Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Merry Xmas 2U

Does it work? We report, you decide.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Joining the club

I joined a not-so-exclusive club late Thursday night/early Friday morning. I went shopping.

The so-called "Black Friday" madness has certainly come into its own during the past few years. The starting times have gotten earlier and earlier in that time, to the point where a 6 a.m. opening seems almost quaint. But the stores took it up a notch this year. Some stores actually were opened on Thanksgiving Day, while others decided to unlock the doors at midnight or so.

I've never taken part in this odd tradition. I'm never up early enough, for one thing, often due to work. And while I like to save money as well as the next fellow, usually I figure such purchases can wait -- especially when your holiday shopping list in incredibly small.

This time, though, a few of the stars lined up correctly. I got out of work at 11:50 p.m., and a Kohl's wasn't very far out of my way while driving home. Besides, I had been mailed a coupon good for 15 percent off on all purchases. I didn't really need anything, but I figured the scene would be worth a visit.

I got to the store about 12:10 p.m. The parking lot was more crowded than I've ever seen it; granted, I usually go there at 1 on a weekday so by my personal standards I'm surprised the store is still in business. (What? People shop at night and on weekends?)

When I got inside, a couple of sights struck me. One, I saw shopping carts that already had been filled up. Remember, it's now about 12:11, so someone had to work really, really fast. Then I saw people on their phones, apparently coordinating purchases with spouses in other locations. If the military had used such precision in its operations, we might have been out of Iraq five years ago.

I strolled around and saw that pants were marked down $10, and the coupon added another $7 discount. OK, I can always use another pair of pants in the drawer. I got in the line that resembled a snake as it went through the store. I got in the back and slowly edged along. Naturally, I turned on my stop watch at the beginning -- in comes from running, I think -- and got to the cashier after 12 minutes. Not bad, considering.

Before cashing out and boosting the economy, I talked to the woman who was directing traffic as she sent shoppers to the next available register. I asked her when her shift ended, and she said 8:30 a.m. In other words, an all-nighter.

Then she added, "I'm a seasonal hire. So this is my first night on the job."

Wow. Welcome to the world of retail.

I felt a little torn by the whole visit. As someone who believes in free markets, part of me says that stores should be able to open anytime they like. If they think they can make more money this way, fine.

Still, it feels like we're losing something in terms of quality of life. It was always nice to see the tranquil feeling that comes while seeing everything closed on Thanksgiving or around Christmas. While the shoppers have the choice to participate in the madness, the employees don't. Can you imagine starting a job that way?

Sounds like the free-marketers are winning this one, though. Once you knock down the wall, it ain't going back up.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eye for an eye

The Buffalo Sabres play the Boston Bruins Wednesday night in Buffalo. It's probably one of the most anticipated games of the season ... for, perhaps, all of the wrong reasons.

Let's review for a moment. Last week, a loose puck floated into the Sabres' end in a game in Boston. Ryan Miller, the Sabres' goalie went out to get the puck and knock it away to prevent a possible breakaway. Milan Lucic, the Bruins' physical forward who won't be described as shifty any time soon, knocked (if you are a Sabres' fan, use "slammed" instead) Miller over. Miller went down, the referee stopped play, and there was a mild scrum afterwards as a few Sabres gave Lucic a shove. Lucic picked up a two-minute charging penalty.

The Sabres seemed to go down meekly after that, and reaction from there quickly multiplied. On one hand, the Sabres weren't happy that someone had hit their goaltender -- it's one of the unwritten laws of the game, although officials only treat goalies a little different than skaters when it comes to contact in open ice. The fans and media all pounded the Sabres for their timid reaction to the play, in some cases saying the team was "soft." NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan reviewed the play and decided not to hand out a suspension on the play, even though Miller suffered a concussion and has not returned to action yet.

The episode points out that there's something of a faultline when it comes to such matters along the fan base of hockey.

One on side is the "old time hockey" crowd, for lack of a better name. This is the crowd that likes a good hit and loves a good fight. These are the ones who called for the firing of Ruff and/or the trading of some current Sabres for some tough guys.

The other side sees actions like this and wonders what the fuss is all about. Those fans don't want to see the Sabres take the law into their own hands -- that's why we have referees. "Frontier justice" supposedly went out with the Jesse James era.

