Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Preview

The final weekend of the season will determine the Wild Card teams in the AFC. The Steelers are technically still in contention, if they win their game with Miami (in Miami) and several combinations of other teams lose. It's not something I'd bet on happening.

Regardless of whether the Steelers win, if Baltimore and the New York Jets win, they take the Wild Card spots in the playoffs. It's very likely both these teams will win. Baltimore is unlikely to have two bad games in a row, and the Jets are playing the Bengals, who not only are likely to rest their starters for the playoffs (they've won the division) but very probably don't want the Steelers in the playoffs enough to do as little as possible to win their game. (That's if the Steelers win over Miami earlier in the day.)

Contrary to the oddsmakers and the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley , I don't think New England cares that much about the Steelers to take a dive, and I expect them to win their game. I think they have a particular incentive to be sharp going into the playoffs, since they have been out of synch for much of the season.

All of this is academic if the Steelers don't win, and they might not. They're pretty banged up, Troy P. is unlikely to play, they haven't done well on the road this year. Yet it is important for the team--and for many of the players individually--that they play well.

Even if they do, there are changes coming, perhaps within weeks. I still expect their revered defensive coordinator to retire, and there might be players on the defense who make that choice as well. The offensive coordinator may have saved his job with the last two wins. But all of this depends on the internal assessment of what went wrong this season, and there's evidence suggesting coaches as well as players. Whether the Steelers can do much with trades, free agents or in the draft is an open question, and will be for awhile. But in any case, I expect "next year" to start for them Monday.

If it doesn't? It looks as if Troy P. could play in the playoffs. He could make the difference for the defense. And with Big Ben, anything is possible on offense, although it would help if they were healthier. That's really been the one common element their last two Super Bowls: everyone was healthy. That's not going to be the case this year--they're still missing starters on defense. The Steelers are good enough and experienced enough to play at a high level, but past the first round, they'd have to hope that their opponent comes out flat, and makes lots of mistakes. Yes, anything can happen. And that's the beauty of this week, preceding the last game of the regular season.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Like I Said

So why aren't I getting the big bucks for sports prognostication, or at least scads of readers hanging on my every wise word? Don't know, but I do know that the Steelers-Ravens game went pretty much as I felt it would. As this report as well as this one confirm, the Steelers won when Baltimore had a bad game--lots of penalties in ridiculously crucial situations, turnovers and a spectacular muff of a pass in the end zone.

Plus, as I suggested, the Steeler defense confounded expectations by shutting down the Ravens in the fourth quarter. Not that they dominated--they lost a 10 point lead in the third quarter, and allowed a big rushing game--first back over a hundred yards in a couple of years--but they came up big on the Ravens' last drive especially.

So now the Steelers and a half dozen other teams are 8-7. The Eagles helped their playoff chances by beating Denver, the Titans lost Thursday, but the Jets unexpectedly ended Indy's undefeated season (and the decision to bench the Indy starters in the 3rd quarter to save them for the playoffs was discussed endlessly on TV), which gets them back in the wild card race. It will all be decided next weekend, the final weekend of the regular season. The Steelers have to win in Miami and hope that several other contending teams (the right ones, like the Ravens) lose.

And now that Indy and New Orleans have joined the teams that look vulnerable, a playoff spot might even be worth having. Still, San Diego and New England are finishing strong, and they're the favorites. I still don't think Indy is as good as its record. In the NFC, Philly is for real, Dallas is not. It should be interesting to see if Minneapolis can play a strong game Monday night against Chicago--not just win, but dominate. Green Bay bounced back well from the loss to the Steelers. Which, by the way, I expect Baltimore to do.

We'll have to see how banged up the Steelers are, going into the Miami game. It's going to be tough--tougher than Miami was today in losing to Houston--but if Troy comes back, that's a big boost. One other good thing about the Steelers game today was the emergence of two young players--an impressive 4th quarter for Ziggy Hood on defense, and a heady start for the recently signed wide receiver, Tyler Grisham, who caught his first NFL pass in a crucial situation. The Steelers have their problems that will have to be addressed after the season, but one good sign of a strong organization is when new players and seldom used players can step into crucial situations and not only do well but make a difference.

The Steelers-Ravens game is just hours from starting. I won't see it--it's not broadcast here, as usual. But I've got a feeling about it. At this time of year, it seems teams are having inexplicable bad games. The question is whether Baltimore is due for one. For it seems to me that it will take an extraordinarily good game by Pittsburgh or a bad game, a flat game at least, by Baltimore, for the Steelers to win. And it seems more likely that Baltimore will have a flat or a bad game. It's hard to see the Steelers playing with the same intensity they did against Green Bay. Of course, if they do, then they may deserve to get a playoff game--which is still pretty unlikely, even if they win this one.

The conventional wisdom among Pittsburgh sportswriters seems to be that to have a chance, the Steelers will have to score a lot of points, because their defense can't stop anybody anymore. That seems to be the emphasis the Steelers coaches are making, at least in public. Given how well conventional wisdom has done this year, maybe we should expect a low scoring game that the Steeler defense wins.

But if both teams play their "normal" game, it's even, with a slight edge to Baltimore. If Troy P. were playing, it might be a different story. But he's not. The Steelers can win this, but as far as I'm concerned, they are the underdog, even playing at home.

A few weeks ago, when the Steelers were getting beat in very close games, the Pitt Panthers also lost two very close games. Saturday, Pitt won their bowl game by a couple of points. Omen?

The game that will be broadcast here is Oakland-Cleveland. Funny thing about that game is that both teams, bad teams most of the year, are playing above their record. Cleveland has the edge since they're at home, but this could be an interesting game, which is pretty odd.

The other NFL stories this week are whether New Orleans and Minnesota can go back to winning, playing weaker opponents, and whether Indy is going to expend much effort trying to remain undefeated.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

So here's how it happened around here: the Steelers-Packers game was not broadcast locally, but the score was flashed occasionally. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Steelers ahead. But then the fourth quarter began, and they were ahead by six points, and we all know what has usually happened: the Steelers give up points and lose narrowly--maybe by one point. And for awhile--as I watched the ESPN gamecast on the computer, and then just refreshed the score and time left on my homepage--it was happening again, sort of. The Packers kept scoring, but so did the Steelers. And then the Packers had a six point lead with a minute left. Then with 30 seconds. Then with 18 seconds, where the clock stopped. A time out I figured. Refresh: 3 seconds. Another pause. Then I got up. Instead of impatiently waiting for them to lose, I walked around the kitchen envisioning a last second touchdown, reasoning as well that the Steelers were due for some good, rather than bad, luck. Then I returned and refreshed again: Steelers 37, Packers 36, game over.
I had missed one of the great finishes and one of Big Ben's greatest games, one of the great performances in Steelers history and in the NFL this year. It was the game the Steelers needed. While conventional wisdom has switched because of it, giving them the edge over Baltimore next week, I think it brings them even, and the game is a tossup. But this weekend in the rest of the NFL was topsy-turvy, including victories by two of the "terrible teams" the Steelers lost to,and with dramatic swings in the narrative: now New Orleans and Minnesota are "vulnerable," Tennessee and Dallas are surging, San Diego is the new team of destiny. It goes to show that with two weeks left, the narrative is still uncertain. There are even a couple of fairly plausible ways that the Steelers get into the playoffs if they win their final two games, both now against wild card contenders.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

NFL Countdown

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Ed Bouchette echoed and amplified my last judgment on the Steelers (previous post.) He points out in particular the ages of the starters on defense, and their equally aged backups (meaning they are all in their ancient 30s.) He says there are few young prospects to replace them, and notes the large sums spent on an offensive line that isn't getting the job done. Both present future difficulties, and suggest that improvement isn't going to be easy. So he says that the Steelers of the past decade are over.

He's followed up with a column about the challenge facing head coach Mike Tomlin in "salvaging the season." But objectively it looks pretty bleak. The Steelers' next game is with Green Bay, which earlier in the season didn't seem like a big deal, but now the Packers are on a winning streak, one of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Steelers have already lost to Baltimore, who they play again, and Miami is hardly a pushover, especially for a team that fell to Cleveland.

But here's what can be said on the positive side. These losses started after a trip to the thin air of Denver, the loss of a quarterback, and then two games in about ten days. With age a factor in a depleted defense, that all probably contributed, although it's hardly an excuse, especially for lack of coaching preparation. Still, the coaches prepared well for Minnesota and Denver, and maybe they lost their concentration for lesser teams.

