Sunday, September 24, 2006

The One About The Death Penalty

It is morally wrong to kill another human being in a premeditated, cold-blooded manner. I know it and you know it. So stop avoiding the subject by raising other issues like executing an innocent person on occasion. Legal execution is just a socially acceptable way for otherwise decent citizens to act on their murderous inclinations with impunity. Somehow, some way, someday, we have to stop killing each other. Ending the death penalty is a start.
- our boy, in an online discussion of the death penalty

This past week, a jury returned a verdict against a man convicted of killing someone. That verdict was that the man himself should also die. I am disturbed by this. I am disturbed by this response from the victim's father:

I felt all along, for Dru's sake, this needed to happen.

I'd like to think I understand the response, though I've never been in that man's shoes. There was a time I'd have agreed with him, most likely. But that was before I figured out what I see as the key issue regarding the death penalty.

The death penalty is a serious issue, and as befitting a serious issue, there are serious arguments on both sides. Not all of those arguments are necessarily good ones, but each side does have points in their favor. For the longest time, I tried to reconcile these points.

1a. Studies have not shown the death penalty to have any significant deterrent effect on violent crime. There is even some evidence that the death penalty may serve as incentive to commite more brutal crimes than would otherwise be committed; after all, if you're going to die for doing the crime, you may as well make it worth your life, right?

1b. Outside of horror movies, no executed criminal has ever returned to commit more crimes. The death penalty is thus 100% effective at preventing recidivism.

2a. Society shouldn't have to pay to keep those who've committed heinous crimes alive; in effect, that's rewarding someone for doing something bad.

2b. Because of a combination of factors, it's actually more expensive to execute someone than it is to confine them to 'life imprisonment'. For starters, death row inmates are segregated from the rest of the prison population, making their incarceration more expensive by default, as the same number of guards could control a much larger number of traditinally imprisoned inmates. Appeals which might not be granted in a life-imprisonment case are routinely granted and sometimes statutorily required in death-penalty cases, due to the severity of the punishment; you need to be absolutely sure you've not only got the right guy, but that every bit of due process was followed before you can 'legitimately' execute a man, which makes their prosecution even more expensive compared to a 'traditional' inmate. And last but certainly not least, the length of the appeals process in some ambiguous cases, combined with the possibility of parole for life-imprisoned offenders as well as the observation that life expectency in prison is generally much less than the general population means that some death-row inmates will spend more time waiting to be executed than a life offender will spend in prison.

3a. As of the time of this writing, there have been 123 persons sentenced to die who have been exonerated since 1973 - an average of five people each year. In addition, at least seven people since 1993 have been executed despite considerable evidence that they did not, in fact, commit the crimes for which they were executed.

3b. There's a difference between 'innocent because I didn't commit the crime' and 'innocent because I didn't get my due process rights', and the latter shoudn't be confused for the former.

3c. Actually that's not entirely true - this list of exonerees shows all 123 cases. In 71 of those cases, the charges against the death-row prisoner were dismissed, frequently because the actual perpetrator was found to be someone else. In an additional 43 cases, the prisoner was granted a new trial and acquitted, meaning he was found not guilty; knowing for certain that at least one of those juries made an error, it would be hard for me to conclude that in every case the acquitting jury was the one in error.

Ultimately, since the majority of fact is on the side of those opposed to the death penalty, I decided to oppose it as well. Still, there was one pro-death penalty argument I couldn't blunt:

4a. What if someone killed the person you care about most in the world?

Granted, it's another emotional argument, but it's a powerful one - is it possible to be open-minded enough to look at the man who brutally raped and murdered your wife, sister, or daughter and believe that man doesn't deserve to die?

Then I stumbled across the quote that leads this essay, and I found my response.

4b. If I think he needs to die, I'm not going to contract the state to do the job for me.

The reason that a judge or jury can pass a death sentence, and that those carrying out the sentence are not technically guilty of murder is because of the concept of justifiable homicide. This is also the ultimate justification behind killing in self-defense - if someone is truly trying to kill you, and they're not going to stop until either you or he is dead, you are legally justified in killing that person to defend yourself.

The trick, of course, is proving that in court - that definition linked above isn't a statutory definition, but a dictionary definition. At the very least, you have to convince a prosecutor that you acted in self-defense so that she doesn't bring charges against you, and if she's not convinced, you'll have to convince a judge and jury.

Interestingly enough, the state of California tracks what it calls 'justifiable homicides' committed by either police or private citizens. California defines 'justifiable homicide' as the killing of a felon by a peace officer or private citizen during the commission of a felony, and in 2002 there were 35 such killings by private citizens in California. Interestingly, California also tracks the location of these killings, and the most common location isn't the one you'd expect - six felons were killed in a domicile that wasn't the felon's own residence (the 'burglar' scenario), but seven were killed in a domicile where the killer and felon shared residence, while ten were killed in a commercial establishment. At least in 2002 in California, you were far more likely to need a gun for self-defense at work than against an intruder in your own home, and more likely to need one against your spouse or roommate than against an intruder as well.

The problem with my counter-argument, intellectually, is that such a system has been tried before - it's almost exactly what's referred to as 'vendetta justice', and from Renaissance Italy to the American frontier West, everywhere it's been tried has found it to be a lawless, chaotic, and completely unsuitable system from actually bringing justice. In proposing my counter-argument, I pretty much admit that my ad-hoc 'system' isn't based on a desire for justice, but for revenge. In doing so, however, I also point out that the person I'm arguing with is doing exactly the same thing.

The death penalty isn't about justice. It's about hiding behind the power of the state to exact vengeance without having to suffer the consequences of that vengeance. I don't believe it has any place in civilized discourse or society.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Better Bums

Major League Baseball coordinated with DHL to promote a sweepstakes contest called Hometown Heroes, in which you could not only vote for your favorite players on your favorite teams, but if your player got names, you could also win sweepstakes prizes. A decent cross-marketing combo, and one that also will produce some easy time-filling material for ESPN over the next few days.

