Friday, January 29, 2010

A deficit in common sense

When it comes to finances, I'll bet you were taught the same points I was. Live within your means. Save your money for the proverbial rainy day. Borrow money when you absolutely need to do so. If there are more problems than dollars, make tough choices.

So if I run my checkbook like that, and you do it like that, and most people do it like that, why doesn't Congress do it that way?

Because it can do it another way. The government can either borrow money like crazy or print more money; the former is better because it's less inflationary, but either method is not exactly a prescription to long-term economic health.

There has been a great deal of talk about the national debt and government deficits lately, some of it coming from the politicians themselves. And it really does make me a little ill to hear it. Since when do most of these people care?

The only recent President to manage a surplus in recent decades was Bill Clinton, who left office with one. As you recall, Ronald Reagan cut taxes in the early 1980's and then, as David Stockman pointed out right away, counted on some sort of magic to fill in the gap. It never came. The economy improved, but the excess federal spending throughout the Reagan years provided some of the reason why -- thus passing along the burden to the next fellow in office, and the one after him. That's in spite of the fact that even Reagan raised some taxes while in office, no matter what the image holds.

I had to laugh recently when Peggy Noonan wrote about how many of her friends and acquaintances, mostly Republican we assume, were worried about the current budget deficit and "hidden taxes." Where were those people from 2001 to 2009? During that time, the Bush Administration had to deal with the effects of 9/11, plus it fought two wars and put in a costly prescription drug benefit to health care. What was the response to that? Lowering taxes. (Indeed, the Republicans seem to want to lower taxes when times are good too, even while passing programs that cost money along the way. So when do we pay for anything?)

But there are no heroes here on either side of the aisle. The Democrats have charted a course that has us running billions of dollars in the red each year for the rest of the decade, which is only 29 days old. And they traditionally have been the bigger spenders of the two parties. In Robert Reich's book about life in the Clinton cabinet, he writes about how a little deficit spending wouldn't hurt too badly if it could fund some pet projects to help people. And the current health care reform debate sure could be sharpened if we had a much better idea what this might all cost.

Sometimes a crisis comes along that requires borrowing, and fast. The bank/housing meltdown of 2008 certainly qualified. An immediate response to 9/11 fits that standard too. We didn't need General Motors going under when unemployment was destined to hit double digits. And so forth. But the economic crunch is easing, and there's no sign of any more fiscal restraint on the way.

The same problem exists on a smaller basis on the state and local level. Here in New York, which has quite a net of social programs, paying for everything has become a problem -- based on the budget shortfall that is in the billions. And when a leader puts away some money for rainy days in "fund balances," he or she is criticized for hording the taxpayers' money.

A balanced budget is at a tactical disadvantage in Washington these days. Particular bills have an army of supporters, including lobbyists and supporting groups. And there is sometimes a political price to pay for a particular vote. Remember when some were criticized for slashing school lunch aid -- even though it was merely the rate of the increase that was slashed, and not the amount of aid itself?

This doesn't represent an endorsement for the "tea party" crowd either, who seem to want to say "no" to practically all government expenditures. We do need the government to take some actions. The question is, which ones?

You'd think someone would be willing to make some of the so-called hard decisions. Let's figure out what we need to do, and then come up with a way to pay for it. Should that be so hard?

After all, that's what the rest of us do every single day.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Still marching...

Whenever I get the chance to hear an interesting person talk, I try to do it. Heck, I might learn something.

Such was the case when Diane Nash spoke at Canisius College tonight. The name might not be familiar to everyone, especially under 50. But Nash is a relatively important figure in the history of civil rights of this country.

Nash happened to be at Fisk University in Nashville around 1960 or so. She was an active participant in the first sit-ins and protests at segregated lunch counters there. Who would have thought that not eating the less-than-delicious food at a Woolworth's for lunch would have started a revolution? Nash later became one of the famous Freedom Riders, who helped desegregate the interstate bus lines. Heck, she called out reinforcements after the first wave ran into problems. Oh, she called them from jail after she and her friends were arrested.

