music friday: jeff pike's index

“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.

I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.

Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.

As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).

And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.

Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)

It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.

the 2015 rubio begonias

Tonight was our fantasy draft. I promise not to talk about it much, if at all, during the season. But here is my team (10-team league, AL+NL players, 5x5):

  • C: Carlos Santana, Russell Martin
  • 1B: Jose Abreu, Chris Carter
  • 2B: Mookie Betts, Ben Zobrist, Josh Harrison
  • 3B: Kyle Seager
  • SS: Jhonny Peralta
  • OF: Mike Trout, Starling Marte, Matt Kemp
  • SP: Chris Sale, Alex Wood, Michael Pineda, Jose Quintana, Brandon McCarthy
  • RP: Kenley Jansen, Jonathan Papelbon, Sean Doolittle, Brad Boxberger, Ken Giles, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Sergio Romo

the 2014 rubio begonias

The moment no one has been waiting for: the 2014 defending champion Rubio Begonias. Ten teams, combined AL/NL:

  C: Wilin Rosario

1B: Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez

2B: Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley

3B: Ryan Zimmerman, Aramis Ramirez

SS: Jose Reyes, Alexei Ramirez

OF: Mike Trout, Carlos Beltran, Austin Jackson, Angel Pagan

SP: Chris Sale, Michael Wacha, Hyun-jin Ryu, Andrew Cashner, Drew Smyly, Zack Wheeler, Marco Estrada

RP: Grant Balfour, Steve Cishek, Tanner Scheppers, Mark Melancon

Limbo: Stephen Drew (I drafted Tim Hudson with my last pick, dumped him for Drew, hid Drew in a new position we have this year, “Not Available”, and grabbed Dan Straily to replace Hudson)

the chris and steven all-stars, version four

Once, many years ago, when my sister and I were sitting at an Oakland A’s game (a doubleheader, as I recall), we decided to choose All-Star teams. The idea was that we would wait five years, and then see who picked the best players.

Five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris had won. So we did it again, for another five years, picking a new set of All-Stars. And five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris had won again. So we went for a third try, for another five years, picking a new set of All-Stars. And five years later, we looked, and saw that Chris was now 3-for-3.

This evening we picked our fourth set of “Five Year All-Stars”. I’m going to win this time, I promise! The rules are simple: fill out a roster (we decided the positions the first time around), and see which of us does a better job of predicting how players will perform over the next five years. (Spoiler alert: it’s Chris.)

Here are the 2014-2018 All-Stars.

Chris (three-time defending champion):

  C: Buster Posey
1B: Miguel Cabrera
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Hanley Ramirez 
OF: Mike Trout (as champion, she got first pick), Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez
SP: Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez
RP: Craig Kimbrel


C: Wilson Ramos
1B: Joey Votto
2B: Robinson Cano
3B: Evan Longoria
SS: Troy Tulowitzki
OF: Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Ryan Braun
SP: Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner
RP: Aroldis Chapman

the 2013 fantasy baseball rubio begonias

Nothing is more boring than someone talking about their fantasy team, so I’ll make this brief.

90% Mental 2013

I snuck by last year’s champs by the proverbial skin of my teeth (he’s hard to beat … he’s also my cousin). At the All-Star break I was in fourth place, 25 points out of first. Two of my players, including team star Ryan Braun, would be suspended for the season a few days later. I traded a closer for a starting pitcher, began using a streaming strategy for my SP (if that means nothing to you, no problem), and two months later, I took over first place to stay.

My best player was Mike Trout, who I froze after picking him up last season. My best pitcher was probably another of my freezes, Kris Medlen. It says something about the level of play by the Giants this season that I only had three SF players the entire year. One, Yusmeiro Petit, made two starts for me at the end of the season (see “streaming”, above), and another, Brandon Belt, only had 25 AB for me (and only got 3 hits). I actually drafted the third Giant, Angel Pagan, and he played 43 games for me before getting injured.