Both sides have a right to their viewpoint. The traditionalists grew up with hockey that was played in a certain way, and like it. The newcomers prefer to watch speed and skill, and if they don't get it, they stay home or switch the channel. Hockey always has had some trouble attracting the newcomers, particularly in areas where the game isn't part of the culture (think the Mason-Dixon Line and south). It doesn't want to offend the old fans, but wants to attract new ones. Remember, it's the only major team sport that allows fighting within the context of the game.

The new way of thinking has been winning the argument over the last 30 years, but an episode like this comes up every so often and reminds us that we have a ways to go before reaching any sort of settlement. In fact, an agreement by a Congressional super-committee on budget cuts seems more likely.

On Wednesday, Lucic will be booed by the sellout crowd when he comes out on the ice and touches the puck. He'll be drawn into a fight by one of the Sabres, they will exchange punches for a while and sit in the penalty box for five minutes, and the game will go on. Some sort of point will be proven, I guess. We'll then more or less forget about it.

And so it goes.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three quick notes

1. It's much too early to come to a great many conclusions about the mess involving the Penn State football program. The oddest part for me came when, at some point, I said to myself, "well, at least this isn't happening to my alma mater."

Then, one night, the news about the Syracuse University basketball team broke.

There's an awful lot to study here involving both situations, and a lot of questions still have to be answered. It's interesting that author Glenn Stout put on Facebook that we'd be hearing more about such scandals right after the Penn State situation broke. And it only took him 10 days for him to be right.

2. Sorry to hear about the death of Milt Ellis, one of the true gentlemen I've encountered in life. I've told the story here about splitting some public address duties with Milt at Sabres' games many years ago, and I was the one with the wimpy voice.

Milt always was a hard act to follow. He always had a smile when he saw me, and was always optimistic about Syracuse football and basketball. He'll be missed.

3. Heard a story from a reliable source that a well-dressed man hopped into a car with the license plate EC-1, and drove off from the Rath Building in Buffalo the day after the election. The car was spotted at a couple of different times in the next few minutes, and the driver was talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device both times.

Think Chris Collins will do that once he is a private citizen again?

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rooting for the home team

It's rare that a movie gets me to thinking about hockey, but today was such a day. And I wasn't even watching "Slap Shot" or "Miracle."

I saw "Gasland." This is a documentary about fracking.

Fracking is the short-hand name for the technique of drilling under ground and taking natural gas out. There are huge reserves under much of the United States, although it's a little difficult to get at them. And things can go wrong.

Josh Fox made the documentary, touring the country to interview people and show problems. The natural gas industry has spent some time knocking down some of the film's contents, and there's little doubt that the motion picture could have been put together a little better and more orderly.

Still, Fox makes the point that there do seem to be some dangers and issues involved. There are enough scenes of tap water looking like motor oil and rivers catching on fire to get that across. To play movie critic, it's probably worth your time to see it if you want to learn more about the matter, particularly from one side. In fact, I'll bet it convinced some viewers that we need to stop, or at least slow, fracking in ecologically sensitive areas. Like, my back yard, and yours.

That brings us to Terry Pegula.

He was in the energy business, eventually selling East Resources to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion. That's billion, with a B.

Since then, Pegula has purchased the Buffalo Sabres and lifted all financial restrictions from the franchise. He says his goal is to win multiple Stanley Cups; he added that if he wants to make more money he can always drill another well.
This approach has made Pegula more popular than anyone else in Western New York in record time. None of the area's franchise owners have ever done that, And Pegula, who on a personal level seems like a good person, put his money where his mouth is, shelling out enough money to put the Sabres right up against the salary cap. And making major improvements to the Sabres' arena. And buying the Rochester Americans in order to move the team's minor-league affiliate there.

And thus the conflict, for some. To quote a Philadelphia Inquirer article, "The sale of East Resources included a Marcellus Shale lease hold for more than 650,000 acres in the Appalachian Basin, a major contributor to the natural-gas supply in the United States." The area roughly extends north to a line in upstate New York going from Buffalo to Syracuse, thus covering much of Erie County and all of Cattaragus, Chautauqua and Allegany Counties for starters.

There are plenty of people out there who are fighting the establishment or expansion of fracking in certain areas. It's been talked about in Western New York. I'll bet some of them are hockey fans.

