Friday, November 30, 2012

Not fair

For whatever reason, it's been a busy couple of weeks in the obituary department of the newspaper. We've gone through quite a run of people who have passed away - some at least a little expected, others not so much.

It's difficult to think of Marvin Miller, Larry Hagman, "Macho" Camacho and Bob Swados in the same breath, but that's who we lost. I interviewed Camacho once when he fought a boxing match in Buffalo, and he was hilarious. Camacho was like an elf, floating around town in anticipation of the fight. Swados was one of the central figures in the history of the Sabres, so I worked for him when I was with the team. Anyone connected with the team has a supply of stories about Swados, an unforgettable personality by any definition.

But oddly, it was someone else that caught me off guard -- someone most people haven't heard of.

I wrote about the progressive rock band Renaissance a little more than a year ago. The group had some success in the 1970's, and put out some fondly remembered albums by fans of the genre. Disco and punk weren't kind to a classical sound late in the decade, and the band split up. Various combinations of the band tried reforming over the next 25 years or so, but nothing ever lasted.

Then Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam decided to give it one last try. They found some other musicians to round out a band, did some rehearsing, and took to the road. One of their stops was in Buffalo, where I saw them. The music still worked, and the crowd seemed enthusiastic. Renaissance even put out a DVD/CD of their performance.

Their next step was an unusual one. Renaissance needed money to produce a new album (or whatever you call it in this digital age), so it went to Kickstarter. That's a web site designed to raise money for a variety of projects. The target was somewhere in the $44,000 range, with a variety of premiums offered depending on the donations. Needless to say, U2 doesn't have to do that when it wants to put out some music, but at least the idea worked. Renaissance raised more than twice the money it needed - $92,000.

The band headed to the recording studio, and finished the album. The band tuned up with a few more live shows, although some physical problems kept Haslam off the road at times and thus some performances were postponed. Still, Dunford was autographing sheet music for backers as of a couple of weeks ago.

Then on November 20, Dunford was eating with his family in England and suffered a massive Instantaneous Cerebral Hemorrhage. He never regained consciousness and died that night.

There's never anything fair about such things. But in Dunford's case, leaving behind a wife and two children ages 13 and 10, and missing the opportunity to play new music in a style that he loved, this story seems particular cruel.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaking news coverage

Ever wonder how the story of the Three Little Pigs would be covered today?

A British TV ad speculates. Great stuff.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Legal opinion

I had a chat with a lawyer the other day, and not because I was in any trouble with the law. I was interested in a good opinion about the NHL lockout, and he has a great deal of experience in dealing with the ins and outs from a legal perspective of a labor dispute.

He's not much of a hockey fan, so I had to explain some of the particulars of this case. His first question was why there was a lockout in the first place, since that's a last resort in most industries. I explained that almost 20 years ago the players figured out that they make their money in the regular season and the owners make their money in the playoffs, so it was better to go on strike in April rather than do it in September when the collective bargaining agreement expired. The owners, therefore, have called for lockouts to prevent that from happening.

Then we got into the particulars. I said how the owners had been giving up 57 percent of hockey revenues to the players, and wanted that share to drop down to 43. The legal expert was pretty stunned about that sort of drop. Then I pointed out that they seemed to compromise at a 50-50 divide a few weeks ago.

"So they are about ready to settle then?" he asked.

Well, no, I explained. There are all sorts of other issues that haven't been resolved. And our lawyer was not impressed.

He sort of wondered if the owners in this case had an alternative goal to just getting a better CBA. That could go in a number of directions, including breaking or intimidating the union for the long term.

But failing that, he concluded that there should be absolutely no way that, if the owners and players were anxious to work things out, it couldn't be done quickly at this point. The hard part was decided a while ago; the rest is just details. Yes, there are millions of dollars at stake, but there are ways to get to a fair compromise in such a situation with a little work.

