1/05/2002

Can't take me anywhere It helps when going out of town to actually take the bag you've packed with clothes and toiletries with you instead of leaving it in the kitchen. Sigh. At least it was just an overnight visit to an old friend. We bought some emergency underwear and two toothbrushes and should make it through with only minor damage to my dignity.

We came up to Austin to visit my old roommate Matt. My wife Tiffany wanted to spend some time outdoors, and Austin is one of the best places in Texas for that. She's a member of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center so we put that membership to use and paid a visit. It's winter (or what passes for it here in Texas), so there wasn't much blooming, but the Center is still a fine place to visit. The displays on native plants were worth the trip by themselves. We plan on coming back when it's warmer.

From there we headed farther out of town to the Hamilton Pool Preserve. It's a fabulous swimming hole in a canyon/grotto south of Austin. You hike down a short trail to get there, and it's just amazing. I can't do it justice, so go here and look at some pictures.

Later we visited our friends David and Valerie, who made seafood pasta and Caesar salad. Add in wine, a variety of cheese, and some chocolate for dessert, and we were well rewarded for the day's activity. I expect to sleep well tonight. We head back to Houston tomorrow.

1/04/2002

The marching band refused to yield I'm a longtime member of the Rice University Marching Owl Band, also known as The MOB. The MOB is a scatter band, which is to say that despite the name, we don't march. We do humorous shows with a script, action, and props, and we run screaming from one formation to another. There are a number of scatter bands in the US, mostly Ivy League schools plus Virginia and Stanford, which was the birthplace of scatter bands.

The MOB has on occasion ruffled some feathers with its mostly satirical humor, but for the most part we are appreciated and left alone by the athletic department. Sad to say, this is no longer the case at UVa. Good luck in your fight with the powers that be, Pep Band. We who do not march salute you.
You know that Bud Selig has real credibility problems when he starts getting lampooned by indie cartoonists like Ruben Bolling. I'm happy to dogpile on Bud, but I've got a bone to pick with this cartoon.

Bolling snipes at Texas Rangers' owner Tom Hicks for his signing of Alex Rodriguez: "Let's see, expenses exceed revenues...I'll spend a quarter-billion dollars on a shortstop!" This statement is disingenuous and shows a lack of understanding of economics.

First off, as Rob Neyer says in his December 31 column, saying "a quarter of a billion dollars" is a rhetorical device, designed to inflame the senses. "[A] quarter of a billion isn't anything like a billion, any more than a quarter is like a dollar," says Neyer. Jason Giambi got an eighth of a billion dollars from the Yankees, and Kevin Brown got a ninth of a billion from the Dodgers, but no one ever says that. Heck, Brian L. Hunter just got one five-hundredth of a billion from the Astros. Sure, it's a lot of money, but it ain't a billion.

Second, Alex Rodriguez is a 24-year-old shortstop who just hit 52 home runs in a season. He's entering the peak of his career as the best shortstop since Honus Wagner, and when he's done (barring injury) he could well be considered one of the best players ever. History shows that players like A-Rod are worth whatever you pay them because there's no one else who can do what they do. Giving him top dollar was a good business decision.

Where Tom Hicks and other baseball owners fail as businessmen is paying too much for replaceable talent. Hicks paid good money to surround A-Rod with players like Andres Galarraga, Ken Caminiti, and Randy Velarde. None of them was worth what they were paid. There are plenty of other players who can do what they do better and/or cheaper. Paying a premium for something that is readily available makes no sense.

A good analogy for this is in show business. Remember when "The Cosby Show" was a megahit? It made sense for the producers of that show to pay Bill Cosby whatever he wanted. He was the irreplaceable ingredient on that show. You couldn't get anyone to step in and keep the show as successful as it was. On the other hand, it would have made no sense to pay a premium for any of the other actors on that show. You wouldn't want it to be Cosby and six dinner-theater performers, but there were and are plenty of people who could have replaced Tempestt Bledsoe or Malcolm-Jamal Warner at any time.

Similarly, it would have made no sense in the early days of "NYPD Blue" for the producers to offer David Caruso a big raise as an enticement to stay on instead of leaving to pursue a movie career. Caruso was talented, but as Jimmy Smits showed, he was replaceable. I'm not saying that Caruso or any of the Cosby Show kids had no value, just as I'm not saying that Caminiti and Velarde had no value. You couldn't put me in their place, for example. They certainly have more talent for what they do than the vast majority of us, and the salary structure of their professions reflects that. What they are not is stars. That's what Cosby and A-Rod were and are. Paying them star money is smart, not profligate.

