Saturday, November 30, 2019

Rock Stars

I'm starting off my second post in a row with a term that has both a literal and figurative meaning in common parlance. Figuratively I'm not sure why "rock star" has been singled out as a superlative term as opposed to say "movie star" or "sports star", as all of these folks receive obsessive adulation, some of it deserved, most of it not, by the general public. By the same token, given the state of our society today, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the terms "art star", "literary star", or "intellectual star", just don't have the same impact or better put, pizzazz. What can I say, our  values are skewed, we really really value pizzazz in this country.

Yet it's funny, there doesn't seem to be a commonly agreed upon definition for what is the figurative  meaning of  "rock star", or if  you prefer, "rockstar".

The following are just some of the definitions of "rock star" I found in articles on the web devoted to contemporary vernacular:
  • a talented person
  • a star or celebrity in any field or profession, or anyone who is highly admired
  • shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius
  • someone who fucks all night beyond belief
  • A person who always delivers the goods. If they say they are going to do something they do. Rockstars tend to downplay their success and don't like the attention. They simply deliver consistent results.

I suppose what we can gather from this brief list is that the term can mean whatever you want, in other words, rock stardom is in the mind of the beholder. Speaking of beholders, see if you can guess which definition comes straight out of a New York Times Magazine article on the subject. You can read it here for the answer. 

Because of its nebulous definition, many folks believe the figurative term rock star is something to be avoided. This is from an article in a web site devoted to job searching called TheMuse, with the cloyingly alliterative heading: Business Buzzwords to Banish From Your Vocabulary:
“We need someone smart for this project. We’re looking for a rock star.” 
“She’s a real programming ninja—the best engineer we have.” 
Whether you’re sitting in on an annual performance review at a consulting firm or talking to a hiring manager at a tech company, you’ll hear these absurd non-titles everywhere. But unless your co-worker has actually toured with Mötley Crüe or wields nunchucks at the office, there is no reason to call her a rock star or a ninja. Also to be avoided: guru, wizard, and god. If someone has excelled professionally, praise her for what she’s actually done—don’t rely on cutesy hyperbole.
By and large I agree with this assessment when it comes to language that needs to be absolutely clear and unequivocal. That's what legalese is for. But not everything needs to be spoken or written as if it were a legally binding contract. Just as there is a time and place for legalese, so too is there a time and place for as those masters of cloying alliteration above call it, "cutesy hyperbole."

Truth be told, I actually like the term "rock star". I find it, at least in the vernacular to be a suitable replacement for the much abused word "hero." A hero is someone who willfully performs a noble act in the service of others with little or no regard to his or her own safely or well being. First responders are a perfect example of heroes in my estimation. So are people who fight for what is right despite the possible grave consequences that may befall them for doing so. The Civil Rights leaders of the sixties are a good example, as are journalists the world over who risk their lives, and all too often sacrifice them, by simply doing their job. Soldiers on the battlefield are another example although is must be pointed out that it all depends upon which side you're on. In other words it's hard to call a soldier fighting on the other side, one whose job it is to kill your countrymen and women, and perhaps you or your family, a hero.

But we often use the word "heroic" to describe acts that do not measure up to the true meaning of that word. For example it is used to describe sports, movie and TV celebrities, politicians, and a slew of other folks who perform particularly well in their field of endeavor or perform acts of kindness or charity. While these maybe note-worthy accomplishments, or acts of extreme benevolence, they just don't fit the definition of heroic.

In other words I think the words hero and heroic are special and should be used sparingly so as not dilute their meaning.

Not so the term "rock star". Anybody can be a rock star, at least in the figurative sense. My preferred definition of the term comes closest to the last one found on the list above, the one that starts with: "A person who always delivers the goods..." Now if you look at the second half of that definition, the part that starts: "Rockstars tend to downplay their success...", I think we'd all agree that literal rock stars don't always exhibit that characteristic. Yet since rock star can mean whatever you want it to mean, I think people generally understand it to be a reflection of the values of the person using the term. For me, that definition perfectly describes what I find to be admirable traits in people and ones I try to emulate. Once again, in language, with the exception of legalese, context is everything.

Oh I might add one other component to the mix, the true rock star ability to look adversity straight in the face and say: "eh."

That said, here are a few well publicized examples of rock stardom, of people delivering the goods in spite of adversity, some of whom are bona fide rock stars in the literal sense of the term:

The first is one of the most thrilling moments in a sporting event I have personally witnessed (on TV), Kirk Gibson's limping up to the plate in his one and only appearance in the 1988 World Series, against the best relief pitcher in baseball that year, Dennis Eckersley. The call here by the legendary Vin Scully is almost as beautiful, memorable and rock star-like as the event itself :

Aretha Franklin was dubbed "The Queen of Soul." But as I mentioned in my tribute to her written shortly after her death last year, that title is a vast understatement. She proved that to be the case during the telecast of the 1999 Emmy Awards. The operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform his signature aria "Nessun Dorma" from Pucclini's opera Turandot. But as he was wont to do in the latter part of his career, one half hour before the show was to begin, Pavarotti called the producer and said he was sick and couldn't perform. With true "show must go on" spirit, and a 100 piece orchestra and chorus waiting in the wings to perform, Franklin stepped into Pavarotti's enormous shoes, and live in front of an audience of thousands and a TV audience of tens of millions. as she did with everything else, she made Nessun Dorma her own:

If there was a single person who defined the term "Rock Star" in both the literal and figurative sense, it was Prince. He was in fact the Rock Star's Rock Star as Eric Clapton once pointed out. Someone once asked Clapton, (pretty high in the Rock Star pantheon himself): "how does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?" "I don't know.." Clapton responded, "...ask Prince."

At the induction ceremony for George Harrison,  (himself a beautiful if somewhat reluctant rock star of the highest magnitude) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2004, Prince (who was also inducted at the event), joined other rock stars on stage to perform Harrison's classic tune While My Guitar Gently Weeps. In the first half of the song,  Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne traded  lead vocals while guitarist Marc Mann re-created virtually note for note Eric Clapton's iconic solo from the original recording of the song. It was a respectful if somewhat uninspired performance, that is until Prince took over during the outro which is four minutes of pure rock and roll star magic. Here is a link to a piece from Guitar Player Magazine which includes a video of that performance.

But the clip I want to share is from a couple years later when Prince signed on to do the half-time show at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Those big game gigs are usually reserved for the biggest of the big music acts of the time, as they are assured of reaching a televised audience of around 100 million viewers, and the price of a 30 second television ad exceeds the GDP of many countries. The other thing about these performances is that they usually suck. Most of the time, given the conditions of a stage that has to be set up in about five minutes, a lousy sound system. the limited time for the act, and the urge to create the biggest bang for the buck with the grandest of rock star egos usually lip-synching to their recordings because of the bad conditions, most SB Half Time shows are best remembered for their embarrassing moments. And on the night of February 4, 2007, all systems were go for the biggest train wreck of them all as for the first time in Super Bowl history, it was pouring rain. With much concern about the safety of the performers (not to mention pulling off the act), due to the electrical equipment on the stage and dance moves performed on a rain-soaked slippery stage with shall we say, less than sensible footwear, the producers warned Prince about the hazards present that evening. They asked if he might be interested in toning back his performance. His response was simple: "Can you make it rain more?"

In the past few weeks, we witnessed some rock star quality performances that equaled or surpassed these three performances above in terms of delivering the goods in the face of adversity. None of them were undertaken by professional performers and the stage on which they performed could not have been farther removed from the field of entertainment. What makes these performances fit perfectly into my preferred definition of a rock star, is that none of these performers asked for, nor seemed to enjoy the attention they were given, and they downplayed their own accomplishments. They just delivered the goods.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, is, (and probably soon will be, was), a top specialist on Ukraine on the National Security Council. In that role he was privy to a July conversation between the President of the United States and his Ukrainian counterpart, shortly after the latter was sworn into office. In that conversation, the US president asked his counterpart to launch an investigation into his major Democratic rival  in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Vindman was concerned that this was an attempt by a US president to abuse his power, and brought the matter to the attention of the legal staff on the National Security Council.

