The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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                   The Battered Bastards of Baseball

                                  ****

 

          Tim Tebow is one of the most famous sports figures in America.

          He is best known for being Christian, but he actually plays sports from time to time as well. Tebow was a star quarterback for the University of Florida. Then he was a lousy quarterback in the NFL. 

          This year, he made headlines with his unusual decision to become a professional baseball player. The media scoffed. I scoffed. But, strangely enough, Mr. Tebow is doing all right. He is a productive starting Outfielder for the St. Lucie Mets, a single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.

          At work the other day, a guy who saw a Tebow story on ESPN stated that Tebow is living the good life, getting paid well, and is one step away from the Major Leagues. None of that is true.

And that’s when it hit me: most people – even most sports fans – don’t know anything about Minor League baseball.  

          The annual MLB Draft has 40 rounds. A kid who is drafted is, at best, a few years away from getting to the big leagues. More realistically, he will never come close. For every Major League team you have heard of, there are at least four minor league teams that you’ve never heard of (AAA is the highest level, single A is the lowest).

          The reason why even baseball fans don’t care about Minor League baseball is that affiliated minor league teams are little more than soulless corporate factories that help a few gifted kids become Major Leaguers and weed out the Tim Tebow-esque 90%.  

         

In 1972, every single minor league team in America was affiliated with a Major League ballclub. In 1973, every team was affiliated except one.

          “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the joyous, upbeat story of the Portland Mavericks.

          In the 1960s, Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad) was best known as the Deputy Sheriff on Bonanza. But though he liked acting, he loved baseball.

Bing Russell used his own money to fund astoundingly serious and nerdy baseball coaching videos meant to teach fundamentals to little leaguers. Multiple Major League managers showed Bing’s tapes to their own players.

          When Russell founded an unaffiliated club in Portland, Oregon, the baseball world assumed that it would fail. Every other minor league team in America consisted of players drafted and paid by Major League clubs. How would The Mavericks find players? And compete?

          Bing Russell put an advertisement in The Sporting News announcing open tryouts. Five hundred men showed up. Russell himself selected the twenty-five best. Not the youngest. Not the strongest. Not the most physically gifted. The best.

          They competed pretty darn well. In their very first game, the Mavericks pitcher threw a no-hitter. And that set the stage for years of consistent dominance by the upstart Portland team.

          Their philosophy was to run the bases hard, take chances, be ridiculous, and have fun. While every other club in their league lost their best players to AA, the Mavericks became a tight family – all working hard to impress their baseball-savant boss.

          Minor League baseball is so uninspiring that the only minor leaguer that you have even heard of is a washed-up Quarterback.

           It doesn’t have to be that way. Following a baseball team is one of the most wonderful things about being an American. You get to share a magical summer with guys that you care about, watching them play a sport that you love.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the feel-good baseball movie of the year. Watch it on Netflix tonight. (you know, after the game).

         Boom Bust Boom

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Boom Bust Boom

****

 

By now, anybody who can sit through an economics lesson knows how the 2008 financial meltdown happened.

Banks assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, so they lent money to new homeowners who couldn’t afford the loans. Then the banks sold the loans to other banks and to private investors. This insured that a drop in housing prices would affect every financial institution and take down the entire economy. Then housing prices dropped…

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and blame who you want to blame for the meltdown. You can blame the naughty banks. You can blame the lax regulators. You can blame the materialists who wanted to live in McMansions that they couldn’t afford.

People on the Right can blame big bad government for forcing lenders to make loans in poor communities. People on the Left can blame big bad Reagan and/or Bush for trusting the private sector with so much power and money.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones has a completely different take.

Jones achieved the impossible. He made a documentary about economics that is apolitical, upbeat, and easy to follow. And full of singing puppets.

 

The film’s hero is 20th Century economist Hyman Minsky. (As a puppet), Minsky explains his ground-breaking theory about business cycles.

First, there is a painful panic. After a panic, people become cautious and responsible. They take fewer risks. They do not invest on margin or using credit. Governments pass and enforce sensible regulations.

