Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 Baseball Preview

Happy Opening Day everyone! Few days are more hopeful, more joyous, more perfect than baseball's opening day. This is the pinnacle of Americana: promise and potential; that ephemeral merging of a gentleman's game and a game-of-the-people; a cultural melting pot, full of diversity; a title, a season, just laying there for the taking. So who will fulfill their manifest destiny this season? I'm here to take a look. Naturally, of course, most of my picks will be wrong. But I'm still having fun with it, so we'll just say they're good enough.

National League

NL East: I was thinking for a minute that this might be the weakest division in baseball - I mean sure, the Phillies and Braves are good, but the Mets, Marlins and Nats? Ouch. And then I decided that all of the NL is pretty much equally middling, so it didn't really matter who had the weakest division. But I think those bottom 3 in this league are vastly behind the top 2. With Philadelphia's rotation, I have to pick them to win it all. Plus, I'm going to see a game there this year, so they get the edge. NL East ends up: Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Mets, Nats.

NL Central: I have a brother-in-law who knows his baseball. He's an aspiring sportswriter. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to baseball. He's also a Cubs fan. Which probably means he's doesn't really know what he's talking about when it comes to baseball. He likes the Cubs this year. I don't dislike them. And I like them more after Wainwright's injury. They're not a bad sleeper pick. But I just don't see them clicking like he anticipates. So what to do about this division? There is one vastly improved team here, especially in terms of pitching. That's the Brewers. Most people might focus on Greinke, who is fantastic, but I'm tempted to think Marcum will be the solid 17 or 18 game winner they need behind Greinke. And that will push them to the top. The Reds drop back after performing a little over their heads last year. And don't forget, Dusty Baker is their manager, so he probably pushed people too hard last year and they'll still be tired. NL Central finishes: Brewers, Reds, Cubs, Cards, Pirates, Astros. Yup, this year the Pirates aren't last. Hey, why not?

NL West: Speaking of teams that over-performed last year, how about them Giants? That was a team built for the postseason (good pitching, little offense) that was lucky enough to get there. Not this time around. Plus, there's bad karma going around there with this whole Bonds trial. The Padres are due for a down year, after which, next year, they'll be overlooked and outperform expectations again. That's how they seem to run it in San Diego. I'm not entirely sure what to expect from LA. That whole team/city just seems too easily distracted. Diamondbacks weren't actually as bad as they ended up being last year, so they could make a jump, but the team to beat is the Rockies. NL West goes down: Rockies, Giants, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Padres.

NL Wild Card: Braves. I like me some Atlanta. With the weak teams in that division to beat up on, they could do pretty well. A good, balanced team.

NL MVP: I'm gonna say... Carlos Gonzalez. He's going to put up big numbers for a Rockies team that will run away with the West.

NL Cy Young: I mentioned Marcum earlier, but he's not going to be flashy enough to win it all. I see this one going "traditional" in terms of big win totals prevailing, since last year was all about modern stats in the Cy Young race and there will be a push-back against that by this year's voters. Looking for someone with lots of wins and good numbers over all means probably taking a glance at the Phillies' rotation, so I'm gonna say Halladay.

Rookie: Freddie Freeman. This year the Braves player takes it.

American League

AL East: Aw man... I'm gonna pick Boston. I've always hated them. But I kinda hate the Yankees more right now, given the recent history. And Boston looks improved, and NY does not. And the Rays... ugh. So I'll say the Red Sox. AL East finishes: Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, O's.

AL Central: Look, I know I pick the Twins every year. I am, on some level, very much a home team guy. But this assessment isn't about believing in the home team. They've honestly been the team to pick for most of the past decade. The facts bear me out on this. But what about this year? The White Sox and Tigers improved, the Twins lost their bullpen, and cut two veterans in the middle infield. That's gotta change things, right? Wrong. The White Sox added power in Adam Dunn after 1 year experimenting with less power. Remember 2 years ago? They had power then. It didn't get them anywhere. It won't this year either. AJ and Konerko are another year past their primes and their rotation hasn't ever performed like it should have on paper, so they just don't scare me like they do a lot of people. The Tigers? They added bullpen arms and a catcher that Boston was smart enough to get rid of at the right time. Not scary. Plus, drinky drinky... That's a team ready to go down in flames. Could be fun to watch.

