Thursday, April 29, 2010


A better person wouldn't be so happy about the Washington Capitals becoming the first Number 1 seed to blow a 3 games to 1 lead to an 8 seed last night. Unfortunately, there's not one available right now.

Caps fans have been assuming the Stanley Cup was theirs by divine right since Christmas. Easily the best record in the league, team records in wins and points, and Alex Ovechkin, their designated "best player in the game." Two weeks ago, I passed droves of Caps fans walking into Metro on my way out, smiling, laughing, wondering if they'd win the best of seven series in three games; yesterday they passed me like men on their way to the doctor to get the verdict on that lump they found on their nuts.

Here's a bit of how they managed such an historic collapse:
- The league's best power play during the season--they scored on over 25% of their opportunities--converted only once in 33 tries. That's 3%. Yep. Three.
- Their league-leading offense--they scored 46 more goals than any other team during the season--scored three times--total--over the last three games. Yep. Three.
- The NHL likes to name its awards after people. The Art Ross Trophy. Conn Smythe. Vezina. Caps forward Alexander Semin qualified himself for anew one in this series: the Claude Rains Invisible Man Award. Forty goals during the season; none in seven playoff games. Yep. None.
- Mike Green bribed enough voters to qualify as a Norris Trophy finalist for best defenseman. Here's another new award suggestion: the Ronald Reagan Award, for most overrated.

Full props to the Canadiens. Goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots over the last three games; his defense blocked almost that many, including an absurd 41 last night. Their Number 2 rated power play during the season didn't desert them like the Caps' did: they scored when they had to, even though consistently outplayed five-on-five. The Habs did what they had to do to win; the Caps did what they felt like doing, and never developed an answer for what Montreal threw at them.

All season, Caps fans have been acting like the Penguins were just renting the Cup, and it would take its rightful place in Washington this year. As I told someone a few weeks ago, after they beat the Pens to complete a regular season sweep: You're the champ until you're eliminated. Everything else is just talk.

Note to Caps' players: It's not all bad news. Most golf courses have reduced greens fees while the schools are still in session.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Drill, Baby, Drill!

It's good to see that offshore oil exploration has reached a standard of safety that we need no longer concern ourselves with the consequences of an accident, as this NASA photo clearly shows.

Thanks to the Show Tunes Correspondent for sending this.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How Not to Increase Sales

We purchased the NHL Center Ice package last fall and have seen all but one Penguins' game this year. It's been fun, very educational from a hockey perspective, and helped me to get back in touch with some things I'd always enjoyed but had drifted away from due to the demands of everyday life.

The Pens' package went so well I thought strongly about enlisting in the Major League Baseball equivalent, Extra Innings. While an opportunity to watch all 162 Pirates games may seem like a deal made in masochist's heaven, I wanted to be in on the ground floor with young prospects like Andrew McCutcheon, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and, we hope, Brad Lincoln and Tony Sanchez so I wouldn't look like a bandwagon-jumping frontrunner when they got good. (For a definition of "bandwagon-jumping frontrunner," look in the dictionary under "Washington Capitals Fan.")

These premium services give you a few free weeks to see how you like the service. Early season baseball watching is limited by conflicts with the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to invest in something that wasn't really worth the effort if I didn't plan to watch well over 100 games a year. Still, the hockey plan was great for those evenings when mental vegetation is in order, as there's almost always a game on somewhere; with baseball, there really would be a game on all the time. The Pirates swept Cincinnati last weekend, coming from behind twice. They were 7-5, one game out of first, and I was thinking of how I might juggle my schedule to catch four or five games a week.

Then Milwaukee came to town.

Three days later the Pirates had been swept themselves, outscored over the three game series by a total of 36-1; they lost 20-0—which is an embarrassing football score—on Thursday afternoon. My first thought was, "There's no way I'm going to sit through 140 games of this shit." So the deal's off.

They'll have a promotion in September, a reduced price for the rest of the season. By that time Alvarez and Lincoln should be on the big team, and everyone will be positioning themselves for jobs next year. I'll look at a handful of games before hockey comes back. If they look good, I'll go through the same considerations next year.

But they'd better knock off this 20-0 shit.

Friday, April 23, 2010


From Ezra Klein's blog in The Washington Post (read the entire post for proper context):

As Miller says, this sort of politics lends itself nicely to thinly sliced marginal tax rates. Right now, the top tax bracket begins at $373,650 and extends into infinity. But there's no reason you couldn't have a slightly higher rate starting at $500,000. And then a bit higher at $1 million and on and on...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Practicing What They Preach

From Paul Krugman's blog:

I just had dinner in DC with a bunch of geographers, at a cute French bistro near Dupont Circle. And who should walk in but about eight tea partiers, still carrying their protest signs. They marched in, then upstairs, and sat down for dinner.

Presumably their steak frites came with freedom fries.

