was a season of rotating QB's on my fantasy team. I finished second to last.

8:58 Someone retains Peyton Manning. The first use of a gay slur follows shortly.

9:00 The chant "Bull-Shit" is less enjoyable when heard over a cell phone.

9:09 I guess Reggie Wayne is taken. I must have missed that in my static-filled world. The league laughs heartily.

9:12 I elect to grab Joseph Addai. Not sure how I feel about this pick, but he's dependable, though he does get platooned with Brown a lot. He's solid and I'd rather not see him racking up points on another team. I can count on him for the goal-line runs. I plan on picking another 'back as soon as possible.

9:14 For my second pick, Pierre Garcon. I know, another Colt. But he saw the ball often last year, the go-to-guy after Reggie Wayne. And Peyton likes to throw, damn him, he likes to throw.

9:27 It's amazing how quickly the list of wide receivers dwindles. Not the physical list, but the list of elite wide-outs. After Round 2 I am officially hoping for some luck on the field and especially the waiver line.

9:29 Over the phone drafts are OK. But I miss the personal contact. Getting to insult some one's mother in person is so much more fun. Also, their mental capacity.

9:33 Wes Welker has been drafted. I am informed he's played every preseason game. Egg on my face. Actually, it's mostly in his knee (although I wish him the best and hopes he kicks butt this season. It's the Pat's fan in me). But seriously, is he playing before November? Matthew Berry says no and when has the Talented Mr. Roto ever been wrong?

9:34 And the first Defense has been picked. It's the Jets! J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!

9:38 I'm kinda curious, will anyone draft Edelman? I vote no.

9:39 My first phone call ends as the cellular phone in New England is dying. Just plugged mine into the wall to ensure it doesn't happen on this end. How sad is this?

9:46 PBR, a delicious cheap beer? Or the most delicious cheap beer? You decide.

9:47 LT has been picked. Much sooner than I had expected. I really thought I'd pick him up around midnight, when everyone else was delirious with pizza and PBR.

9:49 We've hit that point in the evening. First pick to get floated as a possible trade for another low pick. Excellent. Let the bargain-deals begin.

9:54 "Remember last year, you were hammered," - could be a contender for top quote of the night.

10:02 My phone is plugged into the wall, feeding off of the electrical current for life. I've just taken Donald Driver. Not sure how I feel about him, but Rodgers is expected to do well this year. And if he doesn't, Driver's only a third stringer.

10:06 I'll say it again, but this is much for fun in person. Although, it's nice to see a league last long enough - and stay serious enough - to warrant phone-in draft picks. When this thing started, we were recruiting girlfriends to fill out a 6-team league. I try to keep that in mind as I fork over my $10 and use up all of my Verizon minutes.

10:10 "Wait, he's hurt? Fuck." Quote of the night, hands down. Thank you Cooney.

10:15 Interestingly, the last few rounds last the longest. Not quite the opposite of professional football, but still entertaining. You'd think you'd spend all of your time debating the first few picks, but everyone knows what the score is. The point is to grab as many of the elite caliber guys as possible in the first 3-4 rounds. Once you get out into the boonies, it's just fun.

10:22 I feel like fantasy football, especially the drafts, is extremely silly.

10:32 It's hard to pay attention when all you can here is people shouting over each other. Not that I'm complaining. Also, we're definitely in the weeds.

10:40 It's official, we're calling off random players and you can hear the sound of people shuffling through the lists to take off names.

10:48 Several awkward good-byes later (The League is very concerned about when I will be returning home again. Mostly to contribute my $10 to the winners pot) I am done. Good night.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Full Count



Bill Simmons had a great piece on the lackluster interest in the 2010 Boston Red Sox and Major League Baseball in general the other day. Let me just quote a bit for you below that made particular sense to me:
We're feeling the effects of two solid decades of World Series games ending well after the bedtime of any prospective young fan. And don't kids have dozens more choices in 2010 than they did in 1975? Back in 1975, I went outside, whipped a baseball off the wall, dove for it and pretended I was Freddie Lynn. Do kids do that now? Isn't it more likely that they're watching Nick Jr., playing video games, watching DVDs, messing around with the computer ... how could baseball possibly mean as much to a young kid now?

Baseball has become a bore.

I ought to preface that by saying there are few things better in life than watching a ball game on a warm June or July night. The field glows white under the stadium lights and the sound of the bat cracking against the ball echoes into the night. The smell of hot dogs and brautwurst permeates the humid summer air. Children shout scream to pump up the scoreboard's "Noise-o-meter." Old men complain about the pitching. And lack of pinch hitting. And base running.