Does it matter to them that the money spent to improve the hockey team was gained through fracking? Does the fact that Pegula has sold his business make a difference, even if he remains a firm advocate of the concept?

I don't recall this sort of issue popping up in sports before. No one complained that Ralph Wilson made major money from trucking, or that the Knox brothers picked their parents well. Once we learned what John Rigas did, he was in jail ... and thus a moral conflict never came up.

Sometimes, it's not easy to be a fan.

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Decided, in a sense

Let me try out a theory here.

The election for Erie County Executive will be held on Tuesday. The latest poll says the vote is the proverbial too close to call, 48 to 48 percent.

Off the top of my head, I'd say that Mark Poloncarz, the challenger, has a decent chance of willing the election. (Brilliant, eh?) I'd also say that Chris Collins, the incumbent, has -- if the poll numbers are correct -- already lost it.

Let me think this through. Four years ago, Collins ran as something of an anti-politician. He promised he would bring fiscal sanity to government, in an effort to solve the financial problems that sent Erie County to "adult supervision" in the form of a control board before that. By the way, it's interesting that a Republican, Joel Giambra, was in charge before that election, and that party wasn't "blamed" for those problems by voters.

Collins won that election by a 64-34 margin. That's pretty impressive under any circumstances, and gave him a lot of political capital that he has wielded in the past four years. That's fine, it's the way the game is played.

Since then, there's no doubt that Collins has more or less done what he said he would do in several areas. The control board is gone, albeit because Collins took some of the federal stimulus money and, instead of hiring people, used that money to help balance the budget. Some funding for cultural organizations was cut, causing all sorts of games to go on over budgets. Most of the last round of layoffs came at the expense of social services, which could be considered "playing to the political base" by cynics.

Collins has lost about 16 percentage points of support of the electorate. He has gone from 64 to around 48. If it's 15 points, he'll win according to the poll. If it's 17 points, he'll lose. Either way, is that a whole lot of comfort?

Maybe some local voters have learned the lesson that government shouldn't be run like a business in every way because it isn't a business. Run efficiently? Yes. But the functions are obviously different. For example, a government probably shouldn't try to cut out funding for eyeglasses and hearing aids for the needy, as Collins tried to do, even if it might save some money. If people can't see, they can't work many places.

And County Executives can't be CEO's, no matter what they think. CEO's are used to doing whatever the heck they want, including giving contracts to friends, without any of those pesky checks and balances provided by legislatures and courts.

The campaign, particularly in the television ads, became a referendum on Collins' tenure. Collins has dragged out the national Republican playbook of saying Poloncarz is beholden to unions and will raise taxes, but Poloncarz hasn't provided a whole lot of ammunition there. The most effective ad for the Democrat might have been done by a union, which put up a counter on the screen that went from 0 to 13,000 in 30 seconds -- reflecting the job losses in Erie County in the past four years. Even if Collins can't be blamed for all of, or even many of, the economic ills of the area, it's not exactly a sign of effective job creation either.

What can you do if people seem to like you less the more you appear in public? Keep your face out of TV commercials on Monday? Stay in the (Delaware Park) Rose Garden? It's a tough one, and the answer to how well Collins did it may come on Tuesday.

No matter what happens, losing 16 percentage points of your popularity while fulfilling your campaign promises is a neat trick. It might make some people a little more humble, a little more willing to compromise. But even one friend of Collins says that the current County Executive has trouble talking without using the word "I." Hard to picture that changing, but he may have to do so. Opponents would certainly notice the numbers during a second Collins Administration, if there is one. Even the allies could afford to be a little more independent.

The turnout figures could change what the final numbers look like, and Collins could win by as many as 10 points -- although I doubt it. No matter what happens, though, from a little more than a day out from the election results, it sure looks like the county's political landscape is about to shift. Will be drastically or slightly? I'll get back to you on that one.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Attention Kmart crooks

It's quite an experience to visit Kmart these days. Most of the stores are on the old side and need "refreshing." In fact, most of the customers could use refreshing themselves.

Today I visited to pick up some video cassettes, a useful tool for those of us unwilling to spend the money to join the DVR revolution which was fought and won around the time of World War II, it seems. One of the characters spotted along the way was a guy with a Bills' logo tattooed on the front of his neck. I had the odd urge to say, "What did the Bills ever do for you to justify that?" but resisted.

