12 December 2008

What I Learned in 2008

  • Heinrich Harder is wicked awesome.
  • Even Mariners baseball can get boring if the team is inept enough.
  • Never volatilize cat urine.  Not even your worst enemy deserves to smell that.
  • Day trips from Eugene to the John Day Fossil Beds are feasible, provided you're willing to get up at 4:00.
  • There's never a dull moment on the Mariners blogosphere.
  • The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is everything the Experience Music Project wishes it were but will never be.
  • Going to a game at Autzen is much more fun when the Ducks win.
  • Getting funding is hard, at least under the Bush Administration.
  • Preparing for - and worrying about - comps is far, far worse than actually taking them.
  • There is no free lunch as far as camping in the Juntura area is concerned.  Unless you're a mosquito.
  • Lucy is well worth the trip to see in person.
  • American democracy is still alive and kicking.
  • Barack Obama is an exceptionally good speaker, especially in person.
  • Caucuses are more fun than primaries.
  • Horses > dogs >> squirrels, at least as far as their fossil records go.
  • Genghis Khan invented pants.
  • I still refer to Seattleites and Washingtonians as 'we' (and I probably always will).
  • Dave Niehaus really is a hall of fame-caliber broadcaster.
  • Pasadena is cool.  San Bernardino is not.
  • The Big Time Brewery has a long-lost twin in Berkeley.
  • Giving a talk at SVP is much better than presenting a poster.
  • I'm not the only one who thinks making a year-in-review bulleted list is a good idea.
Happy 2009, everyone!

10 December 2008

Swan Day: A Modest Proposal

One of the best things about living in the US is that you can travel between radically different cultures without ever leaving the country.  You could visit, for example, the Deep South and the Southwest and be forgiven for thinking you had just been to opposite sides of the globe.  While having such differences can sometimes lead to friction (see the last eight years for an illustration of this point), each region is unique, fascinating, and well worth celebrating.  In some areas, this admittedly well-worn axiom is taken at face value, leading to the development of regional holidays.  Sometimes these holidays were created to honor a person or event unique to a region (as with Kamehameha Day in Hawai'i or Patriots' Day in New England), and sometimes they evolve from ostensibly nationwide holidays that for one reason or another have strong local appeal (as with Leif Erikson Day in the Upper Midwest and New Orleans' Mardi Gras).  Any long-term readers of this blog can probably see where I'm going with this, so I'll cut right to the chase: the Northwest is conspicuous in its lack of a regional holiday, and I think I know just the day we should have one.
A month from today is the birthday of James G. Swan, one of the greatest - albeit least known - figures in Northwest history.  I could drone on for paragraphs about why Swan was an interesting person, but I'll leave that in the much more eloquent hands of novelist Ivan Doig, who's Winter Brothers is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Swan or, indeed, in the Northwest as a whole.  I'll just briefly outline why I think Swan embodies the best of this region.  First, he wasn't born here, but in Massachusetts.  This may sound counterintuitive, but when you consider that the region's history has been driven by exploration (e.g. Lewis and Clark) and immigration (e.g. The Oregon Trail) it's really very appropriate.  Second, unlike many of his contemporaries, his relationship with the many Native Americans he encountered was, it appears, mutually positive.  He saw the region's tribes not just as savages or anthropological curiosities, but as the complex, living cultures they were (and still are).  Third, and most importantly, he loved the Northwest and made this abundantly clear in his writing.  He lived On Willapa Bay, among the Makah on the Olympic Peninsula, and in Port Townsend on Puget Sound.  He travelled to Astoria in Oregon and the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, and he wrote glowingly of his experiences in all these places.  Few people have ever taken to an adopted home more enthusiastically and more wholeheartedly, and at least to my mind there is no date more appropriate for a Northwestern regional holiday.
Many of you may think this is some elaborate and long-winded - though not particularly funny - joke.  It's not.  I'd estimate that at least half of the posts on this blog are paeans to the cultural and physical landscape of the Northwest (which is why, incidentally, I'm not bothering to defend my assertion that the region deserves to be celebrated; there's plenty of that elsewhere on this site).  Many of you out there, of course,  are from elsewhere and don't feel any particular connection to Oregon, Washington, or BC, in which case there's no reason this should affect you.  However, for those of you who consider yourself Northwesterners, be you native or adopted, I suggest you mark January 11th on your calendars, and if you have friends who you think are likely to be enthusiastic about this hare-brained idea, mention it to them as well.  I'm not advocating anything extravagant here, mind you.  The last thing the world need is another made-up holiday when people are expected to throw money at cards, gifts, or fancy meals.  For many of us who call the Northwest home, though, I think there's a great deal to be said for recognizing what it is that we appreciate about it.

