Saturday, July 31, 2010


I like magician Penn Jillette mainly because he is an outspoken atheist. In a nation where many people equate atheism with evil, he is refreshing. He puts a positive face on my belief system (or lack thereof). One day a few years ago, Jillette was going back stage after finishing a performance and was greeted by his mother. She approached him and he didn't know who she was. This is because he has a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia (or more common called face blindness).

People with prosopagnosia cannot recognize faces so if they see someone out of context, like seeing your mom backstage and not at home, they don't recognize them. They might not even recognize you if your facial expression changed. The condition was originally diagnosed in people who had brain damage thought to be caused by head trauma. Very recently a congenital form has been diagnosed. Some estimates are as high as 2.5% of the population. In other terms, if 200 of your Facebook friends were all in the same room, those 5 people who haven't said "hi" may not be rude. They may just have prosopagnosia. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, anthropologist Jane Goodall and ironically, portrait painter Chuck Close all have prosopagnosia.

When I was a kid I watched a lot of television with my dad. Just about every black man he saw on television that he didn't know he would say "Is that the guy from Barney Miller?" and "I'd say, Ron Glass? No, that's not him, it doesn't even look like him." To my knowledge my dad doesn't have prosopagnosia, but he could just be displaying own-race bias. We are simply far more likely to recognize people of our own race over others. The old comment, "they all look a like to me," might just have some legs to it. This is something to ponder if you are ever on a jury and someone from another race is being identified.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Radius Clause and Lollapalooza

A radius clause is an agreement that business signs where they agree not to open another branch in a given area. It is most commonly used with anchor stores in malls. For example, if Target is the anchor store, they sign an agreement that they will not open another store close to that mall. The radius is usually a short distance from the mall in that potential customers will not be drawn away from the mall with the Target but into the mall with the Target (hence the phrase anchor store).

This makes a lot of sense to me when it comes to retail which are generally stationary and have some staying power. It does not make so much sense when it comes to concert promotion. A lot of the big Summer concert festivals have their artist sign a radius clause. The artist agrees that they will not perform anywhere else near the festivals for a given amount of time. The largest radius in the industry is the 300 square mile for 90 days clause for the performers at Lollapalooza. So if you are a fan of Green Day or The Strokes and you live within the 300 mile radius of Grant Park, Chicago, you better see them at Lollapalooza or not see them at all.

For extremely popular bands like Green Day, this isn't huge deal, but for the 100 or so lesser known bands like Alberta Cross, Metric, Deer Tick or The Cold War Kids (some of my favorites) this is a big deal. Not only for the bands, but for the small clubs that attract these bands. 300 square miles is huge. This means that these bands cannot perform in Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis and whatever ever market 300 square miles encompasses. This means slim pickings for the Midwest during the Summer concert season.

The Illinois Attorney General is investigating Lollapalooza for possible anti-trust issues. I will be following this. I don't live in the Midwest, but I could imagine what would happen to a town like Burlington VT (near my home) if a huge festival came to NYC, Boston or Montreal and had a radius clause like this one. Our concert scene and our economy would be hurt along with every other little town in New England.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mountain Pine Beetle

While visiting the Canadian Rockies recently, I noticed large bald spots on mountaintops many of which were several acres in size. Since I have visited the area in the past, I assumed it was simply clear cutting (non-environmental friendly logging) and I didn't give it much thought. Later in the week, while I was on the white water raft ride, I noticed that these areas were not clear cut because the trees were not gone but were just very thin, many of them dead or dying. This is the work of the mountain pine beetle.

The mountain pine beetle is not only a problem in Alberta and British Columbia but in the American Rockies as well. Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have similar problems. The beetle is not an invasive species, it is native to North America. It's population has gone out of control because, historically, it tends to breed heavily in warm years and not so heavily in cool years. Since this past decade has been the warmest on record, the population is completely out of control and it's predators can't keep up with them. Their population is usually controlled by cold weather. Since trees are our planet's greatest source of cooling this is very disturbing news. It seems like cycle that has no chance of stopping.

Nothing in nature happens in a vacuum. Other species are always affected by another's growth. Clark’s nutcracker is a bird that lives off of the white bark pine, the type of tree that is being most devastated by the beetle. The nutcracker's relationship with this tree is a symbiotic one. The bird feeds on the cones thus spreads the seeds. When the trees die, so do they. The whitebark pine relies on the nutcracker even more for if not for this bird, the seeds would not be spread throughout the landscape. If the bird dies off so will the tree.

The squirrels and chipmunks in the area also feed off of the cones. They store them in ground caches. These caches are the main source of food for black bears and grizzlies. Since the recent Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak, grizzly attacks on humans are up because bears are going elsewhere seeking out food. When a bear attacks a human, they are destroyed. Just another casualty of global warming.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rule 8.06

If you were watching the LA Dodgers / SF Giants game a couple of nights ago you were treated to a baseball rulebook gem. In the ninth inning with one out, bases loaded and Dodgers winning 5-4, hitting coach Don Mattingly went to the mound to visit All Star closing relief pitcher John Braxton. Mattingly was acting as the manager because Joe Torre, the Dodgers manager, had been ejected earlier in the game. After advising his pitcher, who wasn't pitching very well, Mattingly stepped off the mound and headed back to the dugout.

