Seeing Barack in Houston

On Tuesday, I went to see Barack Obama speak at the Toyota Center, along with 18,500 other people. As you can imagine, it was pretty intense.

We arrived at 4:30, discovering that the lines were already HUGE. Lines were snaking around corners. The majority of people there were on standby, meaning they had no tickets and no guarantee of getting in. The mix of people was pretty diverse, from yuppies to thugs, children and college students to old people and everything in between. The crowd was predominantly black, although there were alot of white people too. There were not many Hispanics, which is somewhat discouraging.

They started letting people in at 6. Entrance to the building was orderly and rather swift. Once inside, however, it was a mad house. They had no way of controlling the flows of people, and there was no sense of order whatsoever. We must have walked around for 45 minutes trying to find seats. We eventually got into an area they had just decided to open up. We had to pass through metal detectors (presumably because of our proximity to Barack), and show the security guards that all of our electronics were functioning. Some people, including Sarah, were wanded as well. Once we were inside, we managed to find seats near the back of the section. The seats were very good though. They probably cost hundreds at a Rockets game. They were the first level, behind and to the left of the podium for Barack.

We were there at about 7, fired up and ready to go. First, a band with sequin encrusted shirts played a bunch of soul music, which was quite good. Then, three different speakers, all of whom were women, showed up and spoke about voting and Barack and how the crowd should be excited because the entrance of Barack was imminent. They also led the crowd in some cheers like Yes We Can.

At about 8:30 (as I had predicted), Barack came out to speak. The crowd went absolutely nuts. The only time I have every experienced the intensity I did for Barack’s entrance was at an Astros NLCS game and at an Incubus concert, 30 feet from the stage in the mashpit.

Here’s video:

…and pictures hosted by flickr.

His speech was his standard stump. Apparently it was very long, but it certainly didn’t bother me. He added a few new things, like some stories he had recently been told. Much to my personal joy, Barack proclaimed that he believed in the market, saying:

If you are ready for change, if you’re really ready, then we can start restoring some balance to our economy. I believe in the free market. I know Texans believe in entrepreneurship. We are an independent and a self-reliant people. We don’t believe in government doing what we can do for ourselves.

But when we’ve got CEOs making more in 10 minutes than ordinary workers are making in a year and it’s the CEOs who are getting a tax break and workers are left with nothing, then something is wrong, and something has to change.

I was stunned when nobody clapped for the part about “I believe in the free market.” I clapped and yelled as loud as I could. However, during the “CEOs making more in 10 minutes than ordinary workers are making in a year” part, he got extremely loud cheers. I think it is interesting which bits of his rhetoric really resonated with the crowd. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.

Anyway, you can read the speech at the New York Times, as well as some analysis. Also, Obama’s website has a short clip of the actual speech.

Play Ball

It’s getting hard to contain my excitement and my expectations for the upcoming baseball season. I was excited before the Mets traded for Santana. Now I’m ridiculously excited.

Pedro and Johan

The media isn’t being much help either.

Baseball Prospectus projects the Mets to win 96 games, adding:

And the Mets really might be the best team in baseball, regardless of what league they happen to play in.

How am I supposed to deal with that?

And then Beltran shows up to camp early:

According to SNY’s Kevin Burkhardt, when asked about the division, Beltran gave a bland response. However, before walking away from reporters, he smiled, laughed and said:

“Tell Jimmy Rollins we are the team to beat.”


Parity in Baseball

Today I was reading comments on a digg article about Pedro Martinez saying he dominated the steroids era (which, of course, is true, both anecdotally and statistically). One of the commenters for some reason started talking about the lack of parity in baseball due to differences in salaries:

To be honest, I don’t think steroids is even baseball’s biggest problem. I think the lack of a salary cap is. You can basically go into each baseball season and probably name about 75% of the division winners. You’ve got players whose one year salary is equivalent to what some entire teams are paid. It’s ridiculous. I’m a Yankees fan, and I feel sorry for any Devil Rays, Orioles, or Blue Jays, because they essentially can’t compete. And if for some reason their farm system takes off and they get a hot team, as soon as they are free agents, guess where they’re gonna go…Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Chicago, etc. It’s a broken system. Just my two cents.

Another commenter responded:

The teams you name have s****y owners who just want to turn a profit. There’s better ways to achieve parity than a salary cap. Revenue sharing, draft changes, and free agent rules are just a few examples. Baseball has achieved this without a salary cap. You can point to the Yankees and Boston dominating the AL East, but surprise, surprise, there’s five other divisions out there, and no one team dominates them. Since 2000, the World Series winners includes the Marlins and Angels. The only repeat winner of the World Series since 2000 is Boston, and they went without for 86 years prior. That’s pretty good parity.