This responsibility leads to stability. And this starts the downward cycle over again. Stability leads to optimism and rising prices. Rising prices leads to euphoria. In the euphoria of ever-rising prices, investors use credit again and ignore regulations. Finally, inflated prices suddenly drop and a painful panic ensues.

This explains the 2008 Mortgage Crisis. According to Terry Jones, it explains every financial crisis.

Jones’s solution isn’t Socialism. Or more regulation. It is acceptance.

Terry Jones doesn’t blame anyone for the 2008 meltdown. “Boom Bust Boom” claims that cycles of boom then bust aren’t flaws in the Capitalist system – they are flaws in our nature.

If there are villains in “Boom Bust Boom,” they aren’t the capitalists – they are the mainstream economists. Jones states that the study of economics rests on a fundamentally flawed theory: the notion that people in the open market are rational.

When it comes to money and trading, Terry Jones asserts, we are irrational to our very core and always will be.

Jones illustrates his theory of irrationality with an experiment using Rhesus Monkeys.

A colony of monkeys was given coins that could be exchanged with humans for food. Food dealer #1 showed a bowl containing one grape. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the monkey two grapes. Food dealer #2 showed a bowl containing three grapes. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the money two grapes.

If the monkeys made decisions based on rationality, they would shop with dealer #1 as often as dealer #2.

But monkeys, like us, are emotional idiots when it comes to money. The monkeys all wanted to buy from Food dealer #1 and avoided dealer #2 like the plague.

When it comes to investment decisions, we are all monkeys. When our investment goes up, we feel pride and joy and euphoria. When our investment goes down, we feel shame and disgust and panic. The smartest among us know that our feelings are irrational, but we feel them anyway.

“Boom Bust Boom” is the exact opposite of a muckraking documentary. It presents a serious problem that plagues humanity. But there is no blame and there are no solutions. Just monkeys and puppets.

Get Me Roger Stone

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Get Me Roger Stone

****

 

“I am the most qualified. I have the most experience. I am the smartest and the most educated.”

-a foolish candidate for public office

 

I cringe every time I hear a politician say something like that. I loathe the guy saying it, but I still feel for him. That strategy never works.

At best, mentioning your brains and your experience makes you look like a boastful egghead.

At worst, people think you are telling the truth.

Being an experienced politician is not a qualification. It’s a huge strike against you.

It’s like saying: “hey, I’m an experienced thief. Let me guard your money.” Or “hey, I’m experienced at sending your sons to Asia to murder foreigners. Let me be your pastor!”

The American voter is willing to forgive almost anything – except the sin of being an intellectual insider. Roger Stone understands this better than anyone.

Roger Stone loves to show off the big tattoo of Richard Nixon that he has on his back. Stone’s worship of President Nixon makes total sense; Nixon was the master of anti-intellectual political success.

In terms of education, experience, and intellectual prowess, Richard Nixon was second to none. But he never would have told you that. He won a 49-State landslide victory in 1972 based on his personal appeal to the “Great Silent Majority” of working class Americans.

Conservative values only get a candidate so far. Republicans win elections by appealing to the anti-intellectual, anti-Washington, anti-establishment masses.

Roger Stone is the ultimate anti-insider insider. The colorful Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” presents him as the devious Forest Gump of Republican politics, conveniently popping up in the background at every major event.

The Watergate Hearings: 19-year old Roger Stone was there (he played a very minor dirty trick against Nixon’s GOP Primary competitor Pete McCloskey).

The Conservative triumph in 1980: Roger Stone was there (he was Reagan’s regional campaign director for the Northeast).

The 2000 Contested Election: Roger Stone was there (Stone claims that he organized a pro-Bush rally that intimidated Florida election workers from changing the results of the recount).

And if you don’t hate him enough already, Democrat readers, check this out: Roger Stone founded one of the original Super PACs in 1978 to run independently funded attack ads.

And he founded Black, Manafort, and Stone – a shamelessly greedy DC lobbying firm that represented the interests of anyone willing to pay them. Stone’s list of clients included Third World dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko.

The neat thing about Roger Stone is that he doesn’t try to justify or explain away any of his villainy. If anything, he proudly over-emphasizes his evil achievements. It is better to be infamous, Stone proclaims, than not famous at all.