How about the Twins' woes? They lost their bullpen, right? Anyone who remembers watching the Twins at the beginning of the year last year would tell you Crain was no big loss. Anyone who has watched the Twins over the past several years would tell you Guerrer was replaceable. Anyone who remembers who Joe Nathan is would tell you that the Twins added one of the best bullpen arms in the game that they didn't have last year. As for that middle infield? I believe in Yoshi. He's got the attitude and speed will translate to the U.S. And for Casilla? I've read plenty about how Hardy's WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was 3 last year, in only 375 at-bats. The next statement in most of those articles is that Casilla is a replacement level player. And indeed, his career WAR is 0 - exactly replacement level. But he's also only 26, and last year his WAR was 1.1 in just 170 plate appearances. Which means he's not actually that far off from Hardy. There's reason to believe Casilla is aging into an everyday player, so I don't see that middle infield being a liability. And of course, there's that Morneau guy being back... Which will enable more platooning of Cuddy and Kubel, which is good for everyone.

Bottom line, AL Central finishes: Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Royals.

AL West: Look, I'm tired from writing so much about the Twins so I'll just say that the Rangers win it again, despite that trendy team out in Oakland. AL West goes down: Rangers, A's, Angels, Seattle.

Wild Card: Hmm, I'm sick of the Yankees. But it might be cathartic for the Twins to beat them in the first round for once... so yeah, let's say them. And if the Twins lose to them in the first round... well, the definition of crazy is trying the same thing over and over and hoping for different results, right?

AL MVP: Man crush time. Joe Mauer wins #2, becomes a lock for the HOF (if he isn't already).

AL Cy Young: This also hurts, but I think that Jon Lester guy in Boston is going to strike out a ton of batters.

AL Rookie: Yoshi! He's gonna hit .280, steal 22 bases, and score 110 runs. Pretty good for a "rookie."

Playoffs
NLS: Phillies over Brewers, Rockies over Braves
NLCS: Rockies over Phillies
ALS: Twins over Yankees, Boston over Rangers
ALCS: Twins over Boston.
World Series: Twins over Rockies.

I kept telling people 2010 was the Twins' year, going back like 5 years ago. Turns out I was just off by a year.

Put me in coach
I'm ready to play

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Economics Issue

So I was listening to MPR this morning when they came on with their Marketplace Report thing. The big news was that house prices continue to decline. Home sales are down, which means home prices are down, which means 1 in 5 mortgages is underwater, which means those homeowners can't afford to sell/move, which means sales are down... etc. What to do about this?" they asked. The answer from their financial expert was that banks had 2 choices. 1. Bulldoze the homes and consider the assets lost or 2. Rent the homes, because there's a big rental market.

So here's my problem with this... our financial experts can't figure out that neither of those options is a solution to the economy-wide problems. Our financial experts are focused on what the banks can do to increase their profits (with the assumption that better-off banks will necessarily trickle down into a solution for our economy's woes).

I think there's a more direct solution. How to get all of these homes off the market? How to increase sales, and thus price? You need to increase first-time home buyers. Obviously existing home-owners can't afford to move because of the low market prices. Therefore, the only solution is more first-time home buyers. So, who are first-time home buyers? Young people. So, why aren't young people buying homes? Honestly, for a lot of people, it's because they've got too-little income. It's my experience that, right now, there are a lot of people 30-and-under who have enough income to survive in a rental market, but not enough to be able to purchase a home.

It's also my experience that there are a lot of baby boomers and >50 year-olds who make a crap ton more than the <30 crowd. That is, our economy right now rewards longevity in our pay scales. Not a completely unreasonable proposition. But it turns out, that has an effect on the ability of our economy to, say, recover from a giant housing bubble. Since real-wages have stagnated over the past 30 years (or however long), while prices have continued to rise, the buying power of the new workforce isn't comparable to what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Therefore, people at the bottom of the work totem-pole, the people we need buying houses to help pull our economy out of this funk, aren't able to buy houses and provide the economy-wide boost that we're looking for.