Excited to have a baseball discussion that didn’t revolve around performance enhancing drugs, I responded:

I agree SnapETom. If you look at the best teams in each league going into this season, you have the Mets, Red Sox, Tigers, Cubs, but also, the Diamondbacks(26th in the league in spending in 2007), Rockies(25th), Padres(24th) , Braves(15th), Indians(23rd) etc. There are alot of teams that have been consistently good without spending alot (Oakland, Minnesota, Atlanta) for years, while there are other teams that spend a bunch and have been consistently bad (Baltimore, San Francisco recently, Philly until recently). So while the ‘spending parity’ argument was pretty hip when the Yankees made the Series every year in the late 90’s/ early 2000’s, I don’t think it’s really an argument you can make today. Whether or not a team will be good or not essentially comes down to minor league scouting and development.

I’d like to expand upon that argument here.

It is all about scouting and development. Very simply, the teams that scout and develop well are the teams that are successful. The teams that don’t scout and develop well are consistently terrible, whether or not they throw money around or not.

The purpose of the farm system is two-fold. 1. To develop major league caliber talent which can contribute to the major league club, and 2. To develop talent which other teams think will contribute to their major league club, and therefore make them valuable pieces for use in a trade.

Some examples:
The Diamondbacks had the 26th largest payroll in baseball last year, $52 million. Or about 1/4 of the Yankees payroll. Yet the Diamondbacks were able to reach the NLCS last year. How is that possible? They certainly didn’t spend enough for that honor, did they? They developed a young core of position players (Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, Chris Young) to lead the team offensively. Their veteran is the O-Dog, Orlando Hudson, who broke into the league way back in 2002. They also developed 2/5 of their strong rotation from within (Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb and Micah Owings, who Rice baseball fans circa 2005 will surely remember and revile). They also traded 6 of their best prospects (i.e. the farm) for Dan Haren, who gives them two bone fide aces atop their rotation. This is the killer one-two punch they would have loved to have been able to use in last post season, and really quite threatening in a short series format. All without a major free agent signing, or spending very much at all.

The Red Sox had the 2nd largest payroll in baseball last year, bested only by Hank and the ‘Roid boys from the Bronx (Can you tell I’m a Mets fan?). Surely the Red Sox are an example of whats wrong with parity in baseball! Surely they paid for that World Series! Wrong. Yeah, they paid a ton for Dice-K, most of which doesn’t show up in their payroll numbers. Yeah, Manny has a huge contract, although at this point it looks downright reasonable. But who were the real keys to that Series last year? Paplebon, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis, Lester. All top flight talent that the Red Sox has grown from within, and talent that will be the core of this team when Curt Shilling’s ankle explodes and Manny wanders off into the sunset. Beyond that, they also used their farm system (trading away Marlin phenom Hanley Ramirez) to acquire their ace, and possibly the best pitcher in the league (now that Johan is a Met), Josh Beckett, along with (throw in) third baseman Mike Lowell, who was cheap until they resigned him this off season.

And the best part (for fans of these teams) is that these teams aren’t going anywhere. They are young, wild, and strapped.

Oh, and the Pirates still suck.

I’m not the same as I was when I was six years old

I listen to Modest Mouse quite a bit, and the following line from their song “Never Ending Math Equation” has always struck a chord with me:

I’m the same as I was when I was 6 years old
And oh my God I feel so damn old
I don’t really feel anything

I’ve recently been struggling with the idea that any emotion I think I feel is somehow artificial or invented. More accurately, I often think to myself that whatever it is that I am feeling, I could just as easily be feeling any of these other emotions from some larger and more nebulous set. It’s as if there is a low level emotion track and a high level commentary track. I’ve always assumed that the low level track is that 6 year old ‘me’, and the high level track is all the finishing and learning and experience that I’ve been piling on since then. With that assumption, there’s been a corollary that the low level track is immutable and unchanging: I’m the same as I was when I was 6 years old.

When I was in seventh grade, I went with my mother to see ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in the theater. My mother had reservations about allowing me to see the film, because of the violence. (When it came to the language, she had no leg to stand on.) I convinced her, I think rightly so, to let me see the film. We went together, and while I’m sure I was slightly embarrassed to be there with my mom, I was never the kind of kid who was truly embarrassed of his parents. Within minutes, the film had started, the Normandy invasion had begun, and my mother had started to sob. She continued throughout almost the entire movie.

I never shed a tear. I wasn’t disturbed or upset by this, and I’m still not. I don’t think it was insensitive. I think it’s just the way it was. She wouldn’t ever say it, but I believe that it did upset my mother that I didn’t show some sort of sorrow over the whole affair. She told everyone who would listen the story of her sitting there sobbing and me sitting there attentive and unfazed.

