Manny 2.0

It was the 1970s, a heyday for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their fans.  We had Steve Garvey.  We had Ron Cey. We had Don Sutton. We had Dusty Baker.  And so many more. 

But my favorite, and all my friends’ favorites, was Manny Mota. He was just a role player.  His role was to hit, to pinch-hit, late in games.  And he did it very, very well.  Manny was a man.  He was stoic, fearless, reliable. 

Now, three mostly inglorious decades have passed and another Manny might be knocking on the Dodger Stadium door — Manny Ramirez.  This Manny’s moody, temperamental, sometimes undependable.  A few years back, he told his current team he was too sick to play against the Yankees, but then he was spotted in a bar.  He’s got only two things in common with Manny Mota.  A Dominican heritage.  And he can hit.  With the decline of Barry Bonds, there are now two super-elite hitters in baseball:  Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez. 

So, needless to say, I want him on the Dodgers. 

He will cost the Dodgers some of their cherished prospects.  We fans almost have a fetish about these prospects — the best collection of young talent the Dodgers have had since, well, the 70s. 

Our fetish is not misplaced. Last spring, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsly and Hong-Chi Kuo were mere prospects.  Now Martin is our starting catcher, Broxton a key relief pitcher, Billingsley and Kuo increasingly effective starters. 

Two more, James Loney and Matt Kemp (pictured), made brief visits to LA and were at times very impressive.  It’s hard to give up on any of them.

But none of them can do in 2007 was Manny Ramirez could do. 

So, I’m with LAist.  Let’s get him.  Don’t overpay for him, but pay for him. 

A Generation of Wired Shadow-Boxers; or “Wii are the World”*

I raised a son and a step-son during the age of the video game console. I saw video-games become the contemporary symbol for all of what’s wrong with today’s youth, and joined in the worrying. One of the raps against electronic games was players were “sedentary,” just sitting on the sofa for hours pushing buttons rather than enjoying the fresh air outside. (“Fresh air,” a phrase only used by parents.)

Apparently, Nintendo listened to us. (I know I’m late to covering the Wii, but under the rules of blogging, if it’s new to me, it’s news.) Anyway, according to a couple of stories I saw today in the Wall Street Journal, Nintendo designed the Wii’s controller so that players’ body movements control the game, not just their button selections. You have to play it standing up.

And now, parents have a new worry: Their kids might hurt themselves.

But as players spend more time with the Wii, some are noticing that hours waving the game’s controller around can add up to fairly intense exertion — resulting in aches and pains common in more familiar forms of exercise. They’re reporting aching backs, sore shoulders — even something some have dubbed “Wii elbow.”

More fear:

Another hazard: collisions. All those flailing arms can sometimes inadvertently smack into lamps, furniture and even competing players. IGN.com, a popular site that reviews videogames, said one player testing the Wii lost her grip and sent the controller flying into a wall. Blaine Stuart of Rochester, N.Y., mistakenly whacked his fiancée, Shelly Haefele, while playing tennis and also accidentally hit his dog while bowling.

Even the physically fit are challenged by this thing:

Ryan Mercer, a customs broker in Indianapolis, lifts weights several times a week. But that hasn’t helped much with the Wii. After playing the boxing game for an hour and a half, his arms, shoulders and torso were aching. “I was soaking wet with sweat, head to toe — I had to go take a shower,” he says. And the next morning? “I had trouble putting my shirt on,” says the 21-year-old avid gamer.

Nintendo has several videos on Youtube that illustrate what players must do. Here’s one of them:

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these kids were suffering from advanced case of Tourette’s syndrome. But this is obviously a coming thing. The Wii is outselling the Sony Playstation 3 so far.

And I want one.

*Update: I just came across a fascinating blog post by Michael Zack Urlocker, guest-blogging on his “brother” Michael’s site. Michael is a “disruption consultant,” which sounds like a growth industry to me. (Zack “is a pseudonym for a Silicon Valley software executive rapidly approaching his mid-life crisis.” He is also a busy blogger.) Zack analyzes Nintendo’s business strategy brilliantly.

Read the whole thing, but here’s a tidbit.

The Nintendo Wii is the runt of the litter when it comes to hardware specifications. It doesn’t have the HD graphics, surround sound or DVD drives of its more expensive competitors. But it’s outfoxed both Microsoft and Sony by packing more fun for a fraction of the price. Nintendo Wii sells for $250 compared to $500 for the Sony Playstation and around $400 for the Microsoft Xbox 360. Nintendo also includes throws in a set of 5 simple but addictive games dubbed Wii Sports with every console, making the Wii a much better value and a more complete offering out of the box. More importantly, Nintendo has parlayed their lower cost hardware into two further competitive advantages: games are cheaper to develop and they make money on every console sold. While it sounds like basic common sense, for the gaming industry this goes against all of the conventional rules.

