Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letter perfect

It's time to defend the (nearly) indefensible.

The annual holiday letter.

I know, I know. They are admittedly impersonal, since they are copied and sent out to a few dozen people. They take time to prepare, and some think they can't spare that time in the month of December.

The intent of the letter is great. I like to know what my friends are up to, and December is a great and traditional time of the year to catch up.

However. Most of them are simply awful. Part of the problem is that the people doing the writing only put pen to paper during the course of a year for a grocery list. It almost hurts to read those letters.

Even when they are in English, they are troublesome. The biggest problem, of course, is the issue of the kids. Let's face it, MY kids are all doing fascinating things that deserve to be mentioned to everyone. YOUR kids are doing things that no one cares about. It's not easy to turn such activities into general interest reading. I like to think of it as something like working with blasting caps -- leave it to the professionals.

We get a handful of letters every year. My favorite is from the wife of a college friend. She always writes it in the first person even though it's from the whole family, which hurts my sensibilities in such matters. But the "fun part" comes from the fact that my friend, the husband of the household, is barely mentioned in his own family newsletter. And when he is mentioned, it generally centers around the fact he works too much. Then the letter moves on. I'd kind of like to know what he's doing, how his golf game is, what he does in the workday world, how he liked the Red Sox' signing of Dice-K -- something.

In spite of this mountain of obstacles, I write a holiday letter that actually seems to be read and enjoyed. Granted, part of that is that some of the people on the mailing/e-mail list aren't members of the media, and aren't used to getting letters where most of the words are spelled correctly. But plenty of others write to say, "You have the only holiday newsletter I actually like to read."

Therefore, here are a few tips for the amateurs out there:

1. Don't have children. This may be difficult if they are already here, and they certainly have other advantages, but they don't do much for letters. If you do have kids, think of family activities rather than an individual's soccer award for perfect attendance.

2. Be positive. Had some bad news during the course of the year? Job still stink? Favorite baseball team lose five straight games to the Yankees in late August? Don't even think about mentioning it. (Exception: a death of a loved one deserves a note at the end.) No one wants to read about your problems, because they can probably top you.

3. Be funny. David Letterman's monologue doesn't get the care and attention I give to the holiday letter. I write a rough draft, and then try to sweeten the jokes. And then do it again. And again. I've even mailed out a few, thought of an improvement, and made new copies of the letter with the new joke. Mel Brooks I'm not, but people seem to laugh.

4. Keep it to one page. No one had THAT interesting of a year to expand to two pages. Well, maybe Donald Rumsfeld. But he has more time on his hands these days.

I try to keep up with my friends during the course of the year, and I'm pretty ruthless with my mailing list, so this isn't a case of a letter being the only piece of communication I have with people during 365 days. I'd like to think of it as a present, something personal that comes from me that can't be purchased at a store. It's worth my while to make time to send them a quality note.

In other words, I treasure my friendships, and this is a way of giving a piece of myself back to them on an annual basis.

Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"I am not a crook" either

A while back, I wrote here about how I had discovered that someone had researched some of my family tree. It's time for an update, and the title gives you a clue about the outcome.

I have loaded the family tree into, which does a fine job of pointing you in other directions about distant relations. It's especially true for pre-1800 names, which have been researched, posted and shared by others. After a while, the family trees tend to intertwine.

I've got something like 450 names up now, including everyone, dating back to pre-1492. I have visions of my relatives standing on the docks, waving goodbye to Columbus, even though my relatives were in England, Scotland and Ireland while Columbus didn't start anywhere near there.

Just the other day, added a new feature: connections with celebrities. It looks over your tree and the trees of celebrities, and lists the results. It's not quite perfect yet and is in the Beta mode, since the computer takes in some information that is at best iffy. For example, in one of my connective charts, there's someone who allegedly had a child at age 12. That seemed a little difficult for me.

However, one name did jump off the chart for me -- Richard Nixon. Since much of my main branch had Quaker ties before 1860, I should have guessed that America's leading 20th-century Quaker might have a connection. Still, I looked over the names. I assumed that Nixon's line was pretty accurate, since Presidents usually get a thorough job of research in such matters. And while I haven't searched SE Pennsylvania cemeteries yet, the names on my list seem to be well-researched too. So, I think it's fair to guess that there is a very good chance that President Nixon and I had the same ancestor, Gayen Miller, around 1700.

I broke this news to some of my relatives, but they haven't checked back in yet. Maybe they are too stunned. Maybe they haven't opened their e-mail.

A couple of other celebrities on the list seem like a good connection too -- Shirley Temple, Raymond Massey, Mrs. Herbert Hoover. But Nixon is the one I'll remember.

I always wondered why I had such a heavy beard.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I'm sick.

Not sick over world hunger and famine, or sick over a Yankees' free-agent acquisition. Sick as in cough cough, sneeze sneeze.

Luckily, I don't get sick very often. I attribute this to the fact that I don't work with many people, and I don't have any children. So I don't pick up any bugs from the office or Johnny's school very often. Teachers spend the winter sneezing; usually I'm the one usually dodging such problems.

This time, though, I wasn't so lucky. I came home from a Thanksgiving trip to Tampa with the chills -- I either blame Mom or the airplane, which is a great place to pass germs around -- and haven't felt great since. In fact, I've had three straight nights of waking up frequently with a coughing fit (which means a trip to the bathroom), to the point where I fled the bedroom for the sanctuary of a reclining chair in order to sit up while trying to sleep and letting my wife sleep in peace. I know, darn considerate of me.

Here's the tough part of about getting sick: What exactly are the rules anyway? They seem to be a little unclear, and I can't find them published anywhere.

Rule one is you don't miss work, at least in my circumstance. Some jobs have daily deadlines or no extra people, and I have one of those jobs. Which means that if there's a small doubt that you should go to work, you should still go to work. But where's the line? Of course it's better to miss a day or two rather than infect an entire building, but sometimes the only thing matters is that night. From that night's perspective.

Then again, no one likes to sit next to a sick person at work. You've done it. I've done it. I used to work with a person who, when sick, made all sorts of disgusting noises in the coughing/spitting family. It was torture to sit next to the person for eight hours. I don't want to have other people thinking those thoughts about me. Add in the threat of picking up or giving the bug to someone. But -- the night's work needs to be done. So, what to do?

Rule two is you don't call the doctor. Unless you're sure you have to do so. But when are you sure? Answer is, you usually aren't. So you don't. If you can physically call the doctor, you probably don't need to do so. With some exceptions.

Rule three is people who are sick always think they are bravely coping with the disease. Onlookers always consider that same behavior as evidence that a "big baby" has entered the room. It never fails. You answer the question "How are you?" honestly ("Mediocre"), and you're a big baby. The great thing is, people fall into those roles without any hesitation no matter how they act when they are on the other side of the fence.

I'd argue about where the rules should be, but I'm not in the mood.

After all, I'm sick.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Past blast

The other night I was channel-surfing when I came upon one of the icons of my youth.

Jack La Lanne.

If you are 50 or over, the name might make you smile. La Lanne was something of a pioneer in the early days of television. In fact, I think he's about the only one from that era left.

He had a syndicated exercise program way back when in the 1950's and 60's. The show was something of a link to the days when sports magazines and comic books would have ads about how to stop bullies from kicking sand in weaklings' faces. I never knew anyone who actually bought that stuff, but somebody must have.

Exercise wasn't exactly popular back then, but La Lanne tried to get his audience in shape. Memory tells me that he often had his dog appear on the show as a guest star. What's more, he'd be happy to sell you some sort of product that would go along with the exercises. The instant breakfast comes to mind, but I'd bet there were others. In that sense too, La Lanne was ahead of his time.

Jack and wife Elaine appear on an infomercial selling their Juicer, which turns all sorts of stuff into a beverage. Jack's hair is, um, surprisingly dark for a man 92, but he still looks like he could kick sand in my face without any fear of a response.

As you might expect, La Lanne's Web site ( is filled with merchandise, including a link to the Juicer. If you are feeling nostaligic, some old shows are available on DVD.

I may have missed "Home Run Derby," but at least I got to see Jack now and then.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Quite a night

A few notes collected while looking back on Election Night and its coverage:

* Miss the political commercials that have disappeared? I didn't think so.

* It was surprising to see Keith Olbermann have a large role on the MSNBC broadcast, considering his strong anti-Bush commentaries in the past couple of months. That said, he seemed professional throughout his portions of the show. And who else would have thrown in a joke about Wisconsin Senator Bob La Follette (served from 1906 to 1925)?

* Speaking of anchors, Wolf Blitzer of CNN was given a large role in the broadcast, and he seemed a little rushed at times.

