Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let's Make a Deal

In June, the people of China celebrated something that had never happened before. A Chinese woman, Li Na, won the French Open, one of the four major tennis tournaments held each year.
Ms. Li is a veteran player, but she's not especially well-known, and her win was a surprise. Attempting to piggyback the big news, a Chinese official (something that country has LOTS of) issued a statement in which he pointed to Chinese socialism as a factor in Li's success.
That got me wondering. Since the People's Republic of China came into existence, they've played almost 250 major tournaments - double that number when you include men. Why didn't the Chinese system produce a champion until now? Ms. Li, not surprisingly, has nothing to say on the subject.

This summer seems to feature more than the normal amount of big league bargaining. The NFL just settled on a collective bargaining agreement with their players, and they're keeping the lights on at night making player exchanges, free agent signings and the like. The players who have the chance are also hustling to find new employers who can offer a good balance of pay and playing time. The season is set to start at the usual time, so when you tune in the HD-TV to check out your team, don't be surprised to see new names on the uniforms. There's no problem with the TV color - it's just that lots of changes are being made on the fly.
The NBA lockout of players (that's the opposite of a strike, you know) continues, but there are plenty of new possibilities there, too. In this case, the players have the option of playing in leagues based in a number of other countries. Kobe Bryant back in his childhood home, Italy? Derron Williams toiling in Turkey? You can't blame the players for looking. Their careers only last a few years, and there's no guarantee that the team will keep you on the payroll when your playing days are done. I just hope for their sake that smoking in Turkish arenas isn't mandatory.
But the best example of bargaining brinksmanship is the negotiations over how and if the nation can raise its debt ceiling. This was done without any hassle 18 times under Reagan, and 7 more times under GWB, but now is different, not because the world's financial situation is different, but because the Republicans now have a majority in the House, where the procedure to raise the debt ceiling has to begin. It's time, they have thought, to use their new found leverage to put the squeeze on government, or at least on the people government serves TOO MUCH, in their view. Are they willing to reverse tax breaks intended to be temporary under Bush? Nope. Restore the estate tax? Nope. Close loopholes for various industries, including oil companies who are doing just fine, thanks? Never. Cut off a hundred different varieties of corporate welfare? You're kidding, right?
We only have a few days to come to some agreement here, or else the nation's credit gets downgraded from "rock solid" to "better than Greece", so the shelf life of this entry is pretty short. It isn't hard to find expenditures that don't give the nation much return, and some of those are going to be eliminated or cut. But we can't do this JUST on the backs of those getting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. The fortunate folks on the top end are paying a lower rate than they have had for decades. It's time for them to step up and resume their share of the nation's expenses. Some of those poor folks are customers, after all, and you want to keep them, right? Hurry up, please. Let's make a deal.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

As Previously Noted

My brother's experience as a cyclist goes way back to the 70's. He even owned his own shop at one time. After watching a little of the broadcast of this year's Tour de France (on our new cable setup, which might be another story) I sent him an e-mail asking, as a tiny joke, how you could tell who the cheaters are. His reply was frank, if a bit cynical. "Easy. They're the ones who are pedaling." Ouch.

Our oldest grandchild had some work done that's mentioned in a little verse we sent:

The day came that
I came to dread.
With baby teeth
Yanked from my head.

I'm now in pain
My mouth's so tender
Before each meal
I use the blender.

I think it was five or six teeth, so it's not the kind of thing that calls for a party. I trust she's doing better.

When the Obama administration began, right wing radio bully Rush Limbaugh drew some attention by saying he hoped that Obama would fail, implying in those words that winning the next election was more important than getting out of the messes, foreign and domestic, left over from the Bush administration.
To many Americans at the time, now two and a half years back, those words seemed awfully partisan. Wouldn't we all want the new administration to succeed even if we hadn't voted for it? It turns out that Limbaugh's words were prophetic in that the today's crowd of firebreathing GOP Congress members will openly say that winning back the White House and Senate are their only priorities. They are not only not willing to compromise on the level of the nation's debt ceiling (which was raised 19 times without objection during Reagan's eight years and 7 more times during GWB), they would literally oppose it even if it included the abolishment of the IRS, the issuance of free guns to anyone with a "USA" tattoo, and a cure for cancer. Rush leads the way. Politics first, middle and last. What about default on our financial obligations and what that would mean? They could not care less.
But they absolutely, as I say, care about the next election. Here's one thing they want to do, though it's not a new idea, as today's title suggests. In this and every other society, there are more little people than big ones. Since it's the latter's "mission statement" that the GOP have chosen to serve, it follows that a large voter turnout is bad news, especially in places with large minority, immigrant or young voter populations.
So here's what they want. Legislatures in 40 states have proposed laws which could take registered voters off the list. It's done in the name of preventing "voter fraud", a crime they say needs to be stopped at the polls. They want voters to show an I.D. in order to be able to vote. The proposals vary from state to state, but are aimed at people seeking to register and vote at the same time, and people who, for whatever reason, don't normally feel the need to carry proof of who they are.
How prevalent is voter fraud as a crime? If ever there was a crime without a payoff, this is it. Kansas looked and found 6 instances of people (statewide) doubling up their vote at different polls - during a period of 13 years! Wouldn't you need thousands of would-be criminals to make such a scheme work? And who would do it for free? It's already a crime. And how would having an I.D. prevent the crime? Where's the payoff?
No, the only payoff is in convincing lots of people that trying to vote just isn't worth it, and that they're better off staying home. Who wants to stand in a long line (in some neighborhoods), when they close at a certain time, line or no line? That's what they evidently want in Kansas, because it's now the law. No I.D.? Hit the road, go home and watch us roll over you on TV. You'll thank us - later.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tragedy and Triumph in the Big Show