It’s always instructive to watch a successful business innovation unfold before your eyes. “Zack” is a good guide to this one.

**Another Update.  I came across a blog that specializes in California insurance law and, after reading the same WSJ story I read, the writer came to this unsurprising conclusion about what the flailing arms and flying controllers might lead to:  

Sony has included warnings against these and other perils in the product manual [PDF], but little details like that never need to reach the jury if you pick the right venue and play your cards right.  So to our friends of the plaintiff’s bar we say: Fire up the word processors!  Nintendo’s put a shiny new cause of action under your tree! 

Dropping Standards

My radio hero, Saul Levine, has disappointed me with his decision to switch Los Angeles’ KKGO-AM from the “standards” format to country.  Apparently, the median age of people who listen to Sinatra & co. is too old.

“I began to get dozens if not hundreds of telephone calls from country fans saying, ‘You’re the last one who can save it,’ ” says Saul Levine, president and general manager of Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters, which owns XSUR and KKGO. “This kept going on and I thought, ‘These were really nice people.’ ”

These also were more desirable people — at least to advertisers — than KKGO was attracting with the “standards” format the station had for the last two years.

“I love the standards format,” Levine says. “But it was difficult to sell. The median age of listeners is 65-plus, and when an ad agency hears that, there’s no buy there. The outer fringes of what they’re looking for is 54.”

The median age of the 650,000 people who made up the steady KZLA audience, however, per Arbitron research, was in the early 40s.

“As much as I love the standards format, I’m not in position to continue after two years of losing money,” Levine says. “And here are people begging me to put a format on that isn’t currently in the market.”

I’m a little surprised at the demographics driving Levine’s problem with advertisers.  Isn’t “the great American songbook” going through a bit of a revival?  Meanwhile — contemporary country music seems completely disposable, but that’s just me.  I’ll always have time for Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Ray Price, but acts like Shania Twain, Brooks and Dunn, Tim McGraw and the rest would put me right to sleep if they weren’t so annoying.

Oh well.  I still love Saul for K-Mozart and for saving KLON, the non-commercial jazz station at Cal State Long Beach.  If a bunch of oafs in cowboy hats can spruce up his cash flow to keep those other stations going strong — yee-hah!

Iraq Endgame

Over Thanksgiving weekend, a provocative column appeared on The New Republic’s site suggesting a way out of Iraq that, on the surface anyway, appeals to my sense of justice.  Swarthmore Professor James Kurth writes that partition is the solution.  But unlike the conventional notions of an Iraq partition into three semi-autonomous states — one for the Kurds, one for the Shi’ites, one for the Sunnis — Kurth says we should grant the Kurds and Shi’ites their sectors, but not the Sunnis, with whom he says we should deal harshly.

Here’s Kurth’s reasoning:

U.S. troops must leave Iraq–but not just yet, and not in the manner many Democrats have suggested. Islamists in general, and Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in particular, are always pointing to past U.S. military retreats–Vietnam in 1975, Lebanon in 1984, Somalia in 1994–as evidence that the American will to wage war invariably collapses as conflicts drag on. As a result, retreating from Iraq now would simply encourage Islamists to attack U.S. allies and targets throughout the world. Before it leaves Iraq, then, the United States must inflict a dramatic and decisive defeat upon the Sunni insurgents–one that will demonstrate the unbearable cost and utter futility of the Islamist dream of establishing a Muslim umma under the rule of a global Sunni caliphate. That defeat must be more than military; it must also be political: The United States should divide Iraq into two parts, leaving the Kurds in control of the north, the Shia in control of the south–and the Sunnis stateless in between. 

The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have much to answer for. Since they have always made up a rather small minority–about 15 to 20 percent of the country’s total population–the regimes they created were historically authoritarian ones. They compensated for their small base by employing especially brutal methods against their Kurdish and Shia neighbors. Successive Sunni governments became steadily more repressive, leading eventually to the rule of the Baath Party and culminating in the ferocious regime of Saddam Hussein. 

After elaborating on his idea — addressing concerns about how Turkey will react and whether this strengthens Iran, Kurth concludes:

At the end of the day, the United States would be acting as a balancer–helping to balance the interests of Shia Iraq and Kurdistan and the interests of Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. U.S. economic interests in a continuing flow of Persian Gulf oil to the global market would be preserved, and U.S. security interests in containing Iran would be enhanced. But the interests of more than 80 percent of the people of Iraq–that is, the Shia and the Kurds–would be enhanced also. They would be the winners in that tormented country’s new order. The losers, of course, would be the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today. 