In a spirit of fun, Jim Caple of ESPN's online Page 2 announced a counter-contest, with no prizes or cross-marketing, but one a lot of baseball fans would probably participate in anyway: Hometown Bums. Where you have heroes, you have goats, after all, and fans always relish the chance to vent about their least-favorite players (or even put together back-handed tribute blogs to them). It's a part of the game.

Caple (I'm assuming he had some help, though that help isn't named, so he gets full-bore blame for this one) nominated five players from each team for the Hometown Bums ballot. Curious, I headed over to see who he'd name from the Twins.

He made some good calls:

- Chuck Knoblauch

Knoblauch was Rookie of the Year when the Twins won the World Series in 1991, and was one of the best second-basemen in the American League during his tenure in the Metrodome. A dynamic player with pesky offense and highlight-reel defense, Knoblauch was one of the few bright spots on a team that sunk into the depths of deep rebuilding after his '91 rookie year. Either he or Rod Carew would count as the best second-baseman in Twins history. Following the 1997 season, however, Knoblauch and his agent forced a trade to the New York Yankees so that Knoblauch could take part in the budding Yankee dynasty of the late '90s.

The fans back home basically turned on him, considering him a big-headed player too high on his own press to stick it out with a poor club during rebuilding. The closest the Metrodome ever saw to a riot was a game where Knoblauch came back with the Yankees, by that time having been moved to left field, and fans pelted him with Dome dogs when he took the field. Knoblauch would certainly draw votes as a Hometown Bum, not because he was a bad player, but because of the manner in which he left the hometown.

- Ron Davis

Like Knoblauch, Davis was born in Houston and has connections to the hated Yankees, but in Davis's case the connection is almost opposite that of Knoblauch. Davis was one of the first players to perform extremely well in the so-called 'set-up' role, the role of pitching 'bridging' innings between a starting pitcher and a team's closer. Many thought that Davis was a good enough pitcher that he could be a closer for a different team, and just prior to the 1982 season, the Twins traded shortstop Roy Smalley to the Yankees to give Davis the chance to be their closer.

Most of Davis's numbers as a closer don't look all that bad - his ERA was better than league-average, he never allowed more hits than innings, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio hovered near 2-to-1. Unfortunately, Davis racked up a somewhat stunning amount of losses - 11 in 1984 alone when the Twins were hoping to win a seemingly weak division, and a total of 34 (versus just 17 wins) during his four full seasons as a Twins closer. It got so bad that some fans took to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the motto "I Believe in RD". Struggling mightily for the first half of the 1986 season, Davis found himself shipped to the Chicago Cubs in August for a couple of low-upside pitchers. When the Twins acquired Jeff Reardon prior to the 1987 season and ended up winning the World Series, it simply served as the final nail in the coffin for many Twins' fans recollections of "RD".

- Carl Pohlad

Everybody loves to hate the Twins' skinflint owner, especially after a number of stadium blackmail attempts in the late '90s and early '00s that finally paid off last year. Whether people dislike Carl more now than folks disliked Cal Griffith back in the early '80s is debatable, though.

Two names stand out, though, as names sort of picked out of a statistician's hat - two guys that got chosen because they had bad-looking numbers on rather than any real hometown animus. Which is weird, given that Caple suggested that, for most teams anyway, there were far more good candidates than slots available to list them. The two names were one regular player and one pitcher, and I'm going to name then, then list some alternatives that I think most Twins fans would probably agree would make better choices on a 'Hometown Bums' ballot.

The Hitter: Rich Becker

Becker was a third-round draft pick of the Twins in the 1990 amateur draft, and though I do remember him being considered something of a prospect, it's hard to say why looking at his numbers - taken straight out of high school and dropped into the rookie leagues at 18, Becker hit just .289 with six home runs. He did have good speed (18 SBs) and a seemingly great command of the strike zone (53 walks vs 54 strikeouts), but the 'Moneyball revolution' was far off, and his walk rate probably wasn't what made him into a prospect, if anything did.

He worked his way slowly up the Twins minor league system, continuing to draw monstrous walk totals (280 in three years between A and AA), though he also struck out a lot, too (347 Ks during the same span). He picked up some power, hitting between 13 and 15 homers each year, and seemed ot use his speed better, too - in 1994 playing for Nashville, Becker stole 29 bases and had seven triples to go with his fifteen homers and .400 on-base percentage. Becker had a couple of cups of coffee with the big club before being called up to stay in 1995 as a fourth outfielder - much the same role that Lew Ford fills on the current club.

Then, in 1996, Kirby Puckett announced he had glaucoma and was retiring from baseball.

Becker took over much of the duties in center - he played over 100 games in center in 1996 - and for a 24-year old, was actually doing quite well. He finished the year with a .291 batting average, a .372 on-base percentage, and double-digits in homers. His defense in center, by the numbers, was amazing - his 2.92 range factor was comfortably ahead of the league average for the position (2.35), he committed only two errors, and had 18 outfield assists (or as Bill James likes to call them, Baserunner Kills). With 24-year-old Matt Lawton in right, and 26-year old Marty Cordova in left (who'd won the Rookie of the Year award in 1995), it looked like the Twins would have a solid outfield for some time to come.

In retrospect, Becker's failure seems easy to pin on two factors: the Twins' tendency, at that time, to agressively coach their young players in 'Twins baseball' (a trait that ultimately alienated David Ortiz and led to his departure for the Boston Red Sox), and the misfortune of trying to live up to Kirby Puckett's legacy in center. I can think of more than a few fans who were disappointed that Becker didn't turn out better than he did - he was traded to the Mets after the 1997 season, spent the next three years with five different ballclubs, and was out of baseball before his 29th birthday - but very few who'd consider him a Bum in the sense that I think Caple intends with this exercise.