So what's the solution? Maybe we need to get companies looking at the way they pay their employees. Maybe we need a more equitable distribution of wages across generations. Maybe we need to shift some of our assets from senior employees towards younger employees. Maybe that sounds crazy.

But maybe it's time to try something new. From a big-picture perspective, this would help create more first-time home buyers, which will help stabilize and grow the housing market, which will help everyone, including those senior employees who already own their homes, because their assets will continue to grow in value. Let's call it a trickle-up theory. Crazy, right?

(P.S. Please try to keep any comments non-political.)

Well I'm a steamroller baby

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Life With Kids

Hooooo boy. This was a fun morning!

After not sleeping much the night before Fickle Junior decided to wake up well before either of his parents were quite ready. Today it was Mom's turn.

Now, Junior is a big fan of cereal. Cheerios to be exact. The first word out of his mouth after being removed from his crib is usually "Cheerios!" Only it sounds more like "Chew-wee-os!" And lately he's started to add extra syllables, so we get to hear him pleading for "Chew-wee-uwee-uwee-os!" It is quite adorable.

What's not adorable? When it turns out he's tall enough to reach the box sitting on the table, smart enough to carry it over to a bowl that he set out in the living room, and coordinated enough to open it up and pour it into said bowl, but not coordinated enough to stop pouring before the entire (very recently-opened, very very full box) is dumped everywhere around the living room.

That was when Ms. Fickle woke me up and told me it was my turn to take care of him while she went back to sleep.

Happy Tuesday!

Oh, rise up, Fruit Loop lovers
Sing out sweet & low
With spoons held high
We bid our brother, "Cheerio!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Best TV Ever

Not too long ago my wife and I canceled our cable. Since we have a crummy old TV (big, just old and low-quality), no digital converter box, no antenna, and live in an area where even if we did get an antenna we'd only get like 3 channels max, we haven't been watching too many new shows lately. We have, however, been rewatching some of our favorite old TV shows. This has inspired me to wonder about the best single-seasons of TV ever (not single-season shows, just best single-seasons, regardless of show length).

So I've decided to rank some of my top 10 favorite TV seasons. And then after that, my top 10 favorite episodes of TV ever. [After trying to do this for a while, holy crap is this a tough task!][After working on this some more, I'm limiting favorite episodes to comedies, because I'm finding it difficult to compare across drama and comedy. Of course, most of my favorite comedy episodes are relatively dramatic...]

Obviously this list is incomplete. There are lots of old shows I've never watched that would probably deserve to be on a more comprehensive list. There are shows from the past decade or so that I never watched that probably also deserve to be on this list. Thus, you'll find no West Wing, The Wire, or Sopranos. Those are all shows I intend to get to someday, it just hasn't happened yet. There are also not too many very recent shows listed. Someday I may include shows like Community or Modern Family on this list. But for now, they don't make the cut. I need more distance.

And I'm not huge on getting my drama from TV, so you'll be finding a lot more comedy on this list. But here's my top 10 single-seasons of TV ever:

(Honorable Mention: Flight of the Conchords Season 1)
10. Firefly
9. Malcolm in the Middle Season 1
8. (Tie) The Simpsons Seasons 4 - 9.
7. The Office Season 3
6. Lost Season 6
4. (Tie) Arrested Development Season 3
4. (Tie) Arrested Development Season 1
3. Futurama Season 4
2. Scrubs Season 1
1. Arrested Development Season 2
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10. "The Injury" - The Office Season 2
9. "Mr. F" - Arrested Development Season 3
8. "The Job" - The Office Season 3
7. "Luck of the Fryrish" - Futurama Season 3
6. "Motherboy XXX" - Arrested Development Season 2
5. "My Old Lady" - Scrubs Season 1
4. "Krylborn Picnic" - Malcolm in the Middle Season 1
3. "Godfellas" - Futurama Season 3
2. "Homer vs. the 18th Amendment" - The Simpsons Season 8
1. "The One Where They Build A House" - Arrested Development Season 2


Thoughts? My main thinking on this: it was an impossible task. Seriously, I dare you to try it. Heck, let's turn it into a meme. I'll message a handful of people about this. If you put up your list somewhere feel free to include a link in the comments.