* It's a little sad to see the major networks give up the franchise, to a certain extent, when it comes to politics. CBS/NBC/ABC were on from 10 to 11 in the East; they may have done more programming at 11:35 that was preempted by local news in my neighborhood. I don't expect all of prime-time to be wiped out by a midterm election any more, but it would have been nice to compare how the various new anchors would do over a long night. Plus, Tim Russert could have used more face time.

* And speaking of giving up the franchise, my ABC affiliate did show election returns starting at 10. It also ran a crawl with the phone numbers so that people could vote for their favorites in "Dancing With the Stars." That's got to mean something, but I'm just not sure what.

* It's become pretty easy to know when to grab the remote control when watching political coverage. When someone pops on who isn't running for anything, it's time to switch stations. They aren't going to say anything but the party line. Come to think of it, most victory/concession speeches aren't too illuminating either, although everyone on TV was falling over Harold Ford's classy exit in Tennessee.

* Late on Election Night, I flipped on CNN Headline News for a moment. Nancy Grace's news judgment hasn't changed. She was talking about the "breaking developments" in a story about a pit-bull attack.

* Sometimes it's fun to watch these elections to see who pops up for interviews; it can be a sign of interest in the next Presidential election. On the Republican side, John McCain obviously qualifies, although to be fair the man is always willing to do an interview. The other GOP candidates were sprinting for cover, I guess.

* Pollster Charlie Cook was on C-SPAN on Wednesday, and he did a fine job of analysis. He said the independents essentially fired as many Republicans as they could, although there was a GOP firewall in place (gerrmandering of districts) to prevent more serious damage.

Then again, how much more damage could there be? Did they lose the town board of Harmony, NY, too?

* My nominee for best line of the night came from a co-worker, who said he watched a little of the Fox News Channel. He said it was like the Yankees' announcers describing Game Seven of the 2004 American League playoffs against the Red Sox.

* The most interesting election note I heard was from a New Yorker who moved to South Carolina. She said she had to vote early because the powers that be down there make it as difficult as possible to vote. There aren't many polling places, for example, and the lines are long. Having just watched part of "Eyes on the Prize" on PBS, it kind of makes you wonder if we're still fighting for universal voting rights in some ways.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Are there any other kind?

It's easy to love Google, or as President Bush would call it, The Google.

Recently I responded to something in the office with the question, "Are there any other kind?" Someone said it sounded familiar, so I loaded the phrase into Google and waited for results.

Here are the best ones, creating an instant blog entry in the process:

Evil network executives
Top-secret military plans
Emotionally vulnerable high school girl
Plodding zombies
Liberal Democrats
Crooked lawyer
Psychotic killer
Temporary repairs
Group of wild teens
Bored and rich girl
Corrupt politicians and businessmen
None-too-bright rooster
Somber power officials
Evil pharmaceutical companies
Wicked stepsisters
Expensive riding boots
Self-aggrandizing district attorneys
Liberal media types
Billionaire tycoons
Desperate Ukrainians
Callow young men
Stupid lunch lady
Pro-evolution biologists
Horrid cover bands
A bad Saturday Night Live skit

And the one that hit home...

Anal copy editor

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Through the looking glass

It's October. And you know what that means.

It means the World Series. The start of hockey's regular season and pro basketball's training camps. The changing of the leaves in certain parts of the country. Classic rock radio stations using the word "Rock-tober" whenever possible.

And political ads appearing on television.


Is there anything more misleading on television than a political spot? Well, outside of the Fox News Channel's "fair and balanced" claim?

There is much that is distasteful about the political process in the United States, but television commercials top the list. The political ads seem to ooze out of the ground in the fall. Pictures of opponents are always done in grainy black and white, usually featuring a frown. The shots of the candidates themselves are in color, and they usually feature children -- even if the kids are borrowed from someone else's family.

What's more, the text is always a bit disturbing. Let's say someone has proposed a bill that would increase police funding by 15 percent, not expecting to get that number passed. The office-holder winds up voting for a slightly smaller number, say 10 percent, as part of the negotiation process. Only in the world of television ads would that be an example of the opposing candidate voting to cut police funding.

Then there's the matter of ads sponsored by national political action committees. When my district had a closely contested race two years ago, the out-of-town money came flooding in. You would have thought that Tom DeLay was somehow running in the district, considering how much his name came up in the ads. It looks as if the out-of-towners are responsible for the really nasty ads, although we're merely talking a matter of degree here.

Now, I realize that an incumbant is allowed to take credit for everything that's been done in office while he was there, while the challenger is allowed to attack that same office-holder for everything that didn't happen. I'm not sure how a freshman legislator can be blamed for all of the delays in state governmenet, let alone the lack of action in Congress, but that's the way it sounds. Of course, that same freshman probably didn't lower the tax rate by himself, either.

Here's the problem with all of this: if someone is willing to distort the truth in order to get elected, what will they be like once they get in office?

Makes me want to watch PBS until the first Wednesday after the first Monday.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Top 10 Comments Heard During Buffalo's Snow/Wind/Tree Disaster

1. "Hey, baby, I've got a spare generator at my place."
2. "Tom Reynolds seems really happy to change the subject these days."
3. "Will FEMA reimburse me for the loss of cable?"
4. "My favorite golf course got a lot easier this week."
5. "Well, I'll just have to walk to the bowling alleys tonight."
6. "I know it's tough, but you'll feel a lot better when the Bills stomp on the Lions."
7. "Xerox is closed, Xerox is closed, Xerox is closed ..."
8. "Looks like M&T Bank has a lot more "branch" offices now ... HAR, HAR, HAR!"
9. "Send in the Sabres; they've been cleaning up lately."
10. "Honey, I wouldn't put the wet wash on that line to dry."

Sometimes you have to have a little fun with a bleak situation. A few hundred thousand people went several days without power; as of this writing some still are in the dark. Thousands and thousands of trees were damaged and many have to be destroyed. So I wrote this to cheer myself up. It didn't get much of a reaction; apparently we needed more time to get over this one. The "top 10 signs Danny Almonte was too old for Little League" went over much better. (Some of the highlights -- "Taunted oppponents by telling them there's no Santa Claus," "Watched CNBC instead of Nickelodean at the hotel" and "Drove himself to the game."
By the way, the Xerox line isn't original. It's stolen from Danny Nevereth, a local disk jockey. Speaking of stealing, the cable/FEMA question was a real query on WBEN during the storm.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stepping out

Remember when television anchors were the paragon of neutrality? When Walter Cronkite was the epitome of fairness and balance? When a viewer couldn't guess the political leanings of the on-air talent?

Think those days are over?

Me too. Which brings the conversation to Keith Olbermann of MSNBC.

Olbermann is busy disproving the theory that there are no second acts in American life. He became known in the sports community as one of the top anchors for ESPN's Sportscenter more than a decade ago. He and Dan Patrick attracted audiences with their intelligence and wit; they reinvented the business, and their influence is still felt on every sportscast in the nation today.

Olbermann, a man of obvious smarts, is someone who -- according to all reports -- does not suffer fools. He left ESPN, burning a few bridges behind him. After some missteps, he finally has found a niche with MSNBC's "Countdown."

Here's where it gets interesting. Olbermann is up against Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. O'Reilly gets ratings, but he certainly has a love/hate relationship with the public. Conservatives love him, liberals hate him. Some claim he has some trouble with the facts, along the lines of Rush Limbaugh. Olbermann has tweaked O'Reilly by mentioning his missteps on "Countdown" frequently.

Lately, though, Olbermann has turned up the venom. He's done some commentaries that put him squarely on the left side of the political spectrum. They are well-written; transcripts are available on the MSNBC Web site. That tilt has driven the guest list to the show decidedly in that direction as well.

If the idea is to get some attention in a cable channel-filled universe, it is working. Is it a good idea? I can't say I'm used to it. It's funny to have a news show -- not a talk/interview problem -- have such a decided slant. But it's certainly interesting counterprogramming.

Kind of makes me curious as to how it's all going to come out.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

... and I'm the sap

Here's the designated story of my life over the past two weeks. I've been telling it to plenty of people, so it's time to present it here.

Someone at work wondered why someone who just died didn't have any references on Google. I tried to explain that some, especially older people, just don't pop up easily. As a foreinstance, I plugged in my father and mother.

After a little work, my father came up with four relevant references. Two were to a scholarship, one was a letter he wrote while in business back in 1988. The fourth, though, made me stop. It was on a geneology forum. Someone was looking for him, and knew where he/we lived in 1965 and who his parents were. The message was dated 2001.