This sounds pretty normal at this point. On the way back to the dugout, the Dodgers' first baseman, Jamie Loney, called out to Mattingly. Mattingly stopped and walked toward first base stepping on the mound again and had a quick conversation with his player. The San Francisco manager, Bruce Bochy, protested calling this a double trip to the mound. The umpire, Tim Kurkjian, called rule 8.06 of MLB rule book.

Here is the rule:
In a case where a manager has made his first trip to the mound and then returns the second time to the mound in the same inning with the same pitcher in the game and the same batter at bat, after being warned by the umpire that he cannot return to the mound, the manager shall be removed from the game and the pitcher required to pitch to the batter until he is retired or gets on base. After the batter is retired, or becomes a base runner, then this pitcher must be removed from the game. The manager should be notified that his pitcher will be removed from the game after he pitches to one hitter, so he can have a substitute pitcher warmed up.

A Dodgers relief pitcher, struggling and about to be sent back the minors George Sherrill, was immediately brought in to save the game. He was given his obligatory 8 warm up pitches before the game would resume. Sherrill gives up a 2 run double and the Dodgers lose.

The problem is not so much the obscurity of the rule is that the umpire and the Dodger's manager didn't know enough about the rule that they didn't catch that Broxton should have been able to (even forced to) finish pitching to the batter (Andres Torres) that he had already started pitching to. The spirit of the rule was to prevent managers from stalling giving their bullpen more time to warm up. If Broxton finished to this one batter, not only might he have gotten the batter out but Sherrill might have had time to warm up properly. Not only is a bad year for umpiring, but Mattingly might want to forget trying to get a job as a manager any time soon. He should have known the rule. It is clear that the SF manager, Bochy, knew it better than both of them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Jefferson Bible

I love hearing stories about the American founding fathers. They are some of the most interesting people in history. I can't imagine any of them existing in our current political environment. Most of them would be considered eccentrics, on the fringe of political life, possible not in political life at all. The story I heard today of the Jefferson Bible is a perfect example.

Like Washington and Franklin, Jefferson was a deist. He basically believed that God created the universe but did nothing in the way of intervening with humanity. He respected the teachings of Jesus but only saw him as a prophet and a philosopher but not divine. He didn't believe in the trinity. He believed much of supernatural events in the Bible were added to attract the pagans to Christianity. So he attempted to rewrite the Bible from a deist point of view. He took a razor to his copy of the King James Bible and cut out all the supernatural events in the New Testament. He also put all the events chronological order. He begins with the birth of Jesus (hold the angels) in Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3 etc. No miracles. No son of God.

Can you imagine a modern US politician doing anything like? His/her career would be over the moment they took the razor blade to the book. It wasn't published until after his death, but it was no secret what he was doing during his lifetime.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Boss is Dead

I have a soft spot for historical figures that did the right thing, against all odds, and succeeded. The easiest place to see it, for me, is in baseball. I am not going to compare George Steinbrenner to Rosa Parks ... comparing him to Branch Rickey might be more palatable.

Branch Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he recruited the great Jackie Robinson to be the first player to cross the color line. Because he did so Dodgers were great for many years later not only because they had Jackie Robinson but other black players that other teams (like the Cubs and the Red Sox) would not go near. The Cubs and the Red Sox were two of the last teams to integrate and their records in the 50's and 60's show it. They excluded themselves from a pool of great players and suffered for it. I say this as a lifelong Red Sox fan. The history of my team would be very different if the owners in the mid-20th century were not so darn racist. We celebrate Branch and Jackie for their courage to challenge something that was wrong and they succeeded in making a great thing, Major League Baseball, even greater.

To a lesser extent, Steinbrenner did the same thing as the owner of the Yankees. In the 1970's MLB was still shaken up by free agency. Where players were once beholden to teams for the length of their careers, they now had control over what team they played for after their contracts expired. Most Major League owners rejected free agency. Steinbrenner saw it as an opportunity and used the power of his very big purse to sign (aka steal) Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter from the A's. They have been stocking their team with free agents ever since. After seeing the Yankees winning the World Series in '77 and '78, other teams followed suit and embraced free agency. Many baseball fans like myself find free agency to be a necessary evil to the game. Prior to free agency, players were thought of as highly paid slaves (a commodity being sold) whose lives were at the mercy of the owners and MLB executives. Now many players (the people who actually do the work) are paid more than the executives. Little is done with their lives without their say in the matter.

I cannot say that I am a fan of Steinbrenner, after all he was a Yankee. He was a fairly despicable person. He was once banned from baseball for paying a gambler $40k to dig up "dirt" on Dave Winfield during a contract dispute. In 1974 he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign, and to a felony charge of obstruction of justice. He actually reminds me of Nixon in that in his death, people come out of the woodwork to say nice things about him where days before he was openly disdained. The NY Post dedicated 43 pages to him in yesterday's edition.