Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Bowl of Chili, Some Minis, and Youuuuu

For a couple of months, I was struggling to get by. One by one, I droppped pretty much every hobby I had, because on the scale of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, hobbies take a backseat to food and shelter. When I managed to get things back on track, putting my old life together exactly the way it used to be actually wasn't that attractive; as I tried the things I used to do, some of those things didn't quite 'fit' anymore, as if they were old clothes.

One of the things that did fit, and in some ways fits better now, is playing D&D Minis.

At last Sunday's tournament, a bunch of us talked about getting together the following Sunday to have a minis day - the host would make chili, while the rest of us brought stuff that went with chili. Then we'd sit back, eat, play minis, and socialize.

As it turns out, there were only three of us who went - myself, the host, and one other. But we still had plenty of chili, plenty of extras (I'd brought cheesecorn to put on the chili - if you've never had cheesecorn on chili, try it!), and plenty of minis. The third guest brought a bacon-horseradish dipping sauce he'd picked up at the Minnesota State Fair, and while it was decent with crackers, we agreed it would go a whole lot better as a condiment on a roast-beef sandwich. The host's chili was outstanding, and the beer was cold. Then, once we'd indulged in food, we indulged in minis.

We started with an Epic game where I and the host played the bands we'd considered playing in the previous week's tournament, but had decided against it; it turned out we were both right not to bring those bands to the tournament, but I was more right than he was, as he defeated me convincingly. We then played a round-robin series of 100-point games against each other, playing bands we thought about bringing to next week's tournament. My band idea didn't do quite so well, but I did get a number of ideas for new and 'improved' bands to try at the actual event.

And there was food, and conversation with people who share interests, and it was absolutely a blast. I'm glad I did it, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Now I just need to save up enough money to get to Indianapolis next summer...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Great Halls of Fame!

I found myself thinking about two different Halls of Fame this week. No, not the baseball or football Halls of Fame; this is me we're talking about.

The first was the Magic the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame. (And because I told myself that I would do this any time I linked to Wikipedia as an information source, I'll provide this article as a balance.)

According to Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic the Gathering, one of the primary inspirations for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame was to give Magic players something to aspire to; the idea apparently being that, if you put someone in a Hall of Fame, impressionable 12-year-olds will automatically want to be like that person.

The 'Hall of Fame selection committee' didn't quite bungle the job with their first-ever ballot, though they certainly tried. I'm referring specifically to Rosewater's ballot, included in the essay linked above, and his inclusion of a fellow named Mike Long.

For those of you who've never played Magic, a quick overview: it's a card game in which each player begins with 20 'life points'. The goal is to be the first to reduce your opponent to zero. There are different ways to accomplish this; since Magic is also a collectible game, these ways often change, and sometimes entirely new ways of achieving the win condition are added (such as the 'poison' mechanic). One way to win is through 'combinations' - putting together the effects of certain cards to create more powerful combinations of effects that can then be used to defeat your opponent. In Magic, such combinations are sometimes referred to as 'engines'; there are always certain cards that comprise the engine, and there may be specific cards that 'start' the engine or get it running so that it can then be turned against the opponent.

Long is best known for a single event, immortalized in Magic lore as the 'Jedi Mind Trick'. In the quarterfinals of a major event, Long was playing his combination deck against another top player. Having put the pieces of his 'engine' into play, then drawing up the remainder of the cards in his deck to his hand, so they could be played, Long asked his opponent if it was really necessary to go through all the steps of the combination. The opponent decided to concede. It wasn't revealed until later, however, that Long was bluffing - none of the cards he actually needed to 'start' his engine were actually in his hand; they'd all been discarded earlier in the game. Had the opponent realized this, Long would have lost the game on the next turn.

If this were the extent of Long's legacy in Magic, it wouldn't be a terrible thing for him to be in the Hall. But there's significant evidence that Long was simply a poor sport who looked for every opportunity to bend, and even break, the rules if he thought he could get away with it. The Wikipedia article linked under his name includes a number of other incidents involving Long which aren't so entertaining.

Rosewater, in nominating Long for the Hall, said this:

Yes, I'm voting for Mike Long. Yes, I understand that he scores lowest on integrity of the twenty-eight candidates. But he scores number one in a very important category – charisma (that falls under player performance for those criteria sticklers). Mike Long has done more than any other player in the history of the Pro Tour to make it interesting. When Mike was involved, everybody cared. Sure they were all rooting for him to lose, but man did they care.

Mike made the Pro Tour exciting. He made it tense. He made it interesting. More interesting than any other player on this list. (And the list has several key standouts in this area.) No matter how you criticize him you have to acknowledge that he is a fundamental part of the game's past. To deny him entrance into the Hall of Fame is to misunderstand what the Hall of Fame is all about. It's not a place to highlight just the good of the game. It's a place to highlight the history of the game. And Mike is a key part of that history.

With all due respect to Rosewater, and understanding that he's much closer to the game of Magic than I ever was or will be, he's just flat-out wrong about what the Hall of Fame should be about. Had Major League Baseball thought similarly when devising its Hall of Fame, one of its first inductees would have been Hal Chase, a skilled player who was far better known for fixing games for the convenience of gamblers (and the additional paychecks that offered) than for actually playing the game.

Yes, you remember your history, if you want that history to mean anything. But you don't immortalize the worst in your history by sanctioning it with the highest honor you can provide.

Thankfully, most Hall of Fame voters apparently rejected Rosewater's argument, and Long was not admitted to the Hall in 2005. He's not permanently banned from entry, though (as Chase was in baseball), so it's possible that he may get in someday. It'd be a poor day for Magic if that happened.

As an aside, I've actually met a Magic Hall of Famer. If Mike Long is Magic's version of Hal Chase, then Darwin Kastle is Magic's verson of Jim Kelly - he had a long, successful career, but never won the 'big event'. At Origins 1998, I walked up to a woman in the Magic room and asked if she were someone who'd posted strategy articles online at The Magic Dojo, the first and most influential online strategy site for the game. The fellow standing next to her asked me, "And you are?" I blew it off with a joke: "Oh, I'm nobody. See, it says so right here on my name tag." The two people chuckled and walked away, leaving me somewhat confused. Later, the friend I'd gone to Origins with found himself on an escalator behind the same two people, where he learned:

- that the guy was Darwin Kastle, and

- that the girl, apparently Kastle's girlfriend, promised him sex for having dissed me.

Good to know you got some that weekend, Darwin!

Actually, this story has a happy ending. With luck and the help of my friend in designing a deck, I actually managed to qualify for the 1998 U.S. National Championship later that day. And, on the second day of the Championship, as I was walking out of the tournament room, who should I see walking in front of me but Darwin Kastle.

"Hey!" I called out.

He turned, looked, and seemed to recognize me from our encounter a couple of days ago. Either that, or he'd eaten a really bad con burrito and it was finally starting to come back on him. "Hey," he replied.

"How'd you do?" I asked, referring to the round we'd just finished.

"Won," he replied. "How about you?"

"Aw, I lost," I said, with a big, dumb grin that said, once again, 'see, I'm nobody'.

"Ah. Well, good luck," he said.

"You too."

I ended up placing 91st at the Championships that year, not a result that would ever make me a 'somebody' among Magic Pro circles. But the look on Darwin Kastle's face as he realized who had walked out of the championship hall with him was priceless, and a moment I doubt I'll ever forget.

The other Hall of Fame I found myself thinking about is the Game Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame. In effect, GAMA is to the game industry what the RIAA is to the record industry...except for their treatment of 12-year-olds, of course.

GAMA has two main awards 'vehicles'; one, the Origins Awards, has come in for some criticism of late, mostly for being more interested in recognizing game companies than games. (Umm, Eric? Remember who sponsors the award? It's not terribly surprising that they'd limit their nominees to those made by members.)

The other, the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design's Hall of Fame, isn't limited to GAMA members. Its intent, at least according to the press release of the 2005 winner, is to honor lifetime achievement and efforts that bring positive, lasting advancement to the adventure gaming industry. The list of honorees includes Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, creators of Dungeons and Dragons, the grand-daddy of all adventure games. It includes Richard Garfield, creator of Magic and inventor of the modern collectible game. The 2005 inductee, Duke Seifried, personally sculpted over 10,000 metal figurines, started a number of the first companies that sold figures to adventure gamers, and even coined the term "adventure gaming". It's arguable that without him, Dungeons and Dragons might not even exist - since Chainmail, the precursor to D&D, was a miniatures battle system that focused on small groups of figures instead of the 'mass battles' that was typical of miniatures simulation games of the time. Those are all impressive inductees.

Then, there's the 2006 inductee who, in my opinion, the Academy hit the ball out of the park on.