Whew. I wrote the person, saying that I was five years late but that the subject of her search was my father. She wrote back with a story about how someone in England had decided to search his mother's family tree. He worked up the ladder for a few generations, then veered off and came back down ... to me, in a sense. My new cousin had written a series of articles about the family, which were sent off to me.

It's pretty amazing to read a family history like that. There are no rich relatives who are going to leave me millions in the future. But there's the tale of the person who had a family and left them without any warning or reason, never to return. No one knows what happened. There's the orphan who was hired as a "barn boy," and became known as "Barnaby." There are a couple of Civil War veterans. It turns out a main branch of the family came over as servants to William Penn. The husband and wife worked for seven years in order to pay for the trip over, and then headed to Quaker country when they were done. An ancestor was the first person to married in a meeting hall that still stands today.

Thus impressed, I did a search for my mother. I found a reference to a cookbook given my her family to a relative in 1941. After a flurry of e-mails, I discovered that the author of the blog was my second cousin. Her mother, cousin of my mother, is still alive.

With that sort of head start, it was easy to track down other pieces of information. I've found an ancestor that goes back to 1491 or so. I found out there is a little Irish in my blood, as they escaped to England and then America in search of religious freedom.

I don't think I'm ready to write my version of "Roots" yet. But I always wondered where the family tree went. It was lucky to find out someone had pretty much done it for me.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

P.S.: Infomercial

Some time ago I wrote about some of the late-night infomercials. Here's an update on one of them:

One of the highlights was the ad for the world's greatest vitamin. Apparently people are invited to set up Web sites to sell the vitamins and percentage of the proceeds. It is said to be under investigation from the authorities, perhaps because it's something of a pyramid scheme.

So the good folks running the business apparently have a new plan. They have the same spokeswoman (Tylene Megley, who must be one of the few Tylenes out there) with a similar low-cut dress. They have the same sales pitch in terms of how this is the easiest way ever to make money and how the plan has gotten 50 times better lately through a bonus program.

Here's the fun part: The product is never mentioned in the advertisement.

So the pitch essentially is, give us a call and we'll tell you how to do, um, something.

And since there are no details on the actual product, the spokeswoman is forced to resort to repeating the sales pitch about six times in a 30-minute program. I got the idea about six minutes into the program.

Even by infomercial standards, this is less than entertaining.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years ago

Everyone has a story to tell about Sept. 11, 2001. Here's mine.

I worked late the night before, as usual. My clock-radio went off at the usual 10 a.m. It was set to the alternative music station in town. I guess the station had a news department, but it didn't exactly specialize in world events.

This particular morning, though, the station was broadcasting nothing but news from some sort of national outlet. Most people are disoriented when they wake up as it is, but this was something different. After a minute of listening and determining that something terrible had happened in New York, I turned off the radio and turned on the television.

There on NBC, Tom Brokaw was discussing the fall of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, which had taken place a few moments before. The other was still standing, but was clearly smoking badly. You know how the rest of the day's story went, as details eventually came out.

I had only been in the WTC once, and that was to see a high school friend who had worked in the building. That friend had moved to a different location years ago, and when I talked to him a couple of weeks later he said he didn't even know anyone who still worked in the building.

Fast forward, then, to the Syracuse University alumni magazine's arrival in my mailbox some months later. The publication did an article on those who died in the terrorist attack with SU connections.

The second name on the list was Bill Bernstein. Bill worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and I believe the story mentioned he had a wife and children.

It hit me surprisingly hard. Suddenly my thoughts were transported back to 1976, where I took a pair of speech classes. Bill was in both of them. I got to know him a little bit in that time, exchanging a couple of laughs and acknowledging him around the campus or in the dining hall with a wave. I remember he made a speech on the value of isometrics, which I'd kid him about. I can't say we were close friends or anything, but he certainly was a nice person.

After reading that, the entire arc of his life came into focus. He had graduated from college, went into business, married and had a family, commuted to work every day ... and was killed when some fanatics decided America needed to be punished for, well, something. Bill was just an innocent bystander, words that seem inadequate in this context.

On this day, and other September 11ths, I'll be thinking of Bill ... and all the other Bills and their families who lost their lives that day.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Card shark

Time for a little tip for your next vacation:

Send someone a post card.

Mailing a post card is something of a lost art. Not too many people even know how many cents a post-card stamp costs these days. Yet what's better than receiving a post card in the mail? I guess a letter might qualify, but relatively no one (especially of those used to sending e-mails) sends letters any more. A post card, though, takes about as long as an e-mail to send, provided you have a stamp (plan ahead on that one, potential mailers).

I mail out post cards to friends and family with stunning regularity. I've been doing it for years, and I have accumulated a few tips:

1. There's no cheaper way to score points. Some places will sell them for something 25 to 30 cents each. And then there's Las Vegas, which does things like sell them at 7 for a dollar. No better bargain.

2. Don't buy a boring card if you can avoid it. If you find yourself in Albany, for example, don't get a card that has a picture of downtown Albany. Get the card that has a picture of Uncle Sam, who lived in nearby Troy and is buried there. (I have visited the grave, but that's another topic.) Of course, if you are in a national park, you certainly should send a picture of some breathtaking site that you have visited. A little jealousy never hurt.

2a. On the other hand, if you can find a REALLY boring post card, get it. I'm particularly fond of photos of airports and roads, but that's just me.

3. Don't mention the weather in the note on the back. No one wants to hear about the sun shining five days ago in another location. (Exception: talking about warm weather when writing to a cold-weather location is almost required once in a while.)

4. Be funny, or at least clever. It takes a little practice, but after a while you too can crack one-liners on a post card with the best of them. If you have a post card of an alligator, write on the back that the animal in question is always hungry and is particularly fond of (insert recipient's job here).

5. Be prepared to be surprised at how many places sell post cards. You may not get many of them, but somebody is buying them apparently. Just look around a little.

6. Be prepared to be delighted when you visit the house of a friend on your mailing list. Odds are good that your cards might turn up on their refrigerator. One friend of mine does that. When I called her one time when she had company, she explained that the guy on the phone was "the post card guy." High praise indeed.

Head for those racks, boys and girls. Admiration awaits.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Head's up

You might remember a commercial for the Buttoneer from long, long ago. I think it was a Ronco product, although I'm not sure if Ron Popeil is willing to take credit for it. The product put buttons back on clothing.

But the commercial was memorable. The announcer came on the air and said, "The problem with buttons is that they always come off." Then, in case you missed it, he repeated it: "The problem with buttons is that they always come off."

People remember that extra reminder. Apparently they remembered it from 40 years ago.

When the makers of "Head On" wanted to introduce the product, some marketing research indicated that repetition worked. Or, should I say, still worked. So the ad consists of a hurried voice saying, "Head On -- apply directly to the forehead. Head On -- apply directly to the forehead. Head On -- apply directly to the forehead."

That's it. No indication of what the product does. Just buy and apply.

It's apparently for headaches. The same company has similar adds for arthritis and hemorroids. They aren't quite as annoying. Then again, they couldn't be. You can find them all on the Internet if you look a little.

The manufacturer has spent millions on advertising, usually going for quantity over quality. In other words, it's hard to avoid late at night. The campaign has gotten attention. In fact, Countdown on MSNBC did a segment on it.

By the way, someone described the remedy as "homeopathic," a fancy word for "doesn't do much" because it has no active ingredients. But you have to give the company credit. As Keith Olbermann pointed out on Countdown, those Madison Ave. guys spend millions on a campaign, and Head On gets our attention by repeating a sentence.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

This just in...

Whenever I put on one of the all-news channels, I'm often reminded an incident that dates back to my college days.

There, the radio-TV students sometimes made fun of the speech patterns of one of the teachers. They used an episode from one of the classes for demostrative purposes. In order to make the fake newscast more dramatic, the student had inserted the words, "This just in..." Upon reviewing the newscast, the teacher said, "If the news isn't just in, you can't say that it's just in." He said it in a voice that was difficult not to imitate -- I'll bet the students still can do it 30 years later -- but hopefully they learned the lesson while they were having fun.

That brings us to the words "breaking news."

The three news channels use some form of that constantly, whether there is a degree of urgency or not. I know, the words are designed to make you stop and watch. Still, the overuse of the phrase deadens its effect.

When an important story really does take place, like the arrests of those in a terrorist plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights, it doesn't have the impact at first glance that it should. If everything is important, nothing is important. And when the phrase is used for a story hours old, it becomes easy to be cynical about that particular news operation.