That's about what I thought, but nice to hear it well presented by someone with legal training. It also means to me that there is still hope for some sort of hockey season in the coming months. It obviously won't be a full season, but they could pick up a 48-game season sometime in January and have a full playoff run. They did it before in the 1990s.

That's probably the next deadline, and deadlines lead to deals. And if we go sailing past that date, the owners and players will be trying to figure out what 50 percent of nothing is. You do the math.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Seeing the future

Here's my favorite story about journalists and predictions. It dates back to the spring of 1984.

The Buffalo Sabres were getting ready for a first-round playoff series with the Quebec Nordiques. The Sabres did a postgame show on television after a late-season game to talk about the playoffs, and my friend Dave was asked to be a guest.

At some point Dave was asked to give a prediction about the series. He explained that while the Sabres had the better regular-season record, the Nordiques had won the season series between the teams in convincing fashion. Dave said he thought it was a bad matchup for the Sabres, and thus picked the Nordiques.

When the red light went off and the show was over, veteran sportscaster Ralph Hubbell immediately "yelled" at Dave. His speech went something along the lines of "never pick against the home team in public. If you do and you are wrong, people will gloat and hold it against you. If you do and you are right, you won't get any credit."

Dave, to his credit, said he was just being honest. And, the Nordiques did beat the Sabres. It hadn't occurred to me to do anything but give an honest opinion, but I've been thinking about it lately.

Journalists are often asked to give predictions, especially in sports. Most of them are quickly forgotten. Do you remember what anyone said about the current Bills' season? About what the World Series matchup was supposed to be from an April standpoint? Me either.

The News has been running predictions on each week's NFL games. Some years the winner does pretty well. Most years the losers are behind a coin toss. It's not easy to outguess the pros in Las Vegas who set the point spreads; they make their living on establishing a line that is a 50-50 proposition.

News reporters also are asked to make predictions. The economic analysts - in journalism or on Wall Street - are famous for being wrong. But it's the political journalists who have to see the future more than most. This usually is easier than it sounds in their line of work. Most races are determined the day the ballot is finalized. There are surprises, particularly in primary season when data is difficult to find and turnout tough to estimate, but not too many.

That brings us to the recent Presidential election, which set up a very unusual set of circumstances. We had a election that was judged a virtual tie the morning of the election by some pollsters. Even so, the demands on the "experts" were such that they were asked to predict a winner in the electoral college. There were indications that President Obama was favored to win reelection, but it was hardly certain.

However, the predictions fell almost completely by party lines. All of the Democrats picked Obama to win rather handily in the electoral college. Many of the Republicans thought Mitt Romney would take a narrow win. Some of the conservative pundits, including Dick Morris and George Will, had Romney winning with more than 300 electoral votes. Others were quick to think of reasons why Romney was going to win, such as "undecideds always break toward the challenger" (let's forget about Bush-Kerry in 2004, shall we?).

The odd part was that a lot of people who should know better used less-than-scientific reasoning to make their picks. Peggy Noonan, who is as smart as they come and who should know better, talked about the big crowds and enthusiasm Romney was generating at the end as the reason why he'd win. Heck, Walter Mondale felt that way when he ran in 1984, as people pay attention in the final days and turn out. But Mondale still got crushed. Joe Scarborough rejected Nate Silver's analysis by saying he had talked to the campaign staffers on both sides, and Silver was wrong. Guess the old ways of determining the outcome had magically become a little less valid. As I wrote before, we may have hit a new age in such matters.

A lot of people seemed crushed by the outcome of the election, and I just wonder if those Republican predictions set people up for a fall by mistake. In other words, how many were making predictions in a certain way because that's what their audience was expecting? How many were following Ralph Hubbell's advice. Hard to tell, but it's probably a few. And if they were lying to make their audience happy, how can we trust their judgment on other matters? When will we know if they are giving an honest answer about anything? That question hangs over the results.