The 2006 Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Famer: Jolly Blackburn, creator of Knights of the Dinner Table.

Knights of the Dinner Table is the seminal, perhaps even the ur-gaming comic. On one level, it's a humorous look into the lives of a bunch of gamers in a fictionalized Muncie, Indiana. On another level, it's a sociological record of the gaming experience - what kinds of people play these games, how do they interact, and how do real-world issues relate to the gaming table. If you're a gamer and you don't know about KoDT, check it out; I guarantee you'll be hooked. If you're not a gamer, but know someone who is and want to understand them a bit better, read through the archive of online strips at Kenzer & Company, the folks who publish KoDT. Even more happily, Jolly is not only himself a gamer (as is obvious from his understanding of gamers in his work), but is reportedly among the most personable and friendly folks you'd meet anywhere. Heck, the story goes that Jolly missed the awards dinner for his own Hall of Fame induction, because he was sitting right next door watching a live reading of KoDT. That's a man who understands his priorities (even if the reason he was next door had more to do with never having received the invitation than making any conscious decision).

And when someday I do meet Jolly Blackburn, and I do plan to meet him one day, the last thing I can ever imagine coming out of his mouth upon asking him if he's Jolly Blackburn would be, "And you are?"

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The One About Five Quotes

There's a blog-meme going around asking bloggers to head to a random quotes page, pick five quotes with meaning to that blogger, and list them on their blog. I sometimes wonder if these memes are created and propagated simply to give bloggers an excuse to keep updating their sites - then I look and see how long it's been since I've updated and I realize that anything that keeps virtual pen to virtual paper is probably a good thing, if only for the 'habit' aspect of the craft.

Anyway, the version of the meme at ***Dave Does the Blog is more interesting than those I've found elsewhere - instead of simply rattling off five quotes, he takes the time to comment on them and note what about them is appealing or at least applicable to his own worldview and outlook. I liked it, so I'll adopt the same system for my own use of the trope.

To review: Go to this page, and select five quotes that are meaningful or otherwise significant to you, and post them on your blog. I'd recommend against choosing any from the first page of quotes that comes up; rather, scroll to the bottom, add in a few more quote-page sources, increase the number of quotes displayed, and then pick from those. The goal is to find quotes that are interesting without necessaarily being 'perfect' quotes, though, so refreshing the page over and over again looking for the 'perfect' quote isn't playing by the spirit of the challenge.

Here goes...

The only way to be truly misogynistic is to be a woman.

- Randy Milholland, "Something Positive", November 5, 2004

It should be noted that Milholland didn't write this from his own point of view - he put the words in the mouth of one of the female characters in his webcomic. Still, it's hard to deny the justice of the point, especially when looked at in the larger context of the strip and the ongoing storyline. I'll let you view the context yourself by clicking the link to Milholland's site, but the overarching point is that men simply don't understand women well enough to be really angry with them.

I'm not really sure how well I 'get along' with women; I seem to do all right in social settings that aren't predicated on potential romantic interest. If pressed, I'd put it down to being raised with pretty much no male role model through my adolescence: my biological father left the family when I was three, my stepfather was always distant and more interested in his own affairs, and my maternal grandfather, who was probably the adult male I was closest to while growing up, died of a heart attack when I was in eighth grade. At some moments I wonder if I wasn't raised by my mother, probably unconsciously, to be the kind of guy she wished she could have met before she became a mother. While mom may have instilled a sense of the things women find interesting in a man in me (conversationalism, intelligence, an ability to listen), she never quite got around to explaining how I was supposed to act around a woman I found interesting, which left me to pick up cues from my peers, pop culture, and porn. Simply put, the 'three Ps' haven't stood me in good stead; I tend to go from being curiously interesting one moment to downright creepy the next, which doesn't do well for my long-term romantic prospects.

And even I, a guy who 'gets' women as well as any guy I know, doesn't understand them well enough to actually hate them. Milholland has a real point here, I think.

Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done.

- Andy Rooney

Over the past ten years, the Internet has become so pervasive that it's hard to imagine what life was like without it, without near-instantaneous access to fact, opinion, and even argument. Yet most of us who are alive were alive at a time when the Internet didn't yet exist in its current form; in fact, most of the people I know and call friends couldn't have even imagined the Internet while we played with our school library's Commodore PETs and Apple IIe's. Since then, the Internet has made some people rich, some people happy, and a lot of people more connected than they've ever been.

But almost none of it is strictly necessary.

Back in the late 90s, I ran a fantasy baseball league using a piece of software called Sierra Sports Baseball 1996 - it was a league containing entirely imaginary players, who we drafted, developed in our minor league systems, and promoted into our big-league teams to duke it out for the league championship. For me, the commissioner, who'd assigned myself the responsibility of running the games and distributing the game results to the players, it was a labor of love, but still something of a labor - I'd spend a good two hours or more each weeknight running the games and typing up the nightly update.

A friend of mine thought he'd take some of the pressure off me by automating some of the processes on his personal site, and he devised a form to submit player moves - such-and-so is put on the disabled list, whos-his-face is promoted from AAA to replace him, that kind of thing. Not every player in the league had access to this form, but most did, and the form did streamline the process by which player moves got made prior to actual games. Nevertheless, I was never really sold on the thing, because I was certain that one day, the thing would blow up, and I didn't really want to be responsible for something I had no control over.

That day finally came. The form failed to update properly, and games were played without moves that had been requested by owners. This started an argument, which led to games being suspended while we worked out whether the games should be 're-wound' and replayed with the moves in place, or simply move on as if a real-life problem had occurred, taken some time to fix, but life had moved on in the meantime. Finally, after a long enough time for the league to be idle, I started up games again with the presumption that life was moving on.

Half the owners in the league immediately quit.

To this day, my friend still believes that it was my intransigence over the form that killed the league, and he may be right. From my perspective, though, we had a functioning system, and though it did take up some extra time on my part, I never regretted spending that time; it was the whole purpose behind me running the league in the first place. Just because a computer can do something, doesn't mean a computer has to do that thing.

When it is not necessary to make a decision, it is necessary not to make a decision.

- Lord Falkland

I love this quote, because it flies in the face of how most people behave about decision-making.

There have been times in my life when I've been called upon to make decisions. More often than not, the moment at which I've been called upon to make that decision isn't the best time for that decision to be made: either there's additional information that would be pertinent to the decision that hasn't been revealed yet, or there are other people's input to consider that hasn't yet been considered, or something like that. Yet most folks who find me in this situation seem upset or even angry that I defer my decisions in these situations, usually responding with some variation of the quotation that 'refusing to make a decision is itself a decision.'

I've found, though, that most decisions don't actually need to be made; one way or another, the situation will progress on its own without your input. The number of situations in which you must make a decision at this moment, and that decision ends up being both necessary and correct, are actually vanishingly small, in my experience. In most cases, I'd have been better off doing nothing.

Case in point: While finishing up my theater degree in Arizona, I was participating in an ensemble show called "Impassioned Embraces". One of the members of the cast, while certainly talented, was also probably the least admired performer in town; his opinion of his own talent was certainly higher than that actual talent warranted, and his treatment of fellow cast members was often crude, tasteless, or worse - his attempt to seduce one of the women in the cast, despite having announced his engagement to the stage manager at the top of the rehearsal run, was probably the best indicator I can give of the combination of his sense of personal entitlement and the sheer ignorance of the impact that sense of entitlement had on everyone around him.

Then, a bit more than a week before the show was to open, he had an accident and severely injured his knee. It seemed a given that he wasn't going to be able to go on, and the rest of the cast rallied to pick up the parts he wasn't going to be able to perform. Suddenly, a cast that had been nearly on the verge of mutiny was among the closest knit and supportive of casts I'd ever been involved in; the show was, as a result, probably the most demanding and yet most satisfying I've ever done. For the first two weeks, anyway. Until the director announced that our prodigal actor was recovering faster than expected, and would be playing his own parts for the final weekend of the run.

In retrospect, I should have just kept my mouth shut, my ideas to myself, and rode out the storm. Yes, the actor in question was a jerk; yes, he hadn't been rehearsing with us for nearly two weeks and was certainly rusty and absolutely limited in his movement. On the other hand, he had rehearsed his parts for over a month before his injury with the expectation of being able to perform; had I been in the same boat, I'd have wanted to get the chance to do those scenes in front of an audience at least once, and preferably as often as possible.