Though he works for Republicans, Roger Stone is far from a Conservative. He used to go to Swingers parties with his libertine wife. He enthusiastically supports Marijuana legalization.

He was pro-gay marriage long before any Republican (or any member of the Clinton family) supported it. There’s a surprising scene where Roger Stone proudly marches in a Pride Parade. He gets booed the entire time.

You can hate him all you want, but you must respect him. Roger Stone knows better than anyone how you win elections in the United States.

It definitely is not by claiming to be the smartest and the most experienced candidate. Just ask Roger Stone’s latest protégé: President Trump.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

****

 

Alcoa makes money by producing aluminum and selling it.

Ford makes money by building automobiles with that aluminum and selling them.

Exxon-Mobil makes money by selling gasoline to the people driving those Fords.

How did Enron make money? To this day, nobody knows for sure. And that’s the problem.

In “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” documentarian Alex Gibney explores the historic rise and fall of one of America’s most dishonest companies.

Gibney does a terrific job of explaining a twisted financial tale. And he blames all of us for accepting the perverse Wall Street culture that allowed it to happen.

The fatal flaw of Wall Street is that the stock market expects every corporation to make more money than last year. In fact, every quarter is expected to be a record-breaking earnings bonanza. A CEO knows that his company needs to keep growing or the stock will tank.

The guys who ran Enron – Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay – came up with a brilliant plan to always beat earnings expectations: they made up the numbers.

While Ford can’t claim to have sold a million more F-150s than it actually did, a company like Enron could fudge its numbers with impunity because no one really understood how it made money.

Enron’s business was to take advantage of the recently deregulated energy markets by buying and selling natural gas and electricity. How much money can you make as gamblers in an energy casino? Common sense says you’d lose money as often as you’d make it. According to Enron’s accounting books, they were raking it in.

The system made it disturbingly easy for them.

Enron was legally reporting their earnings using the Mark to Market method. In Mark to Market, a company signs a business deal and can report the profit that they expect to make from that deal as immediate actual profit.

Enron signed a deal with Blockbuster Video to buy and sell excess broadband bandwidth. That very quarter, Enron reported $10 billion from the business. In reality, trading broadband as a commodity was desperately stupid and they lost $billions. But the huge reported profit was already part of the official Enron bottom line.

Meanwhile, Enron retained its reputation as a top company by rewarding Wall Street analysts who wrote positive stories and attacking anyone who dared to publish a “Sell” rating on the stock.

Therefore, it was a surprise to everyone when the stock price plummeted from 90 in 2000 to less than 1. Well, everyone except for Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, who sneakily cashed out their Enron shares before the crash.

The documentary doesn’t demonize the guys who ran Enron into the ground. Alex Gibney argues that Enron is just a symptom of a broken system where naughty companies are allowed to run amok.

We should be grateful to the wonderful companies that produce real products that make our world a better place. And we should be suspicious of corporations that produce nothing but money.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is a first-rate documentary. It makes a very complicated story understandable. And it warns us that it will absolutely happen again.

Silicon Cowboys

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Silicon Cowboys

****

 

Ten thousand years ago, man developed written language. Written language allowed for the advancement of technology, the growth of cities, and the creation of lasting civilizations.

Five hundred years ago, a German invented the printing press. Suddenly, Western Europeans became the most educated and the most intellectually rebellious people in world history. Within a generation, another German guy permanently destroyed the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

Forty years ago, nobody had a computer in their home, on their desk at work, or in their pocket. Now we all do. The universal availability of personal computers is as revolutionary to human communication as the invention of the printing press and the written word itself.

“Silicon Cowboys” tells the scintillating story of some American underdogs who spearheaded the computer revolution.

In 1982, three nerdy friends quit their jobs at Texas Instruments and in order to start a company of their own. They almost opened a Mexican restaurant (seriously), but they ultimately decided to build a factory in Houston and produce computers. They called the company Compaq.

At the dawn of the PC era, there were several companies selling home computers. The problem was, the companies were all separate from each other and it was hard for a new user to decide which PC universe to dive into.

