Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interesting People: The Washington Generals

During the Patriots' game last week against the Bills, a commentator compared the Pats to the Globetrotters and the rest of the league minus the Colts (and apparently the Eagles) to the "Washington Generals". Who are these people?

The Generals were the traveling team that would face the slapstick basketball team Harlem Globetrotters in their exhibition games. They weren't based in Washington anymore than the Globetrotters were in Harlem -- that was just their name. They were the Moe to the Globetrotters' Curly (except Curly wins all the time). The Globetrotters had great amounts of skill, no doubt, but much of their routine consisted of clowning – spinning the ball on the opponents' heads, drop kicking toward the basket, even eating a fake ball made of pumpernickel. I remember Generals getting pantsed out on the floor (though their website declares that all games are indeed real competitive matches).

Their only cognates in the sports world are the interchangeable no-name wrestlers who lose to the big acts in pro wrestling, and even they don't have as bad a deal. Imagine that you're losing not just once in a while, but every almost night. Losing bigtime, and without much dignity left over. Granted, the staging isn't as meticulous as in a wrestling match, but still… gotta act. Not only was the Generals' job to highlight the Globetrotters' comedy by playing straight basketball, and to have a pretension of competition in the match, but ya gotta act. The eightieth time that Meadowlark Lemon shoots a foul shot, but *snap* the ball comes back on elastics, you have to act surprised. Then you have to act a little upset that the refs don't call the violation, but not too upset. You have to be a good sport. By the ninetieth time the crowd starts laughing at me because a Globetrotter made me look like a fool, I'd be tempted to sock one of 'em.

Being a General means an hour of hustling, and then being forgotten. You're an extra in a comedy, except you're on-screen for the whole movie. Nobody knows who you are, but you're expected to give it all and leave it on the floor. How do you end up in such a career?

Some interesting stuff about the Washington Generals from various sources:

  • The Generals were incorporated separately from the Globetrotters, so were strictly never under the same controlling interest – they could have gone their separate ways if they so desired.
  • Early on, Globetrotters' opponents would merely change uniforms from town to town, appearing to be five different teams when they were just five sets of laundry.
  • They were one of the earliest professional teams to have a woman player. For example, sometime actress Nancy Lieberman was a General.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the Generals would actually have a real shot (see below). All the clowning does mean the Globetrotters do pass up some good shots, and it would catch up with them. In the early days, the Generals played to win and not a few times, fans didn't get much of a comedy show.
  • In 1962, the Generals beat the Globetrotters.

The Generals were traded in for the "New York Nationals": same owner (Red Klotz), new laundry.

Profile of Generals' owner Red Klotz

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blogging Project Runway #3

The mysterious new challenge: Menswear for running back Tiki Barber. This is like watching a show about 10 people competing for a slot on the Olympic swimming team, and then having an episode where they have to platform dive.

Of all the guys on this show, would you have guessed that Kevin was the only straight one? Me neither.

I feel for the contestants on this one. This is a bit unrelated -- to use another analogy that I have ripped off of legendary comedian Mitch Hedberg, it's similar to telling decent chefs to go out and farm.

I wouldn't mind getting maybe 3 of those combos (in my size, which would require major alterations). And this show is a good example of why it has to be about women's clothing: pants are pants. There's no real way to do anything adventurous with a suit, and fashion is limited to slightly different colors and a slightly narrower pocket. I'm looking forward to seeing the women's stuff back next week, and seeing a fairer show.

For next season, no people who've been "in the industry for years" -- raw undisciplined talent please. I'm moving toward adopting Raumi as my favorite for this competition.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gather round my children, and I will tell tales of war...

As Thanksgiving passes, we gather round and and tell stories of the endless war. Poverty? Drugs? Terror? Nope. The War on Christmas. Some may say that war is glorious, but "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." Sure Spielberg makes it look glorious, but you be the one trapped in vines of garland as glass ornaments explode above you. You try assaulting the Fortress of Good with nothing but some sharpened holly leaves, poison oak fashioned to resemble mistletoe, and evil godless intentions. Tell me stories of it now!

