Sunday, July 31, 2011

#48: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

1991 edition, illustrated by Alan Lee. Published by Houghton Mifflin

OK, so those who know me know that I have cats named for Mithrandir and Goldberry from this text. I read this book every other summer (because to do so every summer would be nuts), and have done so since 1985 or 1986. I have never written a review of this book before, so here goes. I will not go over the plot, you Commies, as you should know it by now.

Who is the most compelling character in this text? Why, Tom Bombadil of course! One of the jokers that Jackson left out of the movie. This is for two reasons: he can see Frodo when he wears the Ring of Power, yet when Bombadil puts it on, he does not disappear. As Gandalf says, "The ring has no power over him". Tolkien himself did not seem to place that much importance on him, even if his mate Goldberry says "Bombadil is Master", and seems confused when the Hobbits ask what that means. I don't know, but for me if there is a "God" element in the text of the book, it is Bombadil. He is there, chooses to get involved or chooses not to be involved. In a sense, he is above the rest of the text. He is undoubtedly powerful, but seems quite happy to be where he is.

I have always disliked Elves, seeing them as whiny, arrogant, B.S. artists. They seem quick to blame the Dwarves for everything (well, I can sort of see that. That whole Balrog of Morgoth thing was sort of their fault) and are downright condescending to everyone but Gandalf. I am down with the whole "immortal" thing, but I get sick of the "Well, we are leaving. So, thanks but no thanks with the storming Barad Dur stuff." Galadriel says at one point "The Elves will no longer trust Sauron, but will not submit to him." By and large, they will not fight him either, just wait for doom. I could never quite get my head around that, these lovers of beauty, song and the forest just sort of run for the Grey Havens in numbers once the shit hits the fan.

The main complaint I have in re-reading these books after the movies is that now I can only picture the actors from the films as the characters as I read. The first time I read this, I saw Gimli as not unlike myself, except shorter with a red beard. Read into that what you will. But now, all I see is Elijah Wood, Viggo and the rest. Cate Blanchette gets a pass, as she is Cate Blanchette. Arwen is dead to me after her roles in the movie. She is important in the long run, but Elrond's sons do the heavy lifting when the Riders are abroad in the book. I also think, and have thought for many years, that the portrayal of the Riders in the book is far more frightening than in the film One of the things that make this book excellent is that Tolkien portrayed the dark recesses of our minds and the ideas we bring to the table as perhaps more fearsome than what the outside world can do to us. For a World War I vet, this is an astounding idea to me. The Riders play on fear; walk into a dark room in an unfamiliar place and see where your mind goes. The room is filled with monsters until the light comes on. Maybe this is what Tolkien the vet lived with; many of his generation did.

And NO, the Ring of Power is not the fucking Atomic Bomb. Mordor is not the USSR, Gondor is not the USA, and the Shire is not Britain. Tolkien said so himself in the 1950s and 1960s. Moria and Mordor are the loss of hope, while the Shire is where hope is alive. When we have hope, things are bright, simple. When we do not, things are dark and filled with malice. To me, this is why the books are so fun to read.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

#47: America Between the Wars From 11/9 to 9/11: The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War On Terror by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeiger

Public Affairs Books, 2008: 403 pages

"It is the legacy of 9/11 that we still live with today, as Republicans and Democrats try to define the direction the country should take." (xii)

This book is very good. I mean, really good. I felt I learned more about the current state of American Politics reading this than I have from any other source. Both authors are Political Science professors, the bibliography includes writings from across the political spectrum. Having watched both the Berlin Wall and the Two Towers come down on television, this book forced me to an uncomfortable pair of understandings.

1. The freshman that I will teach this year were born in 1997 or 1998. This makes them too young to ever remember the Berlin Wall, as it disappeared 8 years before they were born. It also makes them too young to have solid memories of 9/11 as they were three or four years old. The authors of the text convincingly argue that the great political debates of the 1990s are still very much extant; this makes me want to put much more emphasis in my teaching on the horrors of the Cold War and the importance of the Wall. The overriding questions about the use of military force in the 1990s were centered on States vs. Global networks. In a sense, they still are. In either event, I feel old.

2. This book features a President saying that the UN was "a light that failed" but willing to work internationally to solve problems. This was not Bill Clinton, but the first President Bush (7-11). It is shocking in reading this text how isolationist and conservative the Republican party has become in the last 20 years. This is most definitely not the party of Ronald Reagan, no matter how much they invoke him. According to the authors, the much derided Neocons were looking to invoke U.S. power unilaterally, but with a moral mandate. In this, they went away from George H.W. Bush. Democrats looked to a revival of "strength at home and the inevitable power of globalization." (42) I found this accurate, as most Neocons (Chaney, Wolfowitz, etc.) are actually closer on international issues to JFK or Harry Truman than they are anyone else. What emerges from these pages is the growing realization that the Bachmanns and Tea Partiers of the U.S. are the scion of Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. Gingrich himself was far more interested in foreign policy than his fellow "Contract Republicans" of 1994, but they got away from him. (108-110)