Compaq’s brilliant innovation was to make its computers completely compatible with IBM. Now, if a consumer already owned a bunch of IBM software and had learned how to use it, he could buy a Compaq for his next device and feel right at home.

It sounds simple, but this nifty little change started a chain reaction, transforming PCs from a niche product into the machines that run our lives.

Compaq also made its first computer portable. Granted, the Compaq Portable weighed 28 pounds. But it had a durable plastic shell and a leather strap so that business people could take it to and from the office.

Those three Texas pals – who almost opened a Mexican restaurant – had started a chain reaction that would end with half the human race carrying little computers in their pocket at all times.

The most entertaining part of this thoroughly entertaining documentary is when we see how savvy Compaq was at marketing.

So, it’s 1983. You’re selling a $3000 luxury product aimed at the 30- something nerds who can afford it. Who is the perfect pitchman?

Two words: John. Cleese.

The 70-minute film does not skimp on the footage of John Cleese’s charmingly irreverent ad campaign that transformed Compaq from underdog outsider to Wall Street mega-titan.

“Silicon Valley” is a joyous little film that celebrates an American company that made a billion dollars, gave hundreds of Texans solid factory jobs, and changed the world forever.

For the record, I am not saying that the computer revolution was a good thing. I saw “Terminator.” And I don’t like how addicted I am to my iPhone. But the revolution is here, it’s irreversible, and it’s as important to human history as the Printing Press. “Silicon Cowboys” is an interesting story about the guys who did it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

****

 

Have you ever looked at a black and white photo of a man from 150 years ago and thought about his perspective?

He lived in a world that is wildly different than ours. He left only a tiny trace of himself for people to remember. Yet, despite the beard, despite the decades, despite his death, the man in the photo is just like me – with hopes and dreams and passions just like mine.

Sometimes I look at old photos and think. Legendary documentarian Werner Herzog just one-upped me in a big way.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is little more than a philosophical old man musing about old pictures for a few hours. But in this case, the pictures are 32,000 year old cave paintings. And, somehow, it is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen.

In 1994, a Frenchman named Jean Marie Chauvet was out for a hike. He stumbled upon a hidden cave. Thanks to a freak rockslide eons ago, the paintings inside were uniquely preserved. Werner Herzog informs us that the Chauvet Cave paintings are twice as old as any that were previously discovered.

We now know for sure what preoccupied the mind of Stone Age man. It was animals. The cave has dozens of beautiful, vivid paintings and they are all animals.

Why animals? We can only speculate. Were the caves temples and the animals gods? Did Stone Age man dream of a future where he could domesticate wild animals and keep them as pets? Was the cave an ancient restaurant and the paintings were the menu? Did the paintings plan out the strategy of tomorrow’s hunt and the wall was a chalkboard where Og Belichick showed Urg Brady where to throw his spear?

 

We will never know. That’s what distinguishes “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” from just another Discovery Channel science show. Werner Herzog doesn’t talk about facts and DNA evidence. He just shares his feelings about the cave and inspires us to imagine ourselves living in their world.

The only thing we know for sure is that 32,000 years ago, Europe had horses, bison, cave bears, cave lions, and wooly mammoths. It is awe-inspiring to imagine that people just like us lived in the Ice Age, in the shadow of glaciers, surrounded by majestic mammals that have been extinct since the dawn of civilization.

What would a cave man think of our world? “You have global warming AND carnivorous lions and bears are going extinct,” he’d say. “Man, you guys have it good. Wait? You are against those things? That makes no sense.”

These are just the thoughts that came to my head. You’ll have different ones. It is to Herzog’s credit as a filmmaker that he doesn’t draw any conclusions; he just turns his camera on the paintings and lets the artists speak for themselves. You can almost hear their voices whispering through the cold cave walls.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a beautiful film. See it with someone you love.

 

 

Get Out

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Get Out

****

 

I was watching Spike Lee’s “Malcom X” for the first time in many years. And I kept thinking to myself: “Malcom X might have been right!”

As a kid, you’re taught that Martin Luther King’s dream of integration is a utopia while Malcom X’s vision of a separate and superior black society is fanatical and wrong.