I love going to the ball park. I absolutely love it. There's nothing better than a live baseball game and I don't care what anyone says about HD this or 3D that. Sitting in a cramped seat, clutching a steadily warming beer and a steaming sausage is about as good as it gets. I find the experience even more relaxing when I don't care about either team. That sounds strange, but then you have to remember the life-or-death struggle every game of every season represented for the Red Sox until October 2004.


So I've had a good run this summer. I saw the Sox play in Baltimore and sure, they lost, but it was the first chance I've had to see Beckett pitch live. I went to a Nationals game in Washington and on this previous Friday night attended my first Brockton Rox game with the family in several years.

And that's what baseball is all about. The game, the plays and the experience. Which is why it's sad to see so many stories of disgust emerging about the *new* Fenway experience, where Yawkey Way is more like an amusement park than a street, the stands are filled because going to a Red Sox game is more of a social outing (look at my Facebook pics! I went to the game!) then appreciating the sport.

I haven't been to Fenway (for a game) since I was in college and in all honesty I haven't missed it much. It's not that I've lost interest in baseball, it's that I've lost interest in the showbiz attitude Major League Baseball has adopted.

Because there's still nothing better than a good ball game with a steaming sausage and a cold beer in hand. If you can still find it for less than $100.




Friday, July 16, 2010

2012: I hope reality is cooler than the movie

2012 may be some distance in the future yet, but the date had an early arrival in my girlfriend's OnDemand cable box.

Now, it's not fair play to critique a disaster movie, let alone an end-of-the-world flick, at least not on a point by point basis. Are there plot holes? Are there parts of the film that don't add up or make any sort of sense? Well, duh. That's par for course.

But how does it stack up to other films? That's the first question that popped into my head during the final moments of the happy, sunshine-filled conclusion of 2012. I'd say you could file this movie in with disaster films genre, cross-referencing it with the end-of-the-world crowd. For the sake of argument, I'm going to stack 2012 up only against it's end-of-the-world brethren, if only because it was so heavily advertised as such.

My list of end-of-the-world disaster films currently looks like this:

Armageddon
...
...
...
Reign of Fire
Dawn of the Dead (remake... I'm no critic, so leave me alone)
...
Everything else (including, but not limited to, Deep Impact (damn you Elijah Wood), The Day After Tomorrow (damn you Jake Gillen... Gilen... Jilenhall?... whatever), 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later (worse than its predecessor), Legion (although this wasn't bad), and I Am Legend (did not live up to expectations).

(Note: I am not including in this list dozens of science fiction films that deal with the aftermath of this devastation, because those don't count. World-ending disaster must be a primary plot point, not a jumping point for some deeper discussion of humanity. God forbid we use disaster flicks to move beyond stereotypes and actually explore the human condition under duress)

So where does 2012 rank? Well, not good. But not bad either. The Mayan-justifying apocalyptic movie falls well below Armageddon for failing to promote American exceptionalism (aside from a few acts of heroic stoicism on the part of the president, the Americans in the film are self-serving jerks. Oddly, those friendly red Chinese are our saviors in the end), lack of decent monster, overly optimistic view of humanity, less than realistic ending (I realize this is an end-of-the-world film, but if you're an apocalyptic movie fan, you know what is and what isn't a realistic ending).

John Cusack, however, is an unlikely hero. I'll give whomever produced the flick points for casting him in the role of yet another lovable loser trying to stitch his life back together as the Earth disintegrates.

Also, I enjoyed the film managed to combine many, if not all, elements of disaster films into one, 2+ hour showing.

We had a rain of hellfire, a la Armageddon/The Mummy(remake), we had tsunamis as in Deep Impact, we had fluctuating weather patterns from The Day After Tomorrow and something to do with the Earth's molten core like that other movie where they had to drill to the Earth's core and set off a nuclear warhead or something stupid and anyway South Park made fun of it.

To top it off, we even had a cruise ship rolling over after being struck amid ship by a rogue wave. Can you say Poseidon Adventure?

So yeah, I won't recommend it. I probably won't watch it again. And that's the true mark of a great, cheesy film. That you'll watch it again. How many times have I seen Armageddon? Too many to count. Reign of Fire? The same.

But maybe that says more about me than the film.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The LeBronacle

Let me preface this by saying I really don't follow basketball.

We grew up watching three sports in my household and though my recollection could be a bit hazy, the Bruins always came first. I remember my mother and father putting us to bed at the end of the second period, because that was bedtime. We never found out how the Bruins fared until the next morning. I don't know why my parents tortured my brother and I in this manner.

So Bruins first (I still remember sifting through piles of hockey trading cards to find a Cam Neely or Ray Bourque), Red Sox second (another sport where we would have to wait until the next morning to learn the final score - it was never good) and the Patriots a distant third (They sucked until '97; who could blame us?).

I got into it in '08 when the Celtics went on a tear and again this year. Call me a bandwagoner, a fair-weather fan, call me what you will, because I really don't care.