Only in Texas It's a statewide election year, which means more surrealism than the Salvador Dali Museum. Democratic candidate John WorldPeace is calling everyone in the state with a blistering attack on Tony Sanchez. As Dogbert once said, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. Did I mention how happy I am that Dan Morales has entered the race?
Jonathan Chait has an interesting piece in The New Republic about the rise and recent fall of governors' reputations. Worth reading.

Congrats to the Miami Hurricanes for settling one debate. The debate of who they should have played isn't likely to go away. Look at it this way, Oregon fans: Had you played against Miami instead, you probably wouldn't be ranked as high as you are now.

1/03/2002

Where, oh where, has my little dog gone... I'm a dog person. Didn't get my first dog till I was 30, but I've been a dog person ever since. There's a smallish brown dog in my neighborhood who constantly escapes from her yard. I've caught her and walked or carried her back home more times than I can count, and I know that several of my other neighbors have done the same.

This is a friendly little dog, and I'm worried that one day while trotting around the neighborhood she's gonna get hit by a car. I've had thoughts about bringing her home - I doubt her owners would ever figure it out - but that's a practical impossibility. She doesn't appear to be abused or overtly neglected, she just has owners who are clueless or indifferent about gaps in their fence. (Yes, I've told them a couple of times about it.) I wish I could do something more, but I can't. I just hope she stays off the street when she slips out.
Who's Number 1? Who cares? So tonight they finally play the Rose Bowl for the mythical national championship of college football. Nebraska wants to prove that their 62-point pasting by Colorado was a fluke, while Miami knows that if they win they are the Undisputed Champeens. Meanwhile, Oregon looks on and roots for Nebraska so they can perhaps claim a share of the title in a split vote (the coaches are bound to vote the winner of the BCS title game #1, but the writers can pick who they want), while schools like Texas, Tennessee, and Florida can only mutter under their breath about missed chances.

Lots of people have bloviated about a playoff system to replace the unwieldy and seemingly arbitrary BCS. There are many reasons why a playoff system is unlikely to come any time soon. For my money, as a fan of a small school in a lower tier conference, I see no benefit in a playoff, just another way for the big fat cats to squeeze out the little guy. There's a reason I don't watch most of the big bowls; I just wish I were a Nielsen family so I could hit them where it hurts.
This Could Get Ugly From page one of today's Chronicle business section:

GALVESTON -- American National Insurance Co. and its subsidiaries lost about $20 million in the Enron Corp. stock crash because Enron executives and independent accountants lied about the energy giant's worth, an American National attorney said Wednesday.

Trying to recoup losses on Enron stock, Galveston-based American National has filed a lawsuit against the accounting firm Andersen, which audited Enron's books, and against 29 present and former Enron directors and officers. The firm and Enron officials deliberately defrauded investors, American National maintains.

"They lied," said Galveston attorney Andrew Mytelka, who filed the lawsuit Dec. 27 in Galveston state District Judge Norma Venso's court. "I can't tell you all the ways in which they lied, but I believe they've lied to the public about what the true debt at the company was.

"It was a long-term strategy. If you read through our petition, you'll see how all these directors and officers walked away with hundreds of millions, and they left shareholders and employees with nothing."

Later in the article, attorney Andrew Mytelka liked Enron to a Ponzi scheme. Ouch. I think they have zero chance of winning, but it ought to be fun to watch. Stay tuned.
More good political news in the Chron today with Dan Morales' surprise last-minute filing for the Democratic nomination in the governor's race. I was set to hold my nose and vote for Tony Sanchez against Rick "Dubya Lite" Perry, but I'm thrilled to have another choice. I liked Morales as AG and hope he can knock out Sanchez without too much blood or rancor.

I can forgive Tony Sanchez his flings with Dubya in the past. Our former governor did do a fairly good job of being bipartisan (unlike his presidency, where "bipartisan" means "save time and see things my way") while in Austin, so I can't complain too much about people crossing party lines to support him. I can forgive Tony Sanchez his verbal gaffes and Clayton Williams tendencies. But after Rick Perry shamefully dismissed Constitutional concerns over school prayer, what did Tony Sanchez say and do? Nothing. Sanchez "supports" school prayer. Well, now my prayers have been answered. Don't let me down, Dan.
Third time had better be the charm Well, Houston Mayor Lee Brown was sworn in for his third and final term yesterday. I voted for him, as I did in the previous two elections, though I can't say I was all that enthusiastic about it. I'm not quite as down on Brown as some - I think he's done more good than his critics give him credit for - but I also can't honestly say that I voted for him any more than I voted against his opponents (in '97 and again this year; he had only token opposition in '99). Had it been Brown versus Chris Bell instead of Orlando Sanchez, I'd have given serious thought to supporting Bell.