So while this is a dangerous time for the Steelers, they are still on paper the team that won the Super Bowl in February. They have a long week to prepare for Green Bay. They are capable of winning this game. If they do--or even if they acquit themselves well--they can face the inevitable changes to come with some dignity, and some order. If they don't, if they give up or play as poorly as they did in Cleveland, then their immediate future is likely to be chaotic.

Though a playoff spot is still mathematically possible, even if they win out it is unlikely. They shouldn't even be thinking about it. They need to concentrate on winning this game. They need an offensive explosion and a defensive shutdown. As unlikely as that is, it is possible.

In any case, they've exposed enough weaknesses that they would be unlikely to get deep into the playoffs. New England is another AFC team that's underperforming, but nobody can count them out for a playoff run to the Super Bowl. Right now the favorites have to be Indianapolis or San Diego vs. New Orleans or Minnesota, with Arizona as the spoiler. In a single game anything can happen, but it does appear that the NFC is a lot stronger this year and should be favored.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Steelers Hit Bottom

If it wasn't for Tiger Woods, the complete collapse of the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past month would be the most extreme and inexplicable story of failure of the sports year.

After ending Minnesota's perfect season, and beating the one-loss Broncos in their home stadium, the Steelers have gradually fallen apart until they hit bottom tonight--because after losing in humiliating fashion to the previously one-victory Cleveland Browns, there's nowhere deeper to fall.

The only good thing about this game was that I couldn't see it. I can only imagine what's going on in Pittsburgh tonight. But what I saw on SportsCenter was amazing--the team that won the Super Bowl in January, couldn't play football: they couldn't tackle, they couldn't block (Big Ben was sacked eight times), they couldn't catch the football. Cleveland scored its first rushing touchdown of the year. The Steelers barely tried to run against a porous run defense.

The defense failed (again), the offense failed, the special teams failed (again) and the coaching failed, big time.

It's been a blur of a fall. Five losses in a row, three of them to some of the worst teams in the NFL, the last one to the absolute worst team. After four consecutive losses, there was only one way to save the season: a 44-0 pasting of the Browns. Instead the Steelers didn't score a touchdown.

After last week's loss to Oakland--a team admittedly on the rise, as I suggested here--I thought it was all but certain that next year would see an all-new coaching staff under head coach Mike Tomlin. The revered defensive coordinator will retire, and the rest will be fired. Now some of those coaches may not make it through this season, and Tomlin's job is in jeopardy for next year. One of the Post-Gazette stories blames the team for lack of effort, for letting Tomlin down. But Tomlin may not escape so easily. Missed tackles, dropped passes, and a loss to the Browns--especially to the Browns--is not going to be overlooked or forgotten.

This isn't going to be an easy fix. Before tonight, the return of a couple of key starters to the defense conceivably could have turned things around. But not anymore. Once things start to unravel like this, all bets are off. It may be years before the Steelers become a good team again. Having lived through the Bubby Brister years, the Cordell Stewart years, the Neil O'Donnell throwing two interceptions to throw the Super Bowl and then leave town years, I'm not looking forward to it. Although the explanations of why all this happened might be interesting.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Central Catholic

I've got a tip for the FBI, CIA and Homeland Security --if you want to track somebody wherever they go, employ a company that works for colleges and high schools, tracking their graduates so fundraising appeals can reach them wherever they are. Truly, no one has been able to follow me from place to place over the years like Knox College and Greensburg Central Catholic High School.

So even now I get "The Centurion" newsletter, which tells me that Central Catholic celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Which means that it's been 49 years since I started there, thanks so much for reminding me.

I was in the second graduating class. The school started with just one class, and added a new freshman class each year, so it wasn't until I was a junior that the building had its full complement. However, my eighth grade was held in a couple of rooms that weren't being used by the high school, way down at the end of a first floor corridor.

Yes, the school left me with a lifetime of memories, though not all of them the kind that alumni funds would wish. Some of those memories include nightmares, though after four decades, they aren't quite so sharp or scary as they once were. As to their nature, see the collected works of Christopher Durang for a few hints.

But in this newsletter I was struck by a quote from the Bishop at the time of the school's founding, Bishop Lamb (no, I'm not making that up), who apparently said the intention of Central was to be "a shrine of religion and a nursery of patriotism." This actually sounds about right. Back in those days, there was little overt clash between religion class and civics. (Though let's face it, every class was religion class to some greater rather than lesser degree.) I may have been a little more enthusiastic than I was expected to be over Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of Speech, etc. but there was a pretty healthy respect for democracy (though not in the Church, and certainly not in school), due process and political rights.

Some of the nuns were more enthusiastic than others about the New Deal when that bit of fairly recent history came up, or the contemporary beginnings of Civil Rights, though the fact that the President was a Catholic did go a long way. Also, many of us were third or even second generation children of immigrants, and from ethnicities--Italian, Irish and Polish or Slovak--that were then heavily Democratic and felt a great debt to FDR. Not every teacher was all that enthusiastic about the liberal Pope John XXIII and the Vatican Council either, but all they could do was mutter and punish people for no good reason.

But there was a coexistence, a separation of Church and state, and a sense that freedom of religion protected Catholics, and that the primacy of conscience really needed Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to operate in a normal life. Similarly, the feeling about Darwinian evolution was that it generally did not contradict the doctrine of God as the Creator. It was accepted that the Bible was at times metaphorical, so the "days" of Genesis weren't to be taken literally. (Then again, the Bible was secondary in Catholicism to the teachings of the Church.)

Of course, abortion wasn't an issue then. Abortion was illegal, and it was not even to be spoken of, especially as it apparently had something to do with sex, which as a general topic was not to be spoken of, except when necessary in confession. It, like a lot of other stuff, was a Sin. Period.

So we didn't have that issue blurring the lines. Yet when I see Catholic clergy denying sacraments to elected officials because of their political positions, I do wonder what happened to the Church where the Constitution and conscience were respected even if certain positions or laws were deemed immoral according to Church doctrine, which has changed significantly on issues over the many years.

But the Catholic Church is no longer my concern. I see in the Central newsletter many familiar surnames of students who are probably the grandchildren or grand-whatevers of students I knew in my time there. I don't envy them the battles I had within myself and with the nuns and priests. ( as to their nature, see James Joyce The Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man for some hints-- a book I first read, incidentally, after one of the nuns at Central Catholic slipped it to me covertly.) But I hope enough lip service and especially access is given to the foundation documents of the U.S., and the "profiles in courage" of those who fought for and defended our rights, and at least the ideals of our government. There was a lot of toxicity at Central Catholic in my day, but at least there was some recognition that religion and patriotism aren't identical concepts.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Unfantasy Football

After it was announced just a day before the game that Big Ben wouldn't play due to lingering effects of his concussion, nobody thought the Steelers would win in Baltimore. But they almost did--and the operative and familiar word is almost. Virgin quarterback Dennis Dixon played well and had the Steelers ahead with five minutes left in the game. But the defense failed to hold the Ravens on a third and 23, they tied the game and won in overtime.

The schzoid Steelers emerged again in the past three games, especially in this one. While Hines Ward made big media waves with his confusing comments on Big Ben, implying that he should have played, on the field Ward and the rest of the Steelers worked hard to give Dixon every chance to be successful. But the defense returned to its earlier ways, and failed to hold a lead. Both the Ward comments and the defense are getting a lot of attention in Pittsburgh.

The Post-Gazette writers apparently think their next game with Oakland should be a laugher, but Oakland may surprise them. Once again, everyone is saying that the Steelers have to win out, but they'll have to be a better team than they've been since they beat Minnesota and Denver just to make the playoffs.

One consolation may be that the AFC team that gets into the Super Bowl looks like a sacrificial lamb to the New Orleans Saints or the Minnesota Vikings. Both looked superb this weekend. The Saints destroyed New England completely, and looked exciting doing it. The Vikings were methodical and lethal. I don't think any AFC team is going to beat either one of them, not even Indianapolis, the most likely to get to the Bowl.