Okay, that may be overwrought, kinda like the seasonal cries of conservatives that there is a "war on Christmas" is on. The way that cantankerous would-be soldiers in this war wish you a "Merry Christmas" with chin out and nostrils flaring, just daring you to respond with an insufficient "Happy Holidays!" The mind games they play with store clerks making $7/hour who will probably get laid off in a month. And the thing of it all is, though I am proud and firm in my atheism, I agree with them. But for different reasons.

Because I think that it is time to liberate the word "Christmas" from the dusty, mournful still-life mishmash of early religious writers trying to fill in backstory to make even older religious writers seem prescient. Happily, our culture has writ the joyful trumpeting of angels across this feast.

We've drowned out the ominous observance of the Saturnalis Christmas to remember the virgin birth of baby Mithra Jesus born in Nazareth Bethlehem to one day die and rise again to save mankind as is the duty of Adonis the Son of Man. Because in 2007, America's Christmas is more, and I would say better than that.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usI love the music of it, the lights. I love candy canes and yes -- mistletoe. I love this joyful conspiracy to fête a jolly man who gives freely to those deserving, and embodies humankind on its best. I love that the Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day, that Keith Lockhart conducts the heck out of a Christmas concert, that I'm almost in my 30s and still have a stocking. So yes, wish me a Merry Christmas.

That is worth celebrating. The goodness of man being kind to man, people smiling and wearing silly hats. And if I'm wrong and there is a Jesus, I imagine that he'd be pretty pleased with what his birthday has become.*

* Yes, I'm ignoring the excess consumerism that drives people to go to stores at 4am the day after Thanksgiving. I ignore it in this post, and I ignore it in my life. I don't let anybody ruin my Christmas, especially Madison Avenue. But if you want some Christmas humbuggery, here's some stand-up from Jim Gaffigan for ya.

His Easter stuff isn't as funny as Eddie Izzard's, though:

Friday, November 23, 2007

One Reason I Liked the Mongols

Always get an interesting reaction when I talk about my interest in Mongol history. To a lot of people, the Mongols are a scary bunch of people. Now, while an assuredly lethal horde is certainly scary, at least one knew where one stood with them:

1. We want gold
2. You have gold
3. Give us your gold or you die

That I can understand, at least. The Mongols were pretty clear. Compare that with the vast majority of regional powers, who not only wanted the gold, but insisted that you structure your economy a certain way, that you develop your religion a certain way, etc., etc. At least the Mongols in Chinggis Khan's time left you alone.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A quick examination of the Republican mind

Two notable passages from this article on the rise of Mike Huckabee, who I think has an even shot to win Iowa:

"'He is articulate and articulates the conservative message very well'" says the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

better still:

"Huckabee's down-home style has proven effective, as has a record that many see as untainted by nuances and switches."

Granted, this from AP writer Mike Glover, but it's accurate. However, what does it say that the key to winning Republicans' hearts is a lack of awareness of nuance?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Nauset had the right idea

The first time the Pilgrims landed in the New World, they put down anchor in modern Provincetown. The Native Americans in the area of the Nauset nation ran them off rather quickly.

Almost four centuries on, it looks like they had the right idea. For more on the "alternate" view of Thanksgiving, here's an excellent diary on DailyKos.

Blogging Project Runway #2

Episode Two of the best reality show going. Last week they dispatched my initial favorite in favor of a dress that looked like cetacean effluvium. We're promised a "fashion icon" for this week, who will probably be some washed-up C-lister in between rehab stints. Or a corpse or animal or something dumb like that. Huh, it's Sarah Jessica Parker. Not bad.

Funny thing is, two-thirds of the time the models look better on the runway in those little black dresses that the crap they're sent out during the competitions (and I think Lauren is the cutest by a mile).

I love that they give the designer $15 to buy fabric, and then send them to shop at a high-end place? Why not go to, oh, Fabric Place?