By far the worst offender in this department, though, is Nancy Grace's show on CNN Headline News. Whenever I turn that program on at night, this is a "breaking news" graphic. Every night. Along with it comes text along the lines of "exclusive interview concerning kidnapping from three months ago in which there's nothing new but we got a family member to come on live." Well, almost.

All-news stations are big monsters that need feeding, day in and day out. They really do have to make national stories out of Scott and Laci Peterson's saga at times. But the words "breaking news" imply that something is happening now and it's important. When it's neither, credibility is shredded. That's not a good thing for a news department.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Thank you, Mr. President

I believe I wrote in this space a while ago about how football coaches are some of the dullest people in the world.

It's awfully nice of Nick Saban to help prove my point.

You may have heard this week about how President Bush paid a visit this week to the Miami area, and set up a dinner with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. A few other football types were coming; Jim Kiick was one, I believe.

Saban, the current coach of the Dolphins, turned it down.

There are plenty of people who would turn down the chance to have dinner with this particular President. I know some of them. They are Democrats who are still trying to figure out how we elected this particular man twice.

But this has nothing to do with politics. (I find myself wondering how many football coaches have bothered to register to vote. After all, election day is in the middle of the football season.) Saban said he was simply too busy with training camp to spare the time to have dinner. He wanted to teach his players something about commitment.

What a missed opportunity. Saban could have taught his players a valuable lesson about perspective.

He could have reminded them that there are bigger things in the world than their jobs, that the chance to break bread with the most important person in the world might be a higher priority than to spend hours 13 through 15 of a day watching some more video of the same practice.

Besides, it's training camp. Coaches like to say that rookies who miss a practice because of a contract dispute will never catch up and their careers are doomed. Those same coaches have those same players in the opening day lineup. Think a head coach might be able to miss a little time at night? Me too.

Saban, of course, is the same guy who has left orders for the front office staff of the Dolphins not to say hello to him in the hallway. Too distracting.

Nick Saban is an excellent coach, and I have little doubt he will turn the Dolphins into a winner in the near future. But he certainly gives people good reasons to root against his team.

Not that we here in Buffalo ever need a reason to root against the Dolphins.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Rooting for the laundry

It's been an interesting summer here in Buffalo when it comes to uniforms. That's right, uniforms.

The Sabres, coming off a good playoff run that ended with a narrow loss to the eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes, are gearing up for next season with contract talks, trades, etc. Yet all the fans seem to care about is the logo.

A picture of part of the new design of the Sabres' logo and uniforms was printed in the newspaper, and it's fair to say the reaction was less than enthusiastic. The letters to the editor page of the local sports section has been filled with comments. An on-line petition drew more than 10,000 signatures. And remember -- only part of the new look was released.

The Sabres recently responded by announcing that the team's new third jersey will be -- presto! -- the same as the team's 1970-1996 road uniforms. The diehard fans appeared to be thrilled, at least in public. That's in spite the fact that those uniforms were basically a copy of the Maple Leafs' road jerseys, as then-GM Punch Imlach liked the look way back when. Since road teams now wear white in NHL games (which probably is a mistake because it makes every game in a particular building look the same, but that's another argument), the Sabres couldn't use their old, better-looking (IMHO) white home uniforms as a third jersey.

I can only guess as to what is going on here. The uniforms for the past 10 years looked fine to me; I was thrilled to see the old road uniforms go in 1996. Are the Sabres fans trying to bury a legacy of the bankrupt Rigas era? Do the old-time fans miss the good old days? Are the Sabres trying to hit the young and the old segments of their fan base at the same time, thus taking in money both ways? Are they trying to make an old tie I have in the attic that has the Sabre logo on it fashionable again?

I'm not sure. But before I start writing letters to the editor about the ugly new logo, I think I'd like to see the whole thing first.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Buy high, sell low...

If you have an e-mail account, you've probably gotten on someone's list for stock tips. An unnamed person has sent you information about a very small company, and its stock is about to jump. Oddly, sometimes the same stock is mentioned in a couple of different e-mails.

I always figured something was up, but couldn't figure out the complete story. That led me to an investigation, and the discovery that the complete story doesn't really matter.

Today I received a couple of notes on the Ever-Glory International Group. I did a search on it, and I was taken to a page on the scam known as "Pump and Dump." Scammers hope to encourage some people to buy stock in a company, which will drive the price up a bit and give them a seller. Then the stock returns to normal, and the e-mail recipient is stuck with the stock.

The SEC doesn't know who might be behind a particular effort. According to the site, it could be someone in the company itself, someone with a connection to the company, or someone with no connection to the company. It's interesting that there is no bad Web site to visit, which is often the case with other spams.

Someone looked into Ever-Glory. Surprise! The stock dropped 16 percent just after one spam burst.

I realize my many loyal readers are much too smart to fall for something like this. But that doesn't mean they don't like to see how such matters operate. I'm sticking to the blue chips, thank you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

America's best job

We all have an idea about a perfect job. Left fielder for the Boston Red Sox? Movie star? Senior Senator? Business executive?

Nah. Samantha Brown has the best job around. She's a host on the Travel Channel. Or, perhaps I should say, the host on the Travel Channel. Every time I turn on that particular channel, it seems she is on. Does anyone else work there? Does the programming head just recycle her shows over and over again?

Granted, this is not a perfect job for someone who doesn't like to travel. Samantha seems to go everywhere. One hour she is in Hawaii. Then Rome. Then San Francisco. Scranton never comes up.

And it's not like we're talking Motel 6's here, either. She's usually sent to the best hotels, with the wait staff fawning over her. OK, it's television, you'd expect some cooperation from the staff considering the show is a 10-minute informercial in spots. But Samantha seems to get plenty of attention in the form of food and drink.

Samantha usually does a solid job on the show, and it's not an easy assignment. She talks to the camera as if it's a person in showing it around these good-looking spots, and that's not easy. In addition, she comes off with a good-sized amount of warmth and personality.

Brown is getting ready for year eight on the job, which involves some trips to South America. I would think a few more programs in the can and she could have her own channel -- nothing but her shows, 24 hours a day. Call it "Sam I Am" or something equally silly.

Yes, the job probably has some drawbacks. As in, how long do you go without reading the mail back home? Do you know your neighbors? But for those who like to travel, this has got to be as good as it gets.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Take five

1. Before the World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane figured to be remembered as one of soccer's all-time greats, a magician with the ball and one of the leaders of the French team that won the Cup in 1998.

His legacy took a change in course in this year's final. Zidane was given a red card for a stunning foul in overtime against Italy. He ran up to an opposing player and butted him with his head into the chest.

Let's see. It's overtime of the biggest sporting event of the planet. You are a great penalty-kick performer. And you pick that moment to get kicked out of the game?

This makes Phil Mickelson's decision to go for the green on his second shot at 18 last month seem downright brilliant. I can't wait until someone makes a list of all-time stupid actions in sports, because it has company.

2. Speaking of Mickelson, think there will be a few eyes on him during the British Open? Especially on Sunday?

3. It's difficult to get NBA news while visiting Glacier National Park. The story about Michael Jordan working for Charlotte slipped by me for a while.

Good thing his name is Michael Jordan. Because if his name were Henry Finkel or Hawthorne Wingo or Kurt Rambis, he might not have gotten another chance. When Jordan ran the Washington Wizards, he was rarely even in town and made several odd personnel decisions. Abe Pollin couldn't wait to get rid of him once his playing days were over.

Michael is smart and he knows plenty about basketball, but this has a chance to be a disaster.

4. It's difficult to make the baseball all-star game attractive to the public, since it is at heart just an exhibition game. But how tough would it be to make two small rules changes:

a. Drop the requirement that every team have a representative.
b. Use the designated hitter.

You'd have the best players, and be less likely to run out of them in the late innings. Get to work, Mr. Selig.

5. This probably deserves its own column, but one of our radio hosts in Buffalo came up with an idea that struck me as interesting: come up with a description that could be used for both an athlete and a rock star/band.

Let's see -- big star, easy Hall of Famer, had a couple of lapses but was generally great for a long, long time: Roger Clemens/Bruce Springsteen.

Pioneer in his field, revolutionized the game, had some personal problems including some weight gain, died too early: Elvis Presley/Babe Ruth.

Maybe not a Hall of Famer, but very good for a long time, showed up all the time, appreciated by those in the know: Dwight Evans/Rush.

This could consume me for days. So I'll quit now.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Red and yellow, but not green

Much has been written about how Americans haven't warmed up to soccer during the past 30 or so years, but there's one aspect of the game that should be immediately adopted by us all.

Cards. As in red cards, and yellow cards.