2010 was not the first time the Republican Party elected "a group of lawmakers who scoffed at the idea the U.S. had to be engaged in the world and...proudly declared they did not have passports." That describes the 1994 mid term election as well, the last time there was a cooked up budget fight. (109) This book actually makes me think that there should be four parties in American politics: Internationalists and Isolationists would be two. Al Gore was the biggest "hawk" in the Clinton Administration on two subjects. The first is Iraq and the second is terrorism. The Clinton Administration "deserves a lot of credit for taking the threat of terrorism seriously...but were never able to develop a coherent plan to deal with it." (272). While this has made Clinton a punching bag for numerous Republicans, the inference I draw from the text is that the Republicans who came into office in 2000 were woefully unprepared for al-Qaeda and focused on Iraq because it was what they knew.

It is this dichotomy that would form the other two parties: Statists (rogue states such as North Korea and countries such as China are the biggest threats) vs. Networkists (terrorists, global financial meltdowns are the biggest threats.) for example, Bush II would be in some ways a Isolationist Statist on foreign policy, while Gore was an Internationalist Networkist. The authors do not play what ifs, but the book raises great questions of the effect of 9/11 if Gore had been elected. It would have been vastly different; Gore was against the Iraq War in 2003 because of this split. Gore had been agitating for Saddam Hussein's removal or suppression since 1994; in 2003 there was simply no point to it. Overall, a very thought provoking text. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Question: Which of these two things is worse?

All right, two awful things happened yesterday. Please vote in the comments section over which is worse:

1. The Pirates lose in the 19th inning on one of the singularly worst calls of the last 20 years. Here is a video of the call, the dejection, the outrage. Keep in mind the announcers on the video are from Atlanta, and even they think Julio Lugo is out at the plate. 19 innings, people, and it ends like this:

2. We went to the drive in last night, and I was awoke from my "Do we really need another one of those movies?" rut by this....thing. I muttered things such as "You have got to be fucking kidding me" and "Shit, piss and damnation" when I saw this, which promises another steamy pile of cinema shit:\

As a Pirates fan, I think the first is worse. As an American and Human Being, I probably vote for the second.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#46: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast

Plume, 2003. 351 pages

It is hard to say exactly what this book is about. Is it about the Bush Family? Is it about Corporations fucking democracy seven ways to a Sunday? Well, it can be broken into two parts: the excellent work Palast did on the 2000 election (stolen/plagiarized by Michael Moore) and any number of uneven screeds that make up the other 1/2 of the text. Most of what is in this book is old news to anyone who reads Mother Jones, listens to Democracy Now or buys groceries at Whole Foods.

What I do like a lot about this edition is Palast's inclusion of an appendix with multiple places for people to be heard or get outside information (some of the sites are gone, but some are still going and are quite good). No one in their right fucking minds should read CNN or watch CNN or listen to CNN. Here are their "most popular stories" as of 9 am PST, 26 July 2011:
1. Netflix addresses customers "upset" with price hike: Well, as one of those people, I'm angry. Not as angry as I am at the Republicans, but still a little upset.
2. Obama calls for compromise amid stalemate: People may finally be paying attention to this.
3. Low tech Internet scams harvest billions of dollars: So what? Never give out your credit card or SSN to anyone. If they want it, fuck 'em. When filling out anything that does not involve something being shipped to you, put in a false address and name. Use a god damn firewall and for Christ sakes stay away from the porn.
4. Men weigh in on love, money and kids: awwwwww, isn't that cute?

This isn't CNN's fault per se, but do ya think if they stopped producing stories of this type, people would cease to care about what random men have to say about money and kids? This is where Palast and the Censored Project come in; I don't like Palast's writing and I think he is kind of an egotist. However, he is important. One thing that progressives and conservatives (even nutty freakshows like Palin and Bachmann) have in common is a distrust of mainstream/lamestream media. What really pisses me off is that Palin et al gets blasted for ridiculing media, while Palast and progressives are championed.  Palin and Bachmann should get blasted for their ideas. Or lack thereof.

Back to the book. If you do not understand the machinations behind the voter rolls and "Jim Crow in cyberspace" that brought Bush the 2000 election, the first sections will make you squirm. In Palast's view, Choice Point and Katherine Harris worked together to purge over 57,000 voters from Florida rolls because they were convicted felons. Palast throws around a bunch of numbers, but comes down repeatedly on 15% of these people being wrongly listed (pages 35-49). That's 8550 people, 90% of them African American and Hispanic. You do the math. My father could not vote in the state of Iowa for the last 34 years of his life, as he committed a felony for which he did jail time; I always thought this was bull shit. BTW, Florida ended "felony disenfranchisement" in 2007 and Iowa did in 2005. Then there is this nugget: "In a race decided by 537 votes, Florida simply did not count 179,855 ballots (italics his, 62). These are votes that were voided as "spoiled". As you may have guessed, in counties such as Gadsden and Madison (52% and 42% African American respectively) roughly 10% of the votes were voided. In counties over 95% white, roughly 2.5% were voided. Again, you do the math. (See page 62-70 for the scam.)