Here are some guys I'd nominate for Becker's spot on the Bums ballot:

- Marty Cordova

Ironically, one good choice is Becker's 1996 and 1997 outfield teammate, Marty Cordova. Cordova had won the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with solid hitting numbers for a rookie (.277/839 with 24 homers), though it was not yet clear how much the offenseive landscape of baseball was changing - by current standards, Cordova's RoY numbers don't look all that impressive. Sadly, 1995 was possibly Cordova's best season, and if '95 wasn't, then '96 was, when Cordova followed up his RoY campaign by hitting .309/849 with 111 RBI. Over the next three seasons, Cordova would never come close to either his 1995 home run and stolen base totals, or his 1996 batting average and RBI totals, and the Twins gave him his outright release after the 1999 season.

Two interesting things to note about Cordova: first, the most comparable player to Cordova in baseball history according to the Bill James Similiarity Method as of the start of the 2006 season was Jacque Jones, another player many would put on a short list of potential Twins 'Hometown Bums'. Second, after being released by the Twins at the end of the 1999 season, the Boston Red Sox signed him, then released him before the end of spring training. What makes this second fact interesting is that this was three years before the Twins would release David Ortiz, whom the Red Sox would also sign, but hang onto.

- Tommie Herr

Herr only played one season as a Twin, but what a season...

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, the folks upstairs realized that the team still had some significant weaknesses, and one of them was at second base. Though Steve Lombardozzi had played the position competently during the championship run, he was also a 27-year-old player who'd never come close to hitting .300 since being promoted to AAA back in 1984, and the Twins felt an upgrade was needed to remain competitive. So shortly after the start of the 1988 season, the Twins dealt popular rightfielder Tom Brunansky to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for veteran second-baseman Herr. Herr had hit .305 as recently as 1985, and his defense was considered solid.

It's hard to say what went wrong for Herr. Perhaps Herr considered himself a Cardinal - he's been signed by the Cardinal organization as a amateur free agent back in 1974 and had never played for any other organization in his professional career. Given the general belief in the Cardinal organization (and among their fans) that the Cards had been beaten by an inferior opponent in '87, it's undertandable that, if Herr did consider himself a 'company man', that he'd be unhappy with a move to that club. Even though Herr's hitting numbers were, on the surface, nearly identical to those he'd put up with the Cardinals in '87 (.263/680 in '88 vs .263/677 in '87), there were widespread reports that Herr was not just unhappy, but dogging it. Hard-assed Tom Kelly could put up with some things in his early days as Twins manager (though less and less as he got older), but dogging it on the field was never something he could condone, and within days of the end of the '88 World Series, the Twins had shipped Herr back to the National League.

- Danny Thompson

It would be hard, perhaps, to argue Thompson's 'Bum' status given some of his biographical facts - specifically that he was the highest-hitting shortstop in the AL in 1972, then was diagnozed with leukemia prior to the 1973 season. He played anyway, being seen as a warrior battling a deadly illness, and he died while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in 1976 at the age of 29. This guy should be a Hero, not a Bum, right?

Well...let's not forget a few other factors.

For starters, Thompson was the Twins #1 draft pick in 1968, and the eighteenth pick overall, and though that status didn't quite carry the same load it does these days (especially considering that Thompson was drafted in what proved to be the third draft that year), there should have been some pretty high expectations of the kid even then, you'd imagine. Drafted at 21 out of Oklahoma State University, he moved quickly through the Twins minor-league organization, arriving at the major leagues in 1970 and never looking back.

By the numbers, though, he was a poor fielder - he had a below-average fielding percentage and below-average range nearly every year - and though middle infielders at the time weren't expected to hit very well, his best year with the bat was '72, when he hit .276/674 and came within a few points of being league-average in OPS as well. His overall numbers after seven big-league seasons added up to .248/596, which even during that era should have been considered inexcusable for a below-average defensive player.

Except, of course, he had one thing in his favor - he'd married Cal Griffith's daughter. It's impossible to say how much that nepotism helped him, but it'd be difficult to imagine a player with Thompson's numbers, even adjusted for the modern era of inflated offense, lasting as much as seven full seasons in the major leagues on talent alone.

The Pitcher: Terry Felton

Terry Felton pitched only 138.3 innings in his professional career, almost all of those coming in his final season in 1982, when the Twins lost over 100 games. He finished with a career ERA of over five-and-a-half, which isn't great, but there are worse pitchers in Twins history on that count. He also started only six games in his entire cereer, which might be seen as another head-scratcher as to why he'd be included on a list of Hometown Bums.

The reason Felton is on the list is because he holds the major league record for most decisions in a career without a win. Felton was 0-13 for the 1982 Twins, and combined with his 0-3 mark in 1980 (when he made four of his six career starts), Felton got the losing decision sixteen times in his major league career without ever chalking up a win.

No Twins fan I know thinks Felton was a bum.

Out of his league? Maybe. But Felton wasn't even the worst pitcher, by peripheral numbers anyway, on his own staff. The '82 Twins finished 60-102 in their first season in the Metrodome, in the only year in which the park didn't have air conditioning. (The designers thought that, with much of the park below street level, air conditioning wouldn't be needed, as the earth would help keep the stadium cool.) Felton didn't have great control (47 walks vs 89 strikeouts in 106 innings - yes, 89 strikeouts in 106 innings), but then neither did starters Brad Havens (80 walks vs 129 strikeouts in 208.7 innings) and Frank Castillo (85 walks vs 123 strikeouts in 218.7 innings). Rookie Frank Viola had a higher ERA (5.21 vs Felton's 4.99). Fellow reliever/spot-starter John Pacella was worse nearly across-the-board:


Felton 117.3 99 4.99 47 89

Pacella 51.7 61 7.32 37 20

And of course, the aforementioned Ron Davis was still the closer back in those days.