Sarah Jessica Parker comes off really well in this episode. Approachable, friendly...frankly more everyday and human that the designers. When Heidi Klum says "everyday woman" you know she means "fat woman".

Hm...I liked the teal dress better than the winning outfit, but what do I know. I am glad they dispatched that burlap sack though...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conspiracies: Something I Never Got

I never got the whole conspiracy theory thing. Take the Manhattan Project (overview that's not Wikipedia here). Six thousand people half a century ago, cut off from civilization, monitored and isolated from the world to build the atom bomb. And the Soviets knew about it anyway through George Koval. (And new friendly not-USSR Russia awarded him more honorsthis year.)

So in the age before the Internet, cell phones, or high-speed chases, this small project still leaked out. People couldn't keep their mouths shut, and/or were betrayed due to ideology.

But I'm supposed to believe that reptilian overlords run the Earth. In Satan's service, natch.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Belgium held hostage: Day 161

35,000 people marched for more government! (for English coverage, try Flemish news service flandersnews). The situation alluded to earlier has worsened, and I explain in more detail why below...

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usBelgium has two versions of federalism. One based on regions (in this map, Dutch-speaking Flanders in yellow, French-speaking Wallonia in red at bottom, and French-speaking Brussels is the red dot in the sea of yellow.)

Also, the country is divided into linguistic communities -- French, Dutch, and German (the blue stuff on the right). In an interesting experiment, these legislatures are non-territorial. A registered francophone living in Flanders votes for seats in the French-speaking parliament.

This is the loosest constitutional federalism in the developed world. In addition to such typical competences as education and language, these smaller units also have strong sway over justice and some departments of international relations (that's right -- the two larger sections of Belgium run largely independent foreign policies in some arenas).

This political bifurcation of Belgium has gone all the way to the political apparatus at this point. There is no national political party in the country as everyone -- Greens, Socialists, Liberals, etc., is divided into two groups that work together. So you have les socialistes and die socialistiche. French-speaking parties run only in French-speaking areas and vice versa.

While some parties worked more closely with their partner than others (Green MPs would even take their parliamentary oath in their second language), one could usually expect all Belgiane Liberals or all the Socialists to support a common candidate, giving that person a working coalition.

Free Image Hosting at

Until Yves Leterme came along. He is among the first whose career flowered during this divisive time. "Mr. Flanders" as he's known is a popular figure in Dutch-speaking Flanders...and unknown in Wallonia. So, when he introduces himself by, say, not knowing the French words to the Belgian national anthem and humming "Le Marsaiellaise" instead, well it's bad mojo. Imagine a New England presidential candidate ignorant of Jefferson Davis, Fort Sumter, and NASCAR all rolled into one. That's what we got with Yves. Oh, and he's ignorant of the French-based origin of the Belgian equivalent of July 4th. Video below for French-speakers:

Now the 40% of the Belgian political establishment that is French-speaking loathes him. About 40% of the Flemish-speaking establishment already detested him because of his take-no-prisoners climb to the top. It's tough to build a coalition when the top vote-getter was alienated two-thirds of the country. Their best hope for a prime minister is hated much more that tolerated.

What will happen next is open to question. The king (yes, they have one) has tried to bring people together to no avail. New elections would likely be a boon for the smaller nationalist parties. A sacrifice of Leterme is not impossible.

But have you heard about massive waves of starvation? Panic in the Belgian countryside? Of course not -- because it seems increasingly that the federal government plays the same role in Belgium as county government in Massachusetts -- nice to have but not horribly, necessary.

The geographical and linguistic communities handle most domestic chores. The Brussels-based Europe Union does monetary, financial and increasingly foreign policy (and the Belgian elite love the idea of the EU), and Brussels-based NATO directs what armed forces they have.

Whether this is the end of Belgium, stumbling to dissolution as did Czechoslovakia is possible. Unlikely says I, but possible. In any case, an interesting story...