The other part of the text that really shines is Palast's take on the so-called "Chilean Miracle". For a fun bit, read his description of this rampant corporate placement of their balls in the mouths of regular Chileans while Augusto Pinochet readied a red hot poker for introduction into their collective brown stars. Then, compare it to Daniel Yergin's Commanding Heights, which casts Milton Friedman as God, Maggie Thatcher as St. Theresa and Ronald Reagan as St. Paul. No one is Jesus, because he most likely would have been a socialist.

The rest of the book is weaker, but still reads fairly well considering the economic implosion of 2007-8 and the corporations who are profiting from it. One thing bothered me about this text, and it is this statement on page 4: "Regarding the Democrats, my policy is to let sleeping dogs lie and lying dogs sleep." I call bull shit on that. President Bush may have gotten to the White House on the backs of scheming, sleazy wanna-bes like Katherine Harris and five old fuckers in black robes, but Gore and Clinton did their fair share of shitty things also. If pointing out corruption in the political process is the goal, then point it out when it happens. I am a registered Democrat who gleefully voted against every incumbent Democrat in the primaries last year. Why? Because I don't like their policies, and I just think that Barbara Boxer is a little too cozy with business.

For me, Palast's entire text is undermined by that line. The system is broken, kids, and the Republicans and Democrats both have a shared interest in keeping it that way. Change those in power to change things; the Tea Party is not change but the hoary ghost of the 1890s, and it will haunt you forever. The Progressives of this time are really scared shitless; where the hell is Harry Truman when you need him? Where is JFK? Where is liberalism with honest-to-God balls?

#45: Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization by Richard A. Billows

Overlook Duckworth, 2010: 304 pages

Richard Billows is a professor of Greek and Roman history at Colombia. In this text, he considers the listing of the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE as what saved Western Civilization. This is a distinctly modern idea, and Billows supports it very well. I do not know much about Greek history, and learned much from this book.

The three things I knew about Greek history before I read this book:
1. Sparta was this land of Men With Abs of Steel who would fight anything at the drop of a hat. They then would go back to their Warrior Wives and have sweaty, hot, light-the-mattress-on-fire filthy sex. The next day, they would eat 14 raw cows for breakfast, make fun of effeminate Athenians, and then go back to their Warrior Wives know.

2. In the words of Socrates, "I drank what?"

3. Thucydides and Herodotus are to blame for what I do for a living, part of which is subject high schoolers to essays by Thucydides and Herodotus. God Damn Bastards.

My slightly amended knowledge of the above is now this:
1. Spartan men were taken from their homes (if they survived being a baby without being judged unfit) at the age of 7 to live with other boys. They would then get the shit beat out of them for 11 years, making them "tough". Hence the Abs of Steel and the fearlessness. If they completed the agoge (training) successfully, they became citizens. If not, they were chopped into small bits and fed to the donkeys.

2. The men "ate with a military dining group, called a syssition" (95). They did this for the rest of their lives. They lived in a barracks with the other men, even if they were married, until they were 30 years old. So much for what I knew, but what this leads to is the fact that "there was no room in Spartan life for inventive cultural activities." (96) Hence the Spartan lifestyle, which roundly sucked.

3. For all their toughness, Spartans were, by and large, jack asses. At Marathon in 490, it was the Athenians and the Palatians who won the battle. The runner, Philippides, covered the 140 miles from Athens to Sparta in two days, a route which included "several quite demanding mountain passes". (206) Why did he go there? To ask the Spartans for help. What was their response? "It was not Spartan custom to march out to war during the second week of the Karneian moon." They would leave in six days. Well, fuck you too.

4. Marathon gets kicked to the curb in popular culture (in large part because of 300) and Thermopylae gets all the attention. This makes sense, as we are best known for "celebrating" setbacks or defeats in American culture (The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, U.S.S. Maine, Tila Tequila) and overlooking a fight actually won against long odds. As Billows points out, "The plain truth is that the Athenians had been badly let down by the Spartans at Thermopylae." (243) The defeat necessitated the abandonment of most of Attica to the Persians, who raped and pillaged.

5. Why were there only 300 at Thermopylae? Where were the men who could eat steel and shit a Buick? "The 300 were only an advance force, and the rest were delayed by religious commitments." (242) They really did not want to leave the Peloponnese, as it was against their custom to do so. They only allied with the Athenians in 480 because the Spartans realized they would get their collective heads handed to them without naval power. This, they did not have. In any event, the rest of the Spartan army never showed up.