Let's see if I have this straight. The countries of the world have a competition every year to see who has the best tennis players and the winner gets the Davis Cup. And there was a quarterfinal match which ended yesterday between the U.S. and Spain. We got to pick the city (Austin, TX), and the surface (fast indoor). We have 99% of the fan support, while Spain has to play without their top guy, Nadal, who can beat anyone on the planet on a given day. But he's too tired from the last big event (Wimbledon) to travel to Texas, so he stays in Majorca, where he lives.
They get down to business and play some furious matches, but when it's all over, the Spaniards have somehow throttled the Yanks by a score of 3 matches to 1. I have two suggestions based on this experience. First, don't dust off the spot where the Cup should go because we won't be seeing it for quite a while. Secondly, why not just forget you ever heard the term "Davis Cup"?

Baseball players refer to the Major Leagues as "The Big Show", partly because big, often unexpected things happen there all the time. This past week was especially eventful, both for good and bad.
Josh Hamilton was the Most Valuable Player in the American League last year. He's a big, powerful guy who is, of course, respected but also quite popular in Texas, where he plays the outfield for the Texas Rangers, a team based near Dallas in Arlington.
There was a big crowd on hand last week, but somehow a local firefighter and his son seated near the outfield got Hamilton's attention, asking nicely for any foul balls that might come Hamilton's way. He nodded back, saying in effect that he'd try to honor the request.
Sure enough, a foul later came rolling around the left field corner where Hamilton fielded it casually, then turned towards the bleacher seats and tossed it toward the dad. That's where something went horribly wrong, because the father, 29 year old Shannon Stone, caught the ball, but lost his balance and toppled over a 3 foot high railing, falling about 20 feet onto exposed concrete. He died of his injuries within the hour at a nearby hospital.
There was no negligence, no unlocked doors or careless ushers, and no one was diminished by alcohol. It was just a tragic accident, perhaps completely avoidable, but completely shocking. Hamilton, too, was shook up, but declined the team's offer of time off, at least for the time being. The next day he hit a "walk off" (which ends the game) home run that traveled over 450 feet. Stone's funeral services are scheduled for this week.
Big things are done by big names in New York, and when the week was over, Derek Jeter had earned a seat alongside the other Yankee greats. A year or so after surpassing Lew Gehrig as the all-time Yankee leader in hits, Jeter reached the next goal, gaining his 3,000th career major league hit last Saturday, during his 16th season as a player. This, folks, does not happen very often. In over a hundred years of play, less than 30 hitters have reached this level, which is considered overwhelming evidence to election to basball's Hall of Fame.
Over the decades, all kinds of people play the game. They all have certain physical gifts, but not all are leaders or keep their focus where it belongs - finding ways to (fairly) win close games by using the tools of anticipation, exploiting (again, fairly) or simply leading in order to make your teammates better. Jeter is well known for these qualities, and has always seemed to be at his best under pressure situations.
The 3,000th hit was a home run, something not expected much from shortstops, and it was his second of five hits for the game, another rarity. His achievement comes just as baseball pauses to celebrate itself during the annual All-Star break.
There was some doubt during the off season that Jeter could come to contract terms with the Yankees, who were reluctant to pay the big bucks to a shortstop past 35 years old. But for now, EVERYONE is glad they did. Maybe even the Red Sox.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Road Frogs

This week's title comes from a trip just finished to Portland, where our now three-years-married baby lives. More on that later.

I saw a cartoon poking a little fun at the recent non-apocalypse. A bearded man dressed in a robe holds a homemade sign which reads "The End Was Near".

You might have missed the action at soccer's Women's World Cup being held in Germany. Among the competitors is the team from North Korea. They haven't played so well, but they have the greatest excuse of all time. The coach explained that the blame goes to the team getting struck by lightning in a pre-Cup practice. Maybe the team members' memories were zapped too, because none of them has said anything about it.

Portland is a seven-hour drive from here through forests and mountain ranges. There's lots of scenery and plenty of sharp curves to keep you awake. The wife, who's a relentless driver, got us there on time.
It was really just a weekend/holiday trip, but there's lots to do in Portland, as we found out. Our first evening plan included a little train ride to see the Portland Timbers, a soccer team, in action.Upon arriving, we made the shocking discovery that the game was sold out. A few minutes later we boarded the return trip on what we dubbed the "Train O' Shame". I did see a goal from the game - on Yahoo! via home computer. Doh!
We had some other stops: a massive local bookstore, a restaurant that serves Cuban food, and church services in a building built on the 1920's. The meeting we attended included short expressions of faith from people born in three different foreign countries. We stopped in at the "Peculiarium", an odd little four-room museum that had on hand a 10-foot high statue of Sasquatch and a small kit for conducting exorcisms. Free admission, too.Our daughter's husband, who seems to have an eye for these things, had assembled and mounted a life-size deer head made only of cardboard on the living room wall. It had a very satirical quality, because no one would have thought it was the real thing, but the form was unmistakeable. They hadn't settled on a name for it, though it would be hard to top the name on the original package - "Bucky".
Hopping around the city was great fun. Portland has a tradition of mixing residential and commercial space on certain streets so completely that you have to check which door you're opening. I saw what looked like some kind of store announcing the future tenant - UBAD Auto Detailing. Could this guy use a new marketing man? To me it seemed a little too much like "UBAD. Me.....good!!"