Crossposted at the Bluest of the Blue: Blue Mass Group

Friday, November 16, 2007

Interesting People: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

From time to time, I'll do a post in the category "Interesting People". These will mainly be people who got a flare of media attention, then burned out. But their story is still fascinating and may even be ongoing still. I find such people interesting because of the extremes of human experience they plumb. See how that all works?

The "interesting person" of the moment is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and his extreme is survival. In his lifetime, Hekmatyar has counted Iran, Pakistan, the Taliban, and the United States as allies at different times. Naturally he lives in Afghanistan, where he was prime minister on two different occasions and was a murderer at 25. Ronald Reagan called him a "Founding Father" of Afghanistan. A good introductory biography of him can be found here, though it ends before the current era in Afghanistan.

Briefly, Hekmatyar is a warlord of the classic mold, controlling a heroin-fueled empire in Western Afghanistan. He sided with the United States after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Later, he would work with Pakistan to push the Taliban into power. When the Taliban were on the run, he resumed his middle stance. Just this week, American troops were active in his region. Though not fighting against us, Hekmatyar is apparently feeling quite bold lately. Frankly, I don't care what Bush or CNN say -- if Hekmatyar is heading toward a more active role, this says volumes about our current position in the region. While he was never an ally of the United States, he always held back from direct confrontation. That may be changing.

In a country were battle fatalities and assassinations are common ways of dying, this man is on his third or fourth war. He switches sides like a drunk American at a FIFA soccer match, and even after being designated a "global terrorist" by the American government, he's still at large. Hekmatyar could write a book about "surviving in the corporate war zone" and make a bundle.

My favorite pander of the week

In case you missed it:

"To get elected, I need your support. And North Dakota can play a big role."

-- Rudy Giuliani

As goes Wahpeton, so goes...suburban Wahpeton (moo).

Weekend What-if: A Mongol Invasion

On weekends, I'll endeavor to present a "what-if". I love alternate history...the attempt to extrapolate what would have happened if such-and-such had unfolded differently in history. Less alliterative but more to the point is the idea of a "near-miss". Despite the best attempts of the history education industry to present history as a procession of inevitable events, so much of what happened turned on surprising moments of fate.

This week's what-if: What If the Mongols Had Proceeded With Their Planned Invasion of Europe?

Free Image Hosting at"What happened: 1242 -- the Mongols had brought the Muslim world (mainly Turks and Persians) to its knees, and pointed toward Europe. Whereas the Mongols were initially regarded by some Christians as allies in the struggle against Islamic states, this less tame Horde now became symbols of the devil. Under the leadership of the master strategist and general Sabutai (pictured here, from a Chinese print), the forces of the Mongol army streamed into Europe through Polish armies and were setting up outside of Vienna. When word of the khan's death arrived, however, the army turned, and raced back to the homeland, leaving destruction in its wake. The Mongols never returned. Christians naturally chalked it up to the intervention of God.

What would have happened?

First, leave behind any notion that anyone save the Mongols could have stopped the Mongols. Every single member of the army was mounted on horses that had raced through the steppes, and the typical Mongol boy received his first bow at 3. The European armed forces would have done little to stop the Mongols had they all been combined. Furthermore, a network of informants had given Sabutai a sense of the ragged relations in this appendage of Asia, and experience in Russia showed that the Mongols were quite able to turn possible allies against each other.

Following the typical image of Mongols in history, most people would theorize thusly: "horrible pillage and destruction by these crazed barbarians. Needless slaughter would have ruled Europe, and civilization would grind to a halt until the Mongols overextending themselves and being killed in turn."

Wrong. First off, the Mongols would occasionally destroy an entire city. They had little use for cities -- our best sources indicate that Chinggis (Genghis) Khan entered a building once in his lifetime. However, sacking a city was intended largely as a message. Sacking one city thoroughly could cause the next five to surrender, perhaps causing less bloodshed overall. Europe was pushing the limits of Mongol (Arctic, Egypt, Vietnam, and Japan) and it is unlikely that the Mongols would have gone much further than the Germanic states and Northern Italy.