In any event, I liked this book for the wrong reasons. The last two chapters felt rushed, but the Spartans-under-the-bus trope made my heart happy. Pop culture likes them because they look good in the fighting. Of course, we would not have tragedy or comedy without Athenians. This book should have been called Sparta Sucks: Why you should not buy the hype.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

#44: The First World War by John Keegan

Knopf, 1999: 475 pages

The first line of this text is "The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict." All wars are tragic and many are unnecessary; Keegan emphasizes the reasons why on the first page. It was unnecessary because the chain of events and decisions that produced it could have been stopped at multiple points. It was tragic not only because of the lives lost (close to 10 million of them) but also that it "destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent." (1)

In this day and age it is easy to look at early 20th century Europe and decry the lack of democracy, the stark separation of social classes and the other inequalities that were part and parcel of the early 19th century. For Keegan, the "second world war...was unquestionably the outcome of the first." (9). No one can argue against this assertion. At the end of World War I, monarchies disappeared (Ottoman Empire, the Tsar, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the German Kaiser). They were replaced by Turkey and multiple Middle Eastern states (Iraq being one), the Soviet Union, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Weimar Republic. Besides Turkey, this is not and impressive list of democracies/operable nations/areas of quiet. One could argue that the cataclysm of World War I set up the rest of the 20th century quite nicely in terms of totalitarianism, body counts and technological destruction.

Keegan is a military historian of great skill and long experience; if you are looking for a superb (perhaps the best one volume) narrative history of the war, this is the book you should start with. It is also peppered with comments such as this, describing the effect of 20,000 deaths for the British Army alone on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916: "The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered." (299) Keegan's account is not an anti-septic one, devoid of any judgments or opinions. He considers (for the time) recent scholarship and the bibliography is excellent. He treats the African and Asian theaters, which are all too often dropped completely in favor of the Western Front.

One opinion that I have often held is that the U.S. does not quite understand the impact of World War I as we came to that particularly destructive party very late, in 1917. For example, the U.S. suffered 116,516 deaths in World War I; there were 53,402 combat deaths. This in approximately 19-20 months; more Americans were killed in World War I than in Vietnam. At the height of the fighting in France in 1918, roughly 2-300 Americans per day were killed. This number is immense, but consider the butcher's bill for France at the 1916 battle of Verdun: some 60,000 dead in 10 months. This does not take into account the nearly 100,000 missing. Most Americans would be quite shocked to realize that the U.S. had troops in Russia from 1918-1920 fighting the Bolsheviks, or to know that the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe is not at Normandy. It is in Meuse, where roughly 14,000 U.S. servicemen from the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918 are buried.

It is a shame that WWI is not viewed in this country as being as "important" in some way as WWII. I agree with Keegan that the "rancours and instabilities" remaining from WWI led to the "continuation" of the war in WWII. (423) To understand 20th century European History (appeasement in the 1930s in particular) as well as much of 20th century Middle Eastern history (Palestinian Mandates, dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire) one needs to start with World War I. Keegan's text is an excellent source with which to begin.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#43: American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum

Crown Publishers, 2008. 339 pages.

Ohhhhhhhh man! If the current folks complaining about President Obama being a Socialist could read this book! Not only does Eugene Debs make an appearance...but so does Big Bill Haywood! Awesome! The text focuses on the Oct 1, 1910 destruction of the LA Times building. It seems that the building was blown up using dynamite, killing 21 people. This is one of those events that I had no idea about.

The text is a story of three people: William Burns, Clarance Darrow and D.W. Griffith. Burns was the operator of the most dreaded private detection agency this side of the Pinkertons in 1910. Darrow was by this point a famous attorney in his 50s. Griffith was a movie director who could not keep his dick in his pants. In a slightly more important note, he invented the close up.Yes, this is a "real crime" story. But, it is fascinating.

Los Angeles, much like the rest of the country in 1910, was beset by the age old battle of capitalists vs. labor. When the Times building went up in smoke the question became who was guilty, not why they did it. This is the first thing the reader notices. In 1910, growing up in poverty or earning $5 for a 65 hour week was not considered reasons for committing a crime.

Both sides looked at the trial as something that was to be played outside the courtroom. Bloom lays wasted the idea that the OJ or Chuck Manson case changed the way criminals are judged in this country. I could not help but think of Casey Anthony while I read this book. Media convicted her years ago; they then labeled the verdict "surprising". In this country, we try people every day via polls and other assorted bull shit. This did not start in the 1980s. Bloom convincingly argues that it begins in the first decade of the 20th century.

In some ways, the crime itself is secondary to the politics surrounding it, which was Darrow's biggest problem with the case. Darrow was reluctant to take the case because of the energy he expended in a corruption case in San Francisco five years before. If people currently think that Fox News and MSNBC are partisan, the media companies are ball-less wienies compared to outfits like the LA Times or NY Times in the early 1900s. Bloom's portrait of both sides is even handed.