07 December 2008

Going Bowling

I usually try to stay away from opining about sports on this blog, since I know much of my audience (if I still have one) are more interested in other things.  However, due to current events, you all will have to put up with me writing about college football (fortunately, I can't force any of you to read my blog...yet).  The matchups for the 2008-2009 bowl season were announced today, which means that sportwriters across the country are indulging in their annual bout of whining about how a playoff system is necessary for the future of NCAA football.  As you may have guessed by my use of the word 'whining,' I am a staunch supporter of the bowl system (though not necessarily the BCS).  There are several reasons for this; these reasons are idealistic (Why should college sports, which are ostensibly played by amateurs, be so concerned about crowning a champion?), financial (bowls can be extremely lucrative for almost everyone involved), or traditionalist (a sport as steeped in pageantry as college football should maintain the system is has had for a century now) in nature, and admittedly some are much more convincing than others.  However, the best argument against a playoff system is, I would argue, purely practical in nature.
The main complaint leveled against the bowl system is that rankings are somehow intrinsically less fair than playoffs.  A few simple stats show that, in football at least, this is simply untrue.  For the sake of argument, let's assume that a really top-notch NCAA football team wins 60% of its football games against teams of the caliber it would meet in a playoff (this is awfully generous, I should point out, as the real underdog winning percentage in bowl games is roughly 50%).  Let's assume as well that in order to win the championship, a team would have to win three playoff games, just as a conference champion with a first round bye in the NFL would.  As we all learned as far back as high school, the chances of a team winning all three games to claim the championship are 60% x 60% x 60%, or 21.6%.  If we up the odds of winning a game to 70%, the odds of winning out rise to just 34.3%.  The reason odds like these are so problematic in football is that the sample size of one game is laughably small.  In baseball, basketball, or hockey, where playoffs consist of multi-game series, the odds of the better team prevailing are much greater (though even in these sports it can be hard to predict; does anyone really think the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies were the best teams in baseball the last two years?).
Opponents of the bowl system would interject at this point to argument that playoffs allow teams to control their own destiny.  This also is patently untrue.  The most compelling argument against this notion is that one team alone cannot control the outcome of a game; if that were the case, there would be no point in playing the games in the first place.  Besides, in any close football game (as the latter games of a playoff generally would be), it is generally factors well outside a team's influence that give one side an edge.  Weather, field conditions, fan presence (even in a "neutral" stadium, one team will have more fans than another, which really can make a difference in football), and, most importantly of all, human error on the part of the referees routinely affect game scores, as anyone who watched the Oregon/Oklahoma game in 2006 could tell you.
So, to return to my original point, college football has two choices for how it could run its postseason.  The supposedly "fair" playoff system is in fact governed by chance and the team that is crowned as champion at the end will almost certainly not be the best from the regular season.  The BCS, to be sure, has some flaws as well.  Most glaringly, there are too many bowls, and the computer rankings determining which teams get to go to the best games are, in a word, terrible.  However, the coaches' and sportswriters' polls that are compiled at the end of the bowl season tend to do a good job of reflecting which teams are the best, not based on a handful of single-elimination games at the end of the year, but over the course of the entire season.  Which system, then, is really more "unfair" and less likely to crown a "legitimate" champion?  It's worth thinking about.  If you care about this sort of thing.

N.B. For those of you who don't follow football, I apologize for pretty much everything about this post, and especially for not explaining what exactly I mean by the BCS and the bowl system.  The simple truth of the matter is that, love it or hate it, the selection process for college football's postseason is extraordinarily complex, and explaining it would have just about doubled the size of an already-overlong post.  Hopefully Wikipedia will suffice on this one.