Steve Howe, R.I.P.

steve_howe_autograph.jpgSteve Howe, who died this week in an early-morning traffic accident, was one of the most memorable Dodgers, and one of the most frustrating and tragic. The Dodgers didn't have a bad 1980s — they were the only baseball team to win two World Championships in that decade — but I'll bet they would have been much more successful if this great lefthanded closer could have stayed sober.

Rookie of the Year in 1980, key to the 1981 team's triumph, Howe entered drug rehab after the near-miss of the 1982 season, was suspended several times in 1983 (but still managed to earn 18 saves with an ERA of 1.44), missed 1984 entirely after the baseball commissioner suspended him, returned in 1985 but was dumped in July after failing to show up for a couple of games.

After bouncing around the minor leagues and a few false starts with major league teams from 1985-91, Howe had a renaissance with the New York Yankees in the 1990s, but only after enduring another cocaine-related suspension in 1992. Substance abuse continued to give him serious problems even after his baseball career was over. Howe's was a case that traditional rehab methods could not cure — although I have no knowledge of whether he was still a user at the time of his death.

Losing Howe in 1983 forced the Dodgers to scramble to replace him, left-handed relievers of that quality being rare beasts. Before the 1984 season, they traded a promising starter, Sid Fernandez, to the Mets for left-handed reliever Carlos Diaz. Diaz was a flop, while Fernandez had a good career, and helped pitch the Mets into the 1986 World Series. Before the 1986 season they traded catcher Steve Yeager — admittedly an old coot by this time — for lefty reliever Ed Vande Berg, but Vande Berg wasn't the answer either, and was released after one season.

Bullpen failures plagued the Dodgers in the post-season throughout the 80s, most notably in 1985, when Howe's replacement as closer, Tom Neidenfeuer, gave up two game-winning home runs in consecutive games against the Cardinals, costing LA another World Series shot. Howe, who played with a combination of nervous energy and steely focus, might have fared better in these high-pressure situations. But it was not to be.

To me, Steve Howe was an emblematic figure of the early 1980s as I experienced them. Everywhere I went, all I heard about was cocaine. I know cocaine played a factor in the thwarted careers and busted families of some talented people I worked with. I can think of other friends who got themselves into very stupid and dangerous situations thanks to cocaine, and are lucky to be alive today. Almost without exception, cocaine made people act like jerks. Was anything more boring than being forced to listen to someone prattle on as if they were a genius, when in fact they were just high on coke? I was no Nancy Reagan, but I hated what cocaine was doing to Los Angeles.

Robin Williams' famous line of the era was "Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money," but the people I knew who got involved with cocaine didn't have Robin Williams' income to fall back on. A lot of heartbreak in the 1980s thanks to cocaine. Maybe Steve Howe's Dodger career is only a small heartbreak in the grand scheme of things, but I took it personally. I wish his talent had given him a better, happier life.

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Return of the Drive-In

drive in.jpgSpringwise.com alerted its subscribers today to MobMov, short for Mobile Movie. From its website:

What is the Mobile Movie?
We are a grassroots movement aimed at bringing back the forgotten joy of the great American drive-in. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, what used to be a dark and decrepit warehouse wall springs to life with the sublime sights and sounds of a big screen movie. Best of all, the MobMov is free.

(snip)

Our goal in creating the MobMov was to create a true "drive-in" experience by enclosing the projector and an FM transmitter inside a car. Participants drive in to a parking lot, tune their radios, and watch their favorite flick from the comfort of their car. As far as we know, we're the first ones to attempt this on a public scale. We didn't create the term "Guerilla Drive-in", but we're the first to use it correctly.

This new approach is better for a variety of reasons. Drive-ins were popular originally because it was like having your own private cineplex – if you wanted privacy, you'd just roll up your windows. If you wanted to be part of a community, you'd roll them down, open your doors, maybe even walk around. Secondly, while a traditional GDI only operates in the summer, you can stay in your car with the heater running while participating in a mobmov. That's rain or shine folks and folketts.

Like everyone my age, I am blessed with several great drive-in movie memories. The first few movies I saw were in drive-ins: One Hundred and One Dalmations, which was appropriate for kids, and Hud, which most certainly was not. I recall scenes from both of these movies vividly–Cruella DeVille's green cigarette smoke and horrible fur lust; Patricia Neal driving up to Paul Newman in a convertible, with a strange knowing look in her eyes.

daliahlavi.JPGA few years later, an attractive teenage babysitter took us to the drive-in see the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, with its bevy of 1960s beauties like Ursula Andress and Daliah Lavi, and, well, I still really haven't recovered. The drive-in is such an iconic experience, countless great movie scenes have been set at one — for example American Graffitti and Rebel Without A Cause. Just the other night, I saw a drive-in destroyed in Twister.