What is most compelling is Billy Burns, the private detective who is charged with solving the crime. At one point, he is asked while doing a search "Do we not have rights?" Burns replied "Not in this case you do not." It is here that Bloom's narrative is both the most compelling and most frustrating. The actions of both sides (bribing witnesses, bullying, kidnapping witnesses) is carried on with not one jot of thought for civil liberties. In fact, civil liberties seem an anathema to the capitalists. Bloom does not explore this as much as I would like, but the reader can swing his/her own way on that matter. What does matter is this is a story that deserves to be told, and Bloom does tell it very well.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

#42: A Clever Base Ballist by Bryan Di Salvatore

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 476 pages

I picked this book up for $6 at a used bookshop in Santa Cruz and found it money well spent. The "Clever Base ballist" of the title is a now mostly forgotten player with the Awesome handle of John Montgomery Ward. He is not related to the Montgomery Ward of Catalog fame. In his playing days, he was called Monte.

Monte Ward played from 1878 to 1894, married two different Broadway actresses, started the first baseball players union, instigated the 1890 Player's League and also found time to graduate from Colombia Law School. In all, not a bad life! As a player, Ward was one of a kind. He is the only player in major league history to win 100 games as a pitcher and collect 2000 hits. After he injured his arm in 1881, he shifted to the outfield and then to shortstop, playing with the NY Giants from 1883 to 1889. He also wrote an excellent book, How to Be a Ball Player, which is a perfect introduction to the world of 1880s baseball.

Even with all of this, his achievements on the field are secondary to his significance as an historical figure in the game. In 1890, the players revolted against the league magnates and formed their own league. Ward was at the forefront of this action, directed against the reserve clause and the so called "Brush Classification Scheme", both blatant attempts to unilaterally cap salaries. Di Salvatore involves not only the leading sports weeklies of the day (The Sporting Life, New York Clipper) but also the papers of Samuel Gompers and the Knights of Labor. Di Salvatore's writing is level, not celebratory or damning, which in this case is a tremendous asset.

Even though the book is over 10 years old, it is still timely. Much is made by many of the greed of professional athletes, but rarely is the greed of the owners of sports teams invoked. If anything can be learned from this book it is that some things never change. Try this rogues gallery on for size:

1. Arthur Soden: owner of the Boston NL club. Soden was a notorious cheapskate who "routinely forced his own players to buy tickets for their wives". At least two players in the 1890s said that Soden had no idea that they even played for his team.

2. Al Spalding: president of the Chicago White Stockings and onwer of Spalding Sporting goods. Ward, in response to a particularly vicious screed from Spalding, wrote in 1883 that "they call a player who accepts a proffered raise in salary a disorganizer and dangerous character." (192) During the Spalding World Tour, third baseman Ned Williamson injured his knee in England. Spalding made him pay his own way home and refused to pay for his hotel even when Williamson's health forced him to stay behind. (148-49)

Ward was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1964, 38 years after his death. In the original 1936 voting for the hall, he received 3.6% of the vote, less than baseball's most notorious crook, Hal Chase. Less than the catcher for the great Chicago Cubs teams of the early 1900s (Johny Kling). He was forgotten in the 1930s, but should be celebrated by players everywhere for giving voice to the concerns of the people who actually play the games.

Ward disputed the owners on every level, and himself was quite a character. he was smart enough to fight them at their own game, even if the Player's League of 1890 wound up being a failure. Ward's story is also a nice slice of Gilded Age America. Ward was admired for being a hardworking, intelligent man who made his own way. He was not particularly well liked for speaking his mind or pointing out hypocrisy. Some things never change. Anyone interested in baseball history should read this book, as should anyone who is interested in the pivotal decades of the 1870s to 1920s.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Road Trippin'

All right, so me and the wife drove to the reunion last week. Here are some random things I noticed while we drove  through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada and California.

1. A Baptist Church in Rolla owns a car. Perhaps more than one, I do not know. But, on the car was this slogan:
"A Church that Cares." If a Methodist saw that, he or she would say "I'll show you a church that cares, you SOB."

2. The Most Awesome Name For An Ice Cream Stand: Wasco, CA wins with Jolly Kone. Jolly Cone with a C would not kut it. It has to be with a K, because K in place of C means taste.

3. Here is a sample play list from 96.5 Bakersfield, IN ORDER:
Bee Gees -- Night Fever (1978)
Hall and Oates -- Maneater (1982)
Pilot -- Oh Oh Oh It's Magic (1975)
Stevie Wonder -- Isn't She Lovely (1976)
Los Lobos -- La Bamba (1987)
Eric Clapton -- I Shot the Sheriff (1974)
Don McLean -- American Pie (1971)
Lipps, Inc -- Funkytown (1979)

What in the name of Smoky The Bears Nut Stained Underpants is this? I understand that Disco, despite the best efforts of all decent people, has never gone away. But....ISN'T SHE LOVELY? FUNKYTOWN? Of all the Stevie Wonder songs to play from Songs From the Key of Life. What about "Sir Duke", "I Wish" or "Love's In Need of Love Today"? Look at this list! Stevie is made of soul, but if you were to break out anything but Isn't She Lovely, Don McLean's epic would look and sound like the boring 8 minutes of schlock that it is. As far as Funkytown, I will let Stevie take over: Just because a record has a groove doesn't mean it's in the groove.