It should be noted that Vindman was not the only person listening in on that conversation who was concerned of wrongdoing at the highest level and reported it to the NSC; there were in fact six of them. Vindman's reports contributed to an independent whistleblower complaint with the intelligence inspector general. Only after that complaint was made public, did the US President release funds long before approved by Congress in support of Ukraine to help them with their ongoing war against Russia. This led to speculation that the president was withholding desperately needed assistance to an ally, using it as leverage to encourage a foreign government to interfere in a US election, in clear violation of the law. These events are the basis for the current impeachment investigation against the president.

You can read the whistleblower complaint here. Notice the exact language used and the fact that the term "rock star" does not appear once in the complaint.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was the US ambassador to Ukraine until she was relieved of her duties in late April of 2019. She was the recipient of the president's ire allegedly for refusing to participate in the scheme that would have Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son's alleged acts of corruption in that country, allegations which at least so far have proven to be unfounded. In the months before her firing, she was the target of a smear campaign led by the president's personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani who accused her of trying to undermine the president. In the above mentioned phone call, the US president told his counterpart:
The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that...
During the investigation phase of the impeachment hearings, her boss Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made every attempt to impede her testimony before the Congressional impeachment committees. In a letter to Pompeo, ten senators contributed to the following:
For months, Ambassador Yovanovitch faced political attacks based on disinformation and statements later proven to be false...

Throughout these events, you have said nothing publicly in her defense. You have not made a single remark defending Ambassador Yovanovitch or heralding her more than three decades of service to the American people.
It would come out in the hearings last week that Pompeo was himself directly involved in the attempts to persuade the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens.

For her part, Yovanovitch has a long and distinguished record of service to the diplomatic corps often taking hardship posts in dangerous countries. With the exception of Giuliani and his boss, she is universally respected and has been vigorously defended by her peers.

Former White House national security adviser Dr. Fiona Hill would be the last witness in the current round of testimony before the house impeachment committee.  Hill's background in Russia goes back to her university days when she studied the language at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She was witness to history as an intern for NBC news when she was present at the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987

Hill holds a Masters Degree in Russian and modern history and a PhD in history, both from Harvard. She has a long and distinguished career as an intelligence analyst of Russia and Eurasia, working for the Brookings Institution, and the National Intelligence Council, intermixed with various governmental appointments from Presidents GW Bush, Obama, and Trump. In that latter post, she served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on his National Security Council Staff until her resignation on July 19 of this year, six days before the now infamous telephone conversation.

All three delivered riveting testimony before the impeachment committee to the best of their abilities, given their varied inside positions in the government. Lt. Col Vindman, born in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR, emigrated to this country with his father and two brothers when he was three. In his opening remarks before the committee, he directly addressed his father assuring him that his fate in testifying against the president of this country would be much different than had they been in Russia:
In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.

...Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.
Vindman like Yovanovitch was at the wrong end of a vicious smear campaign from the Right, who questioned his loyalty to this country despite his exemplary service in the US military which includes a purple heart, the result of an injury sustained during the explosion of a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004. Despite the outrageous invectives hurled at him by Republicans, he stood proudly as an American soldier in full dress uniform before the impeachment committee, and politely but directly corrected the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, the lead cheerleader for the president, Devin Nunes, when he inappropriately addressed the US Army officer as "Mr. Vindman."

Lt. Col. Vindman is a Rock Star in my book. I give him the Tom Petty award for not backing down in the face of constant intimidation from the Republicans and the president.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in Ambassador Yovanovitch's testimony came when Committee Chairman Adam Schiff relayed freshly tweeted slams at her from none other than the president of the United States. Split screen footage of Schiff and Yovanovitch shows the ambassador's reaction to the unprecedented attack, first slight bemusement, then with a calm but stern response in defense of her record:

That response bespeaks the clearheaded professionalism she exhibited during her career and her testimony. Her performance resulted in a standing ovation from all present in room, including the Republicans. She gets the George Harrison award from me for her quiet determination, her steady professionalism, and her reluctance to take center stage. (see above link to Tom Petty award).

Finally the Prince award, and there is certainly no competition here, goes to Fiona Hill for her take-no-prisoners testimony before the committee. Here is her opening statement:

I think the Republicans knew they were in trouble when the text of these remarks were released before she delivered them. Dr. Hill as you can hear, said at the outset that she would have none of the bullshit (not the word she used) the Republicans were spewing about the Ukrainians' so-called involvement with the interference in the 2016 presidential election. She made it crystal clear that unlike the current US president, she has more faith in US intelligence than in the President of Russia, by stating emphatically that it was the Russians alone who hacked into the last election as they most certainly will the next one. And furthermore she stated that our institutions of freedom and democracy are in danger because some Americans (she didn't need to say which ones), are propagating the false Russian narrative on election tampering.

Then it came out how truly badass she is when she was asked to recount a story about the time in school when a bully set her pigtails on fire as she was taking a test, She put the fire out using her bare hands, then returned to taking the test.

So untouchable and unflappable was she, that the defenders of the president, aka all the Republicans on the committee, gave up asking her questions and used their time to pontificate on all their irrelevant talking points in an attempt to obfuscate the hearings. But she wouldn't have any of that either:

It should be pointed out that Vindman, Yovankovitch and Hill are all naturalized US citizens, none of them were born here. To some, that is immediate grounds to question their loyalty to this country. But think about it, people who were born here have no point of reference, especially if their ancestors were born here as well. Dr. Hill pointed out that brilliant as she is, (my words not hers), she couldn't get into Oxford in her own rigidly class-conscious society because of her working class accent. So she emigrated here and went to Harvard, England's loss, our gain.

I never met a person in my life who loved this country more than my father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who experienced first hand, life under Nazisim in Germany and Soviet style communism in his home country. Vindman's assurance to his father was, or at least should have been a clarion call to all Americans of the threats we face when we take our laws and the rights our constitution affords us for granted. My father for one would be heartbroken if he were around today to witness the dangerous game of footsie this current president is playing with brutal dictators, especially the one from Russia. And he would have been further devastated to see the way some of his fellow Americans support the man and his actions.

To some native born Americans, empty gestures like standing for the National Anthem, hugging a flag, or blindly supporting an obviously dangerous and corrupt president whom they happen to like, are acts of patriotism. But these three great Americans understand first hand what is truly special about this country. In testifying before the country to help correct a wrong they see as having dire consequences for the future this republic, they have put their careers, their reputations, and perhaps even their lives in jeopardy. These are true patriots indeed.

These words of Dr. Hill's bear repeating:
Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine—which continues to face armed Russian aggression—has been politicized .The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America’s global role, and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests.
Talk about delivering.

Badass Dr. Hill is not only a Prince caliber Rock Star, she's a Ninja as well. And I think I'll make an exception to a point I made above.

She, Vindman and Yovanovitch are also my heroes.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Flat Earthers

The term "flat-earther" is figuratively used to refer to people who cling to out-dated belief systems and by doing so, reject commonly held ideas, principals, observations, logic, and facts. Who woulda thunk that approaching the third decade of the third millennium of the Common Era, that term would also be used to literally describe an ever growing number of people?

Yes Virginia, there are still people in 2019 who believe the earth is flat.

Well it seems they do anyway, it all could be an elaborate joke, a hoax if you will, but most people who study the Flat Earth movement think its adherents are serious.

But what about this photograph?

Photograph of Earth (allegedly) made by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972, during their (alleged) trip to the Moon. This remains one of the most reproduced photographs in history.

"Fake News!" say the flat-earthers. According to them, the space programs of the USA and the USSR in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and later other countries and private entities, are all elaborate hoaxes, part of an enormous conspiracy designed to keep the truth of the actual flatness of the earth away from the minds of the unsuspecting public. The photos allegedly made from space they say, are all fake, "Photo-shopped" (using contemporary terminology), to string along the gullible. No, we never went into space say the Flat-earthers because there is no such thing as outer space.

"Globalist" is the flat-earther term for those of us who buy into the conspiracy of scientists, governments, NASA, the airlines, and scores of other agencies and businesses to make us believe that the earth is round.  What we globalists call the cosmos,  the sun, the moon the stars and the galaxies beyond them, are all part of a self-contained enclosure, (my word not theirs), with the flat earth at the bottom, kind of like the gravel liner to a bird cage.