Today, I watched the same movie again. I sobbed almost the entire time. I had the same cast of internal characters as usual. There was the low level emotional voice, terribly upset by the tragedy of this war and our current wars. Then there was the high level voice saying this was all relative and mutable.

I think I no longer subscribe to my old assumption. I don’t have any clear memory of what it was like to watch this movie for the first time. But I know I didn’t react to it like this. And I know that it was the low level emotional track that caused my reaction. This can only mean one thing: I’m not the same as I was when I was six years old.

How the rest of this shakes out, what is responsible for these inconsistent and incongruent dueling tracks, I do not know. But as a wise man told me, what matters more than knowing the answer is asking the question.


Mike Huckabee stands no chance of winning the Republican nomination. He may be mathematically eliminated. He stands no chance in most regions of the country of winning a general election, let alone delegates to the RNC. He believes gayness is on par with necrophilia, doesn’t believe in evolution, and supports the Confederate flag flying atop the South Carolina statehouse.

But, hey, I like the guy.

On Colbert’s show last night, he made another appearance, and although not as funny as the last time, he managed to hold his own again with the riotously funny Colbert. He is obviously smart and affable. I also think if people understood the FairTax, he would have a much larger number of supporters, even though it seems unlikely that the FairTax would actually be ratified. Most conservatives would love it: it taxes spending rather than income.

Too bad he thinks the earth was created six thousand years ago.

Obama v. Clinton : Health Care

In terms of policy, there are so few differences between Obama and Clinton that there is often no debate. They haggle over who will bring the troops out of Iraq, but their answers are essentially the same: they both will, ASAP. There are some other differences, notably Clinton’s proposal to freeze interest rates for 5 years (which is a terrible, terrible, market distorting idea). However, must pundits have zoned in on the idea that the differences in ObamaCare and HillaryCare are the greatest ideological divide in this primary race. (I don’t really think so, but whatever)

Essentially, Hillary’s plan ‘mandates’ that all Americans have health insurance. If they don’t already get it from somewhere (their job, personal purchase), this means they would need to buy it. She has not discussed any provisions for enforcing this, and her website is silent on the issue. Thus her policy, as stated, is “If you don’t have health insurance, buy it! And if you don’t buy it, …”

Alternatively, Obama’s plan focuses more on reducing costs to make health insurance more affordable. In Obama’s plan, no one will try to force you to buy anything. He makes an exception for children, because children do not have the ability to choose for themselves. In essence, Obama believes that most people who don’t have insurance want it, but can’t afford it. He says this often. But what he doesn’t say, and I believe is implied, is that for the minority of people who don’t want health insurance, you shall have the freedom to choose.

This is essentially about freedom. This is about the government telling you what to do. This is about another federal requirement being imposed. Timothy Noah of Slate Magaize writes:

If you want to drive a car, it’s accepted that you have to buy private auto insurance. But that’s conditional on enjoying the societal privilege of driving a car; you can avoid the requirement by choosing not to drive one. A mandate to buy private health insurance, however, would be conditional on … being alive. I can’t think of another instance in which the government says outright, “You must buy this or that,” independent of any special privilege or subsidy it may bestow on you. Even if such a requirement could pass muster in the courts—and I have my doubts—it seems to me that politically it would give the inevitable conservative opposition a nice fat target to rally around. Big Brother will steal your wages if you don’t buy a health insurance policy!

The point about facing conservative opposition is a good one. There will be opposition to this plan. It is a large shift in policy, and a major new government expenditure. However, billions of dollars are abstract to the general populace (and, I fear, in Washington as well). The prospect of the government adding another imposition, another restriction, another abridgment of freedom, on the other hand, is a very tangible fear to many. Most people don’t like to be told what to do.

As Barack often says, this is a philosophical difference. And Barack stands on the same side as most Americans: the side of freedom, choice, and personal responsibility.

Update: The Wall Street Journal has expressed a similar viewpoint.

Well, well. In other words, HillaryCare II isn’t all about “choice,” but would require financial penalties for people to pay attention, including garnishing wages. To put it more accurately, the individual mandate is really a government mandate that requires brute force plus huge subsidies to get anywhere near its goal of universal coverage.

Primary Politics

I watched the Democratic debate in California tonight, after watching some of the Republican debate last night. I was somewhat struck by the vastly different tones of the two debates. The Republican debate featured McCain and Romney clearly hating each other, Huckabee hating gays and evolution, Ron Paul hating monetary policy, and everybody hating Ron Paul. The Democratic debate, however, was downright chummy. Sure, Clinton and Obama poked and jabbed each other, but the gloves most certainly stayed on.