But this LBJ thing is just too much fun. I tuned in last night for the spectacle, because that's what it was, a reality television show with ratings probably higher than the final episode of MASH. I won't bother offering any commentary, other than to say never before have I seen professional sports drift so close to the theatrics of the WWF of my childhood, but I've instead put together a compendium of "hot sports takes" from around the country:

"Does James want a title because he thinks he deserves one? Or does he want to actually, you know, win it? His behavior suggests the former more than the latter. James seems to regard a championship as a birthright, as if it is something to be given to him rather than to be earned. And the more time that passes, the more you cannot help but wonder if James is just another damaged, spoiled, and self-absorbed brat who cannot understand the simplest rules in life." - Tony Massarotti, The Boston Globe.


"I blame the people around him. I blame the lack of a father figure in his life. I blame us for feeding his narcissism to the point that he referred to himself in the third person five times in 45 minutes. I blame local and national writers (including myself) for apparently not doing a good enough job explaining to athletes like LeBron what sports mean to us, and how it IS a marriage, for better and worse, and that we're much more attached to these players and teams than they realize. I blame David Stern for not throwing his body in front of that show. I blame everyone." - Bill Simmons, ESPN.com


"As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.


This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.


Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us." - Dan Gilbert, majority owner, Cleveland Cavaliers.


"James made a more grandiose show of free agency than anyone ever has, but he didn’t create the culture of entitlement. He’s just the latest to exploit it, and Joyce was right about one thing: all would have been forgiven had he just told his interviewer, Jim Gray, he was staying in Cleveland, basking in his own stardust.

Maybe that was the main selling point in Miami. When the playoff dust finally settles, it won’t all come down on him." - Harvey Araton, New York Times.

"Now - even though he took less money to go to Miami - he will be seen as a mercenary of sorts. And with the way the Heat have been loaded like a team of ringers trying to swoop in and take a tournament, the club might want to add black hats to their uniforms. They will be the biggest curiosity in sport when they begin play this fall, but they will also surpass the Celtics [team stats] and Lakers as the NBA teams that fans most want to see defeated." - Steve Bulpett, Boston Herald.

"In LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat becomes more than a basketball team. It's South Beach meets Cirque du Soleil meets Hollywood meets YouTube meets ESPN meets the '27 Yankees.

Now, a Tuesday game against Sacramento becomes a show. Any game against the Los Angeles Lakers becomes a national event. June is reserved for the NBA Finals. They're basketball's Beatles. LeBeatles." - Dave Hyde, The Baltimore Sun.

"When a major American municipality's identity is that wrapped up in one special athlete, what does it say about Cleveland's self-worth? LeBron made that city millions, made an NBA outpost matter again, and Gilbert has the temerity to call the guy who filled his building "callous" and "disloyal."

You're lucky you had him for as long as you did. He just outgrew you, Cleveland. He fell in love with somebody else. Deal with it.

That doesn't make how LeBron handled everything right, but it makes him look bigger than the place he left." - Mike Wise, The Washington Post.



Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The District, by way of Stamford, Connecticut

A few notes on traveling.

When in doubt, book a flight. Meg and I flew home for the weekend on last minute tickets from Southwest. Outside of international air travel - where I've always had little reason to complain - I can't stand most airline carriers. There are too many horror stories of flights delayed and then cancelled, less than helpful airline staff and seemingly ridiculous layovers. Southwest is a safe bet, in my book.

But on the way back to the District, we were obliged to drive elderly relatives to New York (or, more accurately, nearby Connecticut) where we caught an AmTrak bound for points further south. It was my first long distance train trip since I was a school child. I have no prejudice against taking a train, but the fact that it's more expensive and less convenient than air travel makes me certain than except for commuters around major metropolitan centers rail-travel will never take off in this country.

I have a few critiques for the good folks over at AmTrak, if they're reading.

First, in my imagination, dining cars should be akin to a moving sandwich store. Small, comfortable, with good food for weary travelers, a full bar with draft beer available, and comfortable seats.

The shipping box and trash-filled dining car left a lot to the imagination. As did the surly employee behind the counter serving frozen salads (which should never be frozen) and microwavable fare about a step below Hot Pockets. The only thing worse than airline food, I've learned, is AmTrak food.

Secondly, air-conditioning sounds like a luxurious frivolity, but when you've got a packed train heading south during a heat wave, it becomes necessary. Please, for the comfort of your passengers (your paying customers!) make fixing a busted AC unit a priority and don't pass it off as a minor inconvenience.