4. Most popular Classic Rock Songs on the Trip:

Matthew Wilder, "Ain't Nothin Gonna break My Stride" -- It felt like we heard this song about 30000000 times. It was probably only 4, but let's retire this warty time capsule. Look for the YouTube video if you want to see a classic Porn Stache. For you Rescue Me fans out there, Wilder looks like Lou about 20 years and 50 pounds ago.

Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'" -- now that I have lived in the Bay Area for five years, I still hate this song. Every God Damn minute of it. Steve Perry could throw down. Believe it or not, the second most played Journey song was "Separate Ways" and not "Anyway You Want It".

5. What is the difference between a large pickup or SUV in Missouri or Arkansas with those in California? The ones in Missouri are dirty from actually being used off road. The SUVs in California are spotless from taking up four parking spaces in the nearest Trader Joe's parking lot or Yoga Pant City.

Sign of the End Times?

No, this is not about that chowderhead Michele Bachman. Nor is it about that 24-Karat Horse's Ass Mitch McConnell, nor is it about the near certainty that in a months time the US will be approximately like the U.S. in 1934: Fucked from hell to breakfast and 13 to the Dozen in a way that only a War could save us.

No, the Mighty Pittsburgh Pirates are tied for first place! For the first time since 1997 the Pirates are in first place in the month of July! Let the Tea Party practice their mental midgetry, let the President fulminate against a group of people that he should crush like bugs yet somehow lacks the spine to do so. Sing the praises of the Pirates! Cutch, Walker, Maholm, Garrett F. Jones, J Mac and The Hammer. There are heroes out there people!

Oh, yeah. Here is my soon-to-be-weekly rant about politics:

Let's see the government default. Here is a primer of the effects:

1. Interest Rates increase by 3-4 percent across the board and even more homeowners default. Oh, wait! You only own your home after you pay the fucking thing off. Until then, you own squat. Many of us found that out in the last 5 years.
2. If you think credit is difficult to get now, wait a few months. We already have a demand problem in the economy; I wonder what an even tighter credit market will do?
3. The DJA will fall below 8000 in roughly two weeks, carrying away the value of most Americans retirement eggs. The ensuing panic will destabilize the EU even further. This will spawn austerity packages that will make the recently passed laws in Greece look like the second coming of the New Deal.

Don't come crying to me, Tea Partiers! If you voted for the current crop of Republicans, I feel for you. Were you swept up in the euphoria of 2008? Enjoying the latest Corporate Stooge Democrat? At some point, you will be old enough to understand that money talks and bull shit walks. This is the supreme rule of the political universe. There is no other worth the name. We are reverting back to the 1890s, in which people who could buy whatever they want did and the rest of us starved or strained in an anti-union environment for crumbs from the big boy table.Years of gutting education in favor of testing has got us here. Blame the Unions, blame the government, but don't look in the mirror. That takes guts, and we have none. The Republicans frame the debate while the Dems wring their hands....or, more to the point, shake their heads in amazement at the stupidity on daily display.

Hey! Democrats! In the best Army tradition, Sound Off Like You've Got A Pair. The last Democratic president to do so was Harry Truman, now known in this bull shit, hyper critical PC world as The-Guy-What-Dropped-The-A-Bomb. Bill Clinton? Usually I do not agree with that pompous Gasbag Michael Moore, but he said it best: Clinton was one of the best Republican presidents in the last 60 years. Keep using our union dues to get elected and then throw our collective bargaining asses under the bus while you cave. I would not cross the street to piss on Harry Reid if he was on fire. Of course, I would poor gasoline on Eric Cantor and Grover Norquist if they were on fire, but I digress. What has filled me with so much bile this evening, when I should be celebrating my good fortune at being the fan of a winning sports team?

It is the top story on CNN at this hour: J-Lo and Marc Anthony are breaking up. Not the debt or the Pirates or the impending landing of a space probe on an asteroid. It's J-Lo. We are doomed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

#41: Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness by Mark Ribowsky

University of Illinois Press, 2004. 319 pages.

This book was originally printed in 1996. For this edition, Mark Ribowsky produced an updated preface and introduction. Ribowsky's discussion of the reaction to this text is interesting. But first, let's consider Josh Gibson.