Nash has a relatively big role in David Halberstam's book on the Movement, "The Children." She was so pretty in her college days that she was practically a recruiting poster for the local Movement; most of the male volunteers supposedly found love at first sight. (See the 1960 picture) She married, and eventually divorced, one of the other workers.

There aren't many people like this left, people who lived through history, so a friend and I headed off to see her. It wasn't what I was expecting.

The first question about such a person is along the lines of, "How did you get involved?" Basically, she was a Chicago girl, a city where the racism was much less overt. She wondered why someone wasn't upset about it in Nashville, and went searching for people who were. She found them. Right person, right place, right time.

But from there, Nash went into a rather abstract discussion of the principles of non-violent protest. It would have been a fine classroom lecture in a class, but this wasn't a classroom. I saw no need to take notes. One aside was devoted to her belief that the North Vietnamese put up a noble fight against American imperialist aggressors in the Sixties and Seventies; she sounded ready to enlist again in Hanoi right now. Well, Nash hasn't lost her fury.

I wasn't expecting "What Did You Do in the Movement, Mommy? A light-hearted romp through the Old South" as a speech. But a little more "What was it like?" would have been useful. That's particularly true for a college audience, which no doubt thinks of segregated water fountains as ancient history. For a representative of a group that acted to try to help future generations, some background for those generations on the experience from her would have been useful.

I also hoping for a few good questions after the formal speech. Maybe something like, "What were your emotions on the days that Obama was elected or inaugurated?" Or, "When did you know you were going to ultimately triumph?" Or, "Can you guess how many times you thought to yourself, 'It sure would have been easier to do nothing.'?"

But there wasn't much of that. One question was asking for more detail on her Vietnam experience, and another was about the influence of Pan-African thought.

I didn't pay to get in -- they even had free cookies -- so I can't complain too loudly. Still, perhaps the best part of the night came at the beginning. That's when Nash might have looked around at the crowd of maybe 250 people or so, and saw all sorts of people in a variety of hues gathered together. Fifty years ago, such a group in Nashville might have led to a call to the police department.

We have made some progress. It's good to stop and notice it sometimes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Skeleton in the closet

One of the best parts of genealogy is the chance to read good stories. I came across this one the other day about my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Barnaby.

The version I had originally heard about his life was that Barnaby was an orphan who had grown up, essentially, in a barn -- and was called "Barn Boy." That eventually adapted into Barnaby -- no relation to ex-Sabre Matthew.

Then I got a note through from another branch of the Barnaby clan, who obviously had kept better track of the situation. One of James' granddaughters sat down at an elderly age (this was early in the 1900's) and typed out a note about what she knew about Grandpa.

Not much was ever discussed in the Barnaby household when it came to family origins. It was believed by the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, though, that someone in an upper-class Quaker household had an illegitimate child in 1781 (the horror!). The child was raised as a servant, or "bound boy." The other children apparently treated him well, although he had to sit by himself in the back of the church when the family went to services.

Supposedly James agreed to a "contract" in which he would keep forever silent about the circumstances, and lived up to his side of the bargain. He never told any of his children about it, and they apparently never asked.

James went on to marry Ann White, who saw both parents die at a very young age. Ann and her sister were raised by neighbors. They are both buried in Mount Union, Ohio, apparently taking some secrets with them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I'm just askin' ...

I went to a wedding yesterday. The priest started his sermon in the middle of the service along these lines (I wasn't taking notes, but you'll get the idea):

"This is a special day, and it's also a little unusual. It's unusual because this ceremony has become somewhat unusual. A lot of couples don't even bother to get married these days. They live together, or have some other arrangement. Then if they do get married, they do it in a hot air balloon or under a waterfall or something. But in this case, this couple has decided to come to this church and pledge before God and their friends and family that they love each other. That's quite a commitment, so we celebrate the step that Jack and Jill are taking today."

Which prompts a question:

Couldn't you substitute "Jack and Murray" or "Ellen and Jill" in the above paragraph, and have it maintain its full meaning?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Keeping track

When you have multiple Web blogs, it's fun to see how many people are showing up and what they are doing when they get there.