What I did, though, was to circulate a petition asking the director not to allow the prodigal actor back in the show, because we didn't want him back. The rest of the cast, who agreed with my sentiment and my reasoning, signed without hesitation, though one actress later recanted and asked that her signature be removed. To his credit, the director took the petition, read it, and then promptly ignored it, and we played the final weekend as we'd have played it had our prodigal actor never been injured - at least in theory. In practice, we were all off - our excitement had largely changed to sullen acceptance, and our final weekend wasn't nearly as good as the two previous. And I have no way to argue that my decision didn't make things worse. Sometimes, a bad decision is worse than no decision at all.

It is when I struggle to be brief that I become obscure.

- Horace, Epistles

Brevity really is the soul of wit. But brevity only works when you're able to leave certain things unsaid, because everyone understands what wasn't said.

There are those who say that long-windedness in general, and on the Web in particular, is off-putting, even boring. I have to say that I agree; more often than not, I find myself scrolling through a long-winded essay (sometimes even one of my own) hoping desperately that the author will just get to the freaking point already.

At other times, I'll read something short and sweet and have no idea what it just said. I think those moments are far worse.

At least if someone is reading something you've written, and they become bored in the middle, they found something worth muddling through in the hopes of it getting more precise; later, when you do write something more precise, that reader may well be back and enjoying herself. But if something is too precise to the point where it's incomprehensible, that reader isn't likely to come back hoping to find a longer piece where you might end up simply being long-winded.

It should be noted that Strunk's famous advice was to omit needless words; if removing something eliminates the reader's understanding, those pretty clearly weren't needless words.

Be what you would seem to be - or if you'd like it put more simply - Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

On the other hand, sometimes wordiness for its own sake is kinda funny.

Had I chosen a quote for this spot instead of letting the random generator choose one for me, I'd have chosen the Samuel Johnson quote about every man wasting part of his life trying to display qualities that he does not possess. I've done that far too often for comfort, and it's still something I find the need to work on from time to time.

Because we live in our own heads every day, because we've been first-hand observers to a life we've come to think of as 'normal', so long as it doesn't include newsworthy levels of triumph or tragedy, it's easy to imagine that, as a result, we must be boring people. That I, despite my individual ideosyncracies and unique life story, am a boring person. No matter how many people, in starting to get to know me, try to tell me otherwise.

And the crazy thing is, the longer I go about acting as if I was dull and uninteresting, the more people begin to get the idea that maybe I really am dull and uninteresting.

The solution, though, is not to invent attributes in yourself that you think would be appealing to others; no one has the combination of intelligence and stamina to pull off that kind of personality fraud. Instead, take the advice of an old absurdist and do something truly absurd - be who you would seem to be, and in doing so, seem to be who you really are.

Sometimes, that means wearing my less admirable qualities on my sleeve: being a gaming nerd, or just a general social misfit. The alternative? Seem to be someone with no interests at all. Now that would be truly dull, wouldn't it?

Traditionally, a meme ends with a 'tag'; an invitation to others who read to pick up the meme themselves. Again, I'll take a page out of ***Dave's book and just say, run with it if you find it interesting.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Worldview, And Welcome To It

From one of those online quiz sites:

You scored as Postmodernist. Postmodernism is the belief in complete open interpretation. You see the universe as a collection of information with varying ways of putting it together. There is no absolute truth for you; even the most hardened facts are open to interpretation. Meaning relies on context and even the language you use to describe things should be subject to analysis.



Cultural Creative














What is Your World View?
created with

Now understand that I don't have a huge problem with this result; I've considered myself a postmodernist from back before postmodernism was cool. My conversion to postmodernism dates back to discovering a copy of Walter Truett Anderson's "Reality Isn't What It Used To Be" in a public library during the summer of 1993.

The problem I have is that what the quiz describes as postmodernism isn't really postmodernism. It's constructivism. The idea that what's out there is only what we put out there, and that reality is as much an interpretive effort as a measuring stick held up to existence is a constructivist view, not strictly a postmodernist one. It's possible to be a postmodernist without being a constructivist, just as it's possible to be a Christian without being a Baptist.

Admittedly, there are aspects of constructivist thought that appeal to me. Again going to Anderson, his final paragraph finally sets out a description of constructivism, or at least the constructivist worldview:

The constructivist worldview is a story about stories, and it is also a story. It is a belief, and in some ways an arbitrary one. It presumes, without knowing how to prove it, that there is an objective cosmos that we can seek to understand, even though all our understanding is in some sense subjective. There are other stories, stories that there is no objective cosmos at all, or that it is what we create. And yet other stories will probably come along.

This is not 'crazy pomo zaniness'; it, at least to me, is a very common-sense way to approach the great question of existence. Sure, there's something out there. Yes, we can learn things about it, though everything we learn has some filters and biases associated with it. And, as a story about stories, the constructivist worldview is subject to all the same criticisms it applies to the stories it sees around it; any criticism of fundamentalist religion or hard-core science can, in some sense, also be levelled at the constructivist worldview itself; if it can't handle the same criticism, then it's on no better footing than the worldviews it's criticizing.

But postmodernism itself, at least according to Anderson, has a much lower threshhold of entry: to be a postmodernist, all you need is to have a belief about belief, or about how it is you choose to believe some things and not others.

In a premodern worldview, people are not taught beliefs. They are taught facts; things that are true about the world, about themselves. The transition to the modern world is facilitated by the understanding that different people with different 'facts' about the world aren't necessarily wrong; instead, we learn to have beliefs about the concepts of the world that don't jibe with those of our neighbors. The transition to the postmodern world comes when we realize that we don't have to simply accept the beliefs of our own culture; we can choose what to believe in, or to believe in nothing at all. (But, just as the old koan about choosing nothing still being a choice, believing in nothing is still a belief.)

Just as with any other organizing principle, postmodernism and constructivism have places where they are strong and where they are weak. Constructivism doesn't do a great job of explaining things like what distant stars are made of; radio astronomy does far better at this task. Yet there are still scientific questions that constructivism does help us understand better. For instance, how many planets are in our solar system?

At one time, it was thought that there were only six planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as those were the only planets that could be seen. Uranus, the seventh planet, was discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, using a powerful telescope. The next two planets were believed to exist far before they were 'discovered' with telescopes, because the effects of their gravity were noticable on the orbits of the other outer planets, particularly Uranus. Thus cued to the search, Neptune was located in 1846 by John Couch Adams, while Pluto was finally found by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

It will thus surprise some people that we've only had nine planets, officially, in our solar system for about seventy-five years. There was actually a longer period when we believed we had eight planets, and centuries when we believed we had six.

Now, of course, we're about to have twelve planets, not because of similar discoveries to those of the 18th through 20th centuries, but rather because of a redefinition of what a 'planet' is. The discussion was provoked by the discovery of a tenth planet, much as the previous three had been discovered, but what data could be learned of the nature of that potential tenth planet suggested that the definition of 'planet' was simply too vague - why would this new object, 2003UB213, be considered a planet while larger objects closer to the sun, such as the mega-asteroid Ceres, not be considered planets?

The IAU has thus proposed a planetary standard - any object large enough to be round due to the effect of its own gravity is a planet. Interestingly enough, one astronomer predicts that, if the IAU standard is adopted, we'll end up with at least 53 planets, since there are a number of appropriately large and round objects known to exist in the distant Kuiper Belt out beyond the orbit of Pluto, though the IAU standard currently only directly recognizes twelve objects: the existing nine planets, Ceres, 2003UB213, and Charon, the latter which would become the only object in the solar system to be both a planet and a moon.

This isn't really an argument about scientific facts - the facts are known to everyone involved. What it is is an argument (or perhaps merely a discussion) over what those facts mean; fundamentally, what scientifically objective facts are necessary in order for an object to be considered a 'planet'? This is precisely a postmodern, constructivist sort of question, as no matter what solution one proposes, there is no real objective standard to fall back on to comfort oneself that the decision is the 'true' one.

It is in precisely this sense that constructivists argue that truth is what the individual holds to be true, and is thus a matter of belief. It's possible to make a definition of 'planet' that would leave as few as four planets in the solar system ('a planet is something with the characteristics of Jupiter' - these are currently called 'Jovian planets') or, as noted above, a definition that allows for as many as 53 planets and counting. It's even possible to define planet in such a way that there are no actual planets to point to in the 'objective universe', much as we've already done with the definition of 'unicorn'. Yes, objects in space have observable attributes, but we only call them 'planets' because that's what we've agreed to call them. Arguing about the facts of the matter don't actually do anything to solve the problem, becuase unlike mass or luminosity, which have precise scientific and mathematical definitions, 'planet', at least before now, doesn't. What we're arguing isn't what the facts are, it's what they mean.