The concussion thing... I have to say that watching football, even college football, is getting harder because of the vicious hits and injuries. It's a violent sport but it's getting more violent, as the players are bigger and faster, and they're under pressure to hit harder. Apart from the new concussion policies underway in the NFL, I hope football on all levels is looking at rule changes and at new equipment, particularly better helmets. Meanwhile, it's probably too much to ask but at least it's worth suggesting that television stop valorizing vicious hits, showing them repeatedly in replay and making them top plays.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Win Out

The good news is that the entire AFL North lost on Sunday, including the Cincinatti Bengals. The bad news is that this included the Steelers.

Barring a Bengals collapse, the Steelers' best shot at the playoffs is still a Wild Card, and though nobody can predict the wins and losses, ups and downs of the remainder of this season, for the Steelers to even be in a position to control their own destiny, they probably need to win out.

They are limping into Baltimore, where it's always been tough, after two losses and with important injuries. Big Ben had a "mild concussion" and so has to be considered iffy, though he's practiced and expects to play. His veteran backup, Charlie Batch, is definitely out, with a broken wrist. His backup for this game is Dennis Dixon, untried at the position. But then, so was Ben when he had to come in for an injured starter. Maybe even worse, Troy Polamalu is out. The defense has won without him, but they are so much better and less predictable with him on the field. It's going to be a tough, tense game, and unfortunately it's on Sunday night, so I've got no excuse not to watch it. This is the kind of game they win in a championship season, or even a playoff year.

The big game that they've already talked to death on the sports shows is New England v. New Orleans, the 10-0 Saints' real test. Monday night to boot.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The War of 18-12

The Pittsburgh area is where a lot of the action of the War of 1812 took place, when Cincinnati didn't even exist. But after the Steelers lost to the Bengals by the score of 18-12 on Sunday, overlooking Cincy is no longer possible.

Cincy has been a middling to terrible team for years now, and it got no respect from Pittsburgh sportswriters even this year, but the facts are the facts: with this victory, Cincy is well placed to win the AFC North, the Steelers division, and so the Steelers will probably need a wild card berth to even get into the playoffs.

That isn't much of a stretch, as Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette figures it. It does mean there's little room for error, especially in a schedule heavy on bad to middling teams, with only two games with Baltimore, maybe Green Bay and the final game with Miami as apparently much of a challenge. The Steelers could lose one of the Baltimore games and one more, and still probably be in good shape. But there's really no telling--it's an especially dangerous year, with the difference between very bad teams and very good teams so striking. A lot of 1 and 2 victory teams means a lot more teams with just a few loses. There's no room really for a surprise loss to a bad team, as there was early in the season.

As for Sunday's loss, Coach Tomlin already is addressing the most conspicuous deficiency- special team coverage of kicks. Cinncy became the third team in the past four games to run a kick off back for a TD--the only TD in the entire game. Otherwise, though no one is saying it, Big Ben's off-game, along with his receivers, may well be a consequence of the Denver game the previous Monday, acclimating to that stadium, then reacclimating during the short week. That was about all that really went wrong--the defense was pretty stout, especially since Troy Polamalu left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. That injury may turn out to be not as serious as first thought, though he's expected to miss the next game at Kansas City.

The Steelers-Bengals might have been the game of the week--though it must have been torture to watch (wasn't broadcast here)--except for the New England-Indianapolis slugfest Sunday night. Two teams without much of a running game but two superb quarterbacks. I saw some of this game, when New England was dominating. But Indianapolis pulled out a one point win to remain undefeated. They may well be a team of destiny this year, but I wouldn't bet against New England. The playoffs are going to be pretty interesting, and the season is barely half over.

As for college, I had to root for Pitt against my mother's team, Notre Dame, and Pitt almost blew it. Although I like USC, how about that Stanford? They are something--I watched Oregon's offense run over USC, then get run over by Stanford, and then this Saturday Stanford ran over USC. 55 points! I wish I'd seen more of that game.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Steelers Crush Orange: The sweetest part of the game was in the fourth quarter, when it became clear the Steelers would win, the Denver fans began abandoning their Mile High Stadium, leaving much of it to the thousands of Steeler fans waving their black and gold. They took away home advantage, big time.
After an uncertain first quarter, a back and forth second, the Steelers began to slowly dominate, until a last drive when a desperate Denver defense couldn't stop the Pittsburgh running game, and Hines Ward literally danced into the end zone for a statement touchdown, and it was 28-10. Perhaps most surprising was the love the ESPNers finally gave the Steelers, with Trent Dilford and his postgame gang admitting that they've overlooked the Steelers all year, glomming onto the flavor of the week instead.
This game sets up the next to a T. Sunday's surprise was Cinncy beating up on the Baltimore Ravens, and taking the division lead--now in a tie with the Steelers, but with two tiebreakers. Next weekend Cinncy comes to Pittsburgh in the game of the year so far. After that, there's only the two games with Baltimore, and the rest is trying not to lose to very inferior teams before ending the regular season at Miami.
This was a great win, on the road in the thin air of Denver, missing 3 starters on defense, and with every aspects of the game contributing: the passing and the running games (Rashard Mendenhall ran for 155 yds), defense against the run and pass, even special teams. Well, I'm going to enjoy watching this one again on tape. It's a keeper.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Predictions After the Fact

I had my election and World Series predictions, which I never got around to posting. I was two of three on elections--I had the Dem in NY 23 but also Corzine in a New Jersey squeaker. Virginia was a gimme.

World Series: obviously if the other team has three wins, you have to win every game, but I felt that if Philly could get through game 6, they had a good chance of winning it all. But I didn't really think Pedro was going to do it, and so far he hasn't--it's still early innings, but Pedro was knocked around for 4 runs. The Phillies have to score in the middle innings before they get to the Yankees short relievers, and even then, with their short relievers it's a drama. So my prediction was either Yankees in 6 or tossup in 7.

As for the NFL, there were more interesting games this week than last, with the Baltimore Ravens dismantling of the Denver Broncos the most interesting. Pittsburgh sportswriters are crowing about the Denver weaknesses it exposed, but it's also possible it was just an off week, a bad game. I still think the Steelers have their hands full Monday night at Denver, though I'm a bit more optimistic about a victory there. Denver is going to be determined, and the Steelers should also feel they need this game, because if the Ravens catch fire, they'll have to worry about getting into the playoffs.

The only games I saw much of were the Saints v. Atlanta (I have to say the Saints look like they're for real) and Minnesota v. Green Bay. I came away from that one with more admiration for the Vikings--I expect them to be in the title game.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

NFL's 7th Week was probably the most extreme so far, with Winners running up huge scores over the league's Losers. I can't remember a wider gap between good and bad teams, though there are always a few surprises. One of the closer games was the Steelers victory over Minnesota, 27-17. I had that very score in my head the night before, although I confess I didn't know which team would be on top. I did think that the Steelers' winning strategy might be to bend but not break--to lose time of possession but score more points. That's how it turned out, although never in my wildest could I have seen the defense scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter! Amazing. But a very welcome win, because next they face probably their toughest game of the regular season: Denver, in Denver, after a bye week which is great for rest and getting over injuries, but usually leaves you less than sharp for a quarter or more. But winning over previously undefeated Minnesota, with the most touted quarterback (even in losing, Brett Farve got all the air time on ESPN etc., while winning qback Big Ben got zilch) and the most productive running back in the league (who the Steelers held to 69 yards--once again, nobody has run 100 yards on them.) The Steelers showed that they belong among the elite teams, though the level of competition is so distorted that it's hard to know who is as good as they seem. Some sports writers seem to feel Baltimore is better than their record, and nobody seems to know what to make of Cinncy. One of the undefeateds, New Orleans, has yet to play a really good defense. Dallas seems to be getting better, and you know Indy and New England are going to be there at season's end.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NFL 6th with pre-7th Update

Though not reflected in the score so much, Big Ben and the Steelers offense came up big against the Browns. Ben threw for 417 yards--more than anyone else this week--and the Steelers have the top passing game in the league, although this is probably all news to you if you get your sports news from ESPN or NBC. Once again, the Steelers were ignored. Not even Brady threw for more yards in the Patriots impressive high scoring day in the snow against the Titans.

Ben and the Steelers aren't getting credit, but all the overcompensation in Pittsburgh media, while understandable, may be temporary. The week ended with the Steelers in first place in their division, but both Denver and Minnesota remain undefeated--their next two opponents. If the Steelers can win one of those games they'll be doing well. They could easily lose both, and be back even. But if they win both...well, I'm not sure than even then they'll get respect and airtime from SportsCenter.