Their concept of the earth looks like this:

This is an illustration of the conception of the flat earth as published on the web site of the Flat Earth Society. As you can see, it is a disc centered upon the north pole with the longitudinal lines projecting outward from the pole. In this conception, Antarctica which is at the perimeter of the disc encircles the entire planet and as the theory goes, its 150 wall of ice encircling the earth is what contains the planet's oceans. It should be pointed out that this is merely one of several concepts of the flat earth. Some of them have the earth expanding outward infinitely. 

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, for argument's sake let's just say they're right about the conspiracy and we can't use the photographs as evidence. Without the photographs, might they have a valid argument that the earth is indeed flat?

Well let's just say they have a lot of splainin' to do.

The idea that the earth is a sphere is ancient, perhaps going back three millennia or more. It is assumed that the great mathematician Pythagoras around 500 BC, understood the spherical nature of the planet, but he was very unlikely the first. Two hundred years later, the head of the library in Alexandria,  a mathematician (among many other things) by the name of Eratosthenes, performed a simple observation to prove Pythagoras correct. Eratosthenes had been told that in Syrene, a city south of Alexandria, at precisely noon on June 21, the summer solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun was directly overhead, and therefore cast no shadow. As this was something unheard of in Alexandria, after confirming the validity of the observation, on a subsequent cloudless summer solstice at precisely noon in Alexandria. Eratosthenes measured the angle of the shadow of the sun's light cast by a stick and found it to be seven degrees. There could be only two plausible explanations for this discrepancy. Either the two observers were not parallel to each other, which would indicate they were standing upon different portions of a curved surface, OR the observers were standing on the flat surface of the earth, parallel to each other. If the latter had been the case, the sun would have to be ridiculously close enough to the surface of the earth to create this discrepancy.

Not surprisingly, the flat-earthers who themselves are not ignorant of math, have calculated that the sun is only about four hundred miles from the surface of the flat earth, a little more than the distance between Chicago and Cleveland! By comparison, modern globalist measurements put the distance between the earth and the sun at about 93 million miles, a heck of a lot of trips to Cleveland and back.

Well that second idea probably didn't occur to Eratosthenes because by his time the Greeks had already figured correctly that the sun was much farther away than Cleveland, (even from Alexandria!). By assuming the earth is round and that the sun is significantly far enough away, taking the seven degree angle difference between the two measurements, and the distance between where the measurements were taken, by using simple geometry, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. His results although not perfect, came within ten percent of present day measurements made with satellites, not bad for a stick, a protractor and some logic. Some centuries later, Arab and Indian astronomer/mathematicians independently performed similar measurements to much greater accuracy.

Flat-earthers argue that empirical observations are tantamount to our understanding of the universe, rather than relying upon logical constructs and theories made up by others. In other words, if the earth looks flat, it must be flat. But you needn't rely on easily repeatable experiments made in locations hundreds of miles apart to directly experience the curvature of the earth. For example, Chicago is located on the southwest shore of a large, but not enormous body of water, Lake Michigan. If you  stand on the edge of the lake just east of Chicago's Loop and look toward the southeast, on a clear day you can see the bend of the shoreline at the foot of the lake, and follow it until it disappears below the horizon. Beyond that, if the conditions are right, you can see the plumes of smoke from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, but you can't see the mills themselves as they are below the horizon. If we look due east into the lake, we only see the horizon, not the shore of the other side of the lake some sixty miles away. Obviously if we got in a boat and sailed east, the Michigan shoreline would gradually appear  bit by bit on the horizon, Another example are the water intake cribs built about 2.5 miles out into the lake. From the shore, the cribs appear to be sitting directly upon the horizon. But from the vantage point of one of the tall buildings along the lake, say the John Hancock Building, one can see the lake extending miles beyond the cribs. Higher still from an aircraft, you can make out the entire outline of the southern shore of the lake.

Empirical observations such as these have been made for millennia, the ancient mariners whose lives depended upon an understanding of such things, quickly understood that the shore quickly disappearing below the horizon as they set out to sea did not mean that they were about to fall off the edge of the earth.

Another controversial opinion of the Flat-Earthers is that the earth is fixed in space and the celestial bodies we see in the sky move around above us.

One thing the ancients knew intimately were the stars. If there is a constant in life on this planet, it is the stars and their relationship to one other. Their random arrangement in our sky inspired humans to group them together into what they called constellations. The ancients derived meaning from the "pictures" drawn by these groupings. Many cultures used the outlines of the constellations to illustrate their own mythical creation stories, The ancient astronomers of Greece and Rome handed down to us their constellations which still have great meaning to people who follow the pseudo-science of astrology. But the constellations also continue to used be used by astronomers who use them as a road map to the sky.

Despite the fact that the stars are all moving at tremendous speeds, an ancient astronomer could be transported to today and would barely see any change in the constellations from his own day.  But there are objects in the sky that do not remain fixed in position as compared to the stars. The Greeks called them wanderers, or planets, and there were seven of them, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Sun and the Moon. From our point of view on Earth, these objects' positions change in relation to the stars but at much different rates. The range of the movement of the "planets" is restricted to the region of the sky that is roughly above the earth's equator. (This fact would become important in describing the true nature of our solar system). The twelve constellations that correspond to this region of the sky are known by astrologers as the signs of the zodiac. The brightest of these "planets" is the Sun, our own star. Over the course of one year, from our point of view on Earth, the sun "travels" trough each of the constellations of the zodiac. Obviously when the sun is "up" we can't see the stars nor the constellation the sun is in front of, but astronomers knew the sky so well that by inference they knew exactly where the sun is in the sky. The astrological "sign" of a particular time of the year corresponds to the constellation the sun is in front of during that time. For example at this writing. (I happen to know this because my birthday is this week), the sun is in front of the constellation Sagittarius*, therefore I am said to have been born under the sign of, well you get the idea.

The second brightest object in our sky, the Moon, moves through the zodiac at a much quicker rate than the sun, making a complete cycle through the constellations in roughly 28 days. The Greeks correctly surmised that just as nearby objects appear to be moving faster than far away objects when we look out the side of a moving vehicle, (the phenomenon known as parallax) the relatively fast motion of the moon compared to the sun means that the moon is closer to the earth than the sun. Due to pure happenstance, from our perspective the sun and the moon appear to be roughly the same size.  This combined with the fact that the sun is farther away from the earth, led the Greeks to correctly surmise that  the sun is much larger than the moon, 

The parallax rule applies to the other five planets as well, the relatively nearby ones, Venus and Mars move through the zodiac relatively fast while the more distant ones, Jupiter and Saturn take their sweet time. Finally Mercury which is always seen within close proximity to the sun (because of its position as the closest planet to our star), moves through the zodiac at the same rate as the sun. Not surprisingly, the Greeks were also able to figure the relative distances to the planets as well.

The Greeks were able to figure this all out using logic, they had no proof of course. There were even Greeks who came up with the crazy-radical idea for the time, that it was the Sun and not the Earth that was the center of the known Universe.  Aristarchus, a contemporary of Eratosthenes is credited as the first Greek to postulate the idea of a helio-centric universe, he also proposed that the Universe extended far beyond the solar system and that the stars were actually very distant versions of our own sun. From a globalist perspective, he was right. But the idea of helio-centricism had been kicking around for centuries before that. The earliest citation I could find goes back to the 9th Centruy BCE. Yajnavalkya, an Indian philosopher of the Vedic tradition wrote:
The sun strings these worlds – the earth, the planets, the atmosphere – to himself on a thread.
However no less a figure than Aristotle flat out rejected the theory of a heliocentric universe on the basis that it lacked the empirical observational data to back it up.

Aristotle's notion of a spherical earth at the center of the universe with all the celestial bodies revolving about it, would hold court for nearly twenty centuries after his death.