Kurth’s writing took me back to the start of this misadventure, and reminded me why I supported it.  Hussein’s dictatorship had become intolerable, in the fullest sense of the word.  His regime’s cruelty: Intolerable.  Its belligerence: Intolerable. His corruption of the UN and his European trading partners: Intolerable.  His dealings with terrorist groups: Intolerable.  His flouting of the UN sanctions and weapons inspection process: Intolerable.  Made all the more intolerable after 9/11, when the legitimate fear of his WMD stash ratcheted up the urgency of eliminating him. 

George Bush lost his way shortly after Hussein’s fall — perhaps because he forgot who the enemy was.   We were not liberating “Iraq” from Hussein, because a portion of Iraq was complicit in his regime.  We were liberating the oppressed Shi’ites and Kurds, along with those Sunnis who opposed the Baath party.  The civil war now underway should end the American dream of a multi-party, multi-sect state governed democratically, which was another misdirection, I fear.  But it doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of the pursuit of justice, and it doesn’t mean we have to accept the war’s end on terms that would result in an Islamist Sunni state.  

I don’t know if Kurth is right — I’m not enough of an expert.  But the thinking here gives me a sense of hope that a solution exists.  

While I was away, I did manage to read Jonathan Chait’s awful, mind-boggling column calling for the return of Saddam Hussein.  I half-expected to see a smiley face at the bottom of it:  Just kidding!  I assume he realizes his foolish proposal will follow him forever.  Everything we write on the internets lasts forever, dude.  So for all eternity, Jonathan Chait will be known as the guy who thought Saddam Hussein, convicted mass murderer, should be given back the keys to all his palaces.  Oh, man.

“I Think I Swallowed a Shotglass.”

For Thanksgiving weekend, here’s a 60s-era CBS documentary clip of a Frank Sinatra recording session — a clinic in the art of singing.  Look at the delight on his face.  No, not in this photo — on the video below.

The song is “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Because every year we get to be on this planet and in the company of the people we love is a very good one.  By definition.

On Fox, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Piazza

I gather that if you spend enough time in the highly rarified strata where the biggest media executives dwell, you just lose all your wits. 

It’s a voluntary form of sensory deprivation; to have enough money and enough people demanding your time that you decide you must completely detach yourself from ordinary people.  A form of character mutation must take place, per the theories of Charles Darwin. Certain powers of intuition grow weaker, starved for energy by the parts of your brain that must expand to encompass the business dealings of a global media empire entrusted with billions of investor dollars. 

To be an “A-list” publisher, editor, literary agent or broadcasting executive today bears no resemblance to how such people lived their lives in the past; when they drove their own cars, took taxis, rode subways, frequented local pubs and sat with everybody else at pro football games.  The income and experience gap between the executive and the audience was much narrower decades ago than it is now.  

All of this must explain the O.J. Simpson debacle.  Judith Regan and Rupert Murdoch, and the anonymous but nearly as powerful suits who directly report to them, must just be unable to look normal people in the eye and understand what they are seeing there.  I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t have immediately recognized the stupidity of giving Simpson a massive public platform, and paying him a fortune to spin gruesome fantasies, masked confessions and bullshit rationalizations about the crimed he committed but absurdly denies:  Decapitating his ex-wife and an acquaintance.  How could they not have expected the victims’ survivors to object publically?  How could they have convinced themselves that this mercenary exercise would provide the victims with “closure?”

In this morning’s New York Times coverage of Murdoch’s decision to drop the show and the book, a familiar name popped up, one I hadn’t heard in awhile:  Peter A. Chernin, president and COO of the Fox Entertainment Group, which was responsible for the now-scuttled TV broadcast. 

Los Angeles Dodger fans recall Chernin all too well — for an almost equally clueless move.  From the archives of DodgerBlues:

May 15, 1998… a day that will live in infamy. After rejecting the Dodgers’ $84 million contract offer, (Mike) Piazza was traded to the Marlins along with Todd Zeile for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla, and Tourettes-inflicted Jim Eisenreich. While Sheffield has certainly paid dividends for the Dodgers, putting up solid numbers for three straight years, the Piazza trade marked the beginning of the end of Dodger tradition. It was Fox’s first major move, and it showed how much they knew about baseball: nothing. The move was engineered by two TV guys, Peter Chernin and Chase Carey. Fred Claire, as lousy as he was, would never have made such a move–trading a certain Hall of Famer in his prime, the cornerstone of the organization, a guy loved by fans. It still makes us sick to think about it.