Update: A little more respect from Madden 10, which predicts the Steelers defeat Minnesota, and hand them their first loss.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Crunch Time

It really does seem like crunch time on healthcare reform. President Obama's strategy so far seems to have worked--he let the opposition huff and puff themselves out, and the insurance companies expose their own greed. He got bills out of all the committees, including Senate Finance. Now reportedly for the first time, White House reps are working directly with Senators and their staff to craft the final Senate bill, that combines the two that Health and Finance passed.

The crucial element remains the public option, and most especially whether the individual mandate and the public option are linked. TPM reports that Speaker Pelosi, getting the House together for a strong public option in their bill, Pelosi came closer than any member of the Democratic leadership has thusfar to suggesting that the individual mandate should be conditional on the inclusion of a public option.

It's a very dicey situation. The Obama campaign machinery is gearing up to get Congress to pass stuff, but nobody quite knows the White House position on public option and individual mandate. Personally, that constrains me from participating. I'm more likely to work with the groups pressing that linkage between public option and individual mandate. I just don't see forcing people to pay for profit-making health care.

Reports have it that the White House is being sympathetic to the Olympia Snowe proposal for a public option trigger (Kos frontpagers refer to her as President Snowe because she seems to be dictating the final bill.) For awhile I've suspected that some sort of opt-out public option would be what comes out of this--some mechanism for a kind of reverse trigger. The proposal that states could opt out of a public option seemed to get general approval last week, but it doesn't seem many are talking about it now.

Of course the option means that the individual can choose a non-public plan. An opt-out is built in. Not so the individual mandate. It's the smell of forcing everyone to buy insurance that's got the insurance companies so excited, and their greed is such that they are working hard to make sure there is no public plan choice. Not unexpected from a business that considers it an affront when they have to do anything but take in money.

TPM also reports that progressive sources are saying that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is "playing an inside game" to get a strong public option. That's contrary to a lot of earlier stories, but if it's true, it may also indicate that the White House--or at least the President--is pushing it, though at the moment behind the scenes. If Reid decides to include the public option into the final Senate bill, its chances increase dramatically, because he probably won't do it unless he's pretty sure it will pass, and because once it's in, it's very hard to get it out. But the drama could be extended if he doesn't, because then it will be up to the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate bills--and Pelosi is said to be positioning to make sure the option gets into the bill then.

So this is crunch time, but not the final crunch time. Still a ways to go.

Update: Krugman on why insurance company greed may have backfired, and Nancy Pelosi saying pretty much what I've been saying about the public option and individual mandate.

Monday, October 12, 2009

NFL 5th

Okay, so it is turning into a sports blog. Who cares? The NFL season is shaping up in a predictable way, with big winners and big losers and a few in betweens. But the names of the big winning teams were totally unpredicted: for among the unbeaten teams are Denver, New Orleans and Minnesota. With the Bengals close behind, and at the top of its division. The pre-season favorites (New England, San Diego) are struggling, and last year's almost undefeated team, the Titans, is winless so far this year.

The Steelers meanwhile are in between. They survived their game in Detroit with the one-win Lions, but until the last stand the defense made, the fourth quarter collapse continued. At least their loss to Cinncy wasn't totally flukish--the Bengals are beating everybody. But their last minute win over the Titans looks troubling.

They play the hapless Browns next week. But their three games after that will tell the season: Minnesota, and after the bye week, Denver on Monday night, followed by the Bengals. The toughest will be at Denver, partly because it's at Denver, and partly because Denver's strength (fourth quarter finishes) is so far the Steelers' weakness. The return of Troy Polamalu (by Minnesota, looks like) should help a lot, but it doesn't necessarily solve the problems--they had a fourth quarter collapse in the Super Bowl as well, with the defense giving up big plays and points, and the offense unable to sustain drives or score. But they won it, of course. You can't ever count them out. This team is even more mercurial than last year's.

Well, I learned a lot about the NFL watching the postgame shows Sunday. I heard a lot about Dallas, etc. Long analyzes of every game, almost. In the almost category as usual: the Steelers. Barely a mention. The P-G's Ron Cook may compare Big Ben to John Elway, but to the TV talkers, he barely exists. Meanwhile, half the fans in the Detroit stadium were Steelers fans. Steeler Nation. But not worth talking about.

Update: Things got bleaker for the Steelers with a season-ending injury to defensive end Aaron Smith, a key player to run defense. Minnesota in particular must be salivating.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

City of Champions Redux

Not that this is going to be a sports, Steelers or Pittsburgh blog, but it seems the right place to say congratulations to Pittsburgh for winning the Sports Illustrated title as best sports city in America. It comes with a magazine cover featuring the Steelers Big Ben with the Penguins Sidney Crosby, in a repeat of the Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell cover of 1979, the original City of Champions year.

But I probably wouldn't be blogging about this except for one observation in the Post-Gazette story: Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan -- wearing a giant Stanley Cup championship ring on his right hand -- noted that Penguins, Steelers and Pirates players routinely attend each other's games. "That is really unique. That doesn't happen in most cities," he said.

I think that's correct, unless it's a new thing elsewhere as it is in Pittsburgh: I'm not sure Stargell and Bradshaw had even met before that photo session. But it does sound like Pittsburgh, especially now that the ordinary guy ethos has extended to the upper income precincts. It's interesting but it does seem to be true. There are downsides to a middle class and now upper middle class, largely white collar income level with a working class culture, but this is a good thing, if indeed it's evidence of that and not just that these guys are celebrities, and they don't have much in common with anyone else but other celebrities. No, I think it's more the informality of the town, the easy if not always meaningful sense of community.

Friday, October 02, 2009


It reminds me a little of the 1980 season. The Steelers, fresh from two Super Bowl victories in a row, won their opener at home. Business as usual. (It was also one of only two Steelers games I've seen in the stadium in my life.) But the 1980 season went downhill from there, and a Monday Night defeat late that year kept them from even being in the playoffs.

And that's how this year started: a first game victory that looked a lot like the Super Bowl victory. And it's been downhill from there, at least for the next two games. But only time will tell if this is a team that has passed its peak, or if this is more like 1976, when a still-great team was swamped with injuries.

What the Steelers have this year is a combination of key injuries--especially to Troy Polamalu on defense--and either inexplicably bad play or just bad luck. They lost late to Chicago on a defensive breakdown and two missed field goals in the fourth quarter by one of the best kickers in the league. They lost in Cinncy thanks to two missed catches in the end zone, a route mistake that led to an interception that ended in a touchdown, and the inevitable defensive miscue.

Though they are back home Sunday, the Steelers are not in great shape versus San Diego. Polamalu is still out, now running back Willie Parker is either out or playing hurt, and the backfield is otherwise hurt or confused. With a safety who is getting burned regularly, the pass rush is more tentative, and they're facing a good throwing quarterback with a superior running back at his side. It doesn't look good.

It's only the fourth game, and injuries to key players are more important at the end of the season and in the playoffs than at the beginning. But there's always the possibility that this isn't going to end, and that it's a snakebit season.

So it hasn't been a great couple of weeks. To avoid the panic-inducing political sites, I was doing my evening sweep of sports sites, especially the Post-Gazette's Steeler page. But not this week. It was more nerve-wracking and panic-inducing than even Huffington Post.

It didn't help that Penn State, Pitt and West Virginia all lost last week as well. USC came back to form, but that's about it. But last night West Virginia looked good winning, and tonight Pitt looked even better. They have two freshman running backs who are fun to watch, and have a real future. So we'll see.

Update: I guess this is why they still play the games. No one predicted that with the absense of Willie Parker, second year running back Rashard Mendenhall would finally have his breakout game, running for more than 160 yards, two touchdowns, and making crucial first downs on the last drive when the Steelers were dangerously close to blowing another game in the fourth quarter. At one point they improbably led the Chargers 28-0, and held on to win 38-28. Division leader Baltimore lost, and with the next two games against weak opponents, suddenly the Steelers season doesn't look so snakebit.
How the Republicans Lost the Olympics

When Chicago lost out in its bid for the Olympics, Republicans crowed. They had loudly complained of President Obama's trip to Copenhagen to speak on behalf of Chicago, and were overjoyed that the U.S. lost.