Oh, and based on casual observation, every member of the group was on Social Security and Medicare. I guess they’re determined not to let the government get its hands on either program.

Going Postal

The United States Postal Service is a favorite whipping boy for opponents of government. FedEx and UPS deliver faster, more reliably, and cheaper. USPS needs to close post offices, suspend Saturday delivery, and, for God’s sake, get rid of those Cliff Claven, Newman-esque employees. (Full disclosure: my brother is a letter carrier.)

Here’s a suggestion: maybe USPS could emulate some of FedEx’s and UPS’s business practices. How about letting them cherry pick where things get delivered. Today, you need something delivered to Grandma’s farm in South Bumfuck, NE, it costs you the same as sending it across town. UPS and FedEx may not even deliver it.

It’s true a lot of things are wrong with the Postal Service, but what they routinely accomplish is amazing. Last Sunday I placed an order online and took the cheapest shipping option available: USPS Parcel Post. The package arrived Tuesday morning. It was shipped on Monday, and arrived Tuesday. No fee for special overnight. Granted, it wasn’t guaranteed, but try sending something FedEx Ground and have it get there overnight, even though it only went a hundred miles or so. “FedEx doesn’t isn’t set up to do that kind of thing?” Right. USPS is, and it costs.

This is a prime example of how those who continue to advocate for ever smaller government don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. There are some things government is uniquely suited to do, because they have to be done and can’t really be done profitably. Mail delivery is a good example. The next time someone bitches about it, ask them if they’d prefer to have to shop around to make sure a letter can even be delivered to the address they’re requesting before they mail it.

Oh, wait. No one else will even deal with a plain old envelope. Too cost-inefficient. Maybe we should just bite the bullet and subsidize USPS after all.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences Licks Its Chops

Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America having worked so well, the Tea Party movement has come up with something they call the Contract From America, where almost half a million of Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” voted on what’s important to them. No offense, but these are half a million of the dumbest sons of bitches ever to walk the earth. (Granted, calling someone a dumb son of a bitch and prefacing it with “no offense” may be an oxymoron, but these folks aren’t long on a sense of irony.)

Here’s the Contract From America. Voting percentages are in parentheses; my comments in italics.

(1) Protect the Constitution: Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does (82.03 percent). Be careful what you ask for. No telling how many things near and dear to you will bite the dust under a strict interpretation of this standard.

(2) Reject Cap & Trade: Stop costly new regulations that would increase unemployment, raise consumers prices, and weaken the nation's global competitiveness with virtually no impact on global temperatures (72.20 percent). A lot of editorializing here. How about some genuine evidence that Cap and Trade will do all these things? (Or won’t do the things you say it won’t do.)

(3) Demand a Balanced Budget: Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike. (69.69 percent) A balanced budget is an admirable goal; requiring one is lunacy. There are times when debt is necessary. State governments are cases in point; look at the problems they have in a recession because they can’t borrow to get them over the hump. Not all debt is created equal. Here’s an example: would anyone involved with this think it’s a good idea for someone to assume debt that amounts to several times their annual income? Pretty much takes buying a house out of the equation.

(4) Enact Fundamental Tax Reform: Adopt a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words -- the length of the original Constitution. (64.90 percent). The tax code is an abomination, but a symbolic and arbitrary restriction of its length is a cute gimmick someone thought up because he knew it had the kind of cachet people who act without thinking would enjoy.

(5) Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government in Washington: Create a Blue Ribbon taskforce that engages in a complete audit of federal agencies and programs, assessing their Constitutionality, and identifying duplication, waste, ineffectiveness, and agencies and programs better left for the states or local authorities, or ripe for wholesale reform or elimination due to our efforts to restore limited government consistent with the U.S. Constitution's meaning. (63.37 percent) Restoring Constitutionally limited government by making government larger through the creation of this panel—which is, in itself, extra-Constitutional—is delusional. This would, of course, be an apolitical group, right? Or would it be a collection of the most fair and balanced thinkers the Tea Party can find?

(6) End Runaway Government Spending: Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth. (56.57 percent). This, along with the balanced budget bullshit, would make it impossible to respond to emergencies. What would you do in case of a catastrophe or war?

(7) Defund, Repeal & Replace Government-run Health Care: Defund, repeal and replace the recently passed government-run health care with a system that actually makes health care and insurance more affordable by enabling a competitive, open, and transparent free-market health care and health insurance system that isn't restricted by state boundaries. (56.39 percent). They saved the best for last here: “free-market health care and health insurance system that isn't restricted by state boundaries.” This is how credit cards work now, where all the companies flock to the state willing to write the weakest regulations. It’s worked so well even Republicans voted to restrict it last year.

(8) Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy: Authorize the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation, lowering prices and creating competition and jobs. (55.51 percent). Notice how “all of the above” never seems to include using less of the shit.