The controversial topic of helio-centricism was revisited by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in the first half of the 16th Century. It felt logical to many that the Earth really was terra-firma, a perfectly static (albeit globular) body in the midst of a universe that happily revolved around it. But there was a problem, the motion of the planets through the sky. The sun and the moon maintained a consistent forward motion through the constellations of the zodiac. But it was the motion of the other planets that was peculiar. Most of the time they too would move in the same direction through the sky as the sun and moon but at times their motion would slow down and reverse direction or retrograde. It was as if they had a will of their own. That idea was perfectly adequate for people who assigned metaphysical powers to the celestial bodies. But to the Renaissance mind of Copernicus, who many credit as being the father of modern scientific inquiry, that answer was not adequate, there had to be a rational explanation for the erratic motion of the planets.

That explanation was simple, the Sun was the center of the system of the planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all revolved around it, not around the Earth. Only the Moon revolved around the Earth while the two of them, essentially a double planet, also revolved around the Sun. It all made perfect sense, the Earth rotating on its axis roughly every 24 hours, half that time facing the sun the other half not, accounted for the cycles of day and night. The moon revolving about the earth roughly every 28 days accounted for its movement through the sky in that same period of time. The phases of the moon, new, first quarter, full, third quarter and everything in between could be explained by the daily change in the relation of the moon, to the earth and the sun. The apparent yearly motion of the sun through the sky could now be explained by the earth's revolution about the sun every year. The seasons are perfectly explained by the tilt of the Earth's axis with with respect to the plane of its orbit. And most significantly, the erratic motions of the planets as viewed from Earth can be easily explained by concentric orbits of each planet, including the earth. No they weren't going backwards and forwards, it was just our point of view depending upon the planets' relative position in their orbits that made them appear to move that way. This picture illustrates the occasional "retrograde" motion of Mars as seen from the viewpoint of Earth:

A diagram of the relative orbits of Earth (the blue dot) and Mars (the red one). To understand this better, it would be helpful to extend the bottom line at position "a" several inches to the right with a point on the end for a reference, representing a distant star. In position a, from the viewpoint of the earth, Mars would line up with that star. In the next two positions, b and c, Mars appears from Earth to be advancing to the left of the reference star. As Earth's orbit catches up with Mars at d, then overtakes it in position e, Mars appears to be heading backwards, right to left, back toward the reference star. Then as the Earth begins its more acute orbit in positions f and g, Mars now appears to be heading back in the direction of left to right.

Copernicus' solution, by way of Yajnavalkya and Aristarchus was elegant, simple and rational, who could possibly object?

Yeah right.

Copernicus understood the danger of making his theory public, so much so that he waited until he was at the end of his life in 1543 to publish his work on the subject, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, so as not to be charged with heresy by the Church.

More than a half century after the death of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei with the help of the new-fangled invention the telescope, whose design he improved upon significantly, discovered never before realized attributes about some of the inhabitants of the sky. As anyone with a new telescope or a pair of binoculars knows, after one gets tired of (or busted for) spying on the neighbors, one of the most interesting things to look at is the Moon. And you guessed it, in 1609, Galileo was the first person to have observed the craters of the moon. He next turned his telescope on the more distant planets and the following year he discovered four of the moons of Jupiter. He also discovered the rings around Saturn, spots on the sun, and that the Milky Way is made up of individual stars, (not gas as was previously assumed). Perhaps the most significant thing he discovered, at least in terms of describing the true nature of the solar system, were the phases of Venus which cannot be detected without a telescope. The fact that we never see the entire disc of the planet, (except during a total solar eclipse), proves that the planet revolves around the sun and not the earth.

Galileo was a fervent and vocal advocate of the Copernican model of the solar system which was still widely debunked by both the Church and fellow scientists alike. To the Church, the idea not only conflicted with Scripture, but also lessened the significance of what it considered God's greatest creation, humankind, and its home. Scientists were also skeptical because if the earth revolved about the sun, then the visible angle of the stars (the ones that are visible year-round) would change every six months due to the change in position of the earth. As they could not measure any difference, contemporary astronomers such as the estimable Tycho Brahe, rejected the theory. What Tycho did not take into account was that the stars were much too far away for any such measurement to be made with the instruments of the time. It wouldn't be until the 19th Century before reliable measurements could be made six months apart that would confirm once and for all the earth's revolution about the sun.

But in Galileo's time, insisting that the sun and not the earth was the center of action was still grounds for heresy and in 1633, Galileo was charged, forced to renounce his findings, and ended up spending the remaining nine years of his life under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Galileo's contemporary, Johannes Kepler, also an advocate of heliocentricity, was hard at work in Prague, using his mentor Tycho Brahe's fastidious observations of astronomical events, to accurately calculate the orbits of the planets about the sun. (Tycho's own model of the universe was a combination of heliocentric and geocentric theories). These remarkably precise observations led to one of Kepler's greatest (he had many) contributions to science, his three laws of planetary motion. In case you're interested here they are:
1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at a focus.
2. A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.
3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.
It was Isaac Newton (bet you knew I'd eventually get to him!) who used Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion to help define his general laws of motion and the role of the unifying force of Nature that governs the laws of physics from the proverbial apple falling from a tree to the orbits of planets. He called that force, drum roll please, gravity. Newton's discoveries would be checkmate, a slum dunk, game, set and match for helio-centrism. Any argument that Newton's work was merely theoretical was put to rest in 1758 when British astronomer Edmund Halley used Kepler and Newton's formulas to successfully predict the return of the comet that would eventually bear his name. Neither Halley nor Newton would be around for that auspicious event, but it would cement their reputations for eternity. Newton's three laws of motion (you can look them up) would form the backbone of Physics for more than two centuries and they continue to be applied in the design of everything from pendulum ball toys to the launching of satellites. And they define in no uncertain terms how and why the earth and the planets revolve around the sun, and why the earth, the planets and the sun are all globes.

Naturally, to the Flat-Earthers, Issac Newton and his forebears were all hacks.

Typical Flat-Earthers, at least judging from their web site, are not stupid. They are well versed in science and everything mentioned above, they just choose not to accept it. And yes, they have counter arguments to many of the theories regarding the cosmos. Those they cannot argue, they choose to ignore.

The (flat) world view of the Flat-Earthers might be considered an example of motivated reasoning, that is, developing one's opinions based upon pre-conceived notions,  emotions or ideology rather than upon discernible facts, especially those that happen to be inconvenient. Motivated reasoning is the engine that drives all the conspiracy theories of the world, and the "Round Earth Conspiracy" has to be one of the most expansive and outrageous of conspiracy theories. I'm not entirely sure why anyone would be honestly motivated or passionate about the earth being flat. It could stem from a deeply religious conviction that mankind and the earth must be at the center of the universe. It is true that scientific discovery in the past three thousand odd years has continuously painted a picture of the universe growing bigger and bigger, while the earth keeps growing smaller and more insignificant.

Or it could possibly be simple contrarianism that drives them.

Whatever the reason, a lot of thought and work has gone into the herculean task of trying to convince folks that the world is flat. To that end the Flat-Earthers have found a formidable if unwilling ally to their cause, Albert Einstein.

Newtonian physics for all its brilliance in accurately predicting the mechanics of the universe has one serious flaw. It describes gravity as the unifying force that drives the motion of objects big and small, (albeit not too big nor too small), but it doesn't attempt to explain what gravity is, other than a mysterious force that attracts one object to another. Einstein who was a great admirer of Newton found a paradox in his predecessor's logic. It had to do with the speed of light which had been determined by the physicist James Maxwell to be absolute. Einstein added to this that the speed of light was absolute irrespective of the motion of the source that produced the light. This contradicted Newton's laws of motion. From this realization, he concluded that time was the missing ingredient and that time itself could expand and contract in relation to the relative velocity of an object. Einstein created an entirely new model of the universe including time as an integral dimension.

This four dimensional "space-time" model described in Einstein's theory of General Relativity described the effect of massive objects, such as planets and stars, warping space to such an extent that objects approaching the massive object entering the curved space fall toward the object. Consequently General Relativity negates Newton's assumption that gravity is a force (like a magnet) that acts upon falling objects, but rather that the "falling" object is simply following a path laid out by the curved space surrounding a more massive object.