But among the factors against the U.S. was the continuing xenophobic restrictions on visas and passports into the U.S., instituted by the Bush administration and sanctioned by his Republican Congress:

"However, the triumphant Chicago presentation--the culmination of a $48 million package--had cold water thrown onto it when Pakistani IOC member Syed Shahid Ali correctly noted the significant difficulties facing foreigners seeking entry into the United States... America's visa processing issues have been well-publicized throughout much of the world, with some tourists waiting six months or more to have a 10 minute appointment with a visa examiner in an embassy or consulate to visit America on a vacation. Business visas or those for cultural ambassadors, like artists and athletes, are similarly problematic. "

Or maybe civilized people just aren't interested in taking off their belts and shoes, and surrendering their nail clippers and plastic bottles, just to get on a damn airplane.

The Republicans continue to manipulate the media, but the media is becoming an echo chamber audible mostly to itself. Someone on cable noted today that indeed the Rs are opposing absolutely everything that President Obama or the Democrats propose, say or do, including those areas that used to be nonpartisan. This voice added that it seems to be working for them. But outside the echo chamber, it actually isn't. A analyst concludes that "the Republican brand" is the lowest in popularity in history. A CBS poll R's favorables were a minus 30.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Science Advisor

Thanks to salon for discovering this video. Exposing the hypocrisy of this latest effort in the apparently never-ending attempt to impose Christian beliefs on scientific inquiry and Darwin's 150 year old Origin of Species. There's plenty to argue about concerning current evolutionary theory but it all gets drowned by stuff like this. Anyway, this is fun, sexy, Romanian and cogent--and my nominee for White House science advisor.
The Quotegeist: Backward America

"I can't tell you how many foreign leaders who are heads of center-right governments say to me, I don't understand why people would call you socialist. In my country, you'd be considered a conservative." -- President Obama, Sept. 20, 2009, quoted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NFL Second Weak

So much for the elite teams: New England, San Diego and the Pittsburgh Steelers all lost their second game of the season (as did the elite USC in the college ranks.) The Steelers loss in Chicago was the kind of anomaly that either doesn't mean anything or looks like the kind of bad luck that stalks a season. When the Super Bowl MVP drops a pass in the end zone, and one of the most reliable kickers in the league misses not one but two field goals, all in the decisive fourth quarter, it demonstrates again what Mean Joe Greene used to observe, that NFL football is in part a dice game.

Old timer Steeler fans may be remembering the 1976 team: arguably the best Steelers team ever, but hounded by bad luck at the end of the season, losing both its key backs for the playoffs and not even making it to the Bowl that it won the previous two seasons, and would win twice more.

On paper Sunday's game looked like an improvement--more of a running game, better OL play, Ben was efficient as well as proficient--but all that didn't result in more than two touchdowns. Plus the defense had its problems, and Pittsburgh sportswriters were finally noting that the defense allowed the Cardinals to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and come back to take the lead in the Bowl last year, before the last minute heroics. It's going to take a better effort all around in the first division game in Cincinnati this weekend. The Bengals put up impressive points and won their second game, after all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Two polls, CNN and Bloomberg show Obama approval up, and health care reform approval up.

A poll of physicians in the U.S. showed approval for a public option of nearly two-thirds. The approval cut across all demographic, geographical lines. NPR made much of this, and Sohum Parlance has one of several analyses.

The Massachusetts legislature is poised to vote authority to the governor to appoint a Senator to take Senator Kennedy's seat until the special election, or perhaps until 2010. No Kennedy is apparently running for the seat, but no word on who might accept the appointment, which might comes with the proviso that the appointee not run.

Bill Clinton settled another score by endorsing San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome for the Dem nom for governor of CA. Bad blood between Clintons and Jerry Brown, the other (but unannounced) candidate. Since nobody is paying attention to this race yet, it's not clear what this affects except big bucks fundraising.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Death Party

On 60 Minutes President Obama again lamented that thanks in part to 24 hour cable news (which isn't strictly accurate, unless you include infomercials and prison documentaries) that the loudest voices dominate the political dialogue.

The loudest voice lately was Joe Wilson shouting at him during his speech to Congress, and the louts who are now loudly supporting the shouter. In a way it was inevitable, especially after the Daily Kos brigades, perhaps appropriately but certainly predictably, expressed their umbrage by raising money for Wilson's electoral opponent. Then the Rabid Right screamed forth to raise money for Wilson. There may not be a causal link, but it's happened before.

It was the talk of Rabid Right talk radio, and also (reportedly) of black talk radio, where the first outburst calling a President a liar in such an official setting was made by a white southern male to the first American American President were judged not coincidental. Before long, white commentators were voicing that same suspicion. Maureen Dowd did so in the Sunday NY Times, and E. J. Dionne in Monday's Washington Post. Meanwhile, Wilson, seeing which side his bread is buttered on, has more or less withdrawn his apology, and looks upon the imminent possibility of a House motion to disapprove or censure him as more grist for the fundraising mill.

The Saturday gathering of teabaggers in Washington was a signal event, in the ugliness and racism of signs and remarks, and in the baldfaced lying involved in bragging of a crowd of between one and one and a half million, when reputable sources estimated it in the tens of thousands, well under the size of the crowd in Ohio that watched the Buckeyes fall to USC.

But what these folks lack in numbers they can make up in violence, such as the fourfold increase in threats to the President that the Secret Service is reportedly receiving. Or the hatespeech uttered by a preacher in Phoenix a day before the President's visit in which he expressed from his Christian pulpit his desire for the President's death, which was heard by a man who showed up at that speech carrying a gun.

I'm beginning to wonder just how far this racism extends. Because I can't believe that this incident would have gone by with so little official notice or consequence, had the President been George W. Bush.

What this rising tide of ugliness portends has many facets. One is the shameless use of baseless lies--the Big Lie comes to America bigtime--which is related to another that I intend to get into at proper length, the elevation of ignorance to supreme virtue. But for the moment, I give you E. J. Dionne's emphasis on what this says about the American character--something that President Obama spoke about the other night.

Dionne quotes Rush. "This administration is not your average presidential administration," Limbaugh declared. "This is not a garden party. This is not a lecture at Harvard or any other university. We are in the process, we are in the midst of an administration that is trying to totally tear down the institutions and traditions that have made this country great."

Dionne then asks: And what evidence is there that Obama is tearing down our "institutions and traditions"? There is none, unless you see it as an affront to our traditions that we have our first president whose father was born in Kenya, or that the American people decided to elect someone other than a conservative as our commander in chief. The far right has decided that extremism in assailing Obama is no vice.

But Dionne's main point is about what made Joe Wilson so angry--the President said it was not true that "our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants." But Wilson and his ilk are maddened by even the phantom possibility of some bleeding illegal getting free stitches or emergency surgery, or some sick illegal child getting treated for flu. Dionne mentions the practical consideration of public health that affects everyone, but he focuses on the character issue: " But I am not at all at peace with the fact that the one issue about which a member of Congress chose to rise up and accuse our president of being a liar related to the charge that our chief executive wasn't doing enough to build walls between illegal immigrants and health coverage. "

So with the White Supremacist Party, who needs Death Panels? Just let them all die. It's the Death Party now. That's all they're about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Game On

Some loonie congressman shouts at the President, essentially calling him a liar, and so soaks up the video on cable and the attention on the blogosphere. But long after Joe Wilson is a trick trivia question, President Obama's speech is likely to be remembered.

In limited checking of TV etc, I've heard views on it as his greatest speech, his most emotional speech, the greatest speech a President has given to a joint session, etc., including from some unlikely suspects, like David Brooks. E. J. Dionne liked its detail and fighting spirit. Mike Lux wrote: "I have been listening closely to Presidential speeches for about 35 years now, have watched quite a few oldies but goodies from the past, have even contributed ideas to a fair share of speeches in the Clinton years, and I am sitting here thinking that was one of the very best Presidential speeches I have ever heard. JFK's inaugural and a couple of FDR's best are the only ones I can think of that moved me so much."

These and other similar responses suggest it's immediate effect already is to galvanize the wavering Obama people, but it also gave some moderate Democrats and at least one moderate Republican the room they need to support reform ( Sen.Olympia Snow praised it and Sen. Ben Nelson called it a gamechanger), while providing both common philosophical ground and a call to arms. For a speech so laden with arguments for relatively specific proposals, it was a masterpiece.