If I had to submit a freeze list right now, I’d probably go with Trout and two pitchers, José Fernández and Hisashi Iwakuma. But I’ve got six months to worry about that. In the meantime, I’m the champ.

the 2013 rubio begonias

I’m in one league this year, and here is my team (10 owners, AL/NL, 25-man rosters):

  •   C: Joe Mauer, Jonathan Lucroy
  • 1B: Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon Belt
  • 2B: Jose Altuve
  • 3B: Todd Frazier, Trevor Plouffe
  • SS: Erick Aybar, J.J. Hardy, Everth Cabrera
  • OF: Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Shin-Soo Choo, Angel Pagan
  • SP: Kris Medlen, Jake Peavy, Jeremy Hellickson, Brett Myers
  • RP: Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano, Addison Reed, Steve Cishek, Casey Janssen, Jonathan Broxton, Santiago Casilla

what's in his pants, or, pork WHAT?

Last night, my wife told me I needed new hobbies. She quickly amended that statement, probably realizing I have more hobbies than most people. So she added, “hobbies that aren’t on your computer … or your phone … or your Nexus.”

I’m not sure why the source of a hobby is important. But the large majority of my hobbies are admittedly time-wasters. Heck, writing a blog for eleven years is both a hobby and a time-waster, although at least there’s something concrete at the end.

What prompted her declaration was a confession I made. I didn’t actually think of it as a confession, which sounds like I did something to feel guilty about. As I’ve said many times, I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures … if you like it, why feel guilty? … but believing something and feeling immune from the process aren’t the same thing, which is another way of saying, yes, I do know what a guilty pleasure is. A lot of people I talk to would include as one of their guilty pleasures checking something out on YouTube and then spending half an hour watching videos before you look at the clock and see how much time you wasted.

So, as you might guess, my confession last night was that I’d been watching YouTube videos. I don’t know that she would have admonished me if I’d stopped there. But I added that the hook that reeled me in for a longer-than-expected video-watching session was: Family Feud with Steve Harvey.

Look, I know how it sounds. But I have a feeling that if they watched one Feud w/Harvey video, a lot of people would end up watching a few more. It seems to matter than I don’t actually watch the show on TV … couldn’t even tell you when it was on, or on what channel. YouTube is the perfect place to watch, because you get highlights. It is similar to Saturday Night Live in that respect … I know if there was a particularly good sketch, it’ll be on the web the next day.

The folks at Family Feud are well aware of this. They have their own YouTube channel, and many of the questions asked on the game show are clearly intended to elicit a “YouTube” response. This is nothing new … game shows have been fishing for double entendre answers since the dawn of time, which explains why you can still watch lots of old Match Game videos on YouTube.

Here we see Steve Harvey acknowledging that a particular answer will soon show up on YouTube:

And here’s the video I was thinking of when I stupidly confessed to my wife:

scoresheet baseball

I rarely write about fantasy baseball on this blog, following the time-honored truism that “no one cares about your fantasy team”. I'm breaking the rule for a bit here, because I am embarking on a new-to-me experience: my first season of Scoresheet Baseball. This game is highly-regarded by people I trust, but it also more pricey than standard fantasy games, so I’ve avoided it until now. A bargain-priced introductory offer convinced me to try it out.

The biggest difference between Scoresheet and standard fantasy games is that Scoresheet takes the players’ efforts of the previous week and, instead of just adding up all the numbers, plays out games. You have to set rotations and lineups, and make decisions on bullpen usage, pinch-hitters, and defensive substitutions (yes, defense counts), and the like. I don’t fully understand it all, but the differences from what I’ve been playing for 25 years are intriguing, so I’m giving it a try.

One other difference with Scoresheet is that drafting is done over a period of about five weeks, rather than two hours. There are roughly 2 1/2 hours between each pick. Obviously, you don’t have to sit around your computer for five weeks; you compose an ordered list, which can be changed at any time, and the draft works off of everyone’s list. I have the 7th pick in the opening round of a 10-team, AL-only league. The first six picks were Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Verlander, Jose Bautista, and CC Sabathia. I’ve gone back and forth over my first pick, but I’ve finally decided, and so, in about 45 minutes from the time I write this, I will make Felix Hernandez my first-ever Scoresheet pick. (For comparison purposes, the first player I ever picked in a fantasy baseball draft was Joe Carter in 1987.)