Gibson and Satchel Paige are the two best known stars of the Negro Leagues of the 1920s and 1930s, and, by most accounts, are considered the best players produced by those leagues. According to Shades of Glory published by the Baseball Hall of Fame, Gibson appeared in 510 Negro League games between 1930 and 1946. He played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. He, along with many other black players, also played in the Dominican Winter League and the Mexican League. In 1941 at age 30, he hit .374 with 33 Home Runs in 94 games for Veracruz. Gibson is routinely credited with 800 or even 900 home runs, which is most likely not correct. Officially, he is credited with 177 in 2529 at bats, still a very impressive rate. He used a massive 41 ounce, 40 inch bat and appeared in his first semi-pro game at age 16. (26)

And this is where Ribowsky comes in. He attempts to strip away the legends and get at the individual, and he succeeds. While I knew (or thought I knew) quite a bit about Gibson the ballplayer, I did not know much about him as a man. The intersection of black baseball, organized crime and ego is wrapped up in the relationship between Gibson, Satchel Paige and Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee ran numbers from his pool halls and saloons and began to lose business in the late 1930s (150). Gibson was in demand; what separated him from Satchel Paige was, to be blunt, loyalty. Satch would pitch anywhere, anytime. The effect on his teammates, according to Ribowsky, was resentment and anger. Paige made more money than anyone else because he played more than anyone else. Contracts meant next to nothing to him; however, Gibson viewed the business side of baseball as a "trial", and "even if prodded, would not have known how to clown it up" for white and black fans. (95)

Gibson was a haunted man who took to booze to dull his pain. Ribowsky treats his downward spiral of the 1940s not as the fall of an idol and does not portray Gibson as a victim of the institutional racism of white baseball. He simply casts him as a man beset by demons who did not know how to deal with them. We all know people like that (or may be people like that) and this makes Gibson approachable, not the awesome Baseball God. This caused Ribowsky some grief when the book first appeared; his response is "the hardest thing to accept about Josh Gibson was that he was not impregnable after all." (12)

This is perhaps the hardest thing to deal with when confronted with the mortality of our parents, heroes and ourselves. I got to meet Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull, some years ago. I own every Tull album (and deal with shame from some quarters for this fact) and I was struck by how short and skinny he was. He seemed nice and spent nearly 90 minutes signing autographs in a parking lot. Some people were pissed that he did not sign the (literally) 14 items they brought, but fuck 'em. Once you become a hero, it is understood by all that you do not belong to yourself but to everyone. Your time is no longer your own. All of us on some level want the fame and money, but we have no idea of the price. Gibson paid at the office, as do most professional ball players who achieve hall of fame status. Even Gibson, a man in his prime who could run fast, stood 6'1 and was 230 pounds of muscle, did not have enough to give. This was an excellent book.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#40: Archaeology, History and Custer's Last Battle by Richard Allen Fox Jr

University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. 411 pages

Ahhhhhh, George Armstrong Custer. As Al Swearingen said in Deadwood, "That arrogant cocksucker getting massacred just brought the Sioux one long term assfucking."

I have long been fascinated with Custer and his fight. My "uncle" (read: someone my folks pawned me off on when they did not want to deal with me) gave me books to read about him. Richard Fox's book is different than most of those, as he takes a different take on the Last Stand than many authors. His sources and methodology are authoritative, in some cases overwhelmingly so. Fox takes the first two sections of the book to lay out the archaeological evidence, then takes into account not only army accounts but also Indian accounts of the fight.

This runs him afoul of many Custerphiles. As Fox points out, it benefits the narrative of the 1870s and 1880s to believe in a Last Stand of white men before they were "overwhelmed." The only way the natives could win is through overwhelming numbers, which meshes with the white superiority idea of empire in the late 19th century. Of course, one person who indefatigably pushed the legend was Libby Custer, George's wife. Fox argues that the evidence does not support a "Last Stand" hypothesis. Having been to the field, I find this analysis correct. The command was strung out on a series of ridges overlooking the Little Bighorn River; the markers on the field are of questionable veracity.

Custer's bravery has never been questioned, nor should it be. He was a general who led from the front and was offensive minded. What makes this book fascinating is that many who read it think that Fox is questioning Custer's courage and that of his men. Well, if you are outnumbered some 3-1, in a defensive position that leaves much to be desired, in 90 degree heat, far from supplies, fighting an enemy that does not have the best reputation for treatment of prisoners or the dead, would you be scared? I would be crapping in my army issued pants. This is quite all right, and is a normal reaction. Custer was brave to a fault, but even he probably knew the command was in desperate straits.The evidence supplied by Fox more than proves this contention in this reporter's opinion.

This book is more about what Custer means. In the 1880s and 1890s the two things you could count on being in any tavern north of Tennessee were:
1. Drunks
2. The engraving of Custer's Last Stand by Anheuser Busch.

The Sioux, from Sitting Bull on down, were excited by the victory but knew that Swearingen's profane announcement would prove correct. Crazy Horse came into the reservation some 18 months later. It could be argued that the Custer Fight needed to happen; after all, it nearly happened to General Crook on the Rosebud the previous week in 1876. The Last Stand here was for the Sioux and their allies, not Custer.