Perhaps most fun were our fellow passengers. There is an unspoken concept of travel etiquette. Please don't lie down and pretend to nap at every stop so as to deter anyone from, God forbid, taking the seat next to yours. The one young lady I watched doing this learned the hard way about karma. She was forced to surrender her section of seating after it became clear the train was full. To a beefy mother and her screaming child. Delicious irony (for those keeping score at home, delicious irony also weighs negatively on the karma scale).

Those are just quick, off the cuff impressions of travel by rail. I actually enjoyed rolling into every station along the way from Stamford, CT to Washington, D.C. Strolling into the center of Union Station and standing beneath it's massive ceiling and rows of overlooking statues after a long trip is certainly an amazing experience. I'll do it again.

Just not anytime soon.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The black star swallows the stars and stripes

It was a tough day for U.S. soccer fans on Saturday. Despite the masses cheering from home, or at least the BlackFinn tavern on I Street in downtown Washington, D.C., Donovan and Dempsey and team weren't able to move beyond the first round of sudden death football. Defeat came again at the hands of Ghana, the pride of Africa, and the undisputed home team for the remainder of their run in the 2010 World Cup.

This was the scene at BlackFinn roughly an hour and a half before game time. Standing room only, people. I don't know who was more exhausted at the end of that 90 minute + overtime match, the U.S. team or those of us watching from Washington:

And here's the scene at the start of play:

Symbolically, perhaps, the taps ran dry about halftime. Everybody lost, really.



Well, check back for updates in another four years, I guess.







Saturday, June 26, 2010

Football frenzy

If you haven't caught one of the U.S. team's games in a watering hole packed with dozens of soccer fans, you just haven't truly experienced the fun of the World Cup yet.

I was lucky enough to snag a bar seat at BlackFinn on I street for the USA v. Slovenia game a little over a week ago. At 9:30 a.m. (Eastern Time). To the left of me a businessman dressed nattily in a suit and tie downed a Bloody Mary. To the right, decked out in complete US Soccer Team gear two guys drank Guinness after Guinness.

I expected to see a lot of fans crowd into the bar, after all, this is the World Cup and expectations are high for the US team among soccer aficionados. But what I didn't expect was this terrific bonding moment among complete strangers. From the guy wearing red-white-blue face paint, wrapped in an American flag, to the well-dressed office manager, everyone roared to life with each goal, cheering and hugging at the 2-2 score, and screaming at the television in unison when the referees took away a go-ahead goal near the end of the match.

A New Englander, I can only compare it to a Red Sox playoff game or a Patriot's Super Bowl rolled into one. How else can you explain the jubilation over a tie in a sport the majority of us, I'm sure, don't really understand?

So I encourage all of you, my loyal, but silent readers, to check out the scene at 2:30 today. It'll be worth it, I promise:

Monday, June 14, 2010

What in the vevuzela?

With 32 national teams competing head-to-head to secure official bragging rights as the world's soccer powerhouse for the next four years, a trial of fire where the weak need not apply, a feat of feet, a battle for the ball, a tangle of the toes, an attack of the ankles, what are we all talking about?

Is it the 1-1 US-England draw after St. George's chosen one Rob Green let in the goal heard 'round the world? Is it Italy's struggle to remain at the top of international soccer despite fielding a national team with the median age equivalent to that of the Shroud of Turin? How about Germany's Australian blitzkrieg?

No. We're all talking about the vevuzela.

If you've been following the World Cup I'm sure you've heard (of) them during last weekend's opening matches. The beehive sound that drowns out all but the game's broadcasting team has been drawing international fire for the distraction it causes viewers at home and players on the pitch.

While FIFA will not ban the noisemakers, which I rate as more obnoxious than Pittsburgh's terrible towels, but less so than boom sticks, that hasn't mollified an irate television audience.


So join me as I scour the Web and the District to find a vevuzela in time for Friday's US match.

P.S. any tips would be much appreciated as a cursory Google search has yet to turn up results. Unless I'd like to purchase them in bulk. Which I don't. One vevuzela can go a long way.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Video killed the newspaper?

The greatest thing about the Internet is how seamlessly it combines all of our known mediums into one central repository. At the click of a mouse (to use the relatively old cliche) you can find stories, photos, videos and audio of whatever it is on your mind. Curiousity is cured with a Google or Wikipedia search - cats need no longer fear their age old nemesis.

But how to best combine these elements is an ongoing discussion. No where is this more in the forefront than in the news business. Struggling newspapers are trying to balance the practice of giving away information for free while making money. Television stations augment nightly news coverage with the written word and still photography. Radio programs are delving into podcasts, Web cams and video to shore up the audio-only platform.

Who has the best combination right now? ESPN.com.

Where else can you go for sports news served up anyway you want it? If you want video coverage of the World Cup you'll find it there along with podcasts from columnists like Bill Simmons and in-depth articles from some of the best sportswriters in the business. NPR is taking a similar, if less glitzy, approach.