And of course, when arguing about what facts mean, you can't avoid being pulled into politics. It is in the realm of political 'truth' that postmodern and constructivist viewpoints are not only the most accurate, but ironically the most useful for practitioners. Political candidates and their handlers frequently make use of what Anderson called "the machinery of reality construction", and more and more frequently, the most interesting political stories of any given election cycle occur when that reality-construction machinery breaks down, allowing a candidate to show his or her 'real self'.

Whether you believe, for instance, that the Iraq War is just within reach of being won if we show a bit more patience and backbone, or that it's a disaster in the making that we need to escape at the first opportunity; whether you believe that terror attacks are the single greatest problem facing the civilized nations of the world, or that the War on Terror is as much a sideshow and disctracton from the real problems posed by global terrorism as the War on Drugs was a sideshow and distraction from the real problems posed by the global drug economy - whatever side you find yourself on, you can find 'facts' that support your belief. There are people out there, some professional, some amateur, engaged in the act of political reality-creation on a daily basis, and the political beliefs you hold are, to some degree, determined by the success in those stories at working their way into your personal worldview.

I'd argue, as Anderson does in his book, that these days its actually impossible to be anything but postmodern; the closest you can come to old-style modernism is to engage in an act of reification: that is, making something, such as a belief system or choice about one's lifestyle, then forgetting that the thing made was your own creation. Whether you join a fundamentalist faction of Christianity, or identify with those defenders of the Constitution who loudly seek to maintain 'the intent of the Founders', you're engaging in a bit of personal reality-creation - determining what your beliefs and opinions will be - and then forgetting your own role, instead ascribing near-miraculous powers to the writers of the Bible or the colonial aristocrats who crafted the Constitution as a replacement for the failed Articles of Confederation.

So if you want to call me a 'crazy pomo', I'll ask you which of us is crazier.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Joys of Getting Outside

It's been a beautiful few days here in the Cities; the sort of weather that you imagine is reserved for folks in California or Florida, and the sort of weather you pine for when old snow cakes the ground and the wind is bitter and pitiless. So I took off work a bit early to get out in it and roam about the city.

My first stop was Phoenix Games. There was a sign up advertising the store's 19th anniversary, which is a long time for a game/hobby store to be open anywhere. There's always something cool at Phoenix every time I go, and it was with a particularly strong sense of self-control (and awareness of my budget) that I limited myself to a few minis purchases and the current issue of Knights of the Dinner Table. I ended up reading through KoDT twice while riding the bus to my other stops for the day.

(As an aside, let me say that one of my favorite concatenation of subcultures that the urban lifestyle makes possible exists right here between Bryant and Aldritch Avenues along Lake Street in South Minneapolis, because right next to Phoenix Games, the gamer-geek and modeler's mecca, is a clothing store called Venus that caters mostly to strippers. In addition, Venus occupies the space that, until a few years ago, Phoenix itself used to occupy. I don't know that the two subcultures really mix all that much, though my heart of hearts imagines an open-minded stripper wandering into Phoenix Games out of curiosity one day, getting turned on to D&D, Battletech, and such, and becoming the Geek Goddess of the Twin Cities.)

My second stop was the Monster Den, where I picked up a few more minis in anticipation of this coming Sunday's tournament. The Monster Den isn't all that far from my apartment, and it's the host for most of the D&D minis tournaments I've been able to make in the past year. Unlike Phoenix, which caters mostly to the modeling and table-top gaming market, the Monster Den is primarily involved in Magic: the Gathering and collectible games (the D&D minis game is thus a happy cross-over). The Den also has a series of networked X-box consoles for rent; while I was paying for my minis purchases, a young fellow successfully traded a Magic card (I assume it was a rare of some sort) for two hours of time on the consoles. I then left, figuring to take one last set of busses to get home.

Instead, the bus I ended up riding was a route that ended well before my stop, so I spent some time wandering around in a corner shop called Mike's, the sort of place that still offers video rentals because the neighborhood is too gentrified for a company like Blockbuster to easily acquire property and move in. They had a DVD 'sale bin', and while browsing it largely out of curiosity, I discovered a DVD that, despite my normal reticence in DVD-buying, I ended up purchasing immediately.

I should explain that. I have friends who purchase DVDs as if they were frozen dinners; when a movie comes out that they like, that they might conceivably want to see again, they buy the DVD as soon as it comes out in either a cool format (for titles like 'Lord of the Rings') or an affordable one (for the majority of others). As such, they've got bookshelves filled with DVD cases, many of which are movies that they like, but aren't all that excited to watch at any given moment. (One friend and his wife have a habit that, when a movie they like is broadcast on TV, they pop in their DVD version and watch it instead, in order to avoid the commercials. It's a amusing if fairly harmless quirk.)

I, on the other hand, being the sort of guy who moves around a lot, try to avoid collecting huge numbers of items simply for the alleged joy of owning them - when you have to move a gigantic DVD collection, it's not nearly as enjoyable, believe me. An additional advantage of owning so few DVDs is that, if someone happens to be looking at my collection and asks to watch one of the movies there, I'll almost always say, 'Sure." Because I've been so persnickety when choosing DVDs to 'own', I can count the DVDs I actually own on the fingers of both hands: the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the A&E miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice; About A Boy; Spanglish; The Princess Bride; and a little-known indie film called The Gamers.

Oh, and the newest addition to the collection: Sky High.

It's a movie that came out with very little fanfare, but that in my opinion sincerely belongs in the pantheon of great turn-of-the-century superhero movies like Spider-Man and the first X-Men movie. If you haven't seen it, I heartily recommend it. If you can't quite trust my recommendation, here's one from Pete Vonder Haar for, one of my own favorite critics. (If you still don't trust my recommendation, then check out the reviews available on Rotten Tomatoes and find a name you do trust.)

Now if you'll excuse me, the sun's going down, and I've got a movie to watch.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Technical Difficulties

I've been working an a nice post, for a change. A post that catalogues my five favorite writers on the web, no less. And I find that, despite a ridiculous number of attempts, I can't actually post it.

I wonder how many posts, by percentage, on Blogger sites are about frustrations with Blogger. Ah well, I suppose you get what you pay for...

Hopefully I'll figure out the glitch and get the thing out there for you to read.

Update: As you can see, both this post and the previous post are now up. I'm still not sure exactly why, but I suspect it has something to do with my not using one of the Big Two browsers (Firefox or Internet Explorer) to do this. It's not that I don't like Firefox - in fact, I use Camino, which can be described as 'Firefox for MacOSX'. Except it isn't, not completely. Anyway, this may become the inspiration for a future entry somewhere down the line, but for now I'll just have to remember that, when previewing the site in Camino, don't forget to hit 'refresh', even after re-publishing the same essay five times.

My Five Favorites

Looking back over my last two entries, I realize that both of them:

a) are about baseball in some way, and

b) are more than a little negative.

That's not really how I wanted to develop the site. Sure, I'll write about stuff that interests me, but I don't want this to turn into the internet version of the bitter old man yelling at the local kids to keep their danged baseball games off his lawn.

Instead, I'll indulge in a bit of positive thinking and pass along the five folks I find most entertaining, informative, and just plain neat on this great Web-o-verse.

5. John Bonnes, MN Game Day

Back in 2003, I was poking around on the web when I came across this quirky-looking blog called Twins Geek. It was ostensibly a blog from a guy who was disappointed in the local media coverage of his baseball team, and thought that presenting alternative analysis and ideas would help round out the way people looked at the ballclub, and about baseball in the Twin Cities. Keep in mind that what we call the Twins Blogosphere really didn't exist at that point: there were a few folks writing and posting, but most of the 'big names' you'll find if you go looking through that portion of the blogosphere now weren't writing - most of them will tell you, without shame or irony, that it was Bonnes who convinced them to start writing, if only by example.

If it had just been Bonnes's baseball writing that inspired this reaction, that might have been interesting but ultimately dull - a bunch of people talking baseball, yowzah. But there was more to it than that: Bonnes would occasionally tell stories about his family (featuring The Voice of Reason, his wife; He's All Boy, his young son; and The Chatty, Chatty Princess, his younger daughter). He'd take a day to tell about some piece of local history, or to just talk about something that was bugging him. Some of this stuff got tied in peripherally to the ball team, but not all of it did. Not all of it needed to. It was good stuff. The people he inspired wanted to follow in his footsteps all the way, and so we got sites like Bat-Girl. Referring to Bonnes as the 'godfather' of the Twins blogosphere isn't meant to suggest a bloated, aging Marlon Brando - without Bonnes's influence, it would be difficult to imagine a Twins blogosphere that's as varied or as interesting as it is.