As for me, while I try to be honest, I usually take the coward's way out. If people ask for predictions, I'll answer by saying that if I knew the future, I'd be buying lottery tickets.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Free agency arrives

At 9:01 p.m. on Tuesday, something of an earthquake took place in my political life.

In New York state, voters who change their party affiliation during the course of the year can do so at any time. However, it doesn't go into effect until after the next general election.

Therefore, the form I filled out in June went into effect at that point. Presto, I went from affiliated with the Republican Party to affiliated with no political party.

After 39 years of an association with the GOP, it was not a step I took lightly. But perhaps an explanation is in order in the hopes that it will point out a few important issues that should be part of the conversation on the Republican side, particularly as they deal with the after-effects of losing another Presidential election.

Yes, my parents were strong Republicans, so I had an initial bias that way. But as someone coming off age politically (meaning I could vote), I did identity with the Republican idea that government was not an answer to all of our problems. For as long as I could remember, I tended to associate the Democrats with throwing federal money at problems without much of a sign that it made much of a difference. Still, in hindsight I hoped I realized that there were several ways to get to a goal, and that discussion and compromise were part of the process.

I still think that way, but I found myself more and more in the minority in the Republican Party. As we rolled through the 1980's and 1990's, the voting machine looked as if I had thrown some M&M's at random at the keys when I was done with it, with all sorts of candidates represented. I did have a small bias toward Republican legislators and Democratic judges, since they seemed more inclined not to take much action toward many issues. So in other words, this switch that happened Tuesday will have little practical implication on my voting patterns.I still plan to be all over the place.

But in the past decade or so, I have grown more and more uncomfortably with the right-wing agenda of many Republicans, and their voices in the party have gotten louder.

Let's sum it up in a few issues. I don't attend church. I am pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage. I don't mind paying more in taxes if I'm convinced the reason is a good one. I have enough respect for our military forces to want them usually only when it is in our vital national interest. Working with all sides is the way to get good deeds done in our system; in other words, compromise should not be a sign of weakness.

When I hear Republicans talk about a return to "family values," I hear them say "my family values and no one else's." When I hear Republicans talk returning to the beliefs of our Founding Fathers (see the health care debate), I want to point out that our Founding Fathers initially didn't believe in the direct election of Senators, didn't let women vote at all, and considered blacks to be only three-fifths of a person. Circumstances change, people change.

Does it sound like Republicans want someone like me in their shrinking "big tent?" I don't think so. If I've learned one lesson over the years, it's "don't stay where you aren't wanted." A lot of people in the Republican Party don't want moderates around -- which is a great way to lose national elections.

I first thought about switching parties in 2008. The choice of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential candidate struck me as particularly dreadful. She was clearly unqualified to be President, and was only picked because John McCain needed someone to excite the base. Palin is clearly unqualified to make any remarks about the "lamestream media," particularly considering her reading habits. It was difficult to be associated with that choice even in a very small way, since people heard my party affiliation and made a wide range of (incorrect) assumptions about my views.

But it took the New York Presidential primary of 2012 to actually get me to look up the procedure on switching. The primary, at that point, was merely a symbolic gesture since Mitt Romney had the nomination wrapped up. But I couldn't vote for him. He had seemed promising to me once upon a time, but changed his views frequently in an obvious attempt to pander to more conservative elements of the party - especially in this second Presidential bid. Romney came off with a bored rich guy who needed something to do. Rick Santorum was far too conservative for me, and Newt Gingrich mixed a great deal of intelligence with megalomania. Jon Huntsman would have been acceptable, as he seemed like the adult at the table, but he wasn't on the ballot. I instead voted for Ron Paul in the primary. Paul has nine wacky ideas for every interesting one, but at least he's been consistent in his viewpoints.

It wasn't much of a choice. The next day, I went on line to look up how to change registration affiliations. And it was easy - print out a form and find a stamp.