They are used in soccer as something of a technical foul. Have one minor offense, and you get a yellow card from the official. Do something really bad, and you get a red card and are immediately ejected from the game. Two yellows equal a red.

That doesn't really convey the emotion of the moment. Picture one player tripping up another. Tempers grow short. There is yelling. The threat of violence grows. And in runs a black-clad official. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out ... a card. He hold the card up, and fans and players react with passion.

I've liked the concept of cards for some time. Many years ago, a group of my friends played recreational soccer. When something happened when I was out with them that I didn't like, I just reached into my wallet and pulled out a card. Someone would react by saying, "Oh, no, I've been Visa-carded!" I really should have gotten a yellow Visa card or something.

ESPN the Magazine recently had a back-of-the magazine graphic with a card, with various names on it to indicate their time was up. I'd bet Terrell Owens was on there, although I can't say for sure.

But I think the idea works on a much more personal basis. The other day, I was driving into work when I went to make a left turn into a one-way street. A car was coming out of that one-way street the wrong way; the driver was obviously too lazy to go around the block to enter the Thruway corrrectly. I gave him a look as I went past that could be described as quizzical; I really didn't appreciate him messing up traffic and potentially causing an accident. He responded by bugging his eyes out and looking like I was the one who was wrong.

I could have used a yellow card.

Couldn't we all?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hall of a pick

Sports fans enjoy mulling over selections for the Hall of Fame, and I'm no exception. They all have their quirks and are difficult to predict. Baseball voters tend to reward longevity over short-term brilliance, the recent selection of Bruce Sutter not withstanding. Football's Hall is getting more and more exclusive, as they only take as many as seven players a year in a sport that has 22 regulars (plus kickers). Basketball has to factor in college play and international contributions.

Then there's hockey. Try to figure them out.

This year, four people made it. We'll throw out Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss, since no one cares too much about executives. That leaves three.

Patrick Roy? We saw that coming. Greatest goalie ever, by some accounts. Won a ton of games and a few Cups. A slam-dunk choice.

Herb Brooks? No problem. You've heard about the Miracle on Ice, and he did much more in his too-short life.

If you had given me 10 picks for the final spot, I wouldn't have come up with Dick Duff. But that's who went in.

Now Dick Duff was a pretty solid player in his day. He showed up most nights, had a decent scoring touch (five 20-goal seasons), played a two-way game, and went on for something like 18 years.

But Dick Duff instead of Dino Ciccarelli? Dick Duff instead of Glenn Anderson?

Ciccarelli scored more than 600 goals in his career. He's 13th on the all-time list. That's pretty good, even if he played in the lively puck era. If I'm in an all-time fantasy draft, Dino goes well before Duff.

Anderson scored almost 500 goals in his career, and won some Cups on those great Oiler teams. He wasn't a main component of those teams, but he was a mighty good player.

There were a number of others up for induction this year, including Doug Gilmour, Phil Housley, Pavel Bure and Tom Barrasso. You could at least make a case for all of them, although Bure's career probably was too short for serious consideration.

Every so often, the committee does something like this. All I can think about in terms of a comparison is the Irving Thalberg Award at the Oscars, in which an old-timer is honored for long and meritorious service.

I didn't think Clark Gillies was a Hall of Famer, for example. Leo Boivin played in three all-star games. Roy Conacher was a first-team all-star once. He had some good seasons, and his career was shortened by the war, but I'd rather argue the case against than the case for.

Bill Parcells once said that it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Pretty Good. That sometimes comes to mind when it comes to the Hockey Hall.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Favorite author

When I was in Canada recently, I picked up an update on my favorite author.

That's probably the only time you'll read Ken Dryden described that way.

Dryden is a former goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. He had one of the great starts to a career in pro history after finishing at Cornell. Dryden came up late in the season and started in the 1971 playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Now, this Bruin team might have been the best offensive team in NHL history, relatively speaking. They had the four top scorers in the NHL that season, and they had company. Esposito, Orr, Cashman, Hodge, Bucyk, Sanderson, McKenzie, Stanfield, and on and on. You probably could compare the group to the Eighties' Edmonton Oilers.

Dryden came in for the first round, and beat the Bruins. Then he helped Montreal win the Stanley Cup. He was so inexperienced, he was still eligible for the Rookie of the Year trophy the next season. Oh, he won that too. Dryden went on to win a bunch of other Cups as well.

This was not a typical goalie. He went to law school while playing; he liked the contrast in jobs. He retired at the top of his game, and never played goalie again after 1979. Dryden played defense in some pick-up leagues.

While everyone realized Dryden was smart, no one was sure just how thoughtful he was until he turned into a writer. His book on his time with the Canadiens, "The Game," is considered a classic. Then he wrote a couple of other books. Dryden's biography of a typical suburban Canadian is brilliant, mostly because of the author's patience. You can see him sitting with his subject, asking subtle little questions that reveal much about personality. Dryden also spent a year at a high school, again watching and taking notes. Wonderful stuff.

I had to be the only person in North America to be disappointed that Dryden took over as head of the Maple Leafs for a while, because it meant no more books. He had some success in that role, but couldn't quite get the Leafs over the top and moved into politics.

That's where he is now. A National Post writer (Canadian daily) took him to an Ottawa restaurant to watch a hockey game on television, something he hadn't done this season. Dryden had been a Cabinet minister for a while, but lost the job when his party fell out of power. His personality remains the same, according to the story. The slowest job in the country is campaigning with Dryden, because he won't give a yes-or-no answer when he's out with people. Dryden actually takes the time to think about his answers. He was one of those guys in sports whose answers were better than the questions, and he hasn't lost his touch.

The thought struck me that Dryden may be following the career path of another American athlete-turned-politician, Bill Bradley. Both men have been considered ready for big things for some time. Bradley had his chance at Presidential politics, but he couldn't beat Al Gore in 2000. The former Princeton basketball player wasn't a baby-kisser and hand-shaker by nature either.

Dryden's political career is hardly over, and there are no doubt more chapters in his story ahead as he attempts to become the leader of the Liberal party. (See his Web site, But so far it's easy to think that he's an international example of a common thought about politics: the best people to be leaders don't make the best candidates.

On the other hand, he can always go back to writing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Take Five: Montana edition

I can't say I spent much time in Montana before my last vacation. I set foot in it in Yellowstone Park, and then drove through a corner on my way out of Yellowstone. So six days there are enough for some quick observations, which have a little negative feelings that shouldn't overshadow a fine visit:

1. You've heard of the phrase "Big Sky Country?" It's true, at least in the Prairies. We drove south on Interstate 15 for about 90 miles, with farm land stretching out to the west and east. There were no buildings to speak of in the way, and no trees. It's all earth and sky. I could see where people could become attached to it, although it is a little lonely.

2. One of the oddest parts about reading a local newspaper in Montana was seeing a column of 12-step recovery programs. There were a few dozen listings. I guess I never realized about the extent of the problems of alcoholism in that part of the world. Which brings me to ...

3. Speed limits. Let's see -- you have some windy mountain roads and an alcoholism problem in your state. Naturally, you set the speed limit at 70. Ugh. There are far too many crosses with flowers along the sides of the road, signifying fatal accidents, for my liking.

4. Is it more difficult to get a fishing license or a casino license in Montana? It's tough to tell. Casinos are everywhere -- adjoining gas stations, pizza places, hotels, etc. I didn't actually go in one, but it sure is different than anything I'm used to seeing.

5. I wasn't really prepared for the beauty of the Flathead Lake area, south of Kalispell. We took a drive that way, and it is spectacular. If you get the chance, go.

I was prepared for the beauty of Glacier National Park, and its neighbor to the north, Waterton Lake. I may have to do re-do my list of top tourist stops/scenic places, because there were three such stops (Avalanche Lake, St. Mary Lake and Waterton Lake) that were simply unforgettable.

Friday, June 09, 2006

It's just a fantasy

I never became too enthusiastic about fantasy sports. I tried them on a limited basis, but I have enough trouble keeping up with the real standings to try and keep up with how "my own team" is doing.

But the concept of fantasy drafts is a good one. What is your personal ranking of a particular group? What's more, you can apply it to just about any subject at all. The arguments quickly follow:

1. California
2. Hawaii
3. Florida
4. New York
5. Utah

My sleeper pick is West Virginia, which is truly beautiful and few know it. Utah has some fascinating places, although there's a lot of empty space between them.

Baseball movies
1. Field of Dreams
2. Bull Durham
3. Pride of the Yankees
4. The Natural
5. Bang the Drum Slowly

William Bendix fans no doubt will add "The Babe Ruth Story" and "Kill the Umpire."