Well, I guess Chernin’s not that great of a “TV guy,” either.

By the way, in case you were wondering what happens when a big TV spectacular is cancelled, and a mega-big book is withdrawn, here’s a primer from the same NY Times’ article:

In an interview last week, Judith Regan, the publisher, said ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, had signed a contract with “a manager who represents a third party” who owned the rights to Mr. Simpson’s account.

Because the News Corporation and ReganBooks decided on their own to cancel the book and the television special, that money is likely to still have to be paid.

A spokesman said Ms. Regan declined to comment yesterday on the book’s withdrawal.

Erin Crum, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, said some books had already been shipped to stores. Those books will be recalled and destroyed, Ms. Crum said.

Last Friday, Borders announced that it would donate the net proceeds from sales of Mr. Simpson’s book to a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence.

Ann Binkley, a spokeswoman for Borders, said she received a call from HarperCollins yesterday afternoon notifying her that the book would be recalled. No explanation was offered for the decision.

“I think everybody knows why,” Ms. Binkley said.

The rights to the book could still be sold to another publisher, said the News Corporation executive involved in the negotiations.

There is precedent for a recalled book to be sold to another publisher and then to the public. In 1990, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, bought the rights to “American Psycho,” a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, after the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, withdrew from publishing it because of the novel’s graphically violent content.

As for the television interview, it could also be offered to other outlets, although at least two other networks, ABC and NBC, have reported that they turned it down before it was accepted by Fox. Ms. Regan, who conducted the on-camera interview with Mr. Simpson and is presumed to own the rights to it, could still seek a sale to either a cable channel or even a pay-per-view company.

The fact that the interview already exists on tape, executives at Fox and News Corporation said, means it is likely to turn up somewhere, perhaps on the Internet.

See, nobody ever pays for blunders like this.  By the time you’ve reached the level where you have the power to f— up to this degree, it’s too late — you can’t go back to where the normal people live.   You’d die, and your colleagues know it.  In the real world, the Piazza error would have cost Chernin his job.   But at his level, you’re kept around — and history can repeat. 

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for anyone at Fox involved with this fiasco, well, I don’t think they could ever have enough of these:

Thomas Pynchon and the Romance of Books

Ron Rosenbaum posts about the upcoming party for Thomas Pynchon’s new novel here, reflecting on the author’s career, and on his own curious prescience in forecasting that Pynchon’s last novel, “Mason and Dixon,” would be concerned with the famed surveyors’ attempt to measure the Transit of Venus.   I’m still curious about Pynchon, as I wrote here, but I dug Rosenbaum’s post mostly for this evocation of Manhattan bookstore culture:

I still want to know what’s going on in (Pynchon’s) mind and I like to run into people who feel the same way. Among literary enthusiasts Pynchonians are the sort I feel a kinship with even if I don’t necessarily think of myself as a Pynch-olator, so to speak.

In any case what set off this chain of thought was a recent breakfast with my girlfriend at another East Village landmark, Veselka, the still-fabulous Polish-Ukrainian coffee shop, followed by a visit to browse St. Marks Bookshop which I make a practice of doing every couple of weeks. I’ve loved this store ever since I came to New York and found it back when it was actually located on St. Marks Place on the funky day-glo gritty-hippy stretch between Second and Third Avenues. It’s now no longer exactly on St. Marks Place, it’s now a few steps away on the corner of 9th Street and Third Avenue. In a clean, well lighted, less Dickensian space. But still the same vibe, the vast unexpected eclectic selection of the the wayward, difficult and arcane. (And that goes for the books too). One of the last refuges of authentic intellectual Bohemian New York life.

st-marks-bookshop.jpgAnyway in the tiny vestibutle of the new store there’s a compressed remnant of the old St. Marks Street Bohemian vibe: a notice board leaved in multiple layers of announcmeents of anarchist performance art, madman poetry readings, experimental non-verbal theater workshops, appearances by mystics and prophets, and the like. But the big news this time was a poster by the bookshop itself—for the Pynchon release party. The store would stay open past midnight on Monday night so that—at the stroke of Tuesday, the official release date for Against the Day—it could start selling Against the Day ON the day.

Such a great idea! Obviously the deadline is arbitrary and has probably already been broken. But waiting til midnight is both celebratory and respectful. It’s an event, an attitude that reminds me again how much I like New York, how much I like Downtown New York and the spirit of the bookish Old Bohos that haunt it, how much I like St. Marks Bookshop…. And how much I like the idea that there is a community of Pynchonites who are likely to show up for the midnight release party.