Enjoy!

You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Something Fun

So I haven't put anything fun up on my blog in a long, long time. This post is an attempt to remedy that.

I am currently participating in a writing competition. It's a writer's survivor. Each week we have a challenge, and then someone gets voted off based on the results of the challenge. This past week we had a couple of challenges to choose from. I decided to write a movie review for a fictional movie. The word limit was 450. I think I did alright. Nothing spectacular, but it's the kind of thing I think some of my readers might enjoy. So, here you go. Enjoy!
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Abandon all hipster cred, ye who enter here. This old man has to confess, Jack Grey was uniquely, and surprisingly, good. Starring indie-darlings but billed as an epic summer blockbuster, this rock opera was built to compete with the summer’s other big name films, like Earthworm Jim, Arrested Development 2, and CSI: The Movie. It should outlast them all.

Jack Grey stars Jack Black and indie-rocker Jack White as fictionalized versions of themselves, each struggling in the ordinary lives they might have led had their respective successes eluded them. Facing the workaday world, both characters are held back by the preconceived notions that others have of them, neither free to pursue their true passions. The scene of the two struggling through their lives is one of the more poignant montages in recent memory, helped along by the song “Just Jack,” the album topper recorded by the duo several years ago, and revisited for the film.

After a handful of near-misses, the two Jacks meet and devise a plot to merge their lives into the super alter ego of Jack Grey. A few cosmetic changes later, each man is pouring himself headlong into being one-half of a truly remarkable and passionate human being. Naturally Jack Grey’s success catches the affection of a truly remarkable woman, played to perfection by, you guessed it, Zooey and Emily Deschanel, also as fictionalized versions of themselves, complete with sister relationship.

Though the plot engages and the writing sizzles, the highlight of the film is the music. It’s clear from the opening song that writer/direct Charlie Kaufman’s (Adaptation; Synecdoche, NY) grandiose genius and exacting minutia extend to his musical tastes. Zooey Deschanel and Jack Black steal the show with their vocal chemistry and lyrical wizardry. Unfortunately it is Jack White, the most notable songsmith of the bunch, who disappoints musically. His songs too frequently suffer from reckless guitar riffs and a lack of structure. White’s only musical highlight is the song “Two of Me,” during which former band-mate Meg White makes an appearance, her limited drumming reigning in his chaotic force.

Though his songs left something to be desired, White surprised with his delicate acting, both comedic and dramatic, bringing a remarkable depth to the character. Jack Black was predictable in his own role; we’ve seen this shtick before, and longed for the Oscar winner from Mrs. Albert Hanniday.

Jack Grey keeps a quick pace. The 3D musical numbers pop, and you’ll be singing them to yourself long after you leave the theater. With a fun story and fantastic music, what more could you want from a rock opera?

I give it a 4 out of a high-five.

When you gonna ring it?
When you gonna ring it?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Housing Thoughts

You know, I'm not terribly upset at the idea of winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's a reasonable proposition if, once every couple decades they're going to cost taxpayers a sudden $135 billion. They did help provide home buyers of the past 30 years with slightly lower rates and made it way easier for them to get fixed-rate mortgages (and thus, stability in cost). So there was definitely a benefit, but at this point we've become acutely aware of the costs. We're probably over-emphasizing them, since they're fresh in our minds, but that's alright, we weren't too aware of them ahead of time. In short, winding down these entities isn't really a bad thing, and doesn't scare me too much.