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin Roosevelt
4. Teddy Roosevelt
5. Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson probably was a better founding father than President, but I had to take him in that spot. In a long draft, I'd bet Eisenhower would go too late, and Kennedy would go too early.

Bruce Springsteen Songs
1. Born to Run
2. Rosalita
3. Badlands
4. Thunder Road
5. Glory Days

These were pretty easy; the top 10 would be much tougher.

Heavyweight Champions
1. Muhammad Ali
2. Joe Louis
3. Jack Dempsey
4. George Foreman
5. Larry Holmes

The toughest name to leave off is Rocky Marciano. His biggest drawback is that he didn't really beat anyone that good, so it's tough to know how good he is. I think of him as a smaller Joe Frazier. By the way, Lennox Lewis might be in my top 10.

Tourist Attractions
1. Na Pali coast of Hawaii
2. Lake Louise, Alberta
3. Zion National Park, Utah
4. Mount St. Helens, Washington
5. Monument Valley, Arizona

You could put the Yosemite Valley in here, and I wouldn't complain. Yellowstone was pretty special too.

The categories are limited only by your imagination. Greatest Boston Red Sox players? Candy bars? Astronauts? I could be up for hours doing this.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lunch with an astronaut

If you have a curiosity about the space program, the words in the title of this posting ought to suck you right in.

For those visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, lunch with an astronaut is an option. I recently took part in such a session. First, the basics: a good-sized tour of the Center (there are a couple of options available) costs a bit more than $30 each. If you throw in an extra $22 or so on a weekday, you can meet an astronaut.

The session starts with lunch, naturally. It's a basic, decent enough buffet, complete with salad and dessert. The room probably can hold a couple of hundred people when crowded. When I was there, we only had about 55 diners. Three times that were coming later in the week, so we were on the lucky side. You might want to consider doing this in a non-holiday time period. During the meal, a short film was played on large screens. It showed astronauts conducting several stunts in space, such as doing push-ups with two men on their backs. Each diner was given an autographed picture of the guest speaker.

Near the end of the meal, you might notice someone sitting by himself near the back of the room. A public relations person introduced the astronaut. In our case it was Mark Lee, who rode four shuttle missions. Lee obviously had done this a few times before, and was good at it. He had the laugh lines down pretty well.

Then Lee took questions from the audience. They were about what you'd expect under the circumstances. What do you wear in space? (Golf shirts and shorts work well.) What is it like being weightless? (Try going underwater.) How do you go the bathroom up there? (That's a little complicated, but picture a vacuum cleaner helping out.)

After about 20 minutes, Lee headed for the adjoining room. There he posed for pictures with all of the family groups in attendance. The p.r. person even was willing to take pictures with your camera so no one would be left out; there was the option of buying a canned picture for $10 taken automatically, I think, but there was no pressure to do so. It's a nice setting, complete with flags, and Lee was pretty enthusiastic about it ... which couldn't have been easy after doing a few times. I waited until the end of the line, and asked him a few questions about running in the space shuttle for a newspaper column. He was good about answering my questions.

If you don't feel like paying the extra $22, there is something called an astronaut encounter in a central meeting area in the visitors' center. Lee made a couple of appearances there as well, taking questions. He did pose for some photos, but didn't sign autographs.

The astronauts alternate during the course of the year; a schedule is available on line. No, John Glenn doesn't pop up, but once in a great while someone takes part "that you've heard of," which is how most people put it when I tell them about the program.

Is it worth it? Well, it was to me. Only 500 or so people have ever been in space, and I got to shake hands with one of them. It was the highlight of a very nice, entertaining day at the Space Center.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Five and counting...

I've been known to poke around, even post when I have the overwhelming urge to contribute "important" information. Forums usually aren't for the faint of heart, as you can get slapped around a bit by other readers, but some interesting ideas often get tossed around.

Like this one: five people you wish would go away. Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and Barry Bonds are disqualified for obvious reasons.

Who can stop with five?

1. Stuart Scott. Just a little too impressed with himself these days, especially in his column in ESPN the Magazine.

2. Angelina Jolie. Might be a nice person for all I know, but gets far more attention than she deserves. More attention than anyone deserves, in fact.

3. Drew Rosenhaus. Since Terrell Owens should have been disqualified, I'll take his agent here. An ego on parade. He might have written the worst sports book in history, which is quite a statement but I think it can be supported.

4. Bill O'Reilly. Let's avoid his politics. He seems to be a pig in the workplace, and doesn't let the facts get in his way. Click.

5. Isiah Thomas. I'm ready to name him general manager of the Yankees.

6. Gary Bettman. I'd mention Bob Goodenow here because of their roles in last year's year-long hockey lockout, but Goodenow already has gone away.

7. The creators of "Elimidate" and "Blind Date." Watch, and you'll find out why. And I thought Chuck Barris preyed on the intellectually unfortunate.

8. Most football coaches, at least in public. They never say anything, and they never let their assistants say anything at all. I still remember Skip Bayless' line that he only met one coach who could give an informed opinion about who his favorite Beatle was. Paul Hackett, we salute you for that distinction.

9. Most sports talk show hosts. Sometimes I feel shame for being a former member of the fraternity.

10. Dr. Laura. It was a happy day when her TV show got cancelled. I must go write the sponsors of her radio show some day.

There are about five others whose disappearance would merely make my life better as opposed to all of mankind's, so I'll keep those private. Let's just say I wouldn't go bowling with them.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Close but ...

Western New York has been exhaling for the past couple of days, as the Buffalo Sabres' playoff run came to an end on Thursday night. Most of the fans seem to agree that it was quite a six-week ride, the Sabres gave everything they had, there were no disputed calls that will cause anguish for months, and they (the fans) are ready for next season.

All true.

Let's add two more points while the subject is in our minds.

First, this was a terrific job of coaching by Lindy Ruff, who regained his reputation as a fine coach around the league this year. After a superb regular season, he came up with topnotch gameplans against Philadelphia and Ottawa, and kept compensating when his defense was decimated by injuries (four of his top six were out of the lineup by Game Seven against Carolina). Ruff also tried to deflect attention from his defense before Game Seven by making some out-of-character, caustic remarks. It worked. Rod Brind'Amour, who should have realized what was going on, even ripped into Ruff right after winning Game Seven.

Second, a bit of a reality check probably is in order. There's one huge truth in sports: you don't get many chances to win a championship. Buffalo may never have a better one.

The Sabres caught a good matchup in the first round. Philadelphia had a slow, big defense that was ill-equipped to keep up with Buffalo's fast forwards. Besides, Peter Forsberg was skating on zero legs (both ankles will have surgery before he returns).

Next up was Ottawa. Remember, the Senators jumped out to the lead in their division in part because Dominik Hasek was brilliant early. Then Hasek was hurt in the Olympics, and Ottawa had to rely on Ray Emery. The Senators had enough to win the top seed, but they clearly weren't as good as they were when Hasek was in top form.

By the time the Sabres had taken charge of the Ottawa series -- it took two whole games in Ottawa to do so -- the brackets had busted open. The team to fear in the East, New Jersey, was going down meekly to Carolina by that point. The top four seeds in the West were all gone. I'll repeat that -- the top four seeds in the West were gone.

In the conference finals, the Sabres were looking at a team with a similar talent level. There was no Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur waiting in goal; Martin Gerber or Cam Ward didn't give the Hurricanes an advantage over Ryan Miller. Carolina had more experience; Buffalo had more depth. The teams were close in the regular season, and they were close at that point.

Alas, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. The Sabres starting losing defensemen in rapid succession. The final blow came when Jay McKee, who had been playing his heart out for weeks, went down with an infected leg. No team is going far with four missing defensemen. They performed valiantly, but Carolina finally had enough in the end to win it. By the way, the idea that the Sabres should have traded backup goalie Martin Biron for a defenseman is 20-20 hindsight. If Biron had been dealt and Miller had been hurt, then the Sabres would have been ripped for weakening themselves in the most important position in hockey.

Teams change from year to year, and the Sabres have had a historically difficult time re-signing their own unrestricted free agents. That might mean McKee and Mike Grier will be elsewhere next season. Biron figures to be gone in some sort of deal as well. Other teams might do a better job of figuring out what players perform well under the NHL's new rules.

We don't know what the future holds, as there are no guarantees. We only know that the Sabres had an opportunity to do some very historic this year, and it didn't happen -- mostly because of an unprecedented run of injuries. With all the feelgood aspects to the Sabres' season, that last fact is going to make this a more difficult offseason that you might believe.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Slip up

The lesson has been handed down from parents for years: Do as I say, not what I do. I'll pass along another example here.