In fact, nearly every Twins fan I know who's put together a fantasy team and remembers this season genearlly picks Felton as his eleventh pitcher - simply for the possibility of watching him earn his first big-league win. Twins fans know that Felton's 0-16 record is clearly undeserved, despite him not being a top-shelf pitcher.

Some better suggestions for the Bum ballot pitching slot, in my opinion, include the following:

- David West

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, they hadn't yet developed a solid pitching staff. Veteran Bert Blyleven was seen as the ace, but his role was also, in part, to help polish lefty Frank Viola's development. In 1988, Viola developed, having a breakout 24-7 season and winning the Cy Young award that year. Then in 1989, Viola started grumbling - a New York kid at heart, Viola wasn't happy with the Twins lack of playoff competitiveness, nor with his own contract, and he and his agent forced a mid-season trade to the New York Mets. In return, the Twins would get a number of players who'd prove useful in their later 1991 World Series run, including Rich Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, but the guy who was supposed to be the catch of that trade was left-hander David West.

You have to remember, this was an era in which the Mets were seen as being an outstanding organization at developing pitching talent. Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling (who'd been a contemporary and rival of Viola's in college). West wasn't necessarily supposed to be as good as Gooden was, as he'd spent a few years at A-ball working to get his great stuff under control, but by 1988 it looked as though West had done just that, racking up a 12-4 record with a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 160 innings at AAA Tidewater. His walks were still higher than the Mets liked (97 vs those 143 Ks), but he was still just 23 and had a long time to go before he'd be eligible for a big payday. He seemed like a perfect acquisition for the budget-conscious Twins.

He got hit hard after arriving from New York (48 hits in 39 innings with an ERA of 6.41), but he clearly had dazzling stuff (31 Ks), so the club and its fans wrote it off as nerves and adjusting to a new league.

In 1989, West started 27 games, finishing with a pedestrian 7-9 record and an ERA of 5.10. In 1991, he got hurt, but even before then he'd improved only slightly, collecting a 4-4, 4.54 mark in twelve starts. In 1992, West spent far more time in AAA than with the big club, and wasn't doing anything even at Portland to suggest that he should be given another rotation chance, ending his AAA season with 65 walks versus 87 strikeouts in 101 minor-league innings, and a mark of 7-6 with a 4.43 ERA.

After the 1992 season, the Twins traded West, straight-up, to the Phillies for Mike Hartley, a former Cardinal farmhand who'd become a journeyman middle reliever. The Phillies got one decent year out of West by making him a set-up man before his lack of control failed him yet again, and West then bounced around the league before finally ending his big-league career at 33.

On the whole, Tapani and Aguilera certainly made the Viola trade worthwhile, but the Twins and their fans always hoped and expected more from West, and never really got it.

- Willie Banks

If you look at David West's top 10 similarity score comps, #10 is Willie Banks, which is astonishingly fitting.

Banks was the #3 overall pick of the Twins in the 1987 amateur draft, and he was talked up from day one as a potential star. Drafted out of high school, Banks was said to have amazing stuff, and showed it by striking out 71 in 65 innings in rookie ball that year. Control seemed to be a potential issue for Banks as well, until he had a minor league breakout year at Visalia in 1989, going 12-9 with a 2.59 ERA, and 173 strikeouts and just 122 hits allowed in 174 innings pitched. Still smarting from the loss of Viola, Twins fans who paid attention to the minors hoped that Banks, along with West, could lock down a refreshed Twins starting rotation for years to come.

Though Banks's control backslid somewhat in 1990 and 1991 (he actually walked more than he struck out in '91 at AAA Portland), the Twins promoted him anyway, and he got his first cup-of-coffee pitching in September for the eventual World Series Champs. Then in 1992, he started the year with a Francisco Liriano-like throttling of AAA, going 6-1 with a 1.92 ERA in eleven starts, and being called up to the big club to stay.

Over the rest of '92 and the whole of the '93 season, Banks threw 242 innings, allowed 266 hits, walked 115, and ammassed a record of 15-16 with a below-league-average ERA. Just as the Twins brass lost patience with West, they lost patience with Banks, and traded him after the 1993 season for catcher Matt Walbeck and young pitcher Dave Stevens, yet another 'young guy with control problems' that, for some reason, the Twins thought they could fix. (The greatest pitching successes of the Tom Kelly/Dick Such era generally occurred with pitchers like Aguilera and Tapani who had already proven to have good control.)

Banks then began bouncing around the league himself, with teams willing to take a flyer on the possibility that Banks could finally tame his wildness, and always coming up short.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that if most current Twins bloggers were given the option, they'd probably add Luis Rivas to the player's list, and Kyle Lohse to the pitcher's list, though I'd disagree with both calls as each was one of my own favorite Twins during their respective tenures with the club. I've defended them both online often enough that I don't feel obligated to do so again here.

So those are my votes for 'better Bums' than the ones chosen by Caple for his ballot. Maybe I should go write them in.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Wisdom of the Uncarved

Eliot Smith is not loud. Eliot Smith is the kind of music that grown-ups like because it makes you sit down and stare at the CD player instead of running outside to play. Eliot Smith makes grown-ups cry and be in love and think grown-up thoughts. Someday when i'm a grown-up I'll think Eliot Smith songs are better than loud, fast songs. Eliot Smith plays guitar and sings and my favorite song is usually "Miss Misery" but not always.
- "What I like about Eliot Smith", written by Dave Younce for a fourth-grade music class

There's a school of thought that says that youth is wasted on the young, that wisdom comes with experience, and that the sweetest thing imaginable would be to be able to revisit youth with the eyes of experience, savoring the best of both worlds. The older I get, the more attractive this school of thought becomes to me.

At the same time, there's a differing school of thought, in which the young, particularly the very young, already possess a great deal of wisdom about life and existence, and that it's experience, and particularly 'growing up' that causes them to forget this wisdom. Kids really do say the darnedest things, and sometimes those things are as profound as they are amusing.