Here's a link to text and video, or you can wander over to Dreaming Up Daily for extended excerpts.

The next few days will be crucial, but I think it will make a difference. And the stronger Obama is, the more likely a public option will survive--although I'm guessing that 4 year window is where the maneuvering is going to be. Something like a reverse trigger: the public option takes effect in four years, unless private insurers are following the new law and are offering competitive prices. Anyway, it's on.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Barack is back! From President Obama's Labor Day speech in Ohio, where the rubber meets the road on health care.

The Nonsense of August

Two days before President Obama's address to Congress signals the final push for a health care reform, the Political Wire says this:

As everyone gets back to work on Capitol Hill, it's increasingly clear that President Obama survived a brutal August and that even under a worst case scenario he'll be able to sign a meaningful health care reform bill.

Marc Ambinder : "After August, conservatives have exhausted their repertoire of arguments and many of their demagogic tricks. Public support for significant health care reform as something worth doing remains high. Support for Obama's plan remains unchanged -- didn't grow, certainly, but didn't decline. Support among Democrats remains at 90%. Obama's message tomorrow night will be one that dovetails with what the American people believe: it's important to get health care reform done."

Jonathan Chait: "Despite all of the setbacks and all of the missed opportunities -- despite this train wreck of a month -- the situation remains remarkably similar to what it was before the recess. Significant health care legislation is likely to pass, particularly if Obama manages to give a good speech on Wednesday night. And while the possibilities for what that legislation might accomplish have certainly diminished, mostly for worse, it's not clear how much they have diminished -- and to what extent progressives may yet have the power to change that fact."Most important, Democrats are coming to realize that failing to pass a bill when they control the House and Senate would be political suicide -- just like it was during the 1990s.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their preseason with their second straight win, this time with the younger players trying to make the team beating up on Carolina 21-10. Several of these young players did themselves good, especially Stefan Logan, seen above high fiving the crowd after his 80 yard punt return, which apparently sealed the deal: he's made the team, and may give the Steelers a weapon they didn't have last year. Another offensive standout was running back Isaac Redman, who punched in another goal line touchdown. The Steelers are so deep at running back however that the local experts are saying Redman is not likely to make the team, which I find hard to believe. He's a fan favorite already. I'm betting they find room for him.

Well, the Steelers are reigning Super Bowl champs but one thing hasn't changed: they get no respect from ESPN. This year just like last year their games are hardly covered, usually last if they make Sportscenter at all. The yak is all about Brett Fauvre, Michael Vick, ad nauseam, and the favorite going into the season is Hollywood Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Regardless of picks, let's remember accomplishment, and the Steelers have only strengthened themselves since January. It's disgusting how little attention or respect ESPN pays the Steelers.

As for the upcoming season, the only thing that would surprise me from the Steelers is cold efficiency. It would be a relief, though. The NFL is looking more like baseball year by year, divided between the elite teams and the bad teams. It's still true that on any given Sunday any team can win, but for a bunch of teams that's going to be a stretch. The Steelers are among the elite teams this season. They've added some potentially exciting players on both sides of the ball, and addressed several weaknesses, although the o line (especially in terms of depth) remains the biggest question mark. Which means Big Ben will probably be improvising a lot again this year, so anxiety awaits again. They start the season next Thursday against the Tennessee Titans.
Update: Redman was cut, but he was signed to the practice squad so he's still a Steeler. Apparently the Steelers are still looking for an experienced O line sub, but didn't sign anybody off waivers. It looks like all the key players are healthy for the opener. Should be quite a show, against a tough team.
Today's Panic (Read Right Away or It Might Be Over)

This feeding-on-itself political news environment wouldn't be so bad if it didn't infect people with panic. It's to be expected that the various sides on the healthcare debate are going to jockey for position, but what's more than a little crazy is the panic some folks express, their instant disillusion with Obama, so disappointed they'll never believe anybody again, etc. Meanwhile, President Obama's speech is not until next Wednesday. It's a little too much like the mindless panic of the Rabid Right.

I've read the headlines and the summaries for way too many accounts and speculations, and just about the only one that passes the smell test so far is this one from Ambinder, and even it is unlikely to be accurate in all details. There have been rumors and panics a half dozen times about Obama abandoning the public option (as it's called) and each time he's reaffirmed his support. I don't expect this time to be significantly different.

I will add this to the argument: I don't see how it is possible--or even legal--to make it a law that everyone must buy health insurance, and not at least offer the choice of a public nonprofit plan. I can't think of a precedent for a law requiring that people buy the product of a private for profit company. People are required to pay taxes, but even that requirement makes some allowances. So I'm not worrying about socialism. I'm worrying about government mandated capitalism.

Update: Apparently the individual mandate is based on laws requiring auto insurance, available only from private companies. But you are required to buy auto insurance only if you own a motor vehicle. You can choose not to own one. To me this is still a stretch.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


You've been hearing what a terrible August it was for the Obama presidency. Some of what you might not have heard, including secret news that was actually published in the last few days:

--the Wall Street Journal admits the Obama Recovery Act is working to improve the U.S. economy.

--even the AP must note that auto sales boomed in August. Thanks in no small part to the Obama incentive program. (Otherwise known as the clunker program.)

--FEMA has been revitalized and is getting very high marks. In New Orleans. From, among others, Governor Bobby Jidal. He of the unfortunate GOP response to the State of the Union. He who said he'd turn down Recovery money.

--Salon reported that the U.S. is brokering what may turn out to be a breakthrough in the Middle East. In case you missed it, Obama and Sec. of State Clinton sent former President Clinton to North Korea, and he not only got those U.S. journalists out, but sudden progress is being made on nuclear talks, and on North/South Korea relations. Iran has also indicated a new willingness to cooperate with nuclear inspectors.

---On health care, with all the noise and jockeying, the GOPer fringe may have blown their wad in August, town halls are becoming support health care reform events, and Obama still has the votes in Congress.

But hey, keep this to yourself. Wouldn't want cable news to catch on.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Massive fires are only the most visible reason that California is a state of emergency. See post below.
State of Emergency

The Terminator returned from the East Coast to declare California in a state of emergency, due to the tremendous fires in the L.A. area. Apart from the immense damage, the loss of life (2 firemen so far) and the cost of trying to fight them (with no success so far) these fires threaten the Mount Wilson Observatory, and have caused the evacuation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which means among other things that the Mars rovers have stopped in their tracks.

That the effects of the CA fires extend to Mars is just one of the operative metaphors for this state's plight. Schools are reopening, and starting to cope with budget cuts, and no one involved in them--students, teachers, administrators apart from the highest ones--is being affected. Mandatory furloughs and across the board pay cuts are just the beginning.

The spiral downward is accelerating due to these cuts. The CA economy, particularly hard-hit because of high participation in the housing market bubble, started to falter, and to send less in taxes to Sacramento. Refusing to raise revenues, the Terminator terminated or disemboweled programs mostly for the poor, old and sick. Very heroic. Already the CA economy appears resistant to the improvements seen elsewhere--the official unemployment rate rose to nearly 12%, the highest in more than 60 years. Despite the federal recovery act, construction jobs fell, as did tourist related jobs, the combination hitting the Latino community hardest. But that was even before the decline in pay for state workers, and the loss of jobs because of cut programs. Those effects are now rippling through the economy as well as the society.

Since the Terminator gave in so bravely to the quaint but unaffordable anti-gubment hysteria, the state is helpless when it is clear that government is going to be needed more than ever--and these fires are Exhibit One.

First of all, look at them. These are very powerful fires. And as this eloquent diary attests, this is not even yet fire season. These fires aren't supposed to happen in August, not in southern California. But the entire southwest is parched, in the midst of a multiple year drought. The Climate Crisis is coming to get them, and it's not going away.

Just as these fires threaten the air, the water, the business and public resources of the region and beyond, California's economic tailspin will affect the rest of America and the world economy. But the Terminator plus the perfect storm of a helpless state government and a total leadership vacuum in the state, together forestall much hope that California can fix itself any time soon.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy Farewell: The Music

As was repeated (and shown repeatedly in the retrospective films that played over (and over) the past few days), Senator Ted Kennedy loved music, and music was a big part of all of the memorial events. There were songs at the Kennedy Library, including hymns and several choruses of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," with Irish tenors outdoing each other each time.