The tread on my old running shoes -- the ones I wear for casual use at this point, and not for running -- has been about gone in spots for a little while. I've been meaning to go to the shoe store to pick up replacements, as I had slipped a couple of times. Naturally, I didn't get around to it.

So on Monday afternoon, I rounded the corner of my house, headed down the stairs, out the door, into the car and off to work. Fate had other plans. My feet came out from under me on the stairs, and I went crashing to the ground, bouncing down a stair in the process.

The results of this spill: a scraped left arm, a small scrape on my right hand, and a very sore tailbone. It took about 18 hours for me to walk anything close to normally, as I looked like I needed a cane at work. It still hurts to get up and down from a chair or from the car. You'd be surprised how many movements you make in a day that are taken for granted.

I checked the various Web sites at work on such injuries, and the messages were similar. Unless there is bleeding, there is no emergency (and there wasn't here). It's just a case of having a sore tailbone for a while.

Therefore, take a look at your sneakers every so often, and don't try to squeeze a couple of more weeks out of them when they are dead. The butt you save may be your own.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Take Ten

* I was listening to one of those classic rock stations the other day, and I heard a song I hadn't heard before. I believe this is the first time that has happened since 1984, when the station's playlist essentially stopped getting updated.
* There's been talk about buying out Larry Brown's contract with the New York Knicks for $40 million, and telling him to go away. I'm not sure where that stands right now. However, let me start the line of people asking the question, "How do I get me one of those deals?"
* If the government really wants to know who I've been calling lately, it is free to take a look at my phone records. One tip: the inspector in question is going to be really bored.
* I bought the latest DVD release of "Blazing Saddles." A warning: The billed scene-by-scene commentary by Mel Brooks is basically an hourlong monologue by Brooks, and has little to do with each scene. The half-hour documentary on the film is better, though, and the package is still worth the $7.50 I paid for it.
* I get done writing silly stuff about infomercials, and who do I see on one the other night but ... Alexander Haig. I feel cheated. Generals' pensions must not be what they used to be.
* It's been 28 years since the Buffalo Braves left town, and they (in their current form, the Clippers) still can't win a seventh game. Time to start writing about the Curse of John Y. Brown.
* I suppose there are worthy Presidential possibilities out there jockeying for position in 2008. I just haven't discovered any of them yet.
* On my TV set, the program title pops up on screen when the correct button is pushed. When the Fox News Channel is on, the button-pushing prompts the title "Fair and balanced." You can write the next line on your own.
* When the identity of "Deep Throat‘ came out, it almost felt like we were running out of secrets. Now authorities are looking for the body of Jimmy Hoffa in Michigan. It's enough to make me go out drinking with my good friend, the Loch Ness Monster.
* Prediction to be read and thrown away: Al Leiter has a chance to be a great baseball commentator. I learn something every time he opens up his mouth on the Yankees' broadcasts.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Big of me. Big of all of us.

Is there a psychological phrase when a subject seems to be following you around? I've been going through something like that over the last several months. Let me explain.

A while back, I picked up a copy of Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven." I had read his previous book on climbing Mount Everest, and it was terrific. It cured me of ever wanting to climb a huge mountain, not that I was thinking about it. Krakauer drastically changed subjects here, switching to an investigation of a murder involving a renegade branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

I've had a small interest in LDS ever since my next-door neighbors from my high school days were of that faith. They were nice folks, a little more family-oriented and insulated than the rest of us. Besides, I live about 80 miles from Palmyra, sacred ground to the LDS faith, and I've attended the Hill Cumorah pageant there. It's quite a production.

Krakauer's book is quite fascinating on its own merits. It talks about a fundamentalist branch of the LDS in which polygamy is practiced. Krakauer says the area of Colorado City, Arizona is a hotbed for the group. That got my attention. A few years ago, I drove through Colorado City, which is near the Utah border, on my way back from the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I didn't stop, by the way. The murder in question is a case of sect members hearing a voice from God ordering them to commit the crime, raising a variety of ethical questions in the process.

Later in the book, Krakauer points out that some of those 19th-century Mormons who believed in plural marriage had enough of the fighting in Utah and moved to Cardston, Alberta -- right near Glacier National Park, an upcoming vacation spot for me.

OK, that's all an interesting coincidence. Shortly after that, though, HBO started showing a quirky new series. Having missed some of the other ones like the Sopranos, I figured I would actually watch this one. It was called "Big Love." Yup, it's about a Utah man who owns a couple of big hardware stores ... and has three wives. One of the secrets of such an arrangement, apparently, is large doses of Viagra.

And then a short time ago, the FBI got into the act. It named Warren Jeffs one of its top ten most wanted. Jeffs is one of the leaders of the fundamentalist branch of the church, and has a variety of charges pending against him. When Jeffs' story became national news, Krakauer was interviewed at length on CNN about the group.

I'm not sure what the next step in this run will be, but it has been a little spooky. Maybe I'll put a Marx Brothers movie, "Animal Crackers," in the VCR, and watch a scene in which Groucho is on a ship with a couple of women. He suggests that he should marry both of them.

"That's bigamy," one of the women says.

"Yes, and that's big of me too. It'll be big of all of us. Let's be big for a change," he replies.

Always good to have Groucho supply the last word of any essay.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Loser's circle

America's generally diminishing interest in horse racing increased over the weekend ... for all the wrong reasons.

As you no doubt know, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down shortly after leaving the starting gate in the Preakness Stakes. The horse was shipped to a hospital in Pennsylvania, where his leg was repaired as well as possible. As of this writing, Barbaro's chances of surviving are 50-50, although it's easy to guess that every hour of time without incident improves his chances.

The stories about Barbaro, and the public's reaction, have been interesting to follow. I particularly liked the person who sent a get-well card to the horse; I suppose it will be a bigger story if he sends a thank-you note. The whole incident got me to thinking about horse racing, which has taken a, pardon the expression, wild ride in terms of public interest over the years.

I don't know how long horses have been racing against each other, probably for centuries in one form or another. "Modern" racing started in the 1700's. Many small towns had their own tracks, even if they were used just for the county fair. There was a certain country charm at such races, although horse racing soon became big business. Champion horses such as Man O'War and Seabiscuit became nationally known, and the Triple Crown races turned into major events on the sports calendar.

But something went wrong with horse racing, and it was probably television. The sporting landscape changed in the 1950's. Football and later basketball gained ground, while horse racing and track fell way back. Check the old newspapers and you'll see confirmation of that. My guess is that horse racing never figured out how to market itself until it had lost a generation of fans; opening the gates just wasn't enough any more.

The economics of the sport have changed greatly too. Breeding has become a big money-maker and the financial engine. Owners want good horses to win a couple of big races, establish some value, and then retire. It's not a strategy that will build an audience. The exception is a gelding like Funny Cide, but he hasn't been able to maintain a high standard of racing.

So where is horse racing now? You don't hear much about attendance figures at the smaller tracks and races anymore. You don't meet many people under 50 who know how to read a Racing Form. Some tracks are still open because of casinos. Most people don't like to work too hard -- using such skills as reading and math -- to earn money via gambling. Slot machines require much less thinking. The Triple Crown races attract public attention for about six and one-half minutes every late spring/early summer. People watch on TV, and then forget
about it.

Some stars would help the situation, even if they are shooting stars, passing brilliantly if briefly through the sky. Smarty Jones was a bit like that; he was forced into early retirement. Now there's Barbaro, coming off a stellar performance in the Derby and horrifying the casual fan who just wanted to see if he could be as dominant in the Preakness. You wonder how many won't be able to forget that image.

I still find the race track atmosphere on the charming side in a quaint sort of way. The horses are pretty to watch, and the feeling in the grandstand, with characters only seen near a betting window, is unique. The question is, how does horse racing get everyone's attention again for the right reasons?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Late Shift

If you turn on your television some night after 1 a.m., you may get some unexpected entertainment.

Ah, infomercials. You love them, you hate them, you can't avoid them ... particularly in the wee small hours of the morning.

These products often go in two different directions. One, a product that seems almost too good to be true is being offered at a fabulous sale price. Two, a money-making scheme that seems almost too good to be true is being offered at a fabulous sale price. I've already detected a trend here.

Infomercials first popped up on the scene several years ago, when local stations discovered they could make more selling the time instead of putting on The Late Movie. The more remote the time period, the odder the product.