It's that last phrase that has my mind all bent right now:

my favorite song is usually "Miss Misery" but not always

As we get older, we tend to think of things like 'my favorite movies' and the like as series of lists, and that each list is carved in stone, requiring something new to come along to knock the old champion off the top of the hill. But a child knows that's not necessarily true - right now, her favorite movie could be the one she's watching, but two hours after it's over, her favorite movie might suddenly be one she hasn't seen for a while and only vaguely remembers.

Neither of these are wrong answers, by the way. By definition, a 'favorite' anything requires an emotional response, and emotions are notoriously irrational and even occasionally inconstant. Only a grown-up would expect someone's favorite movie to remain the same for years, simply out of some sense of intellectual integrity.

The really interesting implications of this emotion vs maturity debate come, however, when I consider a different question.

A few weeks ago, I got together with a couple of good friends I don't see very often, and we all tooled out to a mutual friend's place for an afternoon of gaming and grilling. It was great fun, as it usually is, but something happened as we were getting out of the car that stayed at the back of my mind all day. We'd opened the car windows a crack to let air circulate, and mine was open just enough to let my hand slip out the top as my ankle rested on the door. When my friend pulled up to our destination, he reflexively began rolling up the power windows from his driver's master control, which caused my window to press up against the flesh just above my knuckles. (Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that my response to this was not a cry of pain or surprise, or an expletive of some sort, but a simple and fairly quiet, "Excuse me?") We sorted things out, and I escaped with all my fingers intact.

Chuckling about it as we walked up to the house, my friend commented, "I can just see it now. 'What did you do today?' 'Oh, I nearly chopped off the fingers of my best friend.'"

And my immediate thought was, I'm his best friend?

If I'd had to guess, I'd have picked the friend whose house we were approaching as his 'best friend'; they had more in common, spent much more time together recently, and - without getting into too many specifics - had way fewer bad experiences with him than he'd had with me. Maybe he was just saying that because it made the joke better.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it struck me as odd - if we'd been ten years old, the comment would have made perfect sense. In fact, I could have replied, 'You're my best friend, too, except when you're not,' and it still would have made perfect sense. When you're ten, your best friend is the person who makes you feel the best at the moment you think about it. If five minutes later, that person makes you angry, he's not your best friend anymore. It's only later that we learn to associate friendship with longer-term, grown-up things - that you can still be angry with someone and be friends with them.

I'm not saying that grown-up logic is useless. There's still a part of me that reacts in that emotional ten-year-old way, in that if I fear if I do something bad, the people around me won't like me anymore. Grown-up relationships are predicated on the idea that you can still love someone even if you feel like strangling them at any given moment.

But there's still wisdom, I think, in the observation that your best friend is the person who makes you feel the best, at the moment you think about it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Turtle Story

Years ago, I found myself sitting at an airport taxi stand along with two women, waiting for a ride home. We'd just come from New York City, where our employer had sent us for MacWorld Expo that year, and it had been one of the most exciting weeks of my life. Now, sitting on a bench, with the fatigue of the week finally catching up to me, exacerbated by a sexual tension that had grown into frustration, I had almost completely shut down, just waiting to be taken home and dropped off so I could sleep and let the entire experience fade away to memory.

Then the woman on my left said, "Tell us a story."

So I started talking.

* * *

Once upon a time, there was a community of turtles. They made their nests in the woods, the better to hide from those who would hunt them, but every day they staggered out of their nests and walked some distance to the shore of a lake, where they would look for food, swim, or just rest all day long, as their turtle instincts suggested.

Then one day, a turtle was born into the community who had a bright orange shell. No one knew why he had a bright orange shell when the rest of the turtles' shells were dull green or dun-colored, but orange and bright it was, and the other turtles, especially those of his own age, teased him mercilessly about it. The teasing grew so persistent and so pointed that eventually the orange-shelled turtle would simply wait in the nests until his fellows had all gone off to the lake, then trudge slowly after them, doing his best to stay as hidden and out of sight as a turtle with a bright orange shell can.

Time passed, and another day came. This time, however, the turtles discovered something odd - their walkway to the lake was now interrupted by a long, clear, flat stretch of ground that looked like rock. They weren't entirely certain what to make of the rock, but one adventurous turtle started across it, headed for the comfort and safety of the lake.

Something fast and loud zipped by, and crushed the adventurous turtle into tiny pieces.

This frightened the turtles somewhat, as they weren't sure exactly what to make of this situation, but eventually another turtle in the group realized that, if they didn't find a way to get to the lake, they'd eventually starve or dry out. So he began his trek across the deadly rock.

Another loud zoom, and another shower of turtle parts briefly filled the air.

It was about this time that the orange-shelled turtle happened by, thinking that his fellows would all be at the lake by now. Some of the turtles in the group reflexively began to tease him, which intimidated those who thought of warning him about this deadly rock blocking their path to the lake. The orange-shelled turtle, trying his best to seem unaffected by the teasing yet again, simply begam shuffling his way over the rock.

And a strange thing happened. The things that had been making the loud zooming noises suddenly slowed and stopped as the orange-shelled turtle crossed. Other quick-witted turtles, seeing what was happening, hurried across as fast as they could (they were all turtles after all) to keep up with the orange-shelled one. That night, on the way back from the lake, all the turtles crossed with the orange-shelled one and arrived safely home.

And that is why today, all the turtles who live near the lake have orange shells.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Different Dogs and the Life of the Soul

It's the job of the priest to stand in the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of the temple. It's the job of the prophet to stand outside of the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of God and forget about the laws of the temple.
- Joshua M. Neff's father, a former minister

I follow Vincent Baker's blog anyway on a fairly regular basis. He's an independent (or 'indie') game designer, and has a definite take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to affairs in his community. He's also a firm believer that you have to deal with honest and real things, especially in game design, and so the discussions on his blog, even about seemingly innocuous things like - well, like games, often turn deep and potent at the drop of a metaphor.