It's easier than you think. You see, every move you make is being tracked by Google Analytics, thanks to a code in the heading. For example, there have been 3,713 visitors to this blog in the past year, and 297 in the last month -- but only nine yesterday.

The best part if discovering where they go during their visits. It's tough to know why a page gets a number of hits. For a while, Google used to use the pictures on the travel site in its index, and I got a couple of dozen hits per day that way. All of a sudden, I dropped out of the data base, and the totals dropped.

The analytic counter doesn't track those who just come to the site generically, but it does count hits to specific pages.

For example ...

On this site, the most popular visiting spot has been the story I did on what WEBR Newsradio 970 graduates are doing these days. It's had 41 hits, well ahead of the post on mall stores.

At the Sports Book Review Center, the most popular review is "Fasten Your Seatbelts," a book about Van Miller. That's not a surprise since it's a local book that wouldn't get any national reviews. It's tied with Best American Sports Writing 2009, which I posted on Facebook.

At Road Trips!, the page on Letchworth State Park dominates for some reason. The Christmas light show in Disney World is second. Oh, the McKinley assassination site in Buffalo is fifth.

And the Hockey Abstract site has had one particular stat on top of the list for months and months -- oldest active players. Nothing else is close.

It's tougher to check out the Bandits' history site and Braves' history site, since the pages are less specific. But, it's interesting that the Braves have been gone since 1978, but still get many more hits (right now, seven times as many) than the Bandits.

There are many tricks to get people to visit your sites. This is another of them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A step up

Canadian sports channel TSN asked Rush drummer Neil Peart to do an updated version of the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme. Hard to miss when one of the great rock drummers gets to update a familiar tune. Here's how it goes:

Drop that puck!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Small gesture

You may have heard of the small controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments involving aide to Haiti's earthquake victims. He was upset about the link on the White House Web site, claiming that the Obama administration would use the names for political reasons.

I'm surprised Karl Rove didn't think of that first during Katrina. But Mr. Limbaugh probably is offbase on this one. If he won't post a link, I'll be happy to do so -- just like that noted liberal, Sean Hannity, has done.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Four to ponder

Last week as I was driving to work, Mike Schopp and Chris Parker were asking their listeners on WGR to call in with their best "what ifs?" about Buffalo sports history.

Talk about a hanging slider for me. I wrote an article several years ago on that very subject. Sadly, it never saw the light of print, but I always liked the concept.

The hosts went through a variety of ideas with their callers. Here are four that I thought of for the story, way back when?

What if Scott Norwood had made the kick to end Super Bowl XXV? I won't even say which kick.

I asked a number of people about this, and the conclusion was more or less unanimous. That team never would have returned to the Super Bowl the other three times. The team would have been one and done, having fulfilled a goal. The first game was also the only time when the Bills were the clear favorite to win the game; Washington and Dallas were better in the other three games.

What if Buffalo had gotten a major league baseball franchise either in the 1961 or 1969 expansions? Buffalo was part of the proposed Continental League of the late 1950's, which essentially forced the expansion of 1961-62. The 1969 expansion hopes rested on the plan for a domed stadium in Buffalo, but everything I've read indicates that Buffalo didn't have much of a chance thanks to an inside job by Los Angeles pushing Montreal and San Diego.

If Buffalo had overcome the odds, the team probably would have done relatively well ... for a while. But once the economics of the game started to change in the early 1990's, there would be no way for Buffalo to keep up. The team would be somewhere, but not here.

What if Canisius had been good in college basketball in the late 1970's? The catch here is that it was the era when Eastern basketball was starting to implode to form new conferences. You might have heard of the Big East. When the Big East was forming, television markets were of prime interest. That's why Georgetown, Boston College and St. John's were naturals. But teams were needed to round out the conference.

So let's put it this way: Which city/market would you want for a new basketball conference in the Northeast -- Providence, Syracuse or Buffalo? Canisius was just coming off probation around then and in no position to capitalize on realignment. In a different set of circumstances, maybe Canisius would have been a player in that discussion.

What if the Braves had been able to hang on for two more years? The NBA team left Buffalo in 1978. Two guys named Bird and Johnson made it to the NBA in the fall of 1979. Would they have made a difference?