Positives: By this stage in their history, the Mongols had adopted a form of vassalism and, as happened in China, often permitted the life in the towns and cities to continue provided they got their cut. So we could anticipate a break in the centuries of internecine Christian struggles would have been paused for a while. Furthermore, the unbroken exchange of culture and learning through Europe, the Muslim World, and China would have accelerated Europe's technological advance. The Mongols would likely have been assimilated eventually as happened de facto with the rulers of China and the "Golden Horde" in Russia.

Negatives: Mongols would have sucked up a lot of the riches that historically went to European scientific and cultural advance. Progress on these fronts would have stilled, particularly given the lack of Mongol tradition in the arts.

Possibles: Regarding religion, Chinggis Khan had started a tradition of religious tolerance -- mainly to avoid the loss of treasure caused by wars over religion. A tribe uninterested in the Catholic Church's spiritual authority would have hurt that institution's power, particularly in Germany. With a willingness to tolerate Christian "heresy" and disinterest in allowing a Catholic Church to stamp it out, the Reformation could have unfolded sooner, more rapidly, and with less bloodshed.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Statements I Question: Barack Obama

At the 11th second of this television ad, Barack Obama says something curious:

"I don't accept that we should be still sending $800 million a day, part of it to hostile nations because of our addiction to foreign oil."

Now, I dislike our addiction to foreign oil (as does Obama considering that he -- gasp! -- made a speech!). But who are these "hostile nations" who sell us oil or petroleum? This DOE table lists our top petroleum sellers in Sept. 07, in thousands of barrels:

1. CANADA 2,467
3. MEXICO 1,429
4. VENEZUELA 1,325
5. NIGERIA 1,181
6. ALGERIA 701
7. IRAQ 603
8. ANGOLA 591
10. RUSSIA 348

Okay, let's see. The Virgin Islands are American. Canada and Mexico are staunch allies.

The people of Saudi Arabia and Iraq may dislike us, but their governments are close to us.

The Chavez v. Bush thing is great theatre, but the Venezuelan economy is utterly dependent on oil sales to the United States. In words our governments are mortal enemies, but Venezuela has never seriously threatened our country.

The State Department has only good things to say about our relations with Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria.

Our choices are four:
1. Obama doesn't understand from whom we import petroleum;
2. Obama thinks nations are hostile that are not;
3. Obama is publicly calling out the Putin government as a "hostile nation" (likely correct but astoundingly undiplomatic)
4. Obama thinks voters are too stupid to listen to what he actually says.

Take your pick.

Belgium Held Hostage: Day 158

On June 10, 2007, the people of Belgium voted. After the votes were tallied, Belgians probably expected the politicians to, you know, form a government. Sometime soon. As in, before 2008.

Belgium is on its 158th day without a government. Why, well it's...complicated. Or if you prefer this in Belgian: compliqué/ingewikkeld.

Most of Belgium speaks Flemish Dutch, about a third of the country speaks French (a fraction speaks German, but they don't count). And never the twain do meet. No political party runs in both linguistic communities -- it's one or the other. So a man or woman can end up hugely famous in Flanders and be completely unknown in French-speaking Wallonia. Which makes it kind of awkward if you're that guy -- Yves Leterme -- and you want to be Prime Minister, and half of your putative government has barely heard of you. Throw in ignorance of your own country's national anthem in its secondary language, and you have yourself no government.

Meanwhile, the French and Dutch linguistic regions merrily continue to set their own budgets, run their own schools (free of the hillbilly attempts at federal interference we have here) and conduct their own foreign policies. That's right -- parts of Belgium can have different foreign policies. And above all that the European Union runs other things.

Maybe they don't need a Prime Minister, which is good -- they don't have one.

On the other hand, they do have excellent French Fries.
Mayonnaise required.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blogging Project Runway #1

Guilty pleasures...Christina Aguilera's music...old Dilberts...Project Runway. It amazes me that someone can take a length of fabric, go into a room, and produce an amazing garment. In about the time it takes me to sew on a button.