(9) Stop the Pork: Place a moratorium on all earmarks until the budget is balanced, and then require a 2/3 majority to pass any earmark. (55.47 percent). No money should be spent without being voted on. However, earmarks don’t make up enough of the budget to make much of a difference. In addition, why should this spending be held to a higher standard (2/3 majority) than any other spending?

(10) Stop the Tax Hikes: Permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011. (53.38 percent). These aren’t really tax hikes; for the most part, they’re the expiration of tax cuts that were only passable because they had expiration dates. If you really want to go back to the good old days of prosperity and Beaver Cleaver wholesomeness, let adopt the tax rates from the Fifties, where the top rate was around 90%.

H.L. Mencken once said that for every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and that solution is wrong. The Contract From America is living proof. The problems we face didn’t happen overnight, and they are the results of an almost unimaginable number of things working together beyond our control. Most people—me included—don’t want to deal with the subtleties and levels of complexity needed to understand—let alone fix—these problems. At least I’m willing to accept that this is going to be a long and hard struggle, and it’s not going to get any easier because people like the Tea Party want to fix Grandma’s reading glasses with a sledgehammer because they lack the patience and understanding to deal with all those little screws.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Ezra Klein, in today's Washington Post:

Contracts are sacred only when rich people are getting paid

Shahien Nasiripour reports that J.P. Morgan plans to go hard against policies to modify underwater mortgages because contracts are sacred documents premised on the borrowers' "promise to repay."

This struck one union employee as a bit odd: After all, the business community is constantly demanding that autoworkers and steelworkers and other well-compensated laborers change their contracts to remain more in sync with the times. In those cases, contracts don't appear to be all that sacred, and employers' aren't seen as having some cosmic "promise to repay."

"Next time big business or Republican Governors or Mayors are talking about how working families need to 'sacrifice' or 'give back' for the good of the community by altering their contracts," e-mailed the AFL-CIO's Eddie Vale, "let's remember what happens when the shoe is on the other foot."

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Igloo

The Penguins played the last regular season game at Mellon Arena last night, beating the Islanders 7-3. Sidney Crosby had four points, Bill Guerin had a couple of goals, and the crowd gave the building a standing O at the end.

The Pens had a nice, understated ceremony before the game, bringing out about fifty retired players and coaches for recognition, and a group photo with the current team. Fans handed replica jerseys over the glass; the players signed them and threw them back. A nice way for the old Igloo to officially go out.

The Beloved Spouse, Sole Heir, and I were back in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago to watch the Pens beat the Flyers 4-1, my last (their only) trip back to visit the first place I saw a hockey game. The dome still looks as impressive as ever, creating a perspective and quality of crowd sound not found elsewhere. It was the largest retractable dome in the world when it was completed in 1961. I attended a concert with the roof open during my college years, looking over the stage to Pittsburgh's skyline on a perfect night. An unforgettable experience.

In addition to hockey, I saw team tennis there, and several concerts. (Henry Mancini with Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, the Buddy Rich and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big bands.) Just a kid--eight or nine--the first time I went, to see Mancini with my parents. Going back last week, with other experiences to compare it with, the concourses were cramped, the gates narrow, but I still felt the smallness that comes with awe when I entered the seating area and looked at the banners hanging from the roof and the miniature blimp that flies over the seats and drops coupons to the fans. (I won free nachos.)

It's too easy and tired to get maudlin when something like this passes, and even I readily admit the Igloo's time has passed. Modern times require different amenities. There's not even a proper interview room there, and the dressing rooms are Spartan in their luxury. Still, this is the building I grew up with, the most easily identifiable structure in downtown Pittsburgh. (The baseball and football stadiums are on the North Side.) Everything I'd heard and seen says the new Consol Energy Center will be great, truly the House that Mario Built.

If only they'd put a dome on it. Even a little one.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

When Does It Become a Crime?

The Upper Big Branch mine had over 1,300 safety citations from mine inspectors in the few years leading up to last week's catastrophe that left at least 25 miners dead. No matter what the Supreme Court says, companies aren't people; they're legal fictions intended to allow the institution to enter into contracts and own property and assets.

Massey Energy didn't violate mine safety standards: people working under the auspices of Massey Energy did. For every violation cited, at least one person was responsible for its creation, or at least for not taking proper care of it. The company's repeated fines are accepted as part of the cost of doing business.

I want the responsible individuals--not only those who made the decisions, but also those who implemented them--held responsible. At the very least, the shareholders who approve of these actions through their silence should require management to answer for this, but I cannot fathom why criminal charges aren't forthcoming, or weren't brought earlier, before the accident. (At what point does gross negligence of safety standards force us not to call such an incident an accident?)

One more thing. For anyone who wonders why we need unions, this is why.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Breathing the Rarefied Air

The Pirates beat the Dodgers today, 11-5. This is the first time the Pirates have been in first place this late in the season in recent memory.