The most impressive music came at the funeral Mass. Yo Yo Ma played the Sarabande of Bach's Cello Suite #6, which if I'm not mistaken has particular meaning for the musician, who played it for his father shortly before his death. In any case, he played it memorably, with evident feeling. Placido Domingo sang Franck's "Panis Angelicus," the Tanglewood Chorus sang Brahm's "Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee," and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang a wonderful "Ave Maria" by Schubert.

But I was especially taken by the organ music at the very beginning, as Kennedy's casket entered. The processional hymn, which began a bit later, was "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" but I couldn't tell if the organ music was another version of it, but whatever it was, it was beautiful, mysterious.

The most notable addition to the day's music was at the Capitol, after the official prayers and singing. As the hearse was about to leave, the crowd across the street spontaneously began singing "America the Beautiful."

But the musical moment I will remember came at the very end, at the Arlington National Cemetary, in the most impressive solo version of Taps I've ever heard. It was not an ordinary rote rendition--it was very musical, with pure tones and full of feeling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hysteria Day

Let's remember this date. Media hysteria is probably at its peak, although the extremes to which the 24 hour news cycle/ cable/ blogosphere/Twitter/etc. can go can never be underestimated. This is in fact their chief danger.

A month or so ago when things were so boring and President Obama's approval was in the 60s, the Democrats were certain to make huge gains in 2010 and the Republican Party was dwindling unto death.

Today the momentary conventional wisdom is that the Democrats are in for huge losses in 2010, Obama (with approval ratings from a tick under 50 to a tick under 60%) is reeling, and CNN is asking--"a one term President?"

His healthcare reform plan is stumbling, the economy is still sputtering and violence is up in Iraq and Afghanistan. writes Reuters, in one of many predominant stories about Obama's woes. Whether the healthcare reform plan is stumbling is arguable, since Congress is not in session, but we'll grant that the news generally isn't good. "Violence is up" is also arguable, and who can deny that "the economy is still sputtering." Still--

Also in today's headlines: Pace of U.S. existing home sales fastest in 2 years (also Reuters), Bernanke says prospects for return to global growth good (also Reuters); Fed, ECB eye recovery, too soon to hit the brakes (also Reuters: World’s Central Bankers Voice Optimism About Recovery (NYTimes), etc.

In a sane society, we'd be debating real stuff, like why employment is lagging (or is it? Unemployment went up at the same time as hiring--could it be that people are more actively looking for work now that there might be some?) and why California's unemployment is growing so fast (could it be because of state budget cuts mandating layoffs and the effects of program cuts on not only government jobs but private sector jobs of suppliers etc.?)

Nah, better to wallow in hysteria. Have a good weekend!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pre-season Steelers: Well, our third team is better than their third team. The starters and backups for the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals (who last met in the Super Bowl, which--if you've forgotten--THE STEELERS WON--didn't do much against each other Thursday night. The Steelers highlight was this catch by Limas Sweed, looking good for the first team third receiver. It must be said however that Cardinal coach Ken Whisenhunt has again designed a sweet passing offense for quarterbacks Kurt Warner, Matt Leinart and rookie Tyler Palko that should make some waves in the NFL this year. Only former Steelers backup qb Brian St. Pierre, now with the Cardinals, was ineffective.
Still it was a very good night for the Steelers, as they saw several weaknesses in their world champion team potentially repaired: they got their punter back from injury and he boomed every kick, they may have found a new short yardage back (Isaac Redman) and a speedster to return kicks and catch passes (Mike Wallace) as well as lots of new pop on the defense. Injured backup qb Charlie Batch looked healthy but most of the game was played by second year qb David Dixon who showed poise and skills, and could be a star of the future. With lots of room to improve, the Steelers WON 20-10. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Right To Get Out of a Town Hall Meeting Alive

I lived through the assassinations of the 1960s, barely. I know what gun violence can do to our collective life and to our individual lives, even at a great distance. But we all have seen evidence in just the past week of what one violent person can do with a gun in a crowded space.

So I am utterly astounded at the spectre of people carrying guns to town hall meetings, one outside a meeting with President Obama in New Hampshire, and one actually inside a meeting with a Congressional Rep in Arizona,, where a holstered gun clattered onto the floor. And completely baffled by the apparent fact that in both cases, this gun-toting was legal.

There are two concerns here. First, the safety of the President and of Members of Congress. But second, the safety of the people attending town hall meetings.
How can it be legal to bring a loaded gun to such an event, even in the parking lot? But even more, how can it be legal to bring a gun into a town hall meeting? Does the right to bear arms trump the right to get out of a town hall meeting alive?

Presumably, there are fire codes that would prohibit someone from setting a fire in this crowd. But there is no law covering the clear and present danger of gun violence? In a heated situation, in which tempers are clearly on edge, and when people are being incited to go to these events with the most inflammatory public rhetoric I've heard in decades?

Presumably the Secret Service can prevent guns from getting much nearer than the parking lot outside an event where the President is appearing, but that's too close for me. That gun was loaded, and the man was holding a sign that made clear his advocacy for shedding blood.

But as we've seen in the coverage of other town hall events with Senators and Reps, there is little or no security. So there is no one to prevent guns from entering, and no one to deter their use inside.

This is a threat to participatory democracy and to the public safety. It must be addressed. Do we need video of bleeding bodies and panic to anticipate and correct this? I don't want to see the current insanity become tragedy for the innocent and their families as the result of some "lone gunman" at a town hall somewhere.

While it may be that the extremists showing up at these town hall meetings aren't doing much good for healthcare opponents, I'm afraid that stunned disbelief and ridicule are not sufficient responses. Somebody has to take the clear and present danger seriously.

Josh Horwitz has a column that narrates what's being going on, and how the fomenting of violence is a consistent theme. He concludes:

This year has already been marred by a series of horrific shootings involving individuals who hated our government and believed they had a constitutional right to strike against it: Richard Poplawski in Pittsburgh, James von Brunn in the District of Columbia, Scott Roeder in Wichita, Gilbert Ortez, Jr. in Texas, etc. With tensions escalating at town halls across the country, the overwhelming majority of Americans who wish to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights must speak out against the violent, insurrectionist philosophy that has corrupted the Second Amendment.

I advocate more than that. Somebody important at the White House better be calling somebody important at the FBI who better be alerting law enforcement at the local level. These guys seem pretty good at spying on Quakers. Maybe they ought to be checking groups and individuals who have crossed the line and actually threaten violence, with the means to cause it.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Time Out

The insurance company-promoted violent mobs preventing citizens from hearing their (Democratic) members of Congress on the important pending healthcare legislation, the TV and radio traitors ginning them up, the rapid growth of Rabid Right terrorism--at the same time as headlines suggest a retreat to meaningless reform--is all so upsetting that my dear partner has warned me to stay off the news for awhile. So I will. In a minute.

I don't actually participate much at Daily Kos these days, but the alarm there is palpable and not entirely extreme. While the frontpagers catalog the parade of outright lies and fraud, as well as the accelerating threats and acts of violence, diarists like this one and this one and this one analyze the nasty direction. And I'm not going to let the historical echoes be preempted by the projections of the Rabid Right, because it all does remind me of what I've read about Germany in the 30s, when the Nazis were just starting to make their move.

Paul Krugman got a lot of attention with his column, and he rightly ascribed a lot of the emotion involved to racial paranoia and outright racism:

Many people hoped that last year’s election would mark the end of the “angry white voter” era in America. Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural and racial fear are a declining share of the electorate.

He also alluded to Yeats' scary apocalyptic poem:

But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And he concluded:

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail."

I have been getting emails from the Organizing for America organization that grew out of the Obama campaign, but they don't seem to be as creative and on top of stuff as they were then, or so it seems to me. Still, I've called my congressman as they requested (he's also had a town meeting disrupted, though that was far from here--this district is spread over an enormous area. Interesting that they shouted What's wrong with profit? which doesn't sound very populist, but goes pretty much to the heart of what's wrong with healthcare.) And yes, I've even contributed some money again, to pro-healthcare reform ads. But none of it seems like enough so far.