The MobMov has a sign-up area that indicates there are showing from Huntsville, Alabama to Winnepeg, Manitoba, but the copy on the site only references showings in Berkeley.

Separated at Birth

110972main_star_binary.jpgWe're twins, and we didn't even know it! From Science Blog:

The Binary Research Institute (BRI) has found that orbital characteristics of the recently discovered planetoid, "Sedna", demonstrate the possibility that our sun might be part of a binary star system. A binary star system consists of two stars gravitationally bound orbiting a common center of mass. Once thought to be highly unusual, such systems are now considered to be common in the Milky Way galaxy.

Walter Cruttenden at BRI, Professor Richard Muller at UC Berkeley, Dr. Daniel Whitmire of the University of Louisiana, amongst several others, have long speculated on the possibility that our sun might have an as yet undiscovered companion. Most of the evidence has been statistical rather than physical. The recent discovery of Sedna, a small planet like object first detected by Cal Tech astronomer Dr. Michael Brown, provides what could be indirect physical evidence of a solar companion. Matching the recent findings by Dr. Brown, showing that Sedna moves in a highly unusual elliptical orbit, Cruttenden has determined that Sedna moves in resonance with previously published orbital data for a hypothetical companion star.

What's the Binary Research Institute? It's a scientific research organization based in Newport Beach "formed in 2001 to support and fund research regarding the hypothesis that the Sun is part of a binary star system. It is the goal of the Binary Research Institute to present evidence for this theory, showing that the motion of the sun along a binary orbital path can result in and better explain" various phenomena such as the Earth's wobbling rotation, and help us understand the movement of our solar system through the Milky Way.

walter cruttenden.jpgIts founder is Walter W. Cruttenden, a private investor, amateur astronomer and archeoastronomer. (I must admit, his organization's name makes me a little suspicious. It's one thing to begin a scientific inquiry with a hypothesis, but if I founded the "Life on Mars Institute," wouldn't that insert bias into the whole enterprise? Just asking.)

If our Sun has a partner, shouldn't we be able to see it? Not necessarily. According to the Institute,

there could be a dark binary, such as a brown dwarf or possibly a relatively small black hole, either of which might be very difficult to detect, without accurate and lengthy analysis.

Beyond direct detection – one way to determine if we are in a binary system is to see if the Sun is curving through space. To us on Earth that means we should experience a gradual “changing orientation to inertial space.” Such a phenomenon is observed as the precession of the equinox.

Precession of the equinox refers to the fact that the stars are fixed, but over a 25,800-year period, their position in the sky relative to Earth completes a cycle. Lots of guesses as to why, but no firm findings. The Institute believes our Sun's secret friend might explain it. 

If this hypothesis is true, it would be big news to us, but it wouldn't be all that remarkable. Many easily observable stars are part of binary systems. Our partner might be very far away, completing a distant orbit — a dancer on the other side of the ballroom. And, as suggested above, it might not be visible. Black holes don't emit light, and brown dwarves cannot sustain nuclear fusion and thus burn only dimly.

Being followed by something big that we can't see…a paranoia-inducing concept! Somehow I'm reminded of my misspent youth, when police cars sometimes followed my pals and me in the wee hours with their lights off, only to reveal themselves at the last minute to determine if we were up to no good. (Fortunately, we were all choirboys, pure at heart.)

If You Really Want to Punish Michael Hiltzik…

…give him back his blog, and turn on the comments.

Michael Hiltzik is the LA Times columnist and blogger who was busted by Patterico for using pseudonyms to praise himself and zing his foes. Patterico did Hiltzik’s readers a real service, in a couple of ways. First, obviously, he caught Hiltzik in the act of trying to create a false impression of support for his viewpoints. The comments attributed to Hiltzik’s alter-egos tended toward vapid ad hominem attacks on bloggers who don’t like him (e.g. Cathy Seipp, Hugh Hewitt, Patterico himself), which further showed Hiltzik up as a kind of Internet graffiti artist.

Patterico’s discovery prompted Hiltzik to write an appallingly disingenous self-defense, in which he characterizes his nemesis’ detective work as an attack on pseudonyms! It is very revealing of how Hiltzik’s mind apparently works:

Of course, (Patterico’s) real goal isn’t to make all his commenters disclose their real names or to delve into the ethical and moral dimensions of Internet anonymity. It’s to quash debate on his blog. His sensitivity to criticism has been evident ever since he was first confronted with it—in a pair of postings here this year in which I serially demolished his supposed proofs of the Times’s supposed bias. One of the most easily-goaded bloggers on the right, he’s never recovered from the shock of being challenged.