The above quote comes from a comment thread that started with this post, in which five items of seemingly limited connection all get tied together in a way that suggests a person who routinely grapples with Big Questions - who even seeks out Big Questions with which to grapple.

Obviously I'm hooked.

Vincent would probably resist the title of Deep Thinker, but the two things he's probably best known for in the indie game community support that title. The first is a very simply-designed (but not simple) game called kill puppies for satan. It's about what you'd think it is - the characters are people who kill puppies or other helpless animals to gain 'evil' points, with which they can do various things, like spontaneously start fires. At the same time that they get 'evil', they also get 'grief', which could be viewed as the karmic counterpart to 'evil' - bad stuff happens to them as a result of the things they're doing in order to gain power and drive their souls into Hell. (Or hell, as it would be described in the game text, since satan can't afford capital letters.)

Seriously. Go read the online introduction, then consider the mechanics above again. It's not just a game about a particular 'genre'; it captures a mindset, a fairly bleak and desperate mindset at that, in an odd, twisted fashion that's both attractive and vaguely disgusting, much like crash scenes on ths side of the freeway.

You don't watch crash scenes on the side of the freeway? Right...

The other game is very different from kill puppies. It's called Dogs in the Vineyard. While kill puppies is vaguely set in the 'modern era', Dogs is a period piece - while it's technically a fantasy, it's set in the American West of the frontier era. puppies features characters that have committed their souls to hell in exchange for power, Dogs features characters that serve God - specifically, the characters are the titular Dogs, trained to tend to God's flock by stirring up and exposing sin in the various towns they visit in frontier territory. puppies is low-tech with a cruddy-looking font and no art, while Dogs is as high-concept as an indie game can generally afford to get, with art and other tactile bits of enhancement. Again, go ahead and read the introduction; the two games seem almost diametrically opposed, except that a very familiar undercurrent of tension and foreboding lurks under each.

So what does this have to do with the opening quote?

The more I consider that quote, the more I believe that religion needs both roles to remain honest and relevant. A religion without priests, without what Vincent himself describes elsewhere in the conversation as "a role of authority with regard to the congregation's conscience", with the power to challenge that congregation to follow the 'rules of the temple' over their own convenience, is a religion without conviction, where people only believe what they like and take services like they'd take narcotics at a dispensary. Conversely, a religion without prophets is a religion that grows stale gazing at its own navel, far too immersed in its own minutia and tiny little world to be relevant to the greater question of life, existence, and such. The careful balance between details and the 'big picture' doesn't just apply in religious life, of course, but neither is a spiritual life so unique that it doesn't require that balancing act as well.

The crazy thing is that neither the priest nor the prophet really gets the benefit of that balancing act, becuase their roles don't allow them the luxury of that balance. The priest has to represent the authority of the pulpit, and as a result he has to resist the prophet's call. The prophet has to challenge the status quo, even when the status quo isn't really all that bad, because the prophet isn't driven by questions of balance or suitability; if he's truly a prophet, he's speaking with the voice of God, and what are you going to balance that against? Which of course suggests that of all the people in this spiritual congregation, the two least likely to be fulfilled and edified by the experience are the priest and the prophet - and thus they're the two people you should, by all means, strive not to be, if you can avoid it. But, ironically, in the fictional RPG 'Priests and Prophets', players would want to play either a priest or a prophet, because those are the 'interesting' people.

It might be an exaggeration to say that this sort of thing happens all the time, but it does happen, thematically at least, quite a bit. Soldiers, for instance, go to war so that folks 'back home' can have peace (though this also assumes that the war isn't in your front yard). Policemen throw themselves into conflict with criminals so that others can have security, and firemen battle the forces of nature so that others can be safe. It's interesting to consider any such vocation a sort of sacrament, where the person who enters says, in effect, 'I give this thing up so that others may enjoy it all the more.'

Oh, and it's also an excuse to pass along a Unitarian Universalist joke. Granted, some of the brightest, most spiritual people I've known are UUs, so I'm not passing this along out of spite - if anything, the UUs I've known would get as big a chuckle out of this one as I did:

How do you know the Unitarians are mad at you?

There's a question mark burning on your lawn.
(related by Ron Edwards)

And to think all that pondering was triggered at a site that usually talks about games. I guess the Lord really does work in mysterious ways...

Sunday, September 10, 2006


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
- Inigo Montoya, in William Goldman's The Princess Bride

If I had the power and authority to enter the English language, and to render one particular word and its variations unusable by a specific segment of the population, I know exactly what word and what population I'd choose.

I love tooling around with language. It's one of the things that drew me to a theater arts degree in the first place; as an actor, there are a lot of different things you can focus on to bring life to a role, but one of the coolest (to me, anyway) and seldom seen is the ability to shape a character by the sounds he makes. (Not to mention that the only way you can repeat the exact same words over and over again over a two-to-three month period without them driving you wholly bonkers is if you have some irrational amount of love for the language, but I begin to digress...)

I also like reading things and listening to things that make creative use of language. Not everything in these things I enjoy has to be 100% Received Standard English, or done precisely according to the grammar and usage rules in the Little, Brown Handbook, but if you're going to misuse a word, misuse it creatively. (Such as with the Richard Brinsley Sheridan character Mrs. Malaprop.)

If you really want to get my teeth grating, though, take a word, misuse it blandly, then keep misusing it in the same fashion over and over until I start screaming at the book or radio in disbelief. It's a major turn-off.

The population I have in mind to be cut off entirely from a particular word and its derivatives is sports commentators, and to a lesser degree, sports fans. The word is 'dominant'.

The combination of factors that painfully reminded me of this longstanding resolution involved the opening Sunday of NFL football, and a Twins game in which Johan Santana took the mound against the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers.

We'll start with the latter point.