Now I’ll go back to shutting up about my team that no one cares about.

when i was young

This picture was taken on October 17, 1986. It showed up as a random wallpaper on my computer, and I started thinking about all the details in the photo, and thought to post the picture here and look at them more closely.

compuserve contest

OK, upper left. I don’t remember where I got the DANGER sign … probably from the factory I had quit two years earlier. I’m guessing Robin made me the valentine. Next to the valentine is a Gandalf figurine from/by/? Royal Daulton. My mom gave this to me; she mistakenly thought I was a big Tolkien fan. I don’t know where this thing is today, but I see it sells for around $175 online. Oops, guess I should find it.

Underneath those items, left to right, I see a turntable atop a receiver, then a dual cassette player with a few tapes on top, a cabinet that held vinyl records, and a calendar from Major League Baseball (I think).

There’s Robin, obviously … she had just turned 33, which is how old Sara is now (when this picture was taken, Sara was 8). Then me, also 33, still with hair, and the remnants of the physique I had after ten years of hard labor as a steelworker. I’m not sure from this picture who the person is in the bottom right, but I have another picture from a different angle that would answer that question, if I felt like finding it.

On the wall, upper right, there are a couple of collector’s plates, a collector’s doll, a bare light bulb, and three mementos from my Spanish grandmother: a mixer, a washer, and a dryer (I believe the latter two were salt and pepper shakers). On the wall beneath those items is a San Francisco Giants calendar.

On to the desk. The monitor is a color one made by Commodore. There is a calendar on top of it, probably word-of-the-day, since that’s what Robin usually got me in those days. She still gets them for me every year, although the theme is different at times (this year it’s the Word Origin Calendar, and today’s “word” is “monkey wrench”). There’s a spray bottle of something … I’m guessing screen cleaner.

Ah, the screen. I am pointing at a trivia game. CompuServe had a nationwide trivia contest, and somehow, I made the finals. The event commemorated in this picture is the finals, me against some other guy I didn’t know. The match went into overtime; I lost on a Beatles question, as I recall. I wasn’t working for CompuServe yet, so I was paying to play in this tournament.

You can see floppy discs underneath the Giants calendar. On the bottom right is the printer, dot matrix I’m sure, sitting on a box with paper hidden inside it. I love the “I’M A WRITER” sign. At that time, I was in the second semester of my junior year at Cal, and had probably finally quit taking writing classes from the invaluable Marcy Alancraig. Not sure why I thought I needed the sign … I’ll leave it to you to decide if I ended up being a writer or not.

The books in front of the printer box are a baseball stat book (no Internet stat sites yet), a one-volume encyclopedia (no Wikipedia yet), and an atlas (no Google maps yet). I assume I had them to help with trivia questions, just as I had my friends with me to help, as well.

Finally, there is the gawdawful computer setup. Start with a basic Commodore 64. In the back of the C-64 on the left is the modem … might have been 1200 baud. That white line stretching from the modem to the bottom of the screen is the phone cord … the phone was on the wall on the other side of the room.

The cream-colored rectangular thing behind the C-64 on the right was the floppy disc drive. It wasn’t the right model … for some time after the C-64 came out, there was no disc drive for it, so we bought a drive made for the PET, a Commodore computer that preceded the VIC-20 and C-64. This particular drive wasn’t totally compatible with the C-64. Copy protection didn’t like it (not that we had many protected programs), and it had some trouble communicating with the computer. The flat thing lying between the C-64 and the hard drive was a circuit board (is that the word?) that contained software which allowed us to use the “wrong” drive. The white stripe underneath the board is probably a couple of books of checks … the board had a tendency to sag, which made it work kinda crappy, so we always had to stick something underneath it to prop it up, and checkbooks were just about the right size and shape.

One last note: doesn’t Robin look lovely?

kindle fire, first thoughts

The Kindle Fire is a piece of ideological machinery.