In his inaugural address, Brown talked about working to change Houston's moronic term-limits law. If he can do this, I'll consider his administration a net gain even if I'm still bitter about his lack of leadership on rail (a topic I'll address another time). This law was the biggest blight on Houston's charter until that anti-gay Proposition 2 passed in November. Unfortunately, Brown is merely pushing for a watering-down of the term limits law; instead of three two year terms, Houston city officials could serve two four year terms, then run again after sitting out a term. I'd rather have no term limits, but this is better than what we've got now.

Every time term limits gets mentioned in the Chronicle, you can count on local activist/crank Clymer Wright to break out his crayons and dash off a letter to the editor defending the odious law he helped pass. Let me explain to you in small words why term limits suck, Clymer: I don't want you telling me who I can and cannot vote for.

I'll stipulate that the deck is stacked towards incumbents. Campaign financing and gerrymandered districts make it tough to vote the bums out. But not impossible. Anyone who thinks that we need an artificial way of ensuring turnover in elected office believes that the voters are stupid and can't be trusted.

1/02/2002

Sometimes there are worse things than obscurity... I'm a fan of the Rice Owls. Before you start snickering, you should know that the Rice football team finished this season 8-4, their best record since 1953 when Tommy Lewis came off the bench in the Cotton Bowl to tackle Dicky Moegle on his way to the end zone. Anyway, we fans on the Rice fan forum speculated endlessly about bowl possibilities, since the Western Athletic Conference only had two guaranteed bowl slots this year. Since Rice didn't win the conference, it was gonna take a miracle for the pieces to fall into place. The bowl we focused on was the hometown Galleryfurniture.com bowl. Had a Big 12 or C-USA team failed to qualify, we figured we had a good shot at it.

It didn't happen, and so Texas A&M took on and defeated former SWC conference mate TCU. We've all moped and done the coulda-shoulda-woulda thing. Then today I came across Bill Simmons', aka The Sports Guy's report on the game. And y'know, all of a sudden it doesn't feel quite as bad.
Big vs small: The sensible and oft-cited Virginia Postrel touches on the debate between Large Soulless Chain Bookstores and Small Touchy-Feely Mom and Pop Bookstores. A recent article in The Atlantic came out firmly in favor of the large chains. Postrel cites a Glenn Reynolds piece that goes into this some more.

I sent Postrel an email about this, in which I point out that it all depends on what kind of bookstore you're talking about. I'm fortunate that Houston has an excellent mystery/thriller/crime bookstore called Murder By The Book. It has everything you could want from a small bookstore - a staff that knows you and your tastes, used books and book searches, author signings, a book club, etc etc etc. Of course, being a small independent, it can't give you what the bigs can, namely discount prices. I consider this to be a fine tradeoff for the service, and I frequent them often.

Postrel was kind enough to reply, and agreed that small bookstores do serve a valuable place in the market as niche and specialty providers. It's just that most of them haven't admitted this, and so they try futilely to compete on the same terms as the majors.

This got me to thinking about the big versus small debate in general. It's easy to trash the Starbuckses of the world (and as a non-coffee drinker, it's a freebie for me), but let's face it: If the experience of going to them were so gloomy and impersonal, they'd have failed long ago. I grew up on Staten Island, New York, which 20-30 years ago was very much a small town, despite being part of New York City. My family and I did most of our personal consuming at small shops since there were no chains (outside of the occasional fast food joint) to speak of. Do I, a defender of the little guys, still do my business this way nowadays? Let's see. By the way, most of the businesses from my youth were within walking distance, even for a kid:


  1. Grocery stores Back when I was very young, my mother would walk to a small grocer about a block away. They were on a main street and had maybe ten parking spaces in back. They were out of business before we moved in 1977, by which time my mom was a committed coupon-clipping chain-store shopper. Which I am as well. The only small grocers you see nowadays are Stop'n'Gos and 7-11s. I have no desire to turn the clock back on this one.


  2. Pharmacies This one's a win for the little guy. We got all our meds at Brennan's Pharmacy a few blocks away. Mr. Brennan knew us well, always had what we needed, and even let us run a tab. Modern chains are no less expensive, don't carry anything I ever need that Brennan's didn't, and are likely to get our order wrong or lose it. I wish I had a Brennan's available to me now. No contest.


  3. Pubs Another win for the little guy, though not by as big a margin. My dad's softball team would celebrate after games at Lee's and Denino's, where the pizza was as much a reason to go as the beer. Or, if food was not as important, at Duffy's. I still go to small pubs, often for the music, but I have no qualms about going to a big-name sports bar like BW3.


  4. Book stores Mom was a devoted fan of a used-paperback store near the Pathmark she shopped at. My folks live in Portland now, where they can indulge any indie tastes they may have and still find a buttload of books at Powell's. I think Dad goes mostly to debate the hippie wannabees who hand out leaflets outside. There's an irony here in that we all used to shop at Barnes and Nobles when it was just one store on 18th Street. I sometimes forget to lump them with the Evil Soulless Chains because of that. Call this a tie.