In this text Fox painstakingly lays out his idea of the flow of battle based on the archaeological evidence. At times it is a difficult read, but it is never boring and will keep your attention. It is suggested that you read the endnotes while going through the text as they provide good info. If you are interested in Custer this book is quite a read; if you are not, you may be wondering "What the hell is this?"

#39: Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century by Allen Barra

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. 261 pages

Allen Barra is a well known writer and contributor to MLB radio and, and in this book sets out to tackle some issues such as:

1. Was Babe Ruth as good as we think he was? Or, "Getting Tough With Babe Ruth".
2. 61*: Or, Should Roger Maris Be in the Hall of Fame?
3. Why can't they go nine anymore?

Granted, this book was written in 2002, but the baseball writings do not hold up very well. Barra emphasizes his and a colleagues creation, SLOB (Slugging pct*On Base Percentage) as the "best correlating stat to run production." I had never heard of it before I picked up the book. Barra also claims to have developed several similar stats to Palmer's Linear Weights and Bill James Runs Created "years before I James wrote his first Baseball Analyst". Well, that may be, but that is another debate. Barra's tone throughout is somewhat whiny. But, on to one of the "debates" as an example of the problem of this book.

Barra's Best Player of the 20th Century"? Mike Schmidt, third baseman of the Phillies. An inspired choice, and I certainly agree that Schmidt is hands down the best third baseman of all time. The problem lies in this line, in comparing Schmidt to Babe Ruth: "Assume they are both playing in an era of relief pitching and night ball, with black and Latin players thrown into the mix. Then look at that overweight guy in right field, and look at that sculptured athlete at third base and ask yourself...if evolution works in reverse." (132)

Well, well. I call bull shit on that. Barra compares any number of great players to Schmidt in leading the league in HR, BA, RBI, R, OBA, SLG, SB and MVPs. He neglects to compare Schmidt to Ruth in these categories. Let me do the heavy lifting here:

Home Runs: Schmidt 8, Ruth 12. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Batting Average: Schmidt 0, Ruth 1. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Runs Batted In: Schmidt 4, Ruth 6. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Runs: Schmidt 1, Ruth 8. Advantage The Overweight Guy
On Base Percentage: Schmidt 3, Ruth 10. Advantage: The overweight Guy
Slugging Percentage: Schmidt 5, Ruth 13. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Stolen Bases: Schmidt 0, Ruth 0. Push
MVP: Schmidt 3, Ruth 1. Advantage Schmidt

I consider Mike Schmidt the best third baseman in history, bar none. I am also tired of people such as Barra bagging on Babe Ruth. Ruth was the dominant player of his time; who won MVPs during Ruth's career? People such as Lou Gehrig (1927), Jimmy Foxx (1932 and 1933), Walter Johnson (1923), Mickey Cochrane (1928); all members of the Hall of Fame. I agree that the idea that a man who ate hot dogs and banged everything with two legs 80 years ago being considered the Greatest Player of All Time sounds preposterous. What Barra fails to consider is sabermetric analysis, which he somewhat smugly says he does not put stock in. Ruth was one of the best pitchers in baseball before Ed Barrow made him an outfielder. In 1916, Ruth won 24 games. In 1919, while he was busy leading the league in home runs, he won 9 games as a pitcher.

Casting aspersions on Ruth for not having to play games at night or against black players is fine, but analytically suspect. It was not his fault, and he should not be blamed for this. Compare his stats, or normalize them to the 1970s, and Ruth would still be a great player, his conditioning notwithstanding. Barra fails here because he does not considerer the power of statistical normalization. His Ruth is a bumbling fat man, lucky to not face black pitchers or play under the lights. Again, not his fault.

It is also interesting to read Barra's article which casts Roger Clemens as the best pitcher in history. Lefty Grove was better, even in 2002 when this book was written, regardless of Roid Roger's alchemical career. Barra argues that the Sandy Koufax could not be better than Roger Clemens because "the 1960s were the worst decade for hitters in the entire century." (174) Two points:

1. Any poor bastard that played between 1902 and 1910 would beg to differ. It is not called the "Dead Ball Era" for nothing. Try hitting Three Finger Brown or Rube Waddell with a dirty ball.
2. Between 1928 and 1931, Lefty Grove won 103 games and lost 23. His earned run average in those years was a combined 2.39; this is roughly 70% below the league average. Oh, and while Grove won 28 games in 1930, he also saved 9 games because Connie Mack saved him for clutch situations. But all this does not matter, because the 1990s were a better decade for hitters. The 1930s were the highest scoring decade in the 20th century, when the best pitcher was Lefty Grove.
3. Extra Point: has developed a stat called "Wins Above Replacement". This is a measure of how many wins a player contributed to their teams in a season over and above what a league average player would have. Anything over 8 wins is a MVP caliber season. Grove did this 5 times, Clemens 3.

The chapters where this book actually works seem tacked on at the end. They are considerations of Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain and an article extolling Walter Payton as the best of all time in football. I agree with Barra's conclusions on both. The rest does not age well.