Now, the pundits were saying that the tone of the Democratic debate was a result of the strategy of both candidates: neither one wanted too look like the desperate attacker, with Obama trying to ride his surge and Clinton trying to run out the clock. This certainly seems likely; I don’t dispute it. However, beyond that, I think it really speaks to a different feeling in the Democratic party, certainly a different feeling from any I have experienced in my short political life. Since I was little, the Republicans have been the party united around a core of ideas, without dissension (except, notably, McCain and a few others), while the Democrats have been weak and in disarray. It seems finally that the tables are turning. McCain is a strong candidate, but a great many Republicans have issues with him. To use Republican terminology, he is no Ronald Reagan. The Democrats are united, and I fully expect ‘regime change’ come November. It seems one of the most important factors is cohesion, and the Democrats seem to perhaps have finally rediscovered it, refashioning Reagan’s ’11th commandment’ for their own usage.

Maybe I’m wrong, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Update: Some people agree with me.

The Republicans last night looked like men competing for a chance to lose an election. Tonight, Hillary and Obama looked like they were competing to be President of the United States.

In Omar We Trust

New York Mets Pitcher Johan Santana

Omar Minaya just acquired the best pitcher in baseball. Johan Santana, without giving up the farm system’s best prospect. This is a way better deal then the deal that sent Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks. Obviously, Johan is going to cost the Mets $25 million a year, but estimates have pegged the value of Johan to the Mets at $40 million a year.

The Mets now feature a rotation with two Cy Young award winners, three other pitchers with 15 wins last year, and two pitchers with World Series rings. Assuming Pedro has a year similar to his few starts at the end of last year (which I expect he will) and Maine and Ollie have similar performances as last year, the Mets have the best rotation in the league, one which will finally be able to complement their productive offense and improved defense (at least in right, at catcher, and at second). With one swoop, the Mets have made themselves the most improved team in the league, the best team in the league, and the odds on favorite to win the World Series.

Update: WFAN’s two favorite idiots, Mike and the Mad Dog, have a great interview up with Johan.

Rock Band: Better than Bowling

I have long believed that the greatest impediment to widespread adoption of video games is the inaccessibility of the controls. Quite frankly, most people are afraid of a game controller. The idea of controlling the array of buttons, joysticks, and levers without even looking at them is intimidating to many. The greatest reason for the success of the Wii is the new control system which makes games more accessible by mapping general motion of the arms to input. The brilliance of the game Rock Band is that brings a new set of controls that is even more accessible: singing.

In this way, Rock Band is like bowling. Everybody bowls. Everybody sings. Most people are mediocre at both.

Most main-stream, popular games are easy to learn, yet difficult to master. In my opinion, however, the new edge which Rock Band explores is a confidence building progression. To entice a new player to Rock Band, you tell them to try singing. “Come on, it’s just like regular singing…the words are all on the screen”, etc. Soon, the player discovers that it really wasn’t all that hard. In fact, it was a lot of fun. Everybody else is playing along too, so they don’t feel like a doofus. Soon comes the “You want to take a shot at drums?”, and the rest is history. Hours later, your player who was previously fearful and newbish has emerged from the cocoon of Rock Band, a freshly minted, four instrument playing Rock God.

In my opinion, the only impediment to Rock Band‘s growth into a cultural institution is the $500 start up cost. I’m not saying it would be as ubiquitous as a VCR if it only cost $50, but I am saying that if it cost a good deal less, everybody would know somebody who had Rock Band. As the first generation of Rockers begins to age, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rock Band in retirement communities and the like.

In my capacity as a video game lover/evangelist, Rock Band is very exciting to me because it dramatically explores unfamiliar territory, perhaps increasing the audience of video games more than any game that has ever been made.

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Rice vs. U of Houston

I attended the Rice U of H game with some friends tonight. First of all, the crowd was incredibly lackluster. There were more cheerleaders and dance team members than there were fans. The game turned out to be close, and Rice was leading pretty late in the second half. The only thing was, we really had to right to be. Eventually the cougars, who were clearly the superior team physically and in terms of skill, managed to string a few shots together and build a six point lead. They missed 3 pointer after 3 pointer after 3 pointer, but other than that, they seemed to be reasonably solid. Rice was totally outcoached. While Houston was setting up pick and rolls and had players constantly moving into space, Rice seemed to have no plan on offense, and were almost entirely unable to move the ball around, and got zero penetration. Again, Rice’s bright spot was Paskevicious, who created nearly all of his opportunities himself via the offensive rebound. He managed some decent shots, and scored a few points. He also justed tossed the ball in the direction of the basket and hoped for a shooting foul on more than a few occasions.

All in all, Rice stinks at basketball.

I can’t wait till Baseball season.