"Voila!!!" I can hear the Flat-Earthers cry,"...we knew all along that gravity was a myth!" Thus did they latch onto General Relativity's theme that gravity is a non-existent force, (without accepting all that other complicated stuff). Their current concept of the earth-as-birdcage-liner model is that the entire bird cage-cosmos, flat earth, sun, moon, planets and everything else except the bird, is in a constant state of upward acceleration at a continuous rate of 9.8 meters per second squared (the rate of acceleration caused by gravity on Earth). This is what makes objects appear to be falling to the surface of the Earth when actually it is the other way around, the surface of the earth is rising to meet the object.

Minus the several steps of faulty logic it took them to get to this point, the scenario is somewhat plausible, (well at least the fake gravity part), even from the perspective of Newtonian physics.

On the Flat Earth Society web site, there is a link to this PBS video (complete with Flat-Earth commentary) which attempts to explain the "illusion" of gravity:

Relativity as its name implies, states that all motion is relative to the observer. In other words it is equally valid to say either that an apple is falling to the ground, or that the earth is (hard as that may be to imagine), rising up to meet the apple. This is the inspiration for the model of the flat earth accelerating "bird cage" model. At one point in the video, the narrator mentions that very scenario. And the Flat-earth commentator uses this to point how General Relativity supports the flat earth model.

But of course it does not. What the Flat-Earth commentator misses is the narrator stating in his very next breath: "but of course the earth is round."

Apparently the Flat-Earthers also missed the subsequent series of videos that go into more specific details of Einstein's concept of space-time, none of them compatible with any model of a flat earth, geo-centric universe.

Yet another example of inconvenient facts being ignored.

There is no room in any serious inquiry be it science, history, politics, philosophy, law, or any other field of endeavor, for motivated reasoning. Inquiry must always begin with a question. True that question usually is followed with a presumption, theory or hypothesis that can either be proven or disproven. It is the disproven part that is the most important, as any reasonable search for understanding must be accompanied by the acceptance that we might be wrong.

In a way, the Flat Earth Movement is a good thing because it encourages us to challenge even our most fundamental ideas and beliefs. It was after all. once taken for granted that gravity was a real force until Einstein showed that was not necessarily true. It was once taken for granted  that the orbits of the planets were circular with the sun at the center, even by Kepler who was very much driven by spirituality, until he challenged his deeply held beliefs when his careful observations proved otherwise. And of course it was once taken for granted that our terra firma, Earth, at the center of the universe, "stands firm, never to be moved" (Chron 16:30).

Scientific inquiry above all else is not sacred and should always be held subject to scrutiny, no matter how established it may be. So should the rebuttals. It's not good enough for example to state for example that "Evolution is merely a theory." It is not. There are well established empirical facts that clearly back up the evolution of the species. If one day we find new verifiable ideas or facts that contradict what we think we already know, then we can make reasonable decisions for or against, but not before. The same goes for climate change which is an established, verifiable fact. The extent of human contribution to climate change may be debated, yet there is a very strong likelihood agreed upon by the vast majority of the scientific community that what we do, does in fact affect the environment, again based upon verifiable observations and facts, not simply opinions. We are foolish to assume otherwise.

The problem arises when our inquiries begin not with questions, but with answers, followed by a relentless effort to find arguments to validate those answers at the expense of valid arguments that support conflicting answers.

The bottom line is this: question everything, and be open to everything. It's far better to evaluate what we don't know rather than to over-estimate what we do know, and especially, what we think we know.

* This statement actually needs to be amended. In the past two millennia, the tilt of the Earth's axis has shifted meaning that from this planet, the sun no longer is in front of Sagittarius on my birthday. I can't remember in which direction the shift has taken place but today the sun would either be in front of Scorpio or Capricorn. From some reason, modern day astrologers have failed to take this into account.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Revisionist History

In Chicago's Grant Park there is a statue that was commissioned in 1933 by the Italian community of this city, devoted in the words inscribed on the front of its pedestal: "To Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of America"

In Humboldt Park about five miles to the northwest, there is another sculpture, this one commissioned by the Norwegian community of Chicago, devoted, in the words inscribed on its roughly-hewn granite base, to  "Leif Erikson, Discoverer of America."

This city also has a significant Native American community, most of whom would more than likely dispute either claim, as their ancestors lived in the Americas tens of thousands of years before either European explorer set foot upon these shores.

Depending upon your definition of the word "discovery", any one of these claims could have merit. Such is the challenge of history, the narrative depends upon who is telling the story.

In 1893, Chicago hosted a tremendous World's Fair, held in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first journey across the Atlantic. (Actually the 401st anniversary as the city couldn't quite pull off the event in time). Ninety nine years later on the 500th anniversary of the event, there was barely any mention of the milestone. And today, nearly thirty years after that, while Columbus Day is still an official holiday, mostly I think out of deference to the Italian-American community, there are plans afoot to keep the holiday but swap the recognition of it from Columbus to Indigenous Americans.

"It's about time", says one segment of society, while another segment indignantly shouts: "revisionist history."

I found a wonderful quote about that old bugaboo "revisionist history" from a noted historian. James McPherson, the author of several books on the American Civil War such as The Battle Cry of Freedom writes that far from something to be avoided, revisionism: the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past.
I didn't find the quote in a story about the Civil War or the "discovery" of America, but in a recent Chicago Sun Times article about the founder of the Chicago White Sox. The article titled Pop History Gave a Bad Shake to 1919 ‘Black Sox’ owner Charles A. Comiskey, written by Richard Lindberg, tells the story of how Comiskey's bad reputation comes from the characterization of him in the novel Eight Men Out by Eliot Azinov, the story of the notorious Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The book was made into a popular movie in the eighties.

Quoting myself from a piece I wrote about this very subject four years ago:
The book and especially the film depict Comiskey as a real bastard; imagine a pre-redemtion Ebeneezer Scrooge mixed with old man Potter and Simon Legree without the good side, and you get the picture.
Without understanding (or caring) that Eight Men Out is essentially a work of fiction with a few historical facts thrown in for good measure, popular historians such as Ken Burns have taken the book to be the definitive source on the scandal that rocked baseball in the second decade of the twentieth century. In doing so, they have perpetuated the myth that Comiskey was a notoriously greedy tightwad who all but forced his players to take money from gangsters to throw the 1919 World Series. Research in the past decade has shown this to be pure rubbish, as is another popular myth also perpetuated by Burns and others about the character of one of baseball's greatest players, Ty Cobb.

Yet despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, many people still hold on to their strong biases against the two men, claiming the serious research that went into discovering irrefutable facts that ended up clearing both their names, is not to be trusted as it is merely "revisionist history". In my piece about Ty Cobb, I quoted the estimable baseball writer and statistician Bill James who speaks eloquently not only about the ballplayer, but also about the general public's attitude about history:
If one were to take the time to document a thousand times in which Ty Cobb went out of his way to be kind to other people, including black people, would this change his image? I fear it would not.
Why is it so hard to let go of our historical biases, especially when confronted with compelling facts to the contrary? In his book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Author Charles Leerhsen's theory is that we all need people like the mythical bad guys Charles Comiskey and Ty Cobb because they make us feel better about our own inadequacies. We say to ourselves, I may be bad, but hey, at least I'm not as bad as those two. In other words, if we like the story, it becomes a part of us and we stick with it, come hell or high water.

In the past couple of years, the interpretation of history has been at the center of a controversy involving the removal of century old monuments to Confederate leaders in the American South. The argument against the removal of the statues is that by doing so, communities are practicing their own brand of revisionism by "whitewashing history." In a sense the critics are right, but the history being removed is the history of the statues themselves, NOT the history of the event they were intended to commemorate. Decades after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, VA., marking the end of the Civil War, a movement that would become known as the "Cult of the Lost Cause" took it upon themselves to revise history by portraying the Confederacy in a kinder, gentler light. According to members of this group, which included historians responsible for much of the understanding of the Civil War for many subsequent decades, the Confederate States fought not to preserve slavery, but to defend states' rights over what they viewed as a tyrannical federal government, to preserve the noble "southern way of life", and to defend their land from the onslaught of Northern aggression.  Union leaders were portrayed, not always wrongly, as drunken, incompetent fools, and the institution of slavery was quite wrongly explained away as one of benevolence, not oppression. Capping it off. the leaders of the Confederacy were portrayed as heroic defenders of the lost cause and tributes and monuments to them went up all over, some even in the north.