The Patterico comment threads are generally filled with quacking lunatics agreeing with each other, punctuated by the occasional voice of reason. Now those few dissenting voices will disappear, because Frey has signaled a new policy on anonymity: that it’s granted, but only if you toe the Patterico Party Line. Why should anybody subject themselves to his selective exposure?

I have a sidebar link to Michael Hiltzik’s column, and it will stay there, because I think Michael Hiltzik is one of the Times’ best prose artists. I often disagree with him, and I think he stacks the deck against the targets of his screeds by mischaracterizing their positions. However, he’s never boring, and can be powerfully persuasive. The discovery of Hiltzik’s craven need to demonstrate that his audience approves of him by pretending to be one of them certainly diminishes my respect for him; but lots of writers much better than Hiltzik have done things far more disgraceful than this.

I violently disagree, however, with how the Times has chosen to react: Suspending Hiltzik’s blog, which the editors announced, and switching off all future comments, which they did without telling anyone.

Hiltzik with Lou Dobbs.jpgNo: Leave Micheal Hiltzik right where he is. Make him try to redeem himself by letting him write, not by silencing him. Let his friends and foes write too. Patterico has long suspected Hiltzik blocks some critical comments on his blog. Don’t permit him to do that anymore. He should take his lumps. If he wants to portray himself as a victim, let’s see him try. If he’s ready to be contrite, let him put it out there, but on his own timetable and in his own words, not via a forced confession dictated by Tribune Company flacks.

Hiltzik’s got a big fat target on his back now. The right is after him. The Times-bashers are after him. Even some embarassed liberal bloggers are after him. It’s an existential moment. His betrayed readers deserve the chance to see him work his way through it. If he’s not tough enough to take the heat, let it be his choice to withdraw. But corporate muzzling is cheesy, tin-eared behavior by the Times.

UPDATE (5/1/06): Well, the Times did the cheesy thing and took away Hiltzik’s blog and his business-section column. But they didn’t fire him, and they handed him an interesting new beat, “sports investigations.” Perhaps they’re envious of the kudos the San Francisco Chronicle’s been getting for its BALCO scoops. It’s a compliment to Hiltzik’s strong writing and reporting skills that they’re keeping him around. But it still sticks in my craw that the Times believes it’s appropriate to “take away” his blog. The whole point of a blog is that it is individual free expression, not a “product” like a sports or news column.

My link to Hiltzik’s blog will remain until the Times removes the content. So far, they haven’t.

Zero Tolerance for Anti-Wind Energy NIMBYism

palmwind002.jpgHas it only been a couple of years since environmental groups wrestled states and public utilities into making commitments to significant boosts in renewable power?

When notoriously conservative utilities said yes, it was largely because their experts were telling them that wind-energy was becoming viable and cost-competitive. Now, the environmental community is very excited about wind power projects — excited about killing them off, I mean.

From Anne Applebaum's column in Wednesday's Washington Post:

Already, activists and real estate developers have stalled projects across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. In Western Maryland, a proposal to build wind turbines alongside a coal mine, on a heavily logged mountaintop next to a transmission line, has just been nixed by state officials who called it too environmentally damaging. Along the coast of Nantucket, Mass. — the only sufficiently shallow spot on the New England coast — a coalition of anti-wind groups and summer homeowners, among them the Kennedy family, also seems set to block Cape Wind, a planned offshore wind farm. Their well-funded lobbying last month won them the attentions of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who, though normally an advocate of a state's right to its own resources, has made an exception for Massachusetts and helped pass an amendment designed to kill the project altogether.

The brand-name environmental groups seem fearful of taking on well-funded local anti-wind energy organizations that are systematically destroying the potential of an energy source that is the very definition of renewable. The environmental community needs to change course. Their credibility is at stake. The environmental community earned its way to the adults' table in making energy policy, but there's still a high-chair open at the baby table; and that's where they're headed if this nonsense doesn't stop.

Capturing energy from renewable sources will be land-intensive. There are a limited number of suitable areas. Wind power needs to be harvested where it's windy. Solar power needs access to the sun. Geothermal power is here and there, but not everywhere. To secure and distribute enough of this energy to replace fossil fuels at the percentages contemplated in Renewable Portfolio Standards will require building structures that most would deem less attractive than, say, a rustic old bridge or a weeping willow tree.

But if you want to seriously tackle the oil economy and make a dent in global warming — get over it, and let them build windmills.

“When Two Black Holes Collide, Space Shivers Like Jello.”

It's all over the news: NASA has simulated what happens when two black holes collide. This is a case, however, where the visual doesn't convey the magnitude of the achievement. Words do. From CNet (via ZDNet):

When two black holes collide, space shivers like Jell-O. With the help of a supercomputer to simulate this event, NASA seeks to prove Albert Einstein's theories and unveil universe's secrets.