Now, some newspapers are also succeeding - and hopefully making money - with the online platform. From what I've heard and read, both The Washington Post and New York Times have figured out profitable approaches. The Wall Street Journal, with much of it's highly specialized content tucked behind a pay wall, is similarly doing reportedly well.

But my focus today is on video and how to use it appropriately, particularly for newspapers. It's a topic I discussed frequently in the past with Carl Perreault, director of UnionLeader.com in New Hampshire. While video clips are all well and good, unless they capture the scene of an accident or fire or crime, they don't draw much traffic, according to Carl.

By that logic this video should be going viral, if it hasn't already:


So what videos don't work? Not having the page impression numbers in front of me it's hard to say, so I'll have to go from personal experience.

Rarely do I watch news videos online unless it's a breaking news situation. Packaged news, the sort of stuff you see on the nightly news, doesn't stand alone well, not in my opinion. Unless it takes a different angle on the story - the written story - like a sidebar, I don't generally click "play." All too often it glosses over the event without providing enough good footage to make up for what you're already missing in hard news.

Need an example? Tune into the nightly news sometimes. What you'll find, outside of fires/live crimes/natural disasters, is a lot of stock video (i.e. "here's the street where so and so got in an life-threatening car accident yesterday evening" or "here's the front of Town Hall where so and so took this stand.")

It's easier to skim an article than it is to sit through a two minute video. It's also less obtrusive if you're in a public setting or the office, where watching talking heads break down an issue could become a distraction to others.

Factor in the time and effort to make a good video, shooting film rather than taking notes or photos, editing and posting and it is not always in the best interest of the journalist to focus on filming rather than writing.

Here's another good example of using video to augment a local story at NYtimes.com.

And here's an inventive take on combining a photo slideshow and podcast in a video at UnionLeader.com. I'd be interested to see how much traffic this video receives:


Let me know your thoughts, if you have any, in the comments section below.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

That once-every-four-years international non-Olympic sports thingy

Back in college I tried really hard to get into soccer.

I swear, I did.

I spent a couple of days surfing the Web, figuring out the teams, deciding who I would pledge my undying love to (It was a draw between Michael Ballack's Chelsea FC and Liverpool's much cooler logo), learning the rules, rosters, etc.

It didn't take.

And it's not because I don't like the concept of liking soccer. In fact, I'm in love with the concept of following soccer. Who wouldn't want to be an aficianado of "the beautiful" game? On paper it sounds great, very sophisticated even. Like having a taste for 12-year-old single malt highland scotch and Cuban cigars.

But in reality it means scheduling your day around games (or "matches") taking place across the Atlantic, following multiple leagues and ever-changing rosters with little to no emotional connection to what's going on. For me, watching a soccer match was like trying to get excited about a San Jose - Anaheim NHL game. And for me, sports is all about the emotional connection.

But once every four years I have the opportunity to watch and actually enjoy soccer and that time is quickly approaching. The only thing not to like about the World Cup is how it seems to divide sports fans - American sports fans - into three camps: the self-righteous footballers, indignant soccer haters and everybody else.

Of course this could just be overhyped by the ol' sports media, but just wait we'll be inundated with columns, articles, podcasts discussing why Americans can't/don't/won't embrace the world's most popular sport. Here's ESPN's Jeff MacGregor:

Hanging there somewhere between the comic and the tragic, the right and the wrong, the left and the right, the truth and the lie, is our American relationship to soccer. Well, to football. Futbol. Fußball. Whatever. Even as the world gets smaller, how is it possible that at this late date we remain such strangers to The Beautiful Game?

The 19th World Cup, under way this week in South Africa, will at last change all that.

Unless, of course, it does not.

Because predicting the arc of soccer's popularity in the United States is a fool's errand. It is also a cottage industry. Never more so than during the quadrennial global tournament. Thus, by mid-July, we'll all be up to our necks in the oracular math of "what if?" What if the U.S. men do well? What if they do not? What if TV ratings are up? What if they are not? What of Slovakia? What of Slovenia? Or Fredonia? What if Landon Donovan plays like Landon Donovan McNabb? Whatever happened to Beckham and Pelé and all those sky-high hopes for stateside soccer? Who at long last will become the Prometheus of American footie? Of what real use is a goalkeeper, anyway? And what if tens of thousands of words a day are spilled into the Gulf of Lexico in service of the idea that meaning must be made of it all? Who cleans that up?

What if?

"Help!" cries the American sports fan. "Enough! I just want to know whether to send my noncontact sons and daughters to soccer or to band practice after school!"

I hope soccer becomes popular in this country. Because sports are fun. But hearing why the American public is boorish by failing to follow MLS or FIFA on non-World Cup years or why American sports are so much better is the real bore. So sportswriters, do you part, help me learn about the history, passion and everything else there is to love about football without the psychoanalysis.