No matter how fair-minded the observer, debunking the revisionist history Cult of the Lost Cause is not difficult. All one has to do is read the Articles of Confederation of the states who seceded from the Union (you can find them all online) and right there in black and white, usually near the top of  the documents, is the mention of slavery and its importance to that particular state. The truth, at least as best as we know it today, is that the Civil War did not begin as so many assume, with the Union demanding that slavery be abolished in the South. The issue was the expansion of slavery into the western territories which President Lincoln vehemently objected. Had the Southern states not pressed the issue of expansion, the Civil War may have been delayed or avoided altogether and slavery may have continued for a while until it one way or other, it would have most certainly faded away.

Unlike the popular misconceptions of the causes of the Civil War and the legacies of Ty Cobb and Charles Comiskey, the history of Columbus's voyages to the Americas were not clouded in false assumptions, diversions and outright lies. There was never any question that the results of the European invasion, or expeditions depending upon your point of view, of the Americas initiated unwittingly by Columbus (he never realized that he didn't actually accomplish his goal of reaching Asia), greatly benefited the conquerors, and all but destroyed the conquered, the indigenous people of the so called "New World." What we once viewed as a magnificent accomplishment that ushered in the dawn of the modern age and one of the great triumphs of the human spirit, is now generally viewed as a dark point in history that triggered unconscionable suffering, genocide and the destruction of ancient civilizations. The difference between the way we view the legacy of Columbus today and they way we viewed it in the past is a matter of changing values. Today we are telling the same story but from a different point of view. The truth is that both views of Columbus's legacy are essentially correct.

The most vilified term in academic circles today, next to racism, is colonialism. It's almost impossible to get into any deep conversation about politics, current events, history or just about anything that concerns how we live our lives these days, without the issue of the evils of colonialism coming up. Merely implying that anything good may have come out of colonialism is grounds for at the very least a stern lecture from the rarified world of the cognoscenti. Having just said that, lest you think I am a defender, apologist, or someone who is trying to make a case for colonialism in any form, let me assure you I am not.

The following is my litmus test for judging the merits of anything, asking myself to argue the pros and cons of a particular topic and comparing their merits. Here is my most compelling argument against colonialism:
How would I feel if my country were invaded by another country which enforced its system of rules and government upon us, subjected my people to second class citizenship or worse, and denied us our basic rights? 
You're right I wouldn't like it, not one bit. So why on earth would I advocate subjecting someone else to colonization? On the other hand, here's my best argument in favor of colonialism:
-  -  - 
That's right I don't have any argument supporting colonialism. In my head, the Golden Rule (or whatever you prefer to call the universal gold standard for distinguishing right from wrong), trumps all the fringe benefits that may occur as a result. Wrong is wrong and extenuating circumstances cannot make a wrong a right.

Proponents of a return of colonialism in our time point to liberal democracy, the advancement of science, liberation theology, racial, ethnic and sexual equality, freedom of speech, of religion, of association, and a slew of other ideas and values that have spread throughout the world as a direct result of western colonialism.  Are they wrong? Well those things are all good in my opinion anyway, and whether you like it or not, have all come to us part and parcel as a result of European colonialism.  Yet as far as using those values and attributes as excuses for the continued violation of human rights, then, no, I have to draw the line there.

Which brings to mind this chilling scene from the classic film from 1948, The Third Man, where the character of Harry Lime, as played by Orson Welles, tries to rationalize his evil deeds to his boyhood friend played by Joseph Cotten. Make sure you watch the entire clip as the payoff is at the very end:

Here is a link to an article that chastises as dishonest, a historian favorable to the re-birth of colonialism who happily lists all the glad tidings it has brought to the world, yet failed to note any of the horrors and atrocities of which there were countless.

I get it, but isn't it equally dishonest to only point out the injustices of something we don't like while avoiding any mention of the positive? It is an inescapable fact that our world would be a very different place today, for the worse AND the better, were it not for colonialism. The inconvenient truth historians must accept is this: civilizations of all stripes, both good and evil from time immemorial have been built upon the backs of unfortunate people who suffered greatly in one way or other. This is something we needn't celebrate, nor model our own civilization upon, but need to accept just the same.

I'll give you a personal example of a very inconvenient truth regarding my own life. Had it not been for the events surrounding World War II, a time that witnessed some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known, and the subsequent Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe that was the direct result of that war, my father would not have left his home of Czechoslovakia, come to Chicago, and met my mother. In other words, I owe my very existence, and by extension my children's and God willing that of their children, to World War II.

Do I wake up every morning thanking my lucky stars for the suffering of tens of millions of people in the thirties and forties and advocate for a return of the conditions that led to that terrible time? Of course not. And while I am never unaware of this terrible truth, I do not dwell upon it because it would drive me insane.

Nonetheless it is still a very real fact.

My point is that we should avoid the telling of history simply to fit our own needs, ideologies and belief systems. There is an old adage that says those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. But it is essential that we not just know history, but continually question our understanding of it, reject verifiable falsehoods no matter how appealing they may be, and understand the point of view in which that history was told or written. Finally, hard as it may seem, we must learn to appreciate that different tellings of the same history need not be mutually exclusive, but serve to paint a fuller picture of the past, how it relates to the present, and how we can use it to shape the future.

Like everything else in life, context is essential.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Annals of the Game...

In honor of the World Series which begins tonight in Houston, here is a piece I wrote five years ago for a baseball website that never got off the ground, but maybe someday. It was my overview of one of the teams that has to some minds stunningly made it into this year's Series, the Washington Nationals. Some things have not changed since the piece was written, the Nats still haven't won a World Series, in fact until this year they had never won a playoff series. And their first baseman, Ryan Zimmerman who made his MLB debut on September 1, 2005 with the Nationals and has played his entire career with the team, is still there, highly unusual in this day and age.

Some things have changed of course, the team that plays on the north side of Chicago, has indeed made it to the game's promised land since this was written, they did it in 2016.

Unfortunately I never got around to writing about the Houston Astros who had their own long streak of futility until they won their very first World Series in 2017.

Given all that, I'd have to say I'm rooting for the Nationals this year but the thing I'm rooting for the most is that they make it to a game seven, in my mind the greatest event in all of sports.


OVERVIEW - WASHINGTON NATIONALS: You may believe that it is impossible to condense every human experience imaginable into a brief moment of time, say about 6 hours and 23 minutes, but I know of 44,035 souls who would beg to differ. Those are the folks who braved less-than-ideal conditions in National's Park in Washington D.C. on the evening of October 4th, 2014 to watch a baseball game. That was game two of the National League Divisional Series between the Nationals and the San Francisco's Giants which ended in the 18th inning after Giant first baseman Brandon Belt put the Giants up for good in the top of the inning, hitting a solo home run off of Tanner Roark. The Nats came back the following game but lost the series in game four in San Francisco, marking the end of yet another frustrating year that began with so much promise.

Baseball fans in Chicago may think they've cornered the market on frustration and futility; 88 years elapsed between the White Sox last two World Series titles and as everybody knows, Chicago's other team hasn't been to baseball's promised land since 1908.

Granted, fans in our nation's capital haven't had to wait quite as long as Cubs fans, yet. Still, several generations of Washingtonians have entered and left this world since the last time a Washington team participated in, let alone won a World Series. There aren't too many around who can remember when Walter Johnson took the mound in 1924 in an unusual relief appearance in the eighth inning of game seven against the New York Giants with the score tied at three. "The Big Train" pitched four scoreless innings into the 12th when, with the benefit of two Giant errors and a miss-played ground ball, the city of Washington saw its first and only World Series championship. Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States at the time, was also at the game:

That Senators team would make two other World Series appearances: the following year, 1925, and then in 1933. Aside from those three brilliant seasons, the team more often than not languished in the bottom half of the standings in the American League, inspiring the quip from Charles Dreyden which lingered through the two major league teams that would bear the name Washington Senators:

Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

After the first Senators moved west to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, an expansion team began operation in Washington and carried on the name as well as the losing tradition. That team moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Washington D.C. would be without a major league baseball team for the next 33 years.