It's one thing to note, as the Star-Tribune did in their official recap of the game, that the Twins 12-1 victory was 'dominant'. Baseball doesn't often see double-digit margins of victory, especially with a division leader on the tail end, so in that sense, the usage of the word is defensible. If that were the only context in which the word was used, I'd have no cause for complaint, though I'll also point out that, since the Twins don't often score 12 runs in a game, and the Tigers seldom give up that many, 'lucky' would be as apppropriate a word to describe the victory as 'dominant'.

No, the problem comes once you factor in one Johan Santana, about whom very few people can write without reflexively including the word 'dominant', as if it described him in the same sense as the phrase 'left-handed starting pitcher' describes him. Don't believe me? Check out the nearly 50,000 hits resulting from a simple Google search - if I had the ability to refine the search like a Lexis-Nexis search to only show results where the word 'dominant' appears within three or five words of the name "Santana", I'm sure there would still be over 10,000 hits.

Santana is a very good pitcher, of that there's no doubt. After winning the AL Cy Young award in 2004 and narrowly missing winning it in 2005, Santana is poised to win the award in 2006 as there aren't many pitchers performing near his level. Throwing a two-hitter against the team with the best record in the American League coming into the game is a suitably impressive feat, though a bit of luster is lost when you realize that Santana only pitched a hair over six innings in the process. If it wasn't for those 50,000 references to Santana's 'dominance', I might even consider this specific performance worthy of the word. But I'm burned out on the pairing, so I resist even this reasonably suitable occasion to break out the word.

But if Johan Santana has gotten a lot of 'dominant' written about him, how much more often is the word bandied about in discussions of the NFL, that most testosterone-laden of American sports. Listening to updates and games on the radio today while I was tinkering around with other stuff, I tried to keep track of the number of times an announcer slipped in 'dominant', 'dominance', or some other variation on the theme when talking about a team (the Patriots, the Colts), a player (Payton Manning, Terrell Owens, Steve Hutchinson?), or just some combination of otherwise seemingly random events.

The topper finally came in the Sunday Night game between the Colts and the Giants - the 'contest of Mannings' - when one of my favorite announcers, Bob Trumpy, repeatedly referred to the Colts as 'dominant' while leading the Giants 13-0 in the second quarter. Granted, any time one team is shutting out another you're likely to get 'dominating' language, but this game was both too early and too close to bust out that kind of talk, at least in my opinion. And sure enough, with forty seconds left in the half, Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress slipping down the right sideline for 37 yards and a touchdown, making the score 13-7.

13-7 isn't a score that makes me think one team is 'dominating' the other. How about you? And, as if on cue, the word 'dominating' suddenly disappeared from Trumpy's descriptions of the game. Had the Colts scored touchdowns rather than field goals on their first two possessions of the game, so that the score was 21-0 instead of 13-0, and the late end-of-half field goal Adam Vinatieri kicked would have pushed the score to 24-7, then maybe, maybe I could envision talking about how the Colts 'dominated' the first half, moving at will, giving up only a single surprise long pass down the sideline to a good receiver in a mismatch. Instead, as I write this, the score is now 16-14 and the two teams have exactly the same number of first downs. Nobody's dominating anybody here. Move along.

Granted, 'dominating' and its variations are far from the only words vastly overused by the sports fraternity in a quest to add hype and excitement, even in situations where hype isn't necessary. But it's the one that bugs me the most, because it seems to show a fundamental lack of originality and thoughtfulness in the presentation of what, in the end, is an entertainment. A good improv actor would have at least a half-dozen words and phrases available that would be more appropriate and less boring to listen to than 'dominating'. Consider:

Instead of "Indianapolis is dominating on third downs." - "Indianapolis is holding the advantage here with their outstanding third down percentage."

Instead of "Payton Manning is dominating the Giant secondary," - "Manning is pinpointing some weaknesses in the Giant secondary; it'll be interesting to see if the New York coaching staff can adjust over halftime."

Instead of "Johan Santana had another typicaly dominant performance." - "Santana pitched in Cy Young form once again, and his offense supported him with a tsunami of runs."

Is it really that difficult? Or are sports guys just that much less interested in the language than I am?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Three Angles

Was browsing through the local news online when I stumbled scross this headline:

Strip Club's Demise Costly

The story, in brief, is that a St. Paul neighborhood has had to scale back an annual neighborhood festival because of lack of funds.

After reading the article, however, I came to the conclusion that there are actually three different angles to this story.

First, and most obviously, is the strip club angle. A local club called the Payne Reliever was about the only thing most folks from outside the neighborhood knew it for, and as might be expected, local residents weren't always happy with the place, or at least the idea of the place. A wave of anti-adult business legislation at the city level convinced the owner to sell the property in 1999 to a developer who eventually opened an Embers restaurant and a bingo parlor on the property.

Interestingly, the old club (which won a couple of categories in the local alt-weekly's Best of 1999 issue prior to being sold) also sold pull-tabs, known locally as 'charitable gambling', the proceeds for which went to the Payne Avenue Business Association. Though one might imagine that a bingo parlor would also be an obvious place for such 'charitable gambling', apparently it hasn't happened, because the loss of revenues to the Association wasn't picked up, at least not in the same amount, as from the old club. The loss of that additional revenue led directly to the scaling back of the annual Payne-Arcade Harvest Festival.

Ironic, ain't it?

But there are also two other angles to the story that the writer could have played up more prominently, if a different sort of story was required.

The second angle, as I see it, could have focused on the following paragraphs:

Despite the unusual circumstances, changes to the Harvest Festival represent a larger trend sweeping community celebrations throughout the city. Local festivals, both large and small, have been struggling to generate crowds and cash in recent years.

From a slimmed-down Rondo Days to a revamped St. Paul Winter Carnival, planners of such events say they're competing for a dwindling pool of sponsorships and volunteers.