Now, I'm a blank. I'm still not comfortable with all the Democrats represent. If people want to drink 32-ounce Big Gulps, I don't think government should stop them. Therefore, a non-affiliated listing is a good place for me - somewhere in the middle. In other words, I find both Sean Hannity of Fox and Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC partisan to the point of being unwatchable. I'll try to collect information and cast an intelligent ballot ... just like I do for the baseball all-star teams, the lacrosse awards, and the other important issues of the day.

My vote is now more up for grabs than ever, boys and girls of all political parties. You are invited to try to get it.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

I've seen this movie before

It is starting to look like history is repeating itself.

About 35 years ago, a night watchman in Kansas started spending his spare time between rounds analyzing baseball. He knew he had piles of data, but wondered about what people were doing with it. He wondered when a player hit his prime, pondered how good a catcher was at throwing out baserunners, and asked why no one considered the ability to draw walks as a valuable offensive tool.

Eventually, those techniques caught on, spawned bunches of imitators and copycats, and changed the game of baseball. Some day, Bill James - as unlikely a choice as possible based on apparent athletic ability - may get into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his revolutionary work.

I'm starting to believe Nate Silver is headed down that path, even if there's no Hall of Fame for political forecasters.

Silver was one of the geniuses who worked on the early editions of Baseball Prospectus, something of a successor to James' Baseball Abstracts. He also was a professional poker player some years ago. He decided to use the techniques he'd picked up elsewhere, due to his interest in probability, and apply them to politics. His blog gained a large niche audience in 2008, and his reputation grew due to the fact that he picked 49 out of 50 states in the Presidential race and every single Senate race correctly.

Silver's blog was picked up by the New York Times, which means readers have to go through the old link (see above) or follow him on Twitter to avoid the paywall. Sounds like the audience has figured that out. The number of readers has to be huge.

Silver has reminded us that the Presidential race is not one election, but 51 - one for each state plus D.C. So all of those national polls that take a snapshot of Candidate A vs. B can essentially be thrown out because they are meaningless. He's concluded that even in an election that is tied nationally, President Obama has a much better chance of winning.

Silver has paid attention to the state polls, and there have been no shortage of them in the past two months. The analyst also has created some large complicated model, which even includes the impact of economic factors such as unemployment, for coming up with probabilities. He's also checked the history books, and made what should be a simple discovery: a three-point lead in January is much different than a three-point lead on November 5 (at least this year). Get enough polls pointing in one direction, even within a margin of error, and the probability is good that such a leading candidate will win.

Silver's done his figuring this year, and he points out a few facts along the way -- such as the fact that Barack Obama has never trailed at any point in Ohio when the polls are factored together. So Obama certainly figured to be the favorite there tomorrow, right? And he is, at least as of my last glance at the site - an 87 percent chance of taking the state. (Florida, by the way, is virtually tied but Silver gives a 56 percent chance to Governor Romney.)

Take that and apply it to the other 50 elections, and as of Monday afternoon Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning the election. As he explained in an essay, it would take a lot of bad polls for the election to come out differently. That's possible, but in Silver's view not likely.

There's a lot of noise out there about the election. Someone at work the other day mentioned how close the national polls were and predicted a long night of election-watching. The television networks, who have an obvious interest in driving up their audiences, are emphasizing those national polls. And it's fun to hear some of the pundits make predictions; people such as Dick Morris and Jim Cramer are busy predicting landslides (although not the same landslide). Speaker John Boehner supposedly guaranteed Ohio would go to the Republicans yesterday.

That puts Silver on a bit of the ledge, and he's heard about it. The political insiders say in private and public that the election really is too close to call. And that's fine. James heard the same sort of criticism in his first decade of writing. The smart guys usually turn out fine in the end, and Silver is one of the smart guys.

(P.S. It turned out that Mr. Silver had a good night. He got the first 49 states plus D.C. right, and said Florida came out to a virtual tie - with Obama holding the lead on the fourth or fifth decimal point. This was called "the Moneyball election" by one pundit, and Silver was a reason why.)

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