The NASA supercomputer Columbia just performed its largest astrophysical calculation ever; a 3D simulation of two black holes merging. "This merger is a cataclysmic event, second only to the Big Bang in the amount of energy it produces," Joan Centrella, chief of the NASA Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory in Greenbelt, Md., said Tuesday in a press teleconference.

NASA called the successful simulation a breakthrough in the observation of black holes, as well as the understanding of the entire universe. In fact, NASA claims that it might even provide the ultimate proof for Einstein's theory of general relativity.

And from ScienceBlog,

Previous simulations had been plagued by computer crashes. The necessary equations, based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, were far too complex. But scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have found a method to translate Einstein's math in a way that computers can understand.

"These mergers are by far the most powerful events occurring in the universe, with each one generating more energy than all of the stars in the universe combined. Now we have realistic simulations to guide gravitational wave detectors coming online," said Joan Centrella, head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory at Goddard.

The simulations were performed on the Columbia supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif. This work appears in the March 26 issue of Physical Review Letters and will appear in an upcoming issue of Physical Review D. The lead author is John Baker of Goddard.

Similar to ripples on a pond, gravitational waves are ripples in space and time, a four-dimensional concept that Einstein called spacetime. They haven't yet been directly detected.

Gravitational waves hardly interact with matter and thus can penetrate the dust and gas that blocks our view of black holes and other objects. They offer a new window to explore the universe and provide a precise test for Einstein's theory of general relativity. The National Science Foundation's ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, a joint NASA – European Space Agency project, hope to detect these subtle waves, which would alter the shape of a human from head to toe by far less than the width of an atom.

Black hole mergers produce copious gravitational waves, sometimes for years, as the black holes approach each other and collide. Black holes are regions where gravity is so extreme that nothing, not even light, can escape their pull. They alter spacetime. Therein lies the difficulty in creating black hole models: space and time shift, density becomes infinite and time can come to a standstill. Such variables cause computer simulations to crash.

einstein.jpgIf he were alive today, I suppose Einstein would be unsurprised by this. He would also note that he didn't use a computer to figure it out.

Just People Talking

Jeff Jarvis' Buzz Machine continues to impress me. Jarvis is a blog-evangelist, without question, and his focus is always on the future. But he's not overly impressed with himself, nor does he pump up the blog phenomenon to be more than it really is. In a post yesterday, he reports that some of the early, innovative bloggers he admires have become disappointed in the form.

Specifically, Matt Welch, an early and much-admired blogger who now works on the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, might have set his expectations a bit too high when he started his blog shortly after 9/11 — which started a genre that was called "warblogging." Jarvis quotes Welch from a recent Reason essay:

“What do warbloggers have in common, that most pundits do not?” I enthused. “I’d say a yen for critical thinking, a sense of humor that actually translates into people laughing out loud, a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalized left-right split of the 1990s…a readiness to admit error [and] a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review.”

Man, was I wrong….

To which Jarvis replies:

I think the problem starts when people get big enough to think that they speak for others… just like newspaper editorial pages. The real blogger speaks only for himself or herself. It’s just people talking.

It's hard not to get excited when you're at the forefront of a new communications media, as Jarvis and Welch both were. But while bloggers serve as sources of news and opinion for their readers, what makes this media truly unique is the way communities form around them–communities of people talking.

That's why I don't understand bloggers who refuse to allow comments on their posts. Too many of the most popular bloggers, especially those associated with the right, apparently are repulsed by the inane and obscene chatter that fills up comment areas on left-wing blogs, and fear that the left-wingers will clog their sites with the same angry bleats.

So? Make rules.

My favorite site, DodgerThoughts, has rules. Jon Weisman won't tolerate any four-letter words, and if one commenter attacks another personally, the comments are removed. If you want to post, just play by those rules.

The site flourishes. On Easter Sunday, about 600 comments were posted before, during and after the day's game. The comments Jon gets are disproportionately witty, informed and interesting –and some of them are stupid. But I think a reverse Gresham's Law works on his site and others like it — the good comments drive out the bad. People like their online community, and work with the site's owner to protect the conversation space they've created. Commenters will state a certain comment is out of line even before Jon notices it. What's really fun to see is when some of the regulars gang up on a nasty interloper, and drive them into submission through clever mockery–like Cyrano de Bergerac.

Jarvis says the blog-conversation takes place across different blogs, and that's certainly true too. Some of the comment-less blogs do a lot of linking, and respond to what's been said about their own posts. Fair enough, but not a good reason to block comments. A blog without comments is an incomplete experience — like a movie without music.