But Dr. King won, and it’s not entirely clear whether or not black America won as a result.

Integration into our schools has led to lower quality education. Integration into our society has led to the dissolution of the black family. Integration into our economy has made black workers the primary victims of globalization.

It hardly seems farfetched to theorize that Malcom X was right when he urged his brothers to stay away from the white man’s world and the white man’s poisons. It hardly seems like bad advice to heed Malcom X’s warning that all white people are devils.

But we aren’t all actually devils. Are we?

 

“Get Out” is a black culture class that people actually want to take. It’s an exploration of how it feels to be a black man integrated into white America but never really part of it.

“Get Out” is 2/3 horror, 1/3 comedy, and 100% amazing.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is our victim. He’s a moderately successful New York City artist who wrongly thinks that his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) is not a white devil. He is mistaken.

Chris agrees to go with Rose to visit her parents’ house in a quiet town upstate. “Come on, Chris,” Rose purrs. “I’d tell you if my parents were racist.”

No she wouldn’t.

Rose’s parents are rich, friendly, and progressive. “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,” Rose’s father proclaims. That proves nothing, Chris; get out!

Those who have watched the Comedy Central sketch show “Key and Peele” already knew that Jordan Peele is ridiculously talented. With “Get Out,” Peele has outdone himself. “Get Out” is a blockbuster thriller with the brains of an arthouse drama.

Peele’s most obvious point is that the United States is still an uncomfortable place for a black man. And the only thing more frightening than a racist redneck is a friendly guy who won’t admit that he is racist. Because that guy is a racist AND he is delusional.

Peele’s more subtle point is that integration into the white man’s world is not a goal that you want to achieve. If you successfully integrate, you’ll always be a second class citizen, anyway. And you will lose an important part of yourself in the process.

The White Devil’s greatest trick was convincing us that he doesn’t exist. “Get Out” calls him out in an unforgettable way. Malcom X would approve.

 

 

 

Arrival

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Arrival

****

 

600 years ago, everyone agreed that earth is at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies revolve around us. That was a fact.

If some dreamer had stood up and said: “hey, maybe the earth is just one of a billion planets in our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of a billion in the universe,” that guy would have been laughed at or burnt at the stake.

Yesterday’s facts are today’s jokes and today’s jokes and tomorrow’s facts. Anyone who asserts that she is completely certain about anything is either a religious person expressing her faith or a fool who has learned nothing from history.

“Arrival” is a cinematic love letter to people who value contemplation over action, and discovery over certainty. It is a relentlessly brave and nerdy film. There’s a good reason why it is the first sci-fi movie this decade to be nominated for Best Picture.

 

“Arrival” begins with a bang. Twelve gigantic spaceships land at different spots around the earth. Suddenly, there is no longer a question about whether there is intelligent life in the universe. The question is: what do they want?

If they came here to phone home, it is going to take a serious crash course in Alien language to find out. And linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is just the one to do it.

This sets the stage for an hour of language class with Dr. Banks and the aliens. There are no action scenes and there are no laser guns. This is a 20th Century science fiction film for grown-ups only.

 

Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve deserved his nomination for Best Director. “Arrival” is instantly entertaining. And his ideas stay with you for days.

His most obvious point is that written language is the pinnacle of intelligence. Any idiot can yack to you for five minutes about how he doesn’t like his boss. And any cat can tell you that her food bowl is empty. But only using the written word can we ever have a shot at being fully understood by the people around us.

Villeneuve’s more sophisticated point is that each language is a double-edged sword. It is a window that allows you access to the outside world. But it is also a box that keeps you from fully exploring it.

The limits of our language are like what the limits of our eyesight were in 1500. Just as Galileo’s telescope opened up a new understanding of the universe, learning a new language has the power to unlock a completely different perspective of reality.

Anyone who teaches you a new language is expanding your mind. Anyone who scolds you for saying something inappropriate is shackling you to a limited set of beliefs.

The lesson of “Arrival” is the same lesson of 600 years ago: There is no concrete set of facts. There are only new worlds to discover.