The club that would become today's Washington Nationals began life in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, the first major league baseball team to be located outside the United States. The Expos didn't have any more success on the field than either Senator club, making only one playoff appearance in their 36 years in Montreal, although they did make a serious run during the strike shortened 1994 season when the World Series was cancelled..

Despite being a city with a strong baseball tradition, (Jackie Robinson began his storied career in "organized baseball" there), Montreal is first and foremost a hockey town. The mediocre Expos who played in the "The Big O," the concrete mausoleum that was built for the 1976 Olympics, floundered. In 2001, Major League Baseball came to the conclusion that it would be best for its own good to contract, and that two teams, one from each league would fold. The Expos and coincidentally the first Washington Senators, the Twins, were the clubs scheduled to get the axe. As such they would have been the first teams int he Modern Era to have been eliminated from the. It took a court injunction in Minneapolis to force Major League Baseball into honoring its contract with the city and keep the American League franchise intact and in the Twin Cities. The National League Expos were kept alive only to keep parity between the leagues. That team became the property of MLB and would find itself in Washington in 2005.

Playing their first few seasons in the old football stadium due east of the Capitol Building named after the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Nats would finish their first year in D.C. with a surprising 81-81 record. Unfortunately that would be their high water mark for six years. Late in that years marked the debut of their stalwart third baseman Ryan Zimmerman who had a splendid rookie year and quickly became one of the team leaders. But he was plagued with injuries in 2008 when the team lost 102 games. Fans thought things couldn't get any worse but the following year, the Nats lost 103 games. There was a silver lining to all that futility as the Nats were awarded the first pick in the first round of the amateur draft for two years in a row. They made good use of those picks. In 2009 the Nats selected pitcher Steven Strasburg. The following year they selected Bryce Harper, a catcher and outfielder.

Strasburg was one of the most touted pitching prospects as a collegiate athlete from San Diego State University under the tutelage of the great Tony Gwynn. Known for his blazing fastball and brilliant control, Strasburg's big league debut with the Nats was one of the most anticipated in history. In that game on June 10, 2010 against the Pirates, he fanned 11 batters, just one short of the MLB record for strikeouts pitched in a debut game. He walked no one.

Unfortunately all those 100 mph fastballs that Strasburg is capable of took their toll. Just one month after his big league debut, he found himself on the DL with an inflamed shoulder. He came back the following month but after pitching three games, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament that would require "Tommy John surgery" and 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation. Strasburg came back to the bog leagues in August of 2011 and pitched brilliantly. But the doctors and coaches wisely made the decision to treat Strasburg with kidd gloves given his condition.

From Las Vegas, Harper, a five tool player, was a phenom at even an earlier age than Strasburg. He earned a GED while in his sophomore year in high school, making him eligible for the amateur draft. By 17 he was enrolled in college and already drafted by the Nationals. His big league debut came on April 28, 2012 at the tender age of 19 as he was called up to fill the spot vacated by the injured (again) Ryan Zimmerman. Harper got his first big league hit and RBI in that game. He finished the year with a .270 batting average, an on  base percentage of .340, 22 home runs, and 59 RBI and was awarded the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

That 2012 season was the year all systems were go for the Nationals. The pitching staff featured Strasburg, looking as strong as ever, Gio Gonzalez who was obtained in a trade with Oakland, and Nationals' veteran Jordan Zimmerman who was drafted by the team back in 2007.
Position players in addition to Harper and Ryan Zimmerman included infielders Adan LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinoza, and outfielders Mike Morse and veteran Jayson Werth.

Injuries continue to plague the team yet they got off to a great start and never dipped below .500. The team broke a dubious streak on July 30 when they took over sole posetion of first place in their division, marking the first time that a Washington MLB team held such a place of honor since 1933. Another was broken on Sepember 20 when the Nationals clinched a spot in the playoffs, also the first time since 1933. They finished the season with the best record in baseball, 98-64.

With ten fewer wins, the St. Louis Cardinals, the winners of the National League Wild Card, faced the Nationals in the NLDS. Altough he wasn't injured and in fact playing very well, the Nats' manager Davey Johnson took the unprecedented step of announcing that his best pitcher, Steven Strasburg, would not be available to pitch in the 2012 post season. It was a prudent but very controversial decision. The teams split the first two games in St. Louis and did the same with the next two in Washington. The Nats were just three outs away from winning the series and a chance for the National League pennant with a 7-5 lead over the Cards in the top of the ninth in the deciding fifth game of the series. But St. Louis came storming back with four runs that inning and just like that, the end to another frustrating year of Washington baseball.


OK That was then, this is now, the Astros are the favorite to win the series but it's baseball and anything can happen. Go Nats!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Victim of their success?

One of my favorite baseball trivia questions is this:

Which Major League Baseball organization has played the most games as a professional major league team? 

Many people who know the game will automatically name the Chicago Cubs as they were one of only two extant teams to have been members of the very first professional baseball organization, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the predecessor of the National League. The reason the Cubs do not share that distinction with the other team is only because of a twist of fate, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Because their original ballpark, located at what is now the northwest corner of Millennium Park, was destroyed along with much of their city, the team was forced to sit out the next two seasons. That leaves the other team, then known as the Boston Red Stockings as the team who has played the most games in MLB history.

Ah but what team is that today? Well if you know your baseball, you know that the current Boston Red Sox are one of the charter members of the American League, which is several years the junior of the National League, so it can't be them. The original National League BoSox went through a bunch of nicknames as was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling on the name Braves in 1912. The Boston Braves, for whom Babe Ruth played his final games, re-located to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta in 1966, and there you have it.

But I digress. This is about the Cubs, the team who far and away holds the record for the MLB team who has played the most games in the same city. Today the Cubs played the last game of their season. To people like me who have followed the team for a long time, not as a fan necessarily, but merely an interested observer, it comes as no surprise that the Cubs ended the year in disappointing fashion. It may not have been a frustrating, tear your hair out disappointment as it was in 2018, 2017, 2015, 2008 and 2007, or a heart-rending disappointment like 1969 and 1984, or worst of all a gut-wrenching disappointment as it was in 2003, but the fact that the team didn't even make the playoffs this year was disappointing nonetheless.

Today marked the last game behind the bench for their colorful manager Joe Maddon, who in 2016 led the Cubs to their first World Series win in any living person's memory. And this year marked the end of a very long relationship with WGN TV, the local and later super-station who broadcast Cub games for 72 years. 

In case you're interested, the club is forming its own network which surprise surprise, fans will have to pay to watch. Of course in this day and age of the internet, people will certainly find ways to watch the games for free on their computers, so perhaps the change will not be as draconian as some might suggest.

Yet it is still a slap in the face for all the dedicated Cubs fans out there who either don't have cable TV, yes there are still those of us without it, or fans who simply can't afford paying yet another surcharge on top of their already expensive monthly cable bill. 

Clearly for the Ricketts family who owns the team, this is a prudent business move aimed at generating more revenue to invest in the team and one would assume, help put more money in their pockets. As we live in a capitalist society, we shouldn't have a problem with this as a baseball team like any other sports franchise, is not a charitable non-for-profit organization, not by a long shot. The owners don't owe the fans the luxury of giving their product away for free and we the fans shouldn't expect them to do so.

The funny thing is this was exactly the attitude of baseball owners in the early days of TV, back when all TV was free. Most of them understood that while there was some value in advertising their product by showing a limited number of games on TV, the owners were loathe to televise too many out of fear that people would stay home to watch for free rather than opening up their pocketbooks and coming out to the ballpark. In many cases, that's exactly what they did.

Only one owner bucked that trend, Phillip Knight Wrigley, former owner of the Cubs. A few years ago I wrote this piece, a bit of a tribute to old PK, whom I feel deserves much of the credit for the enormous success the Cubs franchise enjoys today.

My point in the piece  was that the current success of the Cubs was a result of largely three things. The first is Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs since 1916. While other team owners left their classic old ballparks, especially in the 1960s and 70s in favor of new, sterile multipurpose stadiums (which themselves have all but disappeared), only Wrigley and the Yawkey family in Boston bucked the trend and retained their beautiful old ballparks. And of the two, only Wrigley insisted, for a few reasons, that all the games in his ballpark should be played during the day. The latter, which many thought was foolish and backwards, ultimately worked to the team's favor because when they finally decided to put in lights in 1986, the whole nation tuned in to watch.