Others quietly have faded away. In the 1980s, many community celebrations enjoyed municipal funding, but city budget crunches eventually abolished that kind of financial support, said Jane McClure, a local historian and reporter for the Villager, a St. Paul community newspaper.

This illustrates a couple of societal changes first noticable in the 1980s and which have now come to fruition in the 21st century - societal changes directly attributable to what I call 'me first' fiscal conservatism. This conservatism has manifested in two different but related trends.

The first is 'anti-tax' rhetoric, which has led governments to lower taxes and correspondingly reduce expenditures. Amid near-constant accusations of waste in government, accompanied by appeals to the funds collected in taxes being 'my money', taxes have fairly steadily lowered over the past 25 years in the US, to the point where it could be argued that the overall tax burden on Americans as a percentage of their incomes is as low as it's ever been since the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. (According to this essay and accompanying graph, no nation on Earth had as high a GNP per capita with as low a tax rate as the US in 2005.) While there was no doubt some beneficial belt-tightening at the beginning of this era, that the practice has gone on for so long with no reduction in the venom or intensity of anti-tax rhetoric suggests to me that elimination of government waste was never really the issue at hand. (Not to mention that, given the vast amount of law pertaining to government procurement, it could be argued that, save for a few well-publicized exceptions, there really wasn't all that much waste in government purchasing to begin with.) By lowering the discretionary funds a government has available to spend, the ability of that government to fund public events is obviously reduced.

The second and related trend is a redefinition of the best use of 'personal time'. In a more communitarian age, if people had free time they tended to look for ways to use it to help out their neighbors - both because it was the 'right thing to do' as well as knowing that it would increase the likelihood of others coming to help you when you had need of such extra help. However, hand in hand with the rhetoric of lower taxes came a change in the perception of the value of personal time - specifically that personal time could, and should, be perceived as having a monetary value (after all, if you were working, you'd be making money with that time), and thus anything you considered doing with your 'free time' should be measured against the amount of money you could have made during that time. In the minds of many, volunteerism slowly began to be replaced with capitalism, and while folks would still commit personal time to help friends or relatives, simply being a neighbor began to mean less and less in this financial calculus.

You can see the end results of both trends not just in the scaling back of the Payne-Arcade Harvest Festival, but all such local community festivals - a combination of a lack of funds to spend, plus a serious reduction in the number of available volunteers, combined with the overwork and eventual burnout of those who do decide to volunteer, leads to a vicious circle in which community events continue to disappear from the national landscape. What festivals remain, such as the Minnesota State Fair, tend to degenerate into large-scale orgies of capitalism, consisting of little more than block after block of food vendors, beer gardens, and other folks out, not to celebrate the local spirit of community or hobnob with their neighbors, but to make a buck.

If the 'mainstream media' were as unabashedly liberal as many right-wing media folk seem to continue to insist, I'd have expected this angle to be much more prominent. But the media isn't really liberal or conservative (with the exception of party organs such as Fox News); it's capitalist, in the sense that reports mainly on things that sell - and sex sells. Thus the main headline is about the strip club that closed nearly seven years ago, leaving the actual story - the festival - to inhabit the subhead.

The third angle is even more unlikely in a mainstream media article, but even this angle is easily seen from within the article itself:

And then there's a waning sense of neighborhood identity.

Take the Payne-Phalen neighborhood — home of the Harvest Festival — where the white population dropped from 82 percent to 49 percent from 1990 to 2000. Steve Katainen, who loves to watch the parade from his store window at Furniture Minnesota on Payne Avenue, says he's confident the festival will find a way to capture the growing number of minority immigrants and other non-native East Siders.

"The people who attend the parades are people whose parents brought them as kids," Katainen said. "The people who've moved here, they have no idea what it was in the past, so they have no affinity with Payne Avenue or (a desire to) participate. It's a tradition that's no longer there."

If there is, as the writer claims, a 'waning sense of neighborhood identity', it very likely connects to that reduction in the white population mentioned so prominently. Payne-Arcade, like a number of neighborhood around the Twin Cities, has been a haven for immigration into the area. And I'm willing to bet that it isn't that the newcomers don't have an affinity for Payne Avenue as much as it is that the people who still live on Payne Avenue have little affinity for the newcomers.

Case in point:

I live in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis, in a greying neighborhood. Many folks who live here have lived here for much of their adult lives. A good friend who lives nearby has lived here with her husband since before their daughters were born - and the eldest is a senior in high school now. Yet new families are moving in to the neighborhood as well, as I can see when I walk to the bus stop to go to work each morning and see young parents with their younger children, waiting for the school bus to come by.

Should it make any difference that every single one of these families I see is Hispanic?

Now you might expect that I'm going to start an all-out rant on racism just as I did above on 'me first' conservatism. But here's the thing: while it's almost certainly true that some white communities don't go very far out of their way to welcome minorities into the neighborhood, it's also true that most white people don't see themselves as racist. That Scott Kurtz webcomic link points out that, if you inform a white person of something that's being done specifically for the benefit of white people, that person will be uncomfortable - it's part of the culture to feel that way. And it's certainly true that racism in the guise of white supremacy isn't culturally accepted in many places in the US (though there are places where it certainly remains accepted, if seldom discussed publicly).

So on the subject of racism and the decline of community identification, I'll point out that it is, to me, a sign of racism that minorities either aren't invited to participate in community events or, if they do attempt to participate, are seen as folks who "have no affinity" for the neighborhood. At a certain level, a young family would be happy simply to have a safe place to take their kids, be outside on a nice day, and get to know some friendly people, regardless of whether that family is black, white, or otherwise. On the other hand, a society where it's not only acceptible but expected for black people, for example, to root for the 'black team' on a reality TV competition, but frowned upon for white people to root for the 'white team' is clearly a society with a racial double-standard. Both are problems, and should be addressed.

One simple news story, yet so many connections to issues of deep significance to society. And still they decided to go with the strip club in the headline...