  5. Convenience stores Sometimes all you need is a quart of milk, and when we did, we walked to Zullo's down the street. I'd never heard of 7-11 or Stop'n'Go until I came to Texas to attend college. Nowadays I don't smoke, I don't drink beer from cans, I don't play the lottery, and I like to use my gas card for fillups, so unless I need to buy a bag of ice, I seldom use convenience stores. Of course, lots of gas stations are convenience stores now, so the line gets blurred. Call it another tie.



So, I suppose I live my principles when it's easy and convenient for me to do so. If that ain't American, I don't know what is.
One Trailer to Rule Them All: So I went to see Lord of the Rings over the Christmas holiday. It's a good movie and I enjoyed it, though I thought it dragged at a few points, much to the consternation of some of my Tolkien-loving friends. If you haven't read the books (as I haven't), some of the character names and places will zip past you, so pay attention.

Seeing LotR meant I got to see a trailer for Star Wars: Send In The Clones, or whatever they're calling it. This particular trailer featured an awful lot of Anakin and Amidala mooning over each other in a forbidden-teen-love kind of way. My initial reaction was "My God, they're making Anakin's Creek!" Fortunately, the latter half of the trailer was of the whizzy spaceships and robot headbooting that we've come to expect from this genre. I expect to see this movie, and I figure I'll probably like it. I liked "The Phantom Menace", but I should note that I was not one of those types who queued up several hours in advance to see the 12:01 AM showing. Those of my friends who did do that were rather disappointed with ST:TPM, but they had a lot invested in it.

I'm about to discuss this trailer a little. In doing so, I'm going to mention a plot point from "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi". I believe this item is fairly common knowledge - it's been parodied in many formats, including the excellent short film George Lucas In Love - but to be fully compliant with the US Anti-Spoiler Act of 1997, I'm obliged to encourage anyone who might not know what I'm about to say to skip to the next entry or another blog. You have been warned.

If I recall my Star Wars prehistory correctly, this should be the movie where Anakin and Amidala make with the Jedi horizontal-body tricks, thus setting the stage for the arrivals of Luke and Leia. We know that Anakin doesn't stick around to help raise the kids. I figure that after he knocks up Amidala, he abandons her, thus forcing her to give birth at a Wal-Mart and eventually find happiness and a purpose in life in a small Southern town filled with lovable eccentrics. Guess the Oprah demographic will approve the test-screening.

On another note, the trailer for the Spider-Man movie looked kickass. I might be slightly biased by the gratuitous wet-T-shirt scene of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, but then I've let lesser things than that affect my judgment. Chuck-Bob says check it out.


Word to this Thomas Friedman column.


My friend Ginger Stampley takes on Michelle Malkin's latest so-called column today. Says she before she commences with the butt-kicking:


You'd think by now I'd have learned to stop reading Michelle Malkin editorials, given that they have zero information content and consist of the lame-brainedest sort of sloganeering. I must be a masochist, though, because I keep making the same mistake over and over again.


I salute anyone who can actually make it through Malkin's words without losing brain cells. You're a better man than I, Ginger Din.

BTW, I have a secret theory about Malkin. I figure she's got to be Pat Buchanan's love child with Ezola Foster. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

1/01/2002

Right. Now for real content...

I spent a few years in college and again in grad school writing a sports column called "Off the Kuff", so I expect this thing to have a fair bit of sports-related content. If that makes you gag, there's plenty of warblogs out there.

I'll have a few words to say about the BCS later this week, when they finally finish all the games (as my wife said "You mean the Rose Bowl isn't on tonight? But the Rose Bowl Parade was today!"), but for now I'll just say that I've had a hard time bringing myself to give a rat's ass about a lot of the so-called "major" bowls. I'm sorry I missed South Carolina's from-the-jaws-of-defeat win over Ohio State and everyone's favorite drunk-driving quarterback, but with the exception of the Fresno State-Michigan State game, the rest of what I've seen so far has been a snoozefest.

There was one amusing moment at the end of Oregon's 38-16 blowout of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. With 18 seconds left, Colorado tight end Daniel Graham caught a touchdown pass, then spiked the ball over the goal post. This drew a 15-yard flag for "excessive celebration", and the Buffalo kicker promptly flubbed the extra point. Dude, you're getting your butts whipped on national TV. What in the name of Howard Schnellenberger are you celebrating?

Awfully nice of Rex Grossman to give Steve Spurrier a built-in excuse if Florida loses, no?
Well. I recall making a New Year's Resolution a coupla years ago to write on a regular basis. Good thing I never specified what year I was going to start. Let's see how long I can keep this up.