And the whole nation was able to tune in to watch because by that time, WGN who had been broadcasting virtually every Cubs game on TV thanks to Wrigley, had gone national, so folks all over the country could follow and fall in love with the lovable losing team, another one of Wrigley's legacies.

Of course most folks believed that Wrigley was really just a hack, he inherited the team from his father and really didn't make much of an effort to put a championship team on the field. Perhaps that's true. He clearly was more interested in providing a pleasant environment for an afternoon's entertainment for his customers, than he was in putting a decent team on the field. On that rare occasion when a PK Wrigley team, especially in the latter part of the owner's tenure actually was good, it was out of accident rather than design.

But as I pointed out in my piece, had Wrigley followed his peers back in the day, the Cubs may have had one or two more championships under their belts and thus today be just as lucrative as the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates, in other words, successful franchises for sure, but nothing compared to the Cubs.

Had Wrigley been more like his peers, he could very well have decided that Chicago was not big enough for two teams, pulled up stakes and moved south or west as the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns (actually they moved east to Baltimore)  and the aforementioned Boston Braves all did. How does the Salt Lake City Cubs sound to you?

I think every Cub fan owes a debt of gratitude to old PK for being stubborn and not following the pack. So should the Ricketts family who bought the team while it was already a tremendously successful enterprise. All they had to do was sink a fortune into the team and manage to break a 108 year old curse of mediocrity. For that they should be congratulated.

As for the changes to the ballpark and even more staggering, to the surrounding neighborhood, all I'll say is that the jury is still out.

And as for leaving WGN well, as I said, I'm sure it's a prudent business decision, one that every reasonable owner in their position would probably make. Times change and there simply aren't any PK Wrigley types around anymore who can just do whatever they please since it's their team and they don't have to answer to scores of investors, not to mention 24/7 sports-talk blabber mouths.

Besides there's no arguing with success, or is there?

I do miss the days when you could on game day sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, turn on Channel 9 and know the Cubs would be on or better yet, just head out to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, buy a ticket for a few bucks, and sit practically anywhere you pleased.

It was sure fun while it lasted.

Thank God I'm a White Sox fan.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Lucky Luciano

My dad God rest his soul, was a remarkably predictable man. You could set your clock every June 21st, the official first day of summer, by him saying: "the days will now be getting shorter." Likewise at the other end of the year, on December 21st you could rest assured that he would pronounce the opposite. Three days later on the 24th, after the last present under the tree was unwrapped, (it was our family custom to follow the European tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day), he would say: "oh well, another Christmas is over." Never mind that at least according to the church in which we supposedly belonged, the feast of Christmas doesn't even begin until midnight on the 25th.

My father was a contrarian through and through. It was part of his charm as well as one of his most annoying traits. In the seventies, when everyone, and I mean everyone wore polyester flare legged pants with matching shirts and accessories, my father steadfastly stuck to wearing his old, threadbare cotton shirts and straight legged pants. It's funny because when you look at photographs from the time, my father looks remarkably stylish by today's standards while the rest of us in our flashy petroleum product  based shirts, platform shoes and ridiculous bell-bottoms look well, silly to put it kindly. You're probably ahead of me by now and can predict that the minute seventies' fashions went away, and thankfully for the most part never really came back, my dad gave up his straight legged pants for you guessed it. He dug out of the closet all those seventies threads he got as presents during that dreadful fashion era, but never wore when they were acceptable. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that my father was probably the last man on earth to wear a leisure suit.

One bit of contrarianism he practically took to his grave was his disdain for the famous opera star Luciano Pavarotti. whom as fate would have it, as I write these words, has just appeared on my Pandora radio station. Give me a minute to recover from that sudden shock of serendipity.

OK I'm better.

My love affair with opera, which I shared with my mother and to a lesser extent my father, began during my first year of college. The first opera I willfully attended was Puccini's Tosca with Pavarotti singing for the first time ever on stage, the role of Mario Cavaradossi. While he was in town, the tenor visited the record section of the old Marshall Field store on State Street to sign albums. If you didn't know that Marshall Fields at one time sold records, I can assure you this was a very long time ago, and if you don't know what a record album or for that matter what Marshall Fields is, ask your grandmother.

Anyway, I stood in line for about an hour while the Great Pavarotti was greeting his adoring fans and signing their purchases. For my part I selected a recording featuring a selection of famous arias, the first of many albums featuring opera that I would collect over the years. I'm not exaggerating to say that by the time I got to the table where the man of the hour was holding court, I must have been at least the two hundredth person he met, and there were probably the same number of folks behind me. As Pavarotti signed my album, he greeted me as if I were his best friend. I thanked him and with a huge smile on his face, looking me straight in the eye he said with gusto in his strong Modena accent,: "Eeeeseh my PLAYzhure."

Needless to say, from that moment on I was a huge fan of the huge man.

Now as anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm rather obsessive by nature and that album and those that followed got serious playtime at full volume around the house, (I still lived with my parents at the time). My mom was happy to indulge me as she took full credit for my new and to her, acceptable passion because as she liked to tell people, she used to play opera all the time when I was a small child.

On the other hand, while he didn't explicitly say anything, I can imagine all our fawning over Luciano Pavarotti must have gotten on my father's nerves. Very soon he took every chance he got to say that he liked this or that opera singer better than Pavarotti. In fact, his passion for dissing Pavarotti in this fashion, long outlived my passion for "Il Primo Tenore." More than twenty years after I bought my last Pavarotti album, any singer with classical aspirations whose voice would show up whenever my parents and I were together would like clockwork illicit these words from my old man:  "I like him (or her) better than Pavarotti."

I was reminded of this the other day when I read the following question posted to the Quora website:
Don't liberals realize that whenever they criticize the president it only make us in his base support him more?
At first I thought, with all the significant issues out there to cause one to support or not support a politician, how lame is it to base one's support as so many people do, for no other reason than to contradict the opinion of someone else?

Then it dawned on me, the constant drone of complaints against this president, no matter how valid, must sound to the base what playing Luciano Pavarotti four or five hours a day at close to full volume on our home stereo system must have sounded like to my father.

For exactly this reason, many folks who strongly oppose this president,  wisely refuse to publicly comment on him, out of angst over inciting the base.

And yet, this past week having exhibited particularly outrageous and unstable behavior...

DAMN there I go again, I just incited at least three more people who were on the brink of coming around, I simply have to be more careful. OK let me get my bearings...  OM...... deep breath..... 1, 2, 3, another deep breath,,, let it out...whew....good.

OK I have a great idea, it came to me in a dream the other night, here goes:

Each and every American you see, we're all in this really big house together and one group of people, for the sake of argument, let's call them the damn dirty snowflakes, REALLY loves opera, especially Luciano Pavarotti. The love him so much that they play his music at full volume in the house for hours on end. Then there is the other group, let's call them the Base. To them opera is OK in doses but let's get real, at least throw in some Merle every once in a while.

Well the two groups get to fighting over the record player and who should show up from the great beyond, but none other than the Okie from Muskogee himself, Merle Haggard. He tells them that up there in heaven he met this Pavarotti guy, and he's really full of himself, nothing but a big fat commie libtard. "You guys are right to fight those damn snowflakes down here every chance you get, putting them in their place by telling them that Johnny, Conway, Waylon, Hank and me are all better than that stupid Pavarotti."

"Yeah that'll really piss 'em off" cries the base. So whipped into a frenzy were they by their idols Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Janine Pirro, who mercilessly bash the singer left and right, they all got their panties into a bunch over Pavarotti. In fact that's all they could ever talk or think about anymore.

Once they all got to the point of carrying lit tiki torches in the night to protest all things Pavarotti, Merle Haggard shows up again. He tells them they're doing a great job and by the way, he's got a message from the Man upstairs. "He told me to tell you guys down here that Trump's an asshole, forget about him."

Which they do.

Problem solved. 

Thanks Merle.

Thanks Pop.