UPDATE: Just came across this Joel Dreyfuss column on largely the same topic. At least I'm not alone:

"There's still a certain amount of snobbishness in following international soccer from the U.S. It doesn't rank up there with squash racquets peeking out of your briefcase, but by rooting for proper "football," you join that secret society of snobs who talk 4-4-2 versus 3-5-2 lineups and actually understand the offside rule. I have to admit, since it's gotten a lot easier to be a soccer snob, that's probably not a good thing for exclusivity. But there are definite benefits in being able to lie on your couch over the next several weeks and flip your remote between two World Cup matches."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Metroquette


I've got Metro on the mind lately, it seems.

At first glance, the D.C. Metro (or WMATA for short(?!?)) is a step above anything you can find buried beneath the cities across the world. With one swipe of your Metro SmartTrip card, you're given access to the vast labyrinth connecting the District with Virginia and Maryland. Forty-five degree angle escalators whisk you down into the bowels of the city in feeling reminiscent to Dante descending into the inferno.

There you find yourself in dimly lit caverns of a futuristic design that would fit well in any sci-fi film, awaiting a hissing steel (well, probably aluminum and plastic, but why quibble when we've jumped the shark with our prose a paragraph ago) chariot to ferry you away.

Compared to the Boston T, the Metro initially comes off as technology-friendly, clean and just overall more competent. But that's before you spot your first rat, deal with the endless delays and the increase in travel time that just switching lines adds. Then you realize that for all of it's post-modern glitz, the Metro is just another poorly managed mass transit system with a thick layer of gild.

But that's not what I wanted to get into here. No, what I really wanted to discuss was Metro Etiquette or "Metroquette," a word I just made up. The subject popped into my head after I stumbled across wtfmetro.com this morning:

"At Metro Center, the escalators from the upper to lower platforms are 3-wide. On a NORMAL metro day, at least ONE of these stair cases is not operational...often two. Folks, if you have a functioning "up" escalator on the right hand side, what the hell makes you think that the non-functioning escalator on your far left is there for you to walk up? I hate people that do this."

Welcome to the underground phenomenon that is Metroquette. The first rule of Metroquette is you don't talk about Metroquette. The second rule of Metroquette is you don't talk about Metroquette. That's because it's the sort of unspoken system that holds together societies across the globe and time spent explaining its finer points is time wasted.

Actually the first real rule of Metroquette applies to the escalators. If you're in a hurry, stay to the left; if you don't mind wasting precious seconds of your life riding the Metro escalators, by all means lounge on the right. But NEVER lounge on the left.

Tourists are the usual perpetrators and it's hard to get worked up about them (though that Japanese family that held a strategy session on their next destination and inadvertently blocking the escalators a couple of weeks back came perilously close). For DC denizens the punishment is death.

Third rule of Metroquette: Let the people on the train off before pushing your way onto the train. This makes for the efficient transfer of travelers both on and off each car, though a particularly touristy weekend or hectic commuter day (i.e. delays abounding), it can devolve into a blood-thirsty fight to the finish. Punishment depends on the circumstances. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Fourth rule: When you're on the train, make way for those getting off. The Metro regularly makes announcements urging passengers to move to the center of the car as to create room for newcomers. Unfortunately, this is usually ignored. But those who do "follow the rules" pay for their mistake by having to force their way through a thicket of passengers not willing to budget an inch to let someone out, because really, why should they change for someone else? (Yes, I'm talking about you, cool dude with your sunglasses on and iPod buds in your ears. We know you know the rules. Don't be a jerk)

Fourth Rule, Part B: if you've got the outside seat and someone on the inside wants out, let them out.

There are more rules, but most fall into the misdemeanor category, i.e. loud cell phone conversations that just annoy everybody, body slamming your way onto a packed car seconds before the doors clamp shut, begging for change (I've actually seen beggars move from car to car asking for money), blocking seats with luggage, using up more than one seat during rush hour, etc.

I'm just glad I'm not the only person who thinks about this stuff.

(h/t Kate and James)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Vortex Time?



I took a moment this week to ponder the ever more ridiculous innovations in the beer drinking market ("beervations" to the initiated) after having the opportunity to try Miller Lite's new vortex bottle.

If you missed the commercials and online ads trumpeting this bold step forward in technology, a Miller Lite vortex bottle employs "specially designed" grooves in the spout of the longneck. These grooves, which remind me a bit of rifling, channel the beer in a way that it swirls deliciously into the drinker's mouth. With this level of genius and "outside the box" thinking, we should get these thinkers working on the oil spill problem in the gulf.