Now, watching someone like Ron Popeil at work can be entertaining. Popeil used to sell products at fairs and the like, and he's got the pitch down. A 30-minute opportunity to sell on TV is tailor-made for him. The Dean Martin roast DVD's have some entertaining moments in-between the sales pitches. If nothing else, you can try to find someone who was on the show who is still alive. There's Billy Crystal, um, er, um ... well, I'll have to watch again and count them.

As for the others, well, it's a different story. An early favorite was Tom Wu, who was trying to pitch a real estate scheme with no money down. The shots of people who had made thousands of dollars were mixed in with shots of young girls in bikinis, usually bending over, around Wu.

Once in a while, a celebrity spokesman pops up on these infomercials. If you were wondering what ever happened to Minnie Driver, tune in at 2 a.m. A couple of these appearances were really disheartening. I think Meredith Baxter popped up on a cosmetics ad; Baxter was always a favorite, so it was tough to see her do that ad. Even tougher, though, was seeing Jim Kelly in an ad for a vaguely-defined company called 5LINX. Jimbo, did you really need the money so badly that you needed to get into multi-level marketing of communication equipment?

There are a couple of ads making the circuit right now that are appropriately silly. I see some medical-looking guy talking about how a clean colon might be a key to better health. I've never had the guts to hang around long for that one. Sounded icky.

Then there's an ad for the world's greatest vitamin. When the hosts aren't explaining how much easy money can be made, and testimonials aren't being given from people who earned tons of money from Web sites, I seem to recall (remember, it's on late) two women in low-cut dresses talking about the selling program. If they showed much more, I'd think I was watching The Movie Channel. Maybe it's a tribute to Tom Wu.

I think Homer Simpson is about the only person who calls the toll-free number, so I don't need to conclude with a warning about that. I'll merely say if you want an laugh, do a Google search for investigations into some of these operations. The people behind the "world's greatest vitamin" sure have had some less-than-great adventures over the years.

Friday, May 19, 2006

No cheering outside the press box

This is a tough time not to be paying much attention to hockey in Buffalo.

The Sabres are in the midst of making an unexpected run toward the Stanley Cup finals, reaching the conference finals for the first time in seven years. Not bad for a team that was bankrupt a few years ago.

The catch is, I haven't been paying close attention. After many years of covering and watching the team, I've cut back on the amount of time following hockey. Part of that is working the night shift -- you just don't get to see any games on this time schedule. I did go to one of the Flyers-Sabres playoff games, but that was it for the season.

So I'm on a bit of an island when it comes to following the team. But it is hard to notice one thing when standing on the outside -- the amount of cheerleading from the media at this time of year.

Now, I don't like cheering in the press box from sports people, but at least I understand it a bit. Many of the people in the press box are fans of the home team, and have been for years. They get excited over a victory. Sometimes it leaks into coverage, sometimes it doesn't. (By the way the newspaper guys are generally the most objective -- partly because they are more worried about finishing their story. The radio guys, who are the least experienced, often are the least objective.)

But it's the news people that truly are bothersome. Take it from a former PR person in pro sports, there are plenty of news people who think it's really cool to figure out a way to get into a sports press box. They've tried. Those cheerleading feelings really come out a time like this, when story assignments get silly. Sabres in the playoffs? Go to a sports bar and ask patrons what they think of the game. Yeah, you are sure to get some articulate answers to that. Find out what superstitions fans have as they are watching the game. Find out how briskly jerseys are selling. Oh, and refer to the home team as "we." Frequently. Ugh.

I know the community is excited, and that's fine. I know the coverage attracts viewers/readers, and that's the business. Still, there's a difference between telling the story from a Buffalo perspective and openly rooting.

Personally, if I had a choice, I'd rather have my news people rooting for Delphi to stay open.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Scoring at half-a-hundred

Another season of recreational basketball has come to an end. Each Thursday night, from September to May, a bunch of people get together in a suburban Buffalo gym for some hoops. I've been playing at this particular location since 1989, which outside of the instructor makes me the veteran of the group. I'm the 50-year-old in the bunch. (In Barry Switzer's football book, he calls scoring 50 points on someone as running up "half-a-hundred." Hence the term in the title, even if it applies to age here.) Most of the others are in there 30's and 40's, although a few weeks ago I had to guard someone's son who checked in at about 16. I never thought I'd be playing this long -- late 30's, maybe -- but here I am. And it's still fun.

Bill Bradley once wrote that he liked to play basketball with people because it offered a great deal of insight into character. He's right. I'll tell you lots about personality after playing with someone for an hour. Is he willing to sacrifice for the greater good? Is winning at the top of his personal value list? Does he play with enthusiasm? (Change he to she when appropriate; we've had women at these games over the years who have fit in nicely.)

At this age, my strategy is simple: keep moving. Running as a hobby helps. As one person put it, "When you play once a week, the last thing you want to do is chase a guy around the court for more than two hours." You'd be surprised how often someone can get open merely by hustling. I never could create offensive opportunities on my own, and I still can't, but I can hit the open 18-footer. I can try to take care of the basketball, and I can work hard and help others on defense.

I do have a little secret when it comes to basketball. When it comes to the game, I'm practically a socialist.

The game has to be played right in order for me to enjoy it. That means, pass the ball around, hustle when possible, take good shots, don't basket-hang, etc. When the game is played that way, it takes on a new age feel to it. Everything is in balance.

There's nothing worse than running all the way down the court in order to gain a step on the man that's playing defense, only to see a teammate launch a 25-footer on the run that has no chance of going in. I used to play a lot with a friend who was a heck of a basketball player, and someone who was mighty dependable when it came time to taking the last shot. However, he was no fun to play with most of the time. I think he failed the category "plays well with others" when he was in elementary school, because despite many skills he couldn't utilize his teammates on the court.

One of the nicest moments of the year came when I played with a team filled with the right players. Gerald, Gary, Chris and I have been playing on Thursdays for some time, and sometimes we're on the same team. We picked up a fifth guy, a stranger who was a step below the rest of us, on this particular night. Everyone got the ball, everyone took good shots, everyone looked after teammates. We won every game. When the stranger went to pack up his stuff to go home, he said to us, "It was a pleasure playing with you guys."

Music to my ears.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Bonds, Barry Bonds

Sometimes the media leads, sometimes it follows. It looks somewhat determined to lead in the Barry Bonds case.

You probably know about ESPN's coverage. Barry has been the lead story on SportsCenter quite often this season as he chases down Babe Ruth in career home runs. His at-bats are now shown live. This raises some ethical questions, considering that ESPN is a partner with Bonds in a reality show of sorts. (I should mention that ESPN the magazine had a fine article on the problem with a baseball record become meaningless before our eyes.)

I just visited MSNBC through a link. There, with a list of all of the other sporting categories like NBA and NHL, is Barry Bonds. Yes, he has a home page, and a poll. In fairness, the commentary on the page seems pretty well-balanced. Can't say I read it, though.

It's a story, but an odd one. The steroids angle puts Bonds' accomplishments in question, of course, and it has dampened public enthusiasm greatly. I haven't heard of many people who are paying much attention to him. Granted, a career record is different than a seasonal mark, which has the added element of a specific time frame, but mostly this has been greeted with yawns.

Two positives from all of this:

1. It doesn't look like Bonds is going to catch Hank Aaron, since Bonds' body looks pretty broken down.

2. I'm in favor of anything that reminds us how great Aaron was.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

My own Web sites

You might notice the links to Web sites here. They are my own sites. The story behind the first one isn't too interesting to the general public. It's something of a tribute to my college newspaper at Syracuse, complete with current jobs, books written, and pictures. We like it.

The others are of more general interest. Some years ago, I was waiting for a phone call and was a little bored. In surfing the net, I noticed that there wasn't really a good place for sports book reviews. The most common stop for reviews is either or, and those are a little suspect. Authors have been known to tell friends to write glowing reviews on there, just to prime the pump, so to speak. I've done it. This won't affect the reviews for The DaVinci Code, but the small books with a few reviews will get a good average grade. So, I write up a review of everything I read that's been published in the last five years. It's mostly sports books, hence "Sports Book Review Center," but has other nonfiction as well.

The third site, "Road Trips!", was an excuse to get travel photos up on line for friends and relatives. Surprisingly, most people get there through searches for pictures. I got a few hundred hits for my Punxsutawney, Pa., pictures around Groundhog's Day. Otherwise, people just stumble on it for various locations. Jimi Hendrix's grave remains a popular picture.

Feel free to visit them at your convenience.

Friday, May 12, 2006


If Greg Connors, my workplace counterpart, can have a blog (, I figured I can too. I'll throw on a few comments as I see fit, and see how it goes.

So start with the title. Someone once said I didn't have an inquisitive mind. Well, we'll see.