But I'm hoping to take the weekend off, for my mental health. And I'll give the last word to Bill Maher in his cogent column: New Rule: Just because a country elects a smart president doesn't make it a smart country.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

R.I.P. film director John Hughes, who died of a heart attack at age 59. I was already older than the demographic for his youth movies in the 80s, but I loved The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. These works by the Chicago director were some of the few signs of life in the Reagan years. The "Twist and Shout" scene in Ferris remains one of the most joyful scenes in an American film, capturing the spirit as well as the music of the Beatles movies of the 60s.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thursday's Notes

Caught on TV: "I like the organic industrialism of this piece." Organic industrialism? Is that like industrial farming?

Electronic media seems to turn everything into a circus. The Beer Summit. The woman who called police, the black officer who witnessed the arrest of Skip Gates, relentlessly and unfairly vilified, both sound hurt and both look like they've been run over by a steamroller.

Trenchant commentary on the subject by the Brown professor Rachel Maddow had on first. But the comment that will stay with me was made yesterday by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist (and black man) Eugene Robinson, after host Howard Dean tried to make it sound like all this was just a mistake all around. Robinson said that he did not know a black man who doesn't believe race was a factor in Professor Gates' arrest.

On the circus: Chris Matthews, while decrying such loud liars and amplified morons as the Birther people, also complained that Obama's press conferences were too dull. He said so to the tune of very loud background music, and it may have been during his "Politics Sideshow" segment. Someday he might put it together: it's news as entertainment that empowers and amplifies the lunatics and liars, and by complaining about substantive news conferences, he's encouraging the media atmosphere that gives the idiocies he decries their aura of legitimacy.

Despite the hoohaw about Obama poll numbers, the Gallup poll headline is Obama Gets High Marks on Leadership and Empathy. And while other numbers are down from the stratosphere, Pres. O and the Democrats still do significantly better than the GOP/ White Supremacist Party.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Farm Team

Way back when I was wearing the New York Times uniform, I had a one-on-one conversation with the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was telling me about his impossible problems: shrinking revenues in a market hemmed in by geography and population declining within it. The message was the struggle to keep the Pirates competitive. It was kind of shocking at the time, because it was 1980, and the Pirates were the reining World Champions.

But the Pirates had their last competitive team in 1991, when Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke patrolled the outfield, and they came within one out of winning the pennant. All three were soon gone, and the Pirates haven't been a first division team since.

In recent years they've been notable mostly for supplying contenders with star players, and this season they've outdone themselves, capping it all by trading away their last two good players in one day: today.

Not just good to great players, but fan favorites. When I was in Pittsburgh in June, the Pirates were so desperate to get people to games that they expanded their free-game-on-your-birthday promotion to include anybody who has a birthday all year. "Basically if you've been born, you can get a ticket," the TV announcer explained.

Now just why the Pirates can't compete in the same city that is home to the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the World Champion Pittsburgh Penguins is something more subtle minds will have to explain. All I know is that the suggestion I made almost a decade ago--that the Pirates stop pretending, and just officially become a minor league team--is coming true, although the pretense is still there. After all, most of their players now are minor leaguers, and they are clearly a farm team for competitive teams in the Major Leagues.

Maybe they should concentrate on food and drink (they do seem to be doing that) and putting on a good show in that great new ball park, maybe have a ticket lottery with the winner announced during the seventh inning stretch, and a live band on the field between innings. A Ferris Wheel in the outfield and a tractor pull in the parking lot. While playing other farm teams.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

California's Inept Deal with the Devil

The LA Times has a revealing story on how the California budget was passed in the state legislature:

" The power of Sacramento lobbyists was only one of several factors threatening to bring the Legislature to a halt. Steinberg turned aside the proposal from Intuit's representatives. But lobbyists for major interest groups were present throughout the night, seeking to influence the process. With hundreds of pages of legislative language passed with little time available for review, few knew what the fine print might contain.

Early proclamations that the cash crisis had forced lawmakers to transcend pettiness and partisanship devolved into hallway deal-making. Over and over, legislators with designs on higher office balked at measures that could be used in campaigns against them. Legislative leaders, inexperienced in their jobs, repeatedly found they could not deliver the votes of their caucuses.

Term limits have made this batch of lawmakers among the most inexperienced in decades, and many legislators, their attention focused on their next elected office, spent the night watching the moves of real or prospective opponents in upcoming primaries."

All this sordidness might be excused if they had passed a sane budget, with sane cuts and sane revenue increases. But even though they saved posh Santa Barbara beaches from oil rigs and maybe let localities fill some potholes this year, the budget forced on this hapless legislature by the cunning and shameless macho image-making of the Terminator will cost the poor, the sick, the old and the young in suffering as well as dollars, as well as stop any sort of economic recovery in the state for the forseeable future.

For this temporary respite (a few weeks vacation before they have to work on the next budget in October) they will reap the whirlwind: multiple lawsuits, costly court judgments and possible if not likely strikes by various public employees.

First stop: a spike in California's unemployment and a further decline in consumer spending, as the effect of state layoffs and income cuts ripple out. Count on it.

Coming soon: two crippled state university systems, damaging California and the United States' ability to compete economically, as well as consigning more students to dead end futures.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reality Check

Opponents to healthcare reform talk about the cost. On Wednesday, President Obama emphasized the fact they ignore: healthcare reform will decrease federal debt, not increase it. And without reform, the deficit will balloon to unsustainable proportions.

Opponents parrot the old crap about a gubment program meaning people won't get to choose their doctors (a lie) and bureaucrats will determine care instead of doctors and patients. Though anyone who has even heard of someone who needed to invoke their health insurance, or who has talked to a doctor or just read a newspaper knows, this charge should be laughed out of the room. As
President Obama pointed out, insurance companies routinely dictate and often deny care, and their bureaucracy drives doctors and hospitals crazy. Which is one reason that the AMA and other medical organizations support the Obama plan.

Opponents demonize the Canadian system, actually saying on the floor of Congress that Canadians and Europeans "don't value life as we do," which is such a cliche of manufactured xenophobia that it's been parodied as something Romulans say about the Federation in Star Trek, using exactly those words.

The facts are that 85% of Canadians approve of their single payer health care system. Care is not denied nearly as often as it is here, and Canadians are not flooding the U.S. seeking care.

Spiraling health care costs and especially healthcare insurance costs are ruining businesses large and small, state and local governments, the federal government, and families across America to an outrageous degree. It's estimated that in 10 years, if the price spirals continue, half the income of American families will be absorbed by health insurance.

The scandal of the U.S. health insurance system must be confronted and ended. It is the only responsible recourse.

La salute non si paga: Health is not for sale.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Healthcare is Happening

Bumps in the road etc. but the headlines? As Nate Silver notes, "The fundamental weakness of the White House press corps is that they can rarely see beyond the current 24-hour news cycle..." I happened to hear two correspondents, including Chuck Todd, admit as much, and that the throughline in this here drama is that a healthcare bill is more likely than not.

Meanwhile, E.J. Dionne writes about the multiple reasons that President Obama is justified in saying, "don't bet against us," on healthcare and other big issues.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Taking Sides

It's pretty obvious who is going to pay for the California budget crisis by class: the rich and near rich reap the benefits of intact programs and corporate subsidies, while programs for the poor and the working middle class are cut or killed.

The winners and especially the biggest losers are divided by age: the very young whose nutrition and health programs are cut, the young whose education is shortchanged, and the elderly who may see home health care killed entirely.

But the losers are also visible by race, that most obvious and ugly remnant of how America apportions its bounty. This is not only because the social and health programs being cut and killed disproportionately affect blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. It's because cuts to education also deprive them most directly. Education is their path to a better life, that the well off already have.

But in taking sides, the Terminator is deeply wounding the state of California, and the country's future. Every layoff by the state is lost revenue as well as lost talent. California cannot prosper without good schools and an educated population. But schools from primary through college are in state-caused chaos, as well as suffering from decades of neglect. That California is close to becoming a majority non-white state, a mainly black and brown state, makes these decisions destructive to education all the more racist.

As for the national economy and the nation's future, President Obama made this point in his stirring address on the 100th anniversary of the NAACP:

"The state of our schools is not an African American problem; it is an American problem. Because if black and brown children cannot compete, then America cannot compete... We used to rank number one in college graduates. Now we are in the middle of the pack. And since we are seeing more and more African American and Latino youth in our population, if we are leaving them behind we cannot achieve our goal, and America will fall further behind -- and that is not a future that I accept and that is not a future that the NAACP is willing to accept."

But it a future that the Terminator's California is not only willing to accept, but a future it invites.