Sampling one of these new bottles at McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon on Wednesday evening, I was struck by how ridiculous this trend of one-upsmanship is becoming. Long ago beer executives passed beyond the "hey, why don't we try putting this stuff in an aluminum can" stage of innovation. Now we're in the "hey, my can should tell me when it's at the perfect temperature to chug" stage.

I am sure this has been going on for a while. With my quarter century of experience, I can remember the heralded release of Bud's "born on date" or Samual Adams' "drink by date." How little time appears to have passed since Coor's widemouth pour cans hit the supermarket coolers or those beer cans with the vent to increase refreshocity.
It smacks of overcompensation. If the aluminum can the brewer is using as a "beer delivery system" needs to be outfitted with all sorts of bells and whistles to make the perfect pour at the perfect consistency at the right temperature, then it's probably not a good beer. Hell, the Brits drink their beer at a little under room temperature and it tastes fine (or so I'm told).

I was less than overwhelmed by the vortex bottle. Did it change the drinking experience for me? Not really. I mean a Miller Lite is a Miller Lite is a Miller Lite. A step up from Busch and several flights of stairs down from a Harpoon.

I'll give the execs over at MillerCorp this: they did somehow get me to buy a Miller Lite.

Oh wait, now I remember, the bar's taps were broken. That's why I ordered a Miller Lite.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Metro to consider hikes Thursday



We know it's coming, but not when. We understand there is a shortfall, but not exactly why. We have an idea of the hole that needs to be filled, but not how much will come directly from our wallets.


We know times are tough, but maybe this is a stretch.

Metro fare hikes are on the way, though the specifics of the plan have not been publicized. Neither the media or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority have released the details surrounding the plan to make up a $189 million budget hole for FY '11. This much is known: the Metro needs revenue and the best way of getting it is from their users.

On May 13 the finance and administration committee turned their plan for proposed fee hikes over to the full board, according to The Washington Post. Here's what WaPo's transportation beat team reported at the time:

"Options include a 15 percent hike in rail fares and a 20 percent increase in bus fares.

Peak rail fares could go from $1.65 to $1.90 and bus fares from $1.25 to $1.50."

Also being weighed are new "peak of the peak" rail fares, an additional charge during the service times when ridership is heaviest, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m."

This is expected to raise about $104 million for the Metro... which just leaves the remaining $85 million to deal with. There's no word yet on how that's going to get resolved, explaining why some members of board are less than pleased with the approach. Once again, from WaPo:

"Other members disagreed with taking the unusual step of moving forward with a significant fare increase without considering the entire $1.4 billion operating budget.

'I'm very uncomfortable," said Graham, the only committee member to vote against the fare package. "This is a flawed process.'"

The full board is expected to pick this up on May 27. So by Friday we commuters may know how much more we ought to start loading onto our SmartTrip cards every week.

One can't help but find fault with the Metro's spin on their "Peak of the Peak" rate hike, if what The Washington Examiner's Kytja Weir reports is correct. Not only will a potential spike in cost help make up some of that deficit, it also will "encourage riders to spread out their trips."

Good to know. I hope everyone who uses the Metro on a regular basis has that kind of flexibility at their jobs.

The official word from Metro officials is a bit more muted. Officials will likely make service adjustments, i.e. cutting back on trains, to fill in a portion of the budget hole. According to a Metro press release, after six hearings on the issue it's clear the public prefers fare hikes over adjustments:

"'During the public comment period, we received a great deal of input from customers,' said Sarles. 'We have taken these inputs into account as we propose a solution that we feel balances the FY2011 budget as well as the interests of all in the region fairly.'"

The release also notes the Metro is considering cutting 313 positions, eliminating pay raises for non-union employees, increased contributions from Virginia and Maryland and divert capital funds to preventative maintenance. You can see their proposed fare changes here and their full release here. Other than that, the Metro hasn't done a particularly good job of outlining why they need cash and why they need it now.

But maybe there's a white knight or two riding in to the rescue. As I write it appears a few members of the U.S. Senate are pulling a cavalry act and pitching a $2 billion Public Transportation Preservation Act of 2010 to ease the pain of floundering public rail and bus services across the country.

I guess in the end, myself and several hundred thousand other D.C. area commuters may be spared the fee hike, thanks in part to generous taxpayers of, let's say, Montana.

So thanks Montana.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facing Facebook

I'm beginning to think Mark Zuckerberg thrives off of bad publicity.

Another year, another privacy-related imbroglio surrounding Zuckerberg's brainchild, Facebook.com (I'd throw in a hyperlink here, but what's the point?). This came to my attention a few weeks ago when word was first getting out Facebook was sharing information on your profile page with third party Web sites. I did some digging on the subject after Facebook forced me to adopt linked pages to everything on my profile, from my hometown and high school to my list of favorite movies.