I suppose I should explain what a Kindle Fire is, for those who don’t know. The Kindle is an e-reader from Amazon that is very popular. There are now many models of the Kindle for you to read your books and newspapers on. The Kindle Fire is something like a tablet: it reads books and newspapers, and magazines, and plays music, and shows movies, and plays games, and … well, you get the idea.

I said “something like a tablet” because it’s nonsense to compare it to “real” tablets like the iPad. It doesn’t have a camera, or a microphone, or GPS. This, among other things, is why the Kindle Fire only costs $199, while the iPad 2 goes for $499.

That is the magic number, 199. If it was $299, I wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t really need a tablet, even a crippled one like the Kindle Fire. But $199 makes it an impulse buy.

And so I pre-ordered one, and it arrived Tuesday, which was pretty quick considering Tuesday was originally the release date. I turned it on straight out of the box … it knew my name, it knew what books I had bought for previous Kindles, it knew what songs I’d bought through Amazon along with all the songs I uploaded into the Amazon cloud, it knew what apps I had gotten for my smartphone via the Amazon Market. There is something cool about turning on a machine straight out of the box, and it already knows who you are.

I signed up for a three-month free trial subscription to Wired. When I opened it, there was an animation of curtains opening, and then the cover gradually “drew itself” until it was complete.

I listened to a song, “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley.

I read a chapter from a book, A Woman of Heart by my friend Marcy Alancraig.

I downloaded the Amazon free app of the day, Bejeweled 2, and played it for a bit.

I checked my email, played around a bit on Facebook, looked at my blog.

I watched a movie, Vengeance with Johnny Hallyday. The movie was free as part of my one-month free trial of Amazon Prime.

I probably did some other stuff. Then I went to bed.

So, why is the Kindle Fire an ideological machine? Because, while it allows you to do all of the above, it exists for only one purpose: to get you to spend money at Amazon. The magazine came from the Amazon newsstand. The song was uploaded by me to my Amazon cloud storage, but if I wanted more Brad Paisley, I could buy it from Amazon. The book was from Amazon. The game was from Amazon. The movie was from Amazon.

It took less than a day for hackers to start breaking down the Kindle Fire so it could be used for extra functions, but I’m not much for that (too lazy). Without those hacks, you have a machine that resembles a tablet, except you can’t play outside of the yard Amazon has created for you. It’s like a prison with invisible walls. You think you are free, but you are only free to buy from Amazon.

This isn’t a bad thing for a person like me, who already buys stuff from Amazon. I don’t need most of the things a real tablet offers. I use my computer for most things (I am on it a lot), and I use my smartphone when I’m out of the house. To say that the Kindle Fire is like a crippled iPad misses the point … you know the old line, “you say that as if it was a bad thing.” The Kindle Fire is simple, it does what I want it to do, and does it easily. There are things it doesn’t do, and if I cared about them, I wouldn’t have a Kindle Fire. If you decide to stick a Kindle Fire in a loved one’s xmas stocking because they want a tablet, that loved one will be disappointed.

It’s not a tablet. The Kindle Fire is a media machine that locks you largely into the Amazon world. The ideology of the Kindle Fire is that Amazon will give you what they think you want/need, and you won’t ask for anything Amazon doesn’t give you. (Unless you’re a hacker, or you know how to get the fruits of the hacker’s labor.)

In case it’s not clear, BTW, after two days, I love my Kindle Fire. I could complain … the glare on the screen is bothersome, the screen itself is only 7” (although I’ve gotten used to reading and watching movies on my little smartphone, so the Kindle Fire seems huge to me), and, of course, it is nowhere near being a functional computer on the level of a real tablet like the iPad. But, like real tablet owners, I now have this little machine that lets me read books, listen to music, watch movies, play games, check my email, hang out on Facebook, read magazines and newspapers … you know, the stuff you do on a real tablet … and it cost $199.

One last note: it took me less than 24 hours to start treating the Kindle Fire like just another tool lying around the house. The thrill wore off by the time I woke up Wednesday morning. It’s fun to have around, though.