Maybe. The NBA turned hot around then, and having Bird come to town four times a year couldn't have hurt. The Sabres hadn't needed to do much marketing in their first nine years, and might have been a bit vulnerable to a well-financed competitor.

I don't think the Braves would have knocked the Sabres out; hockey has deep roots in this region. And Western New York really started to become too small for both an NBA and NHL team around then. But on the other hand, the Stallions put a bit of a scare into the Sabres around that time in terms of competition for the entertainment dollar. What could a good NBA team have done?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jay walking

Here's a little remembered detail the last time that NBC had a nervous breakdown over its late night programming.

Last time you recall (as was said on Rocky and Bullwinkle), Johnny Carson was getting ready to retire and the jockeying was on to replace him. The obvious contenders were Jay Leno, who had been something of the main "guest hosts" (say, isn't that a contradiction in terms?) in the later years of Carson's reign, and David Letterman, the "edgy" host of Late Night that followed Carson.

Leno was considered the safer choice, but Letterman had his backers as well. As it turned out, Leno was offered the job of replacing Carson. But when Letterman started talking to other networks, he was offered a different deal by NBC: the chance to host his own show at 10 p.m., Monday through Friday.

At the time, being the savvy media critic that I was, I thought it was a brilliant move. I liked Letterman more than Leno, and having him on at 10 would make him more accessible to more people. He essentially could be everyone's second choice for programming at 10 p.m., and it seemed to me as if he could carve out a pretty good niche for himself that way.

However, CBS came calling, Carson even told Letterman he should take a walk, and that's what he did. Letterman is still at CBS more than 16 years later.

Fast forward more than a decade, when the clumsy process of succession came up again. Leno was guaranteed in 2004 the Tonight Show job for five more years, when he'd be replaced by Conan O'Brien. But when 2009 arrived, that move didn't seem like such a good idea. The TV landscape continued to change, but NBC saw no easy way to keep its original lineup. So Leno moved to 10 p.m. weeknights. If nothing else, it would make NBC more money that trying to produce five hour-long dramas for that time slot.

I thought the Leno move still had a chance, but the affiliates started complaining about the lower ratings almost instantly. Their 11 p.m. newscast had lost some strong lead-in programming. So, NBC's current plan is to move Leno to 11:35, O'Brien to 12:05 ... but O'Brien doesn't like that idea and is exploring his options. Now Leno may return with a little egg on his face, and O'Brien may be gone. The 10 o'clock idea has been linked with "The New Coke" as bad marketing ideas.

There's only one clear victor in this matter. Letterman has been winning the ratings battle ever since this started last year, and he may be difficult to displace now. I'm still not sure if the Letterman idea in 1993 would have worked, but he probably wouldn't still be on the air today.

And for those of you old enough to remember, wouldn't you love to hear what Carson would say about all of this?

Friday, January 08, 2010

The day's links

A few stories worth noting, particularly for those who like books and newspapers (there must be a few of you out there):

* Glenn Locke passed along this blog on the joys of publishing. The author has some very interesting sales figures for e-books vs. printed books. Obviously, "Rayzor's Edge" came out a little late to capitalize on this development part of the business. Then again, since my publisher went out of business, it wouldn't have mattered.

Most of the books I read won't be available electronically for years, but I can see it coming.

* Speaking of Glenn, he also sent a link to this site on really odd books. Nice to see "Rayzor's Edge" not appear here. I'm ready to read "A Cow Is Too Much Trouble in Los Angeles."

* Dave Kindred is always worth writing, and he compiled a list of dos and donts about sports journalism. There's some good advice there.

* Kindred mentioned the demise of the Washington Times sports section. I was late to the party when it came to hearing about that. Dan Daly has a nice tribute to the good work the paper did. I knew the late Dave Fay from the Times from my hockey days; he was one of the good guys.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Words matter...

Here's another reason to hate political talk shows these days, as if we needed them.

I was dial-hopping late Wednesday night when I tuned into Laura Ingraham's show. I've never heard it before, although I've seen her briefly on television a few times.