But if inspiring people to write about the Twins and their lives was the only thing Bonnes had accomplished, it would be hard to give him more than a nod and an 'attaboy'; sure it's admirable, but how does that make him 'good'? Well, Bonnes was good, too. You can say that a writer gets you where you live when you're so focused on finding and reading everything you can from him that the obsession gets you fired from your job; that's literally what happened to me, there in the middle of 2003. (Don't worry - I've had new jobs since then.)

In 2004, Bonnes got 'picked up' by the Star-Tribune, the largest local paper, to put his thoughts into electronic format for pay. That's living the dream. Even more importantly, Bonnes's site got something it hadn't had before - an avenue for reader comments. I was one of those who responded, almost obsessively, to the different things John had written. On those few days when he had to 'phone it in', I and a few others would contribute small pieces of our own.

John wasn't just tickled by that; after 2004, when the Strib decided to cut loose from Twins Geek, John started working on a secret plan for sports media domination that came to fruition in the spring of 2005 with John put out the call for folks to join him, and I was one of a lucky number who did. John, however, was having some growing pains - changing from being a writer to being, in effect, a manager of writing, seemed to wear him down bit by bit. He said as much in his farewell from blogging at the end of 2005, framed as the Three Rules of Breakups.

And then, in 2006, he came back:

Ummm….didn’t you break up with me?

[Shiver.] Is it morning already? I remember deciding that we’d do a shot every time the bride and groom kissed, and I vaguely remember dancing to Careless Whisper, but I’m having trouble piecing things together after that. How did we end up at your place? And, ummm, how ya been? Good to see you again.

He'd also worked out his bugs with being a writing manager; by the time his new blog was a month old, he'd taken the position as editor of Gameday Magazine, an alternative Twins program sold outside the Metrodome, and my own program-of-choice when I go to a game even before Bonnes's assumption of the editorial reins. Now, of course, it's another place I can go to get my Twins Geek fix, which makes the thing even better.

Great work, John. Keep it up, and you'll not only be running the team inside of five years, but the whole town in ten.

4. Diablo Cody, Pussy Ranch

Unlike with John Bonnes, I was late to the game when it comes to Diablo Cody. Some years ago, she started a blog, also called Pussy Ranch, intended to be her outlet to the world regarding her experiences being a part of the 'adult entertainment industry' in Minneapolis. By the time I found her, her blog had moved to the local alt-weekly City Pages. Thankfully, after my Bonnes experience, I was able to catch up on what archives I could find without losing my job.

But if The Cody was just another of a bevy of strippers and ex-strippers to blog the experience, and even eventually collect a book from those blog posts, I doubt I'd keep redirecting my browser to her blog as often as I do. Oh, sure, the occasional bewbie pic (NSFW, duh!) keeps me as interested as any other red-blooded American male, I suppose.

But here's the thing: Diablo's actually a writer, and a danged good one, too. Really, it's not just my opinion - she's writing the TV reviews at City Pages, so somebody thinks she's good enough to actually get paid and published in a newspaper. She's even written a screenplay that's in the process of being turned into an Actual Hollywood Film. Girl's got some chops. See for yourself:

I was digging in memorabilia at my parents' house this weekend and I found a handwritten letter I wrote to my "unborn children" when I was 17. (Lest you think Teen Diablo was an utter cheeseball, I'm pretty certain this letter was a mandatory high school writing assignment, probably for some ghastly religion course.) I devoured the missive eagerly, expecting it to be really immature and overwrought and clueless in that awesome teenage way. To my shock, it was chillingly prescient. I mean, I obviously haven't borne any children yet, but I do fuck someone's dad, so I dabble in parenting by default. And my parenting style is exactly what I predicted it would be back when I was a tender sapling myself.

Here's just one of the heartwarming sentiments I expressed to my hypothetical progeny: "I hope you like frozen pizza because you're going to be eating a lot of it." Oh snap! Take that, unborn hellions! The only thing colder than your supper is Mommy's frigid bosom!

It helps that her style works for me - girl also has the pop-culture down and down cold. Bill Simmons of wrote not too long ago that if he and a co-worker appeared on the World Series of Pop Culture, they could have anybody as their third and win easily. Well, I'm convinced that if Diablo Cody appeared on the World Series of Pop Culture, she could appear with two three-year-olds and beat anybody, including Simmons. Anybody can make a Skeletor reference while referring to a supermodel; it takes a true Child Of The 80's to not only make a Man-at-Arms reference, but to correctly remember that Man-at-Arms was not just Teela's father, but her adoptive father.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I believe Diablo's work contributes to society overall. No, not just the bewbie pics (yes, it's a different picture, and yes, it's still NSFW), but that is part of it. See, here's the thing: there's a controversial animal out there going by the name of 'sex-positive feminism', and for the most part it gets a lot of flack. In my opinion, much of that flack is deserved. There's nothing wrong with the idea that you can enjoy sex and still be a feminist; the problem is that a lot of folks take from that the idea that you can still be a feminist if all you do is enjoy sex. (There's some truth to the idea that a lot of this comes from the fact that men are usually the ones producing a good deal of the examples of 'sex-positive feminism'.) But Diablo is pretty clearly sex-positive, while also being an author, a screenwriter, a while sex is part of the package, it's actually a fairly small part overall. That's why I say that Diablo's work is good for society - showing your boobs doesn't make you a more interesting woman than you already were, but when you're already an interesting woman, showing your boobs doesn't (or in an ideal world, shouldn't) take anything away from that, either. (And in complete fairness, I should point out that Diablo's boob-shots generally only occur about once a year; it's not like she's doing the weekly Virtual Lap Dance on Danni's Hard Drive.)

Keep up the good work, Diablo.

3. Eric Burns, Websnark

The Internet was originally envisioned as a gigantic network of interconnected documents. Really. That's what old-school HTML is all about; putting stuff online that links to other stuff, so that if you're writing about, say, how much you like figurative art, you could then provide a link to a site that contains figurative art, allowing people to actually see what you're talking about.

Or you could have, if old-school HTML rendered images worth a dang.

See, old-school HTML was all about the text. It even invented a new word, since fallen out of favor: hypertext. This was the original name of 'text with links' - it wasn't just text, it was better than text! Better! Stronger! Faster! Or something like that...

Anyway, it's with a sense of irony that I present that small aside at the top of an essay about Websnark. One of the things that Eric Burns does on his blog/website/exercise in creative expression is review webcomics, an entire art form specifically invented and published on the Internet. So if we still lived in an age of old-school HTML, Websnark wouldn't have much reason to exist, you'd think.

You'd be wrong, but you'd think that.

See, while Burns looks at a lot of art, he's really all about the text. Not just in the stuff he reviews, either, but also in his own writing. Consider:

At this point, I'm wandering out of Sears and into the Mall, when I hear over the Sears PA "would Eric Burns please return to automotive? Eric Burns? Please return to automotive." This can't possibly be good.

It's not. I'm brought out to my car, and shown my rear tires. It becomes apparent within a couple of seconds that those need to be replaced as well. They're largely to 'bald.' Orson Welles had done his work well, damn his Paul Masson drinking hide.

I do some math in my head, don't like the answer, and say "will they last two weeks?" I get paid in two weeks, you see.

"Probably," the person said. "But we should do them today."

"Yeah, but unless you want to get paid by the sight of a fat man dancing, they're not going to be."

Burns writes about Bringing the Funny, and does it himself, but that's not the only reason he's on my favorites list. He's also among the most downright insightful folks I've read on the Internet, and oddly enough, it's easy to see why. He looks at a situation, even if it involves himself, and purges as much self-interest as he can while asking the question, "What's going on here, really?" That's the kind of thing that really gets me jazzed. And that's the kind of thinking that goes on behind two of the absolute best essays I've ever read on the Internet: one about entitlement and fandom, and one about things to do/avoid in making your web writing presence. Go. Read them. Nothing I say will convince you of Burns's ability as much as simply seeing it in action in those two essays.

As long as I have nothing further to say about Burns, let me point out that his co-conspirator Wednesday White also kicks some serious butt. I list Burns alone, though, rather than Burns and White together, because if White left Websnark for some reason, it would be a tragedy, and possibly even a crime, but Websnark could continue. (Whether it would or not is an open question, and part of the aforementioned potential crime.) If Eric Burns left Websnark, it would be over. Done.