When I was finished paying for the cassettes at the checkout register, I started to go to my car when a guy behind me practically ran over me to head for the front doors. Based on a look at his neck, he wasn't a Bills' fan. At first I just thought, well, another odd guy at Kmart. Then our shopper got to the door, where he was greeted by not one, not two, but four security guards.

"We are asking you about the unpurchased items you have in your clothing. If you cooperate with us, we will not call the police," the head security guard said.

The shopper started to mumble something without making a whole lot of sense. The rules were repeated. I started to try to figure out a way to escape, since our pal looked capable of odd behavior (you never know when he might seek out a hostage). Before getting out the other door, though, there was a small shakedown of his pockets. Suddenly, there were candy bars and jewelry falling out of his pockets and landing on the floor. The discount shopper tried to say that jewelry wasn't sold at Kmart, but he lost that argument pretty quickly. Jewelry and candy bars? There's an interesting combination to steal.

I was let out the other door to the comparitive safety of the parking lot. Can't say I've ever seen that sort of incident at a store before, but I'm a little surprised that the guy was offered a plea bargain right off the bat.

Too bad I'll never know how the story ended. And neither will you.

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What's next?

I have to believe one of the most fascinating figures in sports today is Tim Tebow.

In fact, I just figured out that he reminds me a bit of ... Doug Flutie. Not in body type, of course.

Flutie, you might remember, came out of Boston College as something of a folk hero. He was very small by college football standards -- heck, he was small by gym class standards -- but he put Boston College on the national radar almost single-handedly by leading the Eagles into the Top 10. There was doubt about his pro potential, but he was so popular that there was fan pressure on the Bills to draft him number one. Flutie solved that issue by jumping to the United States Football League early, although the Bills did OK with someone named Bruce Smith.

Flutie eventually arrived in the NFL, played a little without distinction, jumped to the CFL where he was one of the all-time greats, came back to the U.S., made the Pro Bowl once with Buffalo, and won more games than he lost as a starter. You still could start a debate about him now.

Tebow made about the same impact in college at Florida, also winning a Heisman Trophy. Tebow was big for a college quarterback -- heck, he was big for a fullback -- and he seemed more like an extra running back who could throw a little rather than the classic passer. But his intangibles were off the chart, and Florida prospered.

Tebow figured to get some coaching at Denver and not be ready to step in right away, and that's more or less what happened in his rookie year last year. This year, the Broncos had an open competition at QB, and Kyle Orton was declared the winner ... while Tebow was third, behind Brady Quinn. But the fan base put up billboards supporting him, and the Broncos have given him a shot the next two weeks. He's been poor statistically, but did somehow lead Denver to a great comeback win over Miami. Tebow was bad enough against Detroit Sunday that coach John Fox had to think it over when asked about the coming week's starting quarterback before sticking with Tebow.

There's one extra element with the Tebow story that adds a twist. Tebow is practically the poster boy for "muscular Christianity." He's gone on missions for his church in the summer, no doubt calls his mother regularly, and so forth. While the usual rule in sports fandom is "root for the laundry" -- that is to say, root for anyone wearing the uniform -- I'm sure there are bunches of people out there who are Tebow fans first. And not all of them live in Gainesville, Florida. Those fans are the ones that pushed his autobiography up the best-seller list, making him at the time the only third-string QB to be so successful in publishing pursuits.

The Broncos have a first-round pick, and first-round money, invested in Tebow, and they need to find out if he can play. He needs to play, too. But it's impossible to know just how long of a leash he has. In the meantime, I always wondered what went wrong with Quinn, who sank through the first round of the draft in Cleveland, didn't do much there and was traded for 20 cents on the dollar to the Broncos, where he hasn't been in the discussion lately.

It's a tough spot, and I don't have any more easy answers than anyone else. I'd suggest the Broncos send Tebow to Triple-A, or at least Canada, but football doesn't work that way. John Elway is in charge of the Broncos' operations now, and he is someone who knows a bit about quarterbacking. He and coach John Fox are going to earn their money on this one.

(After the fact, I discovered I had read a column by Phil Taylor in Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago that made similar points. Didn't think of it until later, but I guess it had an effect on my thinking.)

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