The subject of the day was health care -- surprise! More specifically, it was Nancy Pelosi's quote that "There has never been a more open process for any legislation."

Ingraham then went on and on about how this statement was a lie. This was repeated a few times, and posted on her Web site under "Lie of the Day" for emphasis.

Well. It struck me that Pelosi made a judgment about the process, and that Ingraham disagreed with Pelosi's assessment. OK, that is the right of the talk-show host.

However, there's a huge difference between "You're wrong" and "You're lying." The latter not only isn't accurate, but it turns up the volume on the discussion and makes it much less civil and much more personal.

Ingraham has other "lies" posted on her Web site. One is from President Obama on winning a Nobel prize: "I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility." Now, how would you know this is a lie without being a mind-reader? She could argue, rather successfully, that he didn't deserve the Peace Prize, but saying he's lying about being honored and humbled merely hurts that argument.

I'm only picking on Ingraham because I happened to hear her. Political analysts on the left also use this sort of logic. Heck, I've heard it come up in sports. One time Sabres coach Lindy Ruff made an opinionated statement about a player, and a reporter told me privately that he thought Ruff was lying -- when that was a giant leap to take under the circumstances.

But it seems to come up far more in politics, where commentators are desparate to be heard above the noise. No wonder liberals and conservatives can't get together on much at times. No one seems to speak English.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

And mind your own business...

Nothing like taking a blowtorch to your credibility, Brit:

Why do I think Tiger, or anyone else, would respond with a strong "Mind your own business"? Or words to that effect?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Turn on the juice

The Buffalo Bills sure can make rooting for them a difficult experience.

Let's look (thankfully briefly) at the past year. The team's front office and coaching staff blew up the offensive line in the offseason, essentially starting over. Then the Bills installed a new, no-huddle offense that was almost guaranteed to confuse the rookies and newcomers on it, especially at first. As an added wrinkle, coach Dick Jauron fired his offensive coordinator on the eve of the season. Sure enough, it didn't work, and Jauron was fired in the middle of the season, which almost never works in football.

Yet, there seemed to be a silver lining. As I wrote in this space before, this was a pretty good year to be looking for a head coach. There were a variety of coaches with Super Bowl experience out in the marketplace. By making a decision on Jauron so early, the Bills guaranteed themselves a chance to talk to all of them earlier than most of the other teams in the league. It was no guarantee of success (ask Mike Shanahan about that), but at least the door was open.

The Bills also announced that they were going to hire a general manager to run the football operations. It was a chance to bring in some bright mind with a fresh perspective about how to revamp the entire operation and get off the treadmills of losing records. A bit of hope was in the air.

Some of the air came out of the hope balloon when the Bills announced they hired Buddy Nix as general manager. That's nothing against Nix. He's got a strong record in a variety of areas and learned from some good people. Besides, compared to the last guy in that job, he's a comparative younger at the age of 70.

But the search to fill that job was troubling. Apparently the Bills never talked seriously to anyone who worked outside of One Bills Drive, as John Guy was the only other person to be interviewed. That doesn't fill anyone with confidence that there will be change we can believe in, to coin a phrase.

Some of the glamour candidates don't appear to be interested in walking into Buffalo's head coaching job right now for one reason or another. Shanahan might regret not giving the Bills more consideration after a year or two of working for Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder, but that's another column.

We never know where the next great coach is coming from, of course, but at this point it looks as if the Bills only have one chance to hit a home run in the coaching search. That would be to hire Brian Billick.

You might remember Billick. He coached the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship a while back. Billick was the offensive coordinator behind some great Minnesota teams, but after he jumped to Baltimore, the Ravens became famous for a punishing defense. You have to like someone who can work with the material at hand. He lost his job after a season in which he admitted he took on too much responsibility when he tried to be his own offensive coordinator for a full season.

Anyone who saw the HBO's series on the Ravens, "Hard Knocks," knows that Billick is an extremely smart man who you'd rather have on your side than against you. Besides, he has a college background in journalism, wrote a good book, and once appeared on "The Match Game." I can relate to anyone who knows the news business and game shows.