2. King Kaufman, King Kaufman's Sports Daily

First, a brief aside. Some of you might have been surprised by clicking on that link next to Kaufman's name and being taken either to a web-commercial or for an admonition to watch a web-commercial. Yes, Kaufman is a professional sportswriter, not, technically, a blogger. In principle, this is a difference that should make no difference - each of the three people above Kaufman are also 'professional writers', in the sense that they've been paid on a continuing basis for regularly putting words on dead trees. Number one on my 'five favorites' list has published probably dozens of books and written literally hundreds (if not thousands) of print magazine articles. So why should Kaufman's status as an almost-behind-a-pay-firewall guy make a difference as to whether or not he's on this list? Well, it doesn't, but it could have: had I made this list three years ago, Kaufman's role on this list as 'sports guy getting paid by some media company to put his words on the Web' would have been taken by Rob Neyer, a guy who went from being Bill James's research assistant to one of the geekiest baseball writers out there. But about three years ago, made the decision to put Neyer's column behind the 'Insider' wall - you could only read his stuff if you subscribed to's paid service While I'm sure many did - Neyer's still writing for, after all - I didn't, and though Neyer's own site (linked above) could have been a 'Neyer fix', I simply got out of the habit of reading him and instead found Kaufman.

Kaufman, on his own merits, is still a very good writer. The main reason I like him, though, is that he not only manages to do two seemingly contradictory things in his sports writing, but do them routinely:

a) What he writes makes perfect sense, and

b) Nobody else is writing what he's writing.

You might think such a thing would be hard to do at all, much less do routinely. But looking more closely, it's actually easy to understand why this is. First off, Kaufman is willing to take some angles that other sportswriters either won't or can't take. Consider the following, written after the announcement that Warren Moon is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH:

What I can't get over is that he's the first black quarterback to be inducted. His story sounds like something out of the South in the days of black-and-white newsreels.

He had to listen to racist taunts from the stands as a high school and college player. He had to go to junior college because college coaches didn't think blacks could play quarterback. He had to go to the Canadian Football League because NFL coaches didn't think blacks could play quarterback.

What I can't get over is that Warren Moon is only six years older than I am, and we grew up in the same city, and it wasn't in the South.

This isn't the first time Kaufman's discussed race and sports, and it won't be the last. But unlike the rank-and-file sportswriter, who sometimes seems to bend over backwards to avoid talking about racial issues, Kaufman is willing to put them up front, and in the process, say some very sensible things that nobody else is saying. But Kaufman doesn't have to be talking about potentially explosive issues like race to earn his keep - he can just as easily talk about 'potentially explosive' issues like Alex Rodriguez:

But let's look at the case being made: After roughly a decade as the best player in baseball, including an MVP award last year, won while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers, and including the American League Player of the Month award in May -- this May, two months ago -- won while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers, Alex Rodriguez cannot produce while playing for the Yankees and getting booed by New Yorkers.

"See, the problem he has is you can't be better than the best, and at the best, he continues to get booed," [former GM and ESPN baseball analyst Steve] Phillips said, and buckle your seat belts, kids, he's about to veer into a logical ditch. "MVP, Player of the Month, it doesn't matter. He's not accepted in New York. He'll never be able to perform with the crowd on his back all season long."

Got that? Even when he's playing better than anyone else in the American League for a whole month or a whole year, he won't be able to play well because the fans are booing him.

I find it helps if you bang your head on a desk.

If you don't follow sports, particularly baseball, you might find it hard to believe that what Kaufman wrote here is all that rare; again, it seems perfectly sensible. Yet it is - consider this piece on, which purports to ask the question, "Why Do We Hate Alex Rodriguez?" while really doing very little other than desperately trying to confirm that, yes, fans, sportwriters, even small children in places that have never heard of baseball do, in fact, hate Alex Rodriguez.

Sometimes, the point he takes even becomes somewhat subversive. Many sportswriters are self-deprecating, though often that self-deprecation is merely the pose made by someone with a humongous ego to attempt to distract attention from the ego by saying, in effect, "If I really had this big an ego, could I say such things about myself? About Myself, I Say?" Kaufman not only downplays the knowledge, wisdom, and competence of himself and his fellow scribes; he then goes out and finds amusing ways to demonstrate it. Case in point: Over the past few years, Kaufman, during the NFL season, makes weekly predictions on winners and losers. A lot of folks do, and so Kaufman assembles their combined wisdom into an unofficial contest. One of the participants is his young son Buster, who was one when this schtick began, and whose picks were thus made by flipping a coin. Funny, right? Well, Buster didn't do very well those first couple of seasons, because a coin has a 50-50 chance of picking the 2005 Packers over the 2005 Seahawks, and while those games do sometimes come in (see link), they don't come in often enough to allow such a prognosticator to assemble a solid overall record. So for the 2005 season, Kaufman tweaked the rules for Buster's picks a bit: instead of flipping a coin for every game, Buster would only flip his coin when there wasn't a favorite of six points or more, otherwise he'd take the favorite. Buster finished in a tie for fourth in the 2005 contest, right next to Chris Mortenson, a man who earns his paychecks by being an expert on the NFL. That is seriously subversive.

When I was first getting started in the sports-blogging game myself with the original Contrarian Bias, it was John Bonnes who inspired me that such a thing could actually be done. But it was King Kaufman who provided my 'spiritual focus', so to speak - it seemed so simple to do what Kaufman was doing, which was to take sensible positions and write sensible things that nobody else was writing, and even throw in a bit of subversion along the way. My favorite piece on the old Contrarian Bias was a piece inspired by a Kaufman article that pointed out that the Red Sox teamed up with the guys from Queer Eye not only to launch the latter's season premiere in 2005 (right off the Sox's 'miracle' World Series run in 2004), but to promote the first of two gay-and-lesbian days at Fenway Park; I pointed out that, while the Twins had hosted such days in the past, they hadn't done so in some time, and in fact in 2005 would sponsor the Moonie-like Multiple Matrimony Night, where over seventy couples would take or renew marriage vows on the field prior to game time. No doubt the ceremony preserved the sanctity of marriage for the remainder of the year.

By the way, the first comment I got on that essay said, "David is gay." So maybe it's not really as easy as it looks. Still, if I had to do it again, Kaufman would still be my spiritual guide; nothing else even seems honest, by comparison.

1. Andy Ihnatko, YellowText

You will likely find yourself looking at this person's name and wondering, "Who is this?" Friend, by the time this section of the essay is over, you'll likely be thanking me.

You probably haven't heard of Ihnatko unless you're a Macintosh user back from before the iMac days, live in Chicago and thus know that Ihnatko is to legendary film critic Roger Ebert roughly what the aforementioned Rob Neyer is to Bill James, or have happened to run into a guy that looked an awful lot like John Popper from Blues Traveler before he lost all that weight.

I don't live in Chicago, and thus don't have the film-connection with Ihnatko that some do. I am a Mac-head from way back, though, and definitely remember Ihnatko as the most interesting, and perhaps not coincidentally most virtuosic writer for MacWorld magazine.

Aside: I just realized there's one more way you might 'know' Ihnatko, though it's a bit convoluted. You see, back in the day, MacWorld's web presence featured the scribblings of a Mac tipster, who clearly had contacts deep in the bowels of the Mothership; Mac fans have been as rabid as any fandom when it comes to obsessively wanting more information about their addiction. Many thought that this anonymous tipster, who wrote under the alias Naked Mole Rat, was Ihnatko, though I was one who thought it was another staffer, possibly David Pogue, simply trying to write as much like Ihnatko as he possibly could. And of course, some of you who read 'Naked Mole Rat' above immediately flashed to Kim Possible - and yes, Hollywood writers tend to be rabid Mac-heads as well, so it wouldn't at all surprise me if some NMR fan 'wrote' him into the Disney animated series as a homage, possibly even a homage to Ihnatko himself, though in fairness it should be pointed out that Kim Possible's Naked Mole Rat's teeth are far more bucked than Ihnatko's own.

This is a man of rare genius, because he's a man who gets my sense of humor. This is a man who nearly had me falling out of my chair with the title to a blog entry:

$338,000,000 Can Buy MANY Donuts

Go, read it. I'll wait.

This is the guy who opened another blog entry with the following:

TO: The World

FROM: Ihnatko

RE: My Orbiting Mind-Control Ray

Go, read that one, too.

The thing that gets me is that it seems so easy for him. Granted, he's been doing this for many, many years now, so once you've got a few billion words under your belt, maybe you can toss off a reference guide in nothing flat, add in a couple of magazine articles, and still post incredibly geeky, often uproariously funny things to your blog, all in the same week. If Bonnes is the guy who inspired me to start blogging, and Kaufman is the guy I wanted to be as a blogger, Ihnatko is the guy I wanted to be as a writer: the guy who, for lack of a better analogy, I wanted to be once I grew up. Of course, as I've grown up, I've come to realize that it isn't all that easy: writing professionally takes a lot of work, and though it's not menial physical drudgery on the level of cleaning toilets or digging ditches, it really is work. Years later, I'm still trying to get past the work part, or at least come to terms that the work part is going to keep me from ever being a 'professional' at this writing thing.