Season 4 preliminary notes:
  • Tim Gunn is the only television fashion person I would trust.
  • Heidi Klum is sexier pregnant than Tyra Banks is...anytime.
  • Can we not give it to the freak with poor interpersonal skills this season?
  • On reality shows, I always end up rooting for the talented woman with the nasty personality (Susan Hawk, Wendy Pepper, Laura Bennett)
We've really gone from a show where undiscovered locals get discovered to a show where D-list designers hope to become A- or B-list designers. That's a disappointment, especially since the ridiculous affectation quota has exploded. I get it--you got a wacky hairstyle and crazier personality, and maybe that'll get you far for ratings' sake, but it doesn't make you more talented or less annoying.

It sticks in my craw that the most prominent show on BravoTV had the fabrics for its first challenge "donated". Drop the cash for the bloody fabric already, and if the fabric store wants to donate something, they can throw some coin at a deserving non-profit.

Half these outfits were basically burqas with a short hem. I don't really know from fashion, but I guess I always thought that clothes are supposed to, y'know, make the wearer look good. Which isn't "chic" according to the judges.

(The most amusing part is the anti-climactic moment of the show after they announce the winner. "Okay, runner-up, you're in but you already knew that. Now get out of here so we can dispatch the loser." )

Final verdict: Elisa's explanation is full of it, and her dress reminded me of a blue whale doing #2. I liked Raumi's gray dress (draping with the flower) and agree that he's the winner. I liked Simone...the only contestant I could imagine talking with as a real person. Oh well.

Hollywood to 10% of America: go screw

The "free hand" of the market, my schuchis. I'm a progressive atheist, and ain't nobody serving me or my 30 million fellow freethinkers. Jon Stewart and Keith Olberman is all we got (and even that is only halfway) meanwhile the dingbats have cable channels, industries, and a conduit to a government jobs program through a "university" that offers a course on "The Christian Role in the Arts today". More on that later, but first, about books.

There are books, then there are books. There are books that are a good read, something to make a subway ride go by quickly. There are books perfect for rainy Saturdays (I remember an entirely satisfying rain-pelt weekend plowing through The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson) and short vacations.

Then there are books. Books where you have to put the object down to savor the story. Books where part of you wants to sniff the page, because the prose is so electric that the paper itself should be transformed. When I think of the idea of a book, my mind goes to Philip Pullman's textured, dolent and fearless trilogy His Dark Materials.

The story as a whole is sweeping, and is a moving indictment of organized religion. The characters strive to tear down the Kingdom of Heaven, and replace it with a "Republic of Heaven". In the process, you have armored polar-bears, soulful witches, fearless miniscule spies, all leading up to some bittersweet.

But enough of that, let's go into the story. I won't go so far as and call the books "anti-religion" but they certainly don't swallow religion as a system whole. A recent treatment in Atlantic Monthly matches what we've seen from elsewhere: a desperate Hollywood, deathly afraid of Bullies with Bibles., shaved off the parts of the book that question religion (naturally, this didn't please the whining brats, who still stamp their feet at such horrid freethought running amok)

On a personal level, this is horrid. I love these books, and while I did not expect a 100% faithful (heh) adaptation, I was hoping that enough of the story would be preserved that I would be able to enjoy the cinematography in peace. Instead, they ripped out the series' center and meaning. This is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe without Aslan coming back to life, Citizen Kane without the sled, The Wizard of Oz without a Yellow Brick Road.

But can someone explain to me why it was so horrid that a movie with a huge built-in audience (the series is number 42 on the Barnes & Noble best-seller list) should remain true to the story? So horrid that a movie that discusses theology rather than ignores it or venerates it be made? That a movie that beautifully draws a world following the beliefs of about 30 million or so non-theists in this country be allowed to exist? Is evil atheist pop Hollywood that scared of a bunch that are only happy when they're sulking and being offended? I've waited 5 years for the movie, and we get...this.

Which stinks.

I wish there was a happier ending, but there isn't. Which makes sense, because being an atheist in modern America...


(PS: If you love the Narnia books, and are of stout heart, read Pullman's essay about them.)