But what does scare me is the idea that I sense floating around that somehow getting rid of Fannie and Freddie is going to prevent this kind of economic disaster in the future. Or that Fannie and Freddie were singlehandedly responsible for this particular disaster. Or that the private market will get it right without any checks.

See, Fannie and Freddie weren't the only ones backing subprime mortgages and bad debts. They weren't even the first ones doing it. Heck, after you figure in the bailouts, they weren't even the only ones who had their bad loans guaranteed by the taxpayers! Much of what went wrong in the housing market happened in the unregulated private market, and much of what went wrong with Fannie and Freddie went wrong because of the lack of regulatory guidance on mortgage terms.

It wasn't just making loans to people who couldn't pay them that caused the financial meltdown. A lot of happened because these companies created loan products that were designed to not-be-paid-back. And a lot happened because there were rewards for total transactions, regardless of quality, because of the brokerage situation. And a lot happened because there were rewards for misleading borrowers into loans with higher rates than the borrowers actually qualified for.

These things all happened in the private market, and will continue to happen unless we have some rules protecting borrowers from unconscionable loan terms. Because mortgages are such complex documents, just putting borrowers on notice of the terms isn't sufficient to protect them; borrowers aren't sophisticated enough to know that a "yield spread premium" means "kickback to your broker for conning you into taking a higher interest rate than you should have." That means we should probably have some laws that make certain types of abusive mortgages illegal. We should also have law that make sure the language used in mortgages is clear and readable. We should probably have some laws that regulate brokers to make sure they aren't playing the people they're supposed to be helping. And we should make sure these laws have some teeth.

And we should probably know full well that these laws are going to cost homeowners a little bit more money in their respective rates. But we should also know that if we're going to leave it all up to the private market, well, that's not cheap either.

Mary Anne, do you remember
The tree by the river
When we were 17?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

You've Got To Be Joking

Two bits of political "Huh?" today...

First, Michele Bachman, everybody's favorite anti-government spending, tea-party friendly, down-with-earmarks Congresswoman has introduced a bill to build a bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

This is what Bachman had to say in her Tea Party response to the State of the Union Address: "After the $700 billion bailout, the trillion-dollar stimulus, and the massive budget bill with over 9,000 earmarks that the president signed, many of you implored Washington to please stop spending money we don't have."

Today, she proposed building a bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The proposed bridge actually violates federal environmental law. So what did Bachman do? She proposed creating an exemption for this one bridge. And, as the Star Trib reports, "Her bill isn't an earmark because it doesn't call for spending, she said. Money to pay for the bridge would be determined later by Minnesota and Wisconsin state governments and the federal government, she said."

Basically, she wants to give them the go ahead to build a bridge the violates federal law and figure out how to pay for it later. Now, to be fair to the Congresswoman, she's long been in favor of this bridge. Of course, it would be a boon for her hometown. There are other, similar bridges currently in operation and others being built (bridges that don't violate federal law). But none of those are good for her personally, so this is the one she's been pushing for.

Still, seems a little crazy, right? Anti-earmark Representative wants a bridge built in her hometown so badly that she's willing to give it an exemption to federal law?
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The other "Huh?" story today is that Republicans have passed a bill to make themselves less environmentally friendly. They've actually brought styrofoam cups and plastic silverware back into the Congressional lunch room. It's largely symbolic, since Congress' garbage is just a small part of our nation's total refuse output, but still, I expect our leaders to lead.

It isn't like we're talking about controversial environmentalism here; this isn't wind energy vs. oil, or global warming, or even endangered species vs. loggers. This is basic "let's create less garbage" environmentalism. But no, Republicans hate Democrats so much that they're willing to actually pollute more to prove it. As John Boehner tweeted, "The new majority – plasticware is back". Because that's what this is about: sticking it to those rotten green Democrats.

My goodness. They might as well have passed a bill requiring Congress to run the water while they brush their teeth, or that all the lights in the Capitol be left on at all times. This is the kind of stupid stuff that happens when our representatives care more about politics than they do about people. And it's clear from this that the Republican majority obviously cares more about politics, and less about listening to people or leading them to a better world.

Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in