Either way, that recognition only increases my admiration for guys like Ihnatko, who've been doing it for as long as I can remember, and are still going strong. Frankly, that's the commonality among all five of the names on this list - they're all good, and they've all been doing what they're doing for long enough that, while it's still work for all of them, they can shrug their way past that and just get those words out. Kudos, folks, and thanks.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect.

Edward Gibbon

I, on the other hand, only wish I was that smart.

I've been away from 'teh intraweb' for a while, and the process of becoming familiar with it again, as with just about anything in life that you've been away from for a while and have to get re-acquainted with, sometimes feels like putting on old clothes and feeling the odd places where your current body isn't shaped the same as your old one.

As I noted in the previous entry, Contrarian Bias used to be a baseball blog, specifically a Twins blog. As such, I used to read a lot of the other Twins blogs out there, and 'contribute' to their differing communities by responding. There has to be a time when I enjoyed this give-and-take, the exchange of ideas, the contest of competing worldviews.

Because looking at it now, it just seems to me that people have just gotten a lot dumber and a lot more intellectually dishonest since I've come back. Or maybe they've always been that way, but I simply didn't notice before.

Cases in point:

On Twinkie Town, the spiritual successor to, I made the following observation regarding Francisco Liriano and his injury history, throwing in some additional tidbits as well:

That would be my worry as well. And don't take Gardy's energetic assertion that it's just a 'muscle problem' as any consolation: as pointed out in the original Crystal Ball thread on Liriano on John Sickels's site (, Liriano had a strained latissimus dorsi in 2003 that limited him to nine innings of work in the Giants' organization that season.

The good news is that the injury in and of itself doesn't end his career; other pitchers have dealt with chronic lat issues and still managed to pitch effectively. (Tim Hudson and Rich Harden are examples pointed out in that thread on Sickels's site.) The bad news is that, like plantar fasciitis for a fielder/hitter, muscle issues for a pitcher tend to be chronic, never really go away, and can flare up without a lot of warning. Two hundred innings a year and a Hall of Fame career seem pretty unlikely for Liriano right now, though admittely anything is still possible.

Some lambent wit calling himself 'AdamOnFirst' responded thus:


The latissimus dorsi isn;'t anywhere near the elbow...

And taking away his hall of fame career and 200 IP a year seems a bit ahead at this point.

Are they really not teaching reading comprehension in schools anymore, or is it all evolution, intelligent design, and 'teaching the controversy'? I'll admit that my use of 'the injury' in my second paragraph is somewhat vague, and that following it up with a discussion of various successful pitchers with latissimus dorsi injuries might lead one to believe I was suggesting that Liriano's current injury is a 'lat' injury. Sure, I could have made it clearer that, while pointing out that Liriano missed nearly an entire season with a specific muscle injury, I was referring to the problems Liriano would likely face even if Gardenhire's energetic assertion that Liriano's injury was a muscle injury rather than an elbow injury was true. But is it really that hard to just read what I wrote, as opposed to responding to something imaginary?

Even more frustrating, no pitcher is assured a Hall of Fame career, and certainly not one who has now suffered three serious pitching-related injuries in five years. The idea that Francisco Liriano was assured a place in the Hall of Fame after his first nineteen starts of his big-league career, or after his first four big-league starts last year, or even more ridiculously, before he even pitched in the major leagues but had one brilliant season between AA and AAA...well, I'd be laughing if the idea wasn't so widespread.

But this is the internet we're talking about, where ignorance can be found more easily than porn. No, the thing that really got me steamed was a deliberate piece of intellectual dishonesty from someone who should have known better.

In the comments for this piece on, I noted this:

I've been seeing a lot of comments (at least two in this thread, for example) about how Terry Ryan needs to go out and acquire 'a quality third baseman' for the 2007 season.

The comment sounds reasonable, but my problem with it is that TR can't go out and acquire some amorphous 'quality third baseman'; he's got to acquire an actual player.

So my question for the 'quality third baseman' guys is this: who, precisely, are you recommending as that player?

Interestingly enough, a few of the regulars took up the gauntlet and suggested the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez or the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera, both of which I'd consider good responses to my original query. Aaron, however, responded with this:

Here's an incomplete list of potential free agent third basemen (or other infielders who could play third base): Aubrey Huff, Joe Randa, Ronnie Belliard, Todd Walker, Mark DeRosa, Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, Mark Loretta, David Bell, Aaron Boone, Pedro Feliz, Wes Helms, Tony Graffanino.

I'm sure I'm missing quite a few guys, and of course the Twins could also go after someone via trade. (Or they could keep Punto at third base, but that's not what you were asking.)

Now, trying to give Aaron the maximum benefit of the doubt, guys like Rich Aurilia and Ray Durham would make interesting acquisitions, and it would make for an interesting discussion as to whether these guys would fit the definition of 'quality third baseman' that I, admittedly didn't provide (though since I hadn't invented the phrase, either, I was assuming that the others using that phrase understood better what it meant than I did).

But note that's not what Aaron did here - instead of saying "in addition to the guys previously mentioned, I'd add Rich Aurilia and Ray Durham, and I'm sure there are other guys who might become free agents who we don't know about yet," Aaron basically produced a laundry-list of players, the only commonality being that each could conceivably play third base and each of whom would be available as a free agent after the 2006 season, and most of whom couldn't in any circumstance be described as 'quality third basemen'. (Mouth's friend L is a Royals fan - hey L, you remember Tony Graffanino, right? Would you consider him a 'quality third baseman'?)

Basically, this is the equivalent of sitting around with a bunch of friends talking about going out to get 'good pizza', asking 'hey, guys, we can't just get some amorphous 'good pizza' - where are we going to order from?' and having one friend start listing Dominos, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, etc. Except that if this actually happened, you'd have to take it as a joke, wouldn't you?

Whatever Aaron may be, ignorant isn't among them. Heck, the man even attended journalism school for a while. So taking this content-free response, plus the topper of the 'not what you were asking' comment when Aaron basically made no effort to answer the question I was actually asking, the only conclusion I can reach is that Aaron is being deliberately intellectually dishonest, for no better reason than to score points on his own blog.

Nice. Real nice.

Leaving comments on baseball blogs doesn't fit me all that well anymore, and it's itchy to boot. I really have to consider throwing it out.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Told Ya

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Back in 1992, I got into an argument with an old high school friend. We were living together in a house in Yuma, preparing for the summer so that we could attend college in the fall, and we were discussing life - specifically, the way life and existence 'are'.

His position was that people basically get what they deserve in life. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded; if you slack, you'll be punished. As long as you're smart and keep one eye open, life is managable and you'll come through it just fine.

My position was that life is essentially random: good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, and while a smart person might well be able to turn a disaster into an opportunity, it's no less likely that an opportunity will turn into a disaster, no matter how hard you try. (Well-read folks will recognize that this position is hardly original with me: it was probably ancient when it was written into the Book of Ecclesiastes.)

We happened to be having this discussion with our girlfriends present, and though they seemed bored by the conversation in general, they did agree to help us settle our disagreement; both voted with my friend that the world was basically a place where the good are rewarded and the bad punished.

Exactly one week later, my friend was alone in his room, crying. He'd learned just a short while earlier that his grandmother, one of the people he was closest to in the entire world, was suddenly on her deathbed back in rural Minnesota, and it would be very unlikely that he'd be able to make the trip up to see her before she died. The four of us were together again; his girlfriend to comfort him (though at the moment he wasn't willing to accept comfort), and mine because she was his girlfriend's best friend.

As the sounds of my friend's sobs came through the walls of his bedroom, I looked at the two women, smiled a tight, bitter smile, and said just two words. "I win."

Fast-forward to 2005.

The first incarnation of Contrarian Bias was as part of a larger site called, a community site dedicated to fans of the Minnesota Twins baseball club. During 2005, a young pitcher who'd been a throw-in in a trade with the San Francisco Giants a year earlier was having a breakout year in the minor leagues: he'd pitched well for the first half of the year with the AA club in New Britain, then after being promoted to the AAA club in Rochester pitched even better. There was more than a little excitement, especially since the parent club still had visions of possibly competing in the playoffs, and thus the young phenom pitcher was likely to arrive in the big leagues a bit earlier than expected.

He arrived, pitched reasonably well for a first-time big leaguer, and the fan base went nuts. The pitcher, in case you haven't figured it out by now, was Francisco Liriano.