Zuckerberg will have to pry that information out my cold dead hands. I don't want him sharing the fact that I actually really enjoyed Reign of Fire with anybody but my friends.

I'd explain the nuances of Facebook's changes, but a Google news search will bring up several thousand hits from reputable sources. Do your own research, people.

What has piqued my curiosity is the outrage and surprise. Users are deleting their accounts, people are protesting, the media has thrown their spotlight on the social networking site's privacy settings for the umpteenth time and even congress is looking into doing something about it.

I don't mean to gloss over the concerns of others regarding their privacy rights on the Internet and I certainly don't mean to oversimplify their arguments. I can understand why people are upset. I can't understand why they didn't see this coming.

By joining Facebook, you tacitly agree to give your personal information to someone else, namely Zuckerberg and his team of Web geniuses. Thems are the rules. If you don't want to share your name, gender, likes, dislikes, opinions on politics, music and anything else under the sun, you don't have to join.

It's very simple.

What's problematic is that our Internet-driven society has come to depend upon Facebook. Businesspeople use it to network, journalists to find sources, friends to reconnect... The list goes on and on. For many of us, Facebook is a resource we use on a daily basis.

But that doesn't change the fact that we've already agreed to freely hand over everything about us.

If Zuckerberg's recently released college IMs have any truth in them - and still reflect how he feels about privacy - he sees it the same way.

Look at it this way (Editors Note: I'm awful with analogies, so if this falls flat don't blame me): some time ago in Washington, D.C. the authorities built the Metro. I don't have a car, but I work in the city and live in the 'burbs. Thus I depend on the Metro to get to work. Now that I've become adjusted to using the Metro every day, should I demand that it be free? Would I be right to demand it be free?

To sum up, it's a two-way street. Facebook connects us to the rest of the world. It just comes with a price. In this information age, what we've given up is worth its weight in gold.

Oh and do I think Facebook and Zuckerberg are going to survive this? Absolutely.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Around the world in an afternoon

Who was the guy who decided it'd be a good idea to lick the bottom of a beer barrel?

I only ask because I had the opportunity to try Vegemite this weekend. Sure, I've heard it's awful, disgusting and made from the leftover yeast of beer brewing process. But on the other hand, if Men At Work like it, how bad can it be?

The word I'd choose to describe the subtle yet haunting flavor of Vegemite is... Interesting.

Picture this: It's a warm, muggy not-yet-summer day in the District. The sun bears down from a cloudless sky. There is little to no breeze. We're standing in line outside the Australian Embassy. We're there for one reason. That reason is a Vegemite sandwich.

An embassy staffer, blessed with a charming Aussie accent (put a shrimp on the barbie charming) and donning a Washington Nat's cap delivered Vegemite samples on a silver tray. Color me pleased. Despite the way that taste lingered in the back of my mouth.

Around the World Day, or whatever they call it, in the District of Columbia is the one day (that I know of) you can tour the various embassies, sample local dishes, listen to the music and other cultural engagements. If you don't mind a few lines and the occasional deadbeat foreign government (Croatia only had a tour of their embassy, whereas South Korea served up BBQ ribs. Croatia 0, Republic of Korea 1) it's a great way to spend an otherwise lazy Saturday.

It's a tough day on the feet if you want to scope out as many embassies as possible. Though Mass Ave is the well-known home to the world's representatives to the United States, these stately manors are spread throughout the city. We managed eight, from deliciously strong coffee at Columbia to a dance party at Iraq's place.

Maybe you missed out this past weekend, but never fear, Europe is up next. So get out there. Try some culture.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On commuting



You can hear the trains rattle by from my bedroom window. At night it's the long, rambling freighters heading up the eastern seaboard. Destination: Baltimore and points north.

But in the morning the tracks belong to the Metro trains and their payload of shuffling, half-awake commuters glancing at watches, flipping through The Washington Post Express and tapping smart phones. For the non-commuter, or the new commuter, the daily migration into the heart of the District is a great opportunity to people-watch.

Maybe it's the tension of the forced co-mingling of thousands of people who want nothing to do with each other, people pretending their driving in to work themselves or still in bed or in a private train car. In reality, they're squashed together like a can of sardines jostling one another with every dent in the rail.

Still, they try. If you squint hard enough you can see the shimmery, translucent light of the "personal space" shield surrounding them. Occasionally, they'll try a diplomatic overture, like "this is my stop" or "get out of my way" before hurtling past you in a vain attempt to squeeze through the Metro doors before they slam shut.

And sometimes the world intrudes on their carefully crafted personal zone. The Great Swine Flu Scare of 2009 may have faded out of our collective consciousness months ago, but you can still spot pristine white and hospital scrubs blue medical face masks tied on here and there on the morning Metro.

There's a whole wide world of people and stories out there. You can find them all on the Metro

It's better than television.