I'm no NFL Insider, as they say on ESPN, but unless I'm missing something Billick sure looks like he should be coaching somewhere in the NFL. Ron Rivera or Jim Harbaugh or whoever might be a great coach some day, but the Bills need some juice right now. Billick might be the one guy who can provide it right now.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Mall rat

Is it possible to suffer from trauma over a story closing in a shopping mall?

Maybe. The Borders Express in Eastern Hills Mall and in Boulevard Mall in suburban Buffalo are in the process of closing. The little stores in malls can't really compete with the superstores, like Barnes and Noble down the street in both cases.

In the case of the Eastern Hills store, the closing of the bookstore represents something of the end of an era for me. For as long as I've lived in Buffalo, I've been going to that bookstore. It used to be called Waldenbooks, but switched to BordersExpress fairly recently. I moved to Clarence in 1970, just as the mall was opening down the street. That's 40 years of shopping -- mostly for discount books, but sometimes for the full-price models. I think I bought most of the Bill James' Baseball Abstracts there.

All of this got me to thinking that there aren't many stores in a mall that can have any sort of pull of loyalty toward me, because I visit so few of them.

Let's take a look at the store directory for Boulevard Mall in Amherst:

4 Seasons Gifts by Flagtastic, 5-7-9, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Aeropostale, American Greetings, Ann Taylor Loft, Art Design, Hair and Nails, AT&T Wireless, Auntie Anne's Soft Pretzels, Avon, Banana Republic, Bath and Body Works, Berrymoore Convenience, Bill Gray's, Blue Wireless, Bonefish Grill, Borders Express, Boulevard Bracelets, Boulevard Mall Bootery, Brookstone, Cajun Quarter, Carousel, Champs Sports, Charley's Grilled Subs, Charlotte Russe, Children's Place, China Max, Christopher and Banks, Claire's Accessories, Croc's Kiosk, Dakota Watch Co., Express, Express Men, Foot Locker, FootAction USA, Forever Candles, FYE, Game Stop, Gap, Gap Kids, Glamour Secrets, GNC Live Well, Gymboree, Hat World, Hollister Co, Hot Topic, House of Nacre, JC Penney, Johnny Rockets, Journeys, Justic, Kay Jewelers, Kids Foot Locker, Laux Sporting Goods, Littman Jewelers, M&T Bank, Macy's, Macy's Men's Store, MasterCuts, Max Rave, Men's Wearhouse, Michael's Arts and Crafts, Mrs. Field's Cookies, Naturalizer Shoes, New Age Creations, New York & Company, Northtown Auto, Pacific Sunwear, Payless ShoeSource, Perfume Hut, Pete's Greek Isles Express, Piercing Pagoda, Plumb Gold, Proactive Solutions, Pure Integrity Candles, Radio Shack, Sbarro, Sears, Shoe Dept., Simply Certificates, Sleep Number Store, Spencer Gifts, Sprint, Subway, Sunglass Hut, T Mobile, TGI Friday's, Taco Bell, Things Remembered, TT New York, Tuxedo Junction, Urban Behavior, Urban Kicks N Gear, Verizon FiOS, Verizon Wireless, Victoria's Secret, Yankee Candle, Yogen Fruz.

I know, it's a long list. But how many of them have I ever visited? It's much shorter.

The anchor stores, Macy's/Sears/Penney's, of course. The odd card was bought at American Greetings. Auntie Anne's, although their prices ahve gotten high. Bath and Body Works for the odd gift. Brookstone, to browse. Chili's, for lunch. Subway, for the odd meal. Verizon Wireless, to cancel my mother's phone. Tuxedo Junction, to be surprised how much it costs to rent a tux (easier just to buy one, which I did). FYE for the odd CD. Sbarro for pizza. Laux Sporting Goods for a Red Sox championship shirt. M&T Bank's ATM. I have bought a Simply Certificate once or twice. I've eaten in TGI Friday's. I had a gift certificate at Foot Locker once.

It's not a very long list. I'd bet you'd compile something of similar length, unless you buy women's shoes at a lot of different places.

No wonder a store closing is so tramatic -- it's one less place to visit when you feel the need to walk around the mall and window-shop.