There was one guy, though, who didn't join the bandwagon. One guy who insisted on pointing out that the reason this guy had been a throw-in in the first place was that he'd spent the better part of the previous two years recovering from serious arm problems, and that as such, he was always going to be a higher-risk candidate for arm injury than someone who hadn't had those problems. This guy, of course, was a buzz-kill; who wants to be told that the shiny new rookie might actually be made of fool's gold? Some tried to convince this guy that of course the Twins knew their rookie was an injury risk, and as such they'd take extra-special care of him and be sure not to overwork his arm. Others were less friendly, or at least less inclined to discuss the issue. Almost no one said, 'You know, this guy may have a point. Maybe we should temper our enthusiasm a bit.'

In 2006, Liriano began the year in the bullpen, but when the Twins' starting rotation proved much shakier than expected, was quickly promoted. He pitched extremely well, striking out batters at a ferocious rate, and running up numbers that looked not just like Rookie of the Year numbers, but Cy Young award numbers. The fans, predictably, went nuts. Some thought that Liriano was the second coming of another outstanding starting pitcher, Johan Santana. Some even went so far as to suggest that no team in baseball, and possibly no team in the history of baseball, ever had as 'dominant' a pair of pitchers as Santana and Liriano.

The buzz-kill guy simply sat off to the side, having left the sports-blogging game, and silently wondered when the rent was going to come due.

Monday night, at Comerica Park in Detroit, Francisco Liriano had perhaps his worst start as a major leaguer, giving up four runs on ten hits in four innings, then leaving the game. Afterward, Liriano pointed to his elbow and noted that he was in serious pain. Back in 2002, it was an elbow injury that ended Liriano's season with class-A Hagerstown, and complications from that injury limited him to just nine innings in all of 2003.

The most rational guy in the room that night was Liriano's teammate Carlos Silva, who noted:

I tried to tell him, 'You need to worry.' Of course, you don't want to lose that guy, especially in the situation we're in. But he's got to take care of his future. If you're going to lose him, it's better to lose him for two weeks than for his future.

Across the assembled online fandom of Twins Territory, the bandwagon comes to a bloodcurdling halt. What once looked like a march toward destiny now suddenly seems fragile, ephemeral. A three-game series with the Tigers that looked like it might possibly propel the Twins into contention for the division title now looks like a disaster in the making, and if the club can get out of town still even numerically in the wild-card race, it'll be a moral victory to some.

To others, of course, operating under the Dorito theory of pitching prospects ("crunch all you want - we'll make more"), all this means is that the Twins now get to call up their next uber-prospect, Matt Garza, who while he thankfully doesn't have a history of arm problems, did start the season in A-ball. As a general rule, pitchers who try to jump three levels in a single season aren't terribly successful, but that's not likely to stop the true believers.

And somewhere, in his dingy living room, an older and not necessarily wiser man smiles his bitter smile.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Tipping Is Not A City In China

The title of this post comes from a makeshift sign in a hole-in-the-wall beer joint I used to frequent as an acting student at the University of Minnesota. It's a great bar sign, in that it conveys very serious information in a way that's almost completly painless.

My friend Mouth has been posting recently about her various experiences in customer service, and while I may disagree with her on a few arcane philosophical points related to those experiences, I really can't argue with her basic premise: a business that treats its customers as something other than mobile wallets tends to be a business that earns repeat customers.

I want to talk about something tangential to her point: tipping practices, especially when you don't like the service you've gotten at whatever restaurant you've visited.

For starters, let me establish my bona fides:

  • My mother worked as a waitress throughout my childhood and adolescence; when she became a 'single parent household', she worked two waitressing jobs to get us all by.
  • My best friend in college worked as a waiter in an airport hotel, and while he wasn't necessarily any more comfortable than those who worked their way through college in bookstores or as parking lot attendents, the perks were better. (The broccoli-cheese soup he used to bring back to the apartment every so often was, in my mind, the best of these.)
  • I worked as a waiter myself (albeit at Pizza Hut, admittedly not the highest-class establishment out there) when I finally decided to get serious about finishing my degree and ended up in Yuma, of all places.
I'm not going to bore you with the traditional talk of 'oh, waitstaff and such are all hard-working folks who depend on your tips to get by'; you're probably sick to death of that kind of talk, anyway. Instead, I'll clue you in to two things that you probably didn't know about tipping.

First, it's simply not true that stiffing your waiter or waitress is considered expected behavior when you get bad service. Consider the following anecdote from City Pages' food critic Dara Moskowitz:

Are people really not tipping out there? I almost can't believe it. Let me tell you about the worst service I ever had. It was in a small Italian restaurant in south Minneapolis, and Dude was coked out of his gourd. After describing dishes so quickly I couldn't keep up, and after working a glorious up-sell of a wine that the restaurant ultimately didn't even have, Dude proceeded to hallucinate imaginary objects beneath my table, dove down after them, and passed out. Acting as if this happened every day, which it well might have, the rest of the staff gathered round and carried Dude off, one server at each shoulder, and the server's assistant, who might better have been called the server's enabler, carrying his feet. The server's enabler then brought the dessert tray, and, soon enough, the check. I tipped, in a flummoxed, giggly sort of way, 20 percent—though why was not entirely clear. For the widows and Hazelden, I suppose. I just kind of assumed everyone was as goofy as I. No?

No, Dara, not everyone is as goofy as you. I've even met people who consider it a point of pride not to tip if they believe they've gotten bad service. Regardless of my personal feelings on the subject, consider what a professional restaurant manager has to say about such behavior:

Stiffing somebody? That's the biggest insult in the world...It's just classless. Honestly. I would never suggest not tipping. If you're not going to tip you just shouldn't pay the bill, it's that bad.

The manager quoted above suggests that, if you have a problem with the service at a restaurant, you have a problem with the restaurant, not with the server, and you should call over a manager, explain the problem, and see what they do about it. If the manager doesn't handle things to your satisfaction, leave and don't go back.

Some other things you may not have known about tipping and restaurants:

If you're dining in a place that's fancy enough to offer you wine, the default tip is twenty percent of the bill. Not fifteen percent, not two bucks per person. This isn't my rule - it's the IRS's rule: restaurants apply withholding on thirteen percent of a server's net sales, on the presumption that the server is getting 18-20% herself, then tipping her buspeople, bartenders, etc., at the end of the night. If you're dining in a place that has a clown in the lobby entertaining the kids, or where the strongest alcohol served is 3.2 beer, fifteen percent isn't considered an insult, but should be the absolute minimum.

The larger the party you're dining with, the harder it is to come up with a good tip. I have no idea why this is, but it's true - at Pizza Hut, nothing irritated the waitstaff more than spending over an hour serving a party of twelve with a bill of over a hundred dollars and ending up with an eight-dollar tip. I've even had the distinct displeasure of being on the other side of this problem: when dining out with a large group to celebrate a friend's birthday, our table ended up tipping 12% on an over $400 tab, despite me and everyone else adjacent to me tipping well over 20% on our individual portions of the bill. Something happens with large parties that messes up peoples' math skills - don't let this happen to your server.

Finally, the best way to view a good tip is as an investment in future service, not as a reward for current service. It's just common sense: if you tip well at a place you're not likely to go again, the folks there may think of you fondly for a night or two, but you'll ultimately be forgotten. But if you're a regular and you tip well, you'd be amazed what your server becomes willing to do for you. As an example, let me point out my experiences with the local Papa John's. From my perspective, twenty percent is the minimum tip to a pizza guy (my aforementioned college roommate/best friend was a pizza delivery guy before he became a waiter, so I know he'd approve). I always round the tip up to the nearest whole dollar when charging my order to a credit card, otherwise if I'm paying cash I hand over a round amount of cash money when accepting the pies: nothing torques off a pizza man more than having to deal with nickels and pennies while he's trying to make deliveries.

And you know what? If I call up during a football game or some other ridiculously busy period, I'll often end up with my pie before the stated wait period ("it'll be 45 minutes to an hour", yet I'm munching on Hawaiian Chicken and Bacon in 35 minutes). If the store's new guy ends up delivering my pie, he'll usually be just as happy to see me (and just as quick) as the regular drivers, because the regular drivers have tipped him off that he's delivering to a good customer.

Now I don't expect this kind of treatment; sometimes I do have to wait for a pie, and sometimes I do end up with a guy who's clueless. But you know what? That's the price you pay sometimes for doing business in this great country of ours. I have friends who, as one of their apparent philosophies of life, walk away from any business that screws up their request once. They're on their fourth Chinese place, fifth pizza joint, and the husband doesn't even bother going to a barber anymore - he just has the wife trim him up with a set of clippers. And it isn't even that they're a couple of jerks: when I needed money recently, the husband not only loaned it to me, but took me out to dinner to give me the loan, then never asked about it again until I paid him back two months later. It's not that they're bad people; they're damned good people.

They just haven't figured out that life's a lot better when you tip.