Tuesday, December 30, 2003

We're back! It was a great vacation. We just got back today, so I'm not going to go into great detail, but here's a short recap.

The high point: Riding in the front of the monorail. Very cool!

The low point: My brother's family was sick for much of our visit, so we didn't get to see a lot of them.

The nice family moment: Us, my parents, my brother's family and my cousin's family all got together for dinner Monday night. The stars had aligned correctly, and my cousin, his wife and two kids happened to be visiting Florida while we were there. So we had three generations ranging from ages 2 to 69 together for an evening. The only problem was that it ended too soon.

There's a lot more, and I'll try to put together a trip report in the next couple of days.

Happy 2004, everyone!

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Live from 30,000 feet...

We’re flying Southwest to Orlando. We decided to fly down Christmas Day because we thought the plane would be less crowded. Well, the airport itself wasn’t crowded. We dropped our luggage with the skycap and got through security in practically no time. However, or flight is absolutely full! They were asking for volunteers to stay behind in exchange for some compensation. Needless to say, with two small kids we didn’t volunteer.

When practically every other airline is losing money hand over fist, Southwest continues to finish in the black quarter after quarter after quarter. I really think it’s because of the way they treat their customers and their employees. The company is regularly rated in the top 100 companies to work for. We’ve never had an issue with late flights or anything else on Southwest. The’ve been utterly reliable and the employees are always polite and helpful. I’ve basically stopped taking other airlines - they always look bad compared to Southwest. Also, driving to Green Airport in Providence is so much easier than driving to Logan most days.

Finally, Southwest makes the cost of flying pretty reasonable. The specials are great (I flew to Chicago for $150 round trip earlier this year), and they don’t gouge people for flying at the last minute.

Oh, we had Rhode Island radio legend Salty Brine on our flight. We chatted with him in line for a few minutes before we got on the plane. It’s a shame for a native Rhode Islander to admit this, but I didn’t figure out who he was until one of the gate workers said to me “Do you know who that was?” He asked if we knew someone he knew that had adopted children and we talked a bit about the kids. Anyways, I, like practically everyone else in RI, grew up listening to Salty, so it was cool to meet him for a few minutes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

We're off to Florida to visit with the family for a few days starting tomorrow. I find myself needing this vacation more than usual. With the impending merger of the company I work for and all the new rules and regulations caused by the string of corporate scandals over the past few years, the work isn't as interesting or challenging as it used to be.

We've got some fun stuff planned, including plenty of time with my family. We've got a return engagement to Chef Mickey's on Friday night, and we're planning the kids first trip to Epcot on Sunday. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in a little of that Disney Magic for a few days.

I'll try to post an entry from the (hopefully) sunny South. Have a great holiday season, everybody!

Saturday, December 20, 2003

It's been a busy week between office holiday parties and getting ready for both Hanukkah and our trip to Florida, so I haven't had much time to post lately. Of course, the Story of the Week has been the Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez deal (oh, there was that thing about some guy living in a hole in Iraq, too). As has been far too well documented in the press, the Red Sox, Rangers and A-Rod had worked out a deal that involved sending Manny, a minor league pitcher and some cash to Texas and Texas would send Rodriguez to Boston. A-Rod had restructured his mammoth $252 million contract to make it possible for the Sox to take it on and still field a competitive team. The unfortunate fallout from all this is that the deal forces the Sox to trade Nomar, reportedly to the Chicago White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. Chicago would have then sent Nomar to the Dodgers in exchange for some pitching.

This would have been a great trade for the Sox. Not only do they get the best player in baseball in A-Rod, but they get an outfielder in Ordonez who could replace most of Manny's production. Of course, the Players Association (I won't call them a union - unions are for people who work for a living) stepped in and screwed up the whole deal. There is apparently a clause in the basic agreement which says that a player can't lose any value in a contract restructuring. Apparently, the PA thinks that A-Rod having the ability to play where he wants for a contending team in one of the most passionate baseball markets in the country isn't worth a reduction of about 11% of his contract. Obviously, A-Rod thought it was worth it, or he wouldn't have agreed to it.

Now, I understand that the PA has to follow it's rules, but here's why I think this decision is wrongheaded.

(1) A-Rod's contract is such an outlier from the rest of baseball that even the reduction makes it by far the biggest contract in baseball history. The second biggest was Manny's, at $160 million. This means that Rodriguez's contract was worth $92 million more! I can't see how an 11% reduction is going to impact the going rate for other players.

(2) The players-owners battle that led to the modern free agency system, the Curt Flood decision, was all about freedom of movement for the players. Flood was traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia and he didn't want to go to the Phillies. It wasn't about money; it was about Curt Flood's right to play baseball where he wanted to. Now the PA has subverted that in A-Rod's case. It's become about the number of $$$ on the table instead of what makes the player happy and fulfilled. I can't believe that it's not worth 11% of Rodriguez's salary for him to play for a team that was five outs from the World Series instead of languishing on a last place team in Arlington, TX. A-Rod will still make more money than he can ever spend. Also, the additional endorsement and merchandising opportunities that potentially could come from being in the public eye 19 times a year against the Yankees, plus post-season exposure could more than make up for the $28 million he's giving up.

According to the papers, this deal still isn't dead. Although Bud Selig has barred the Sox from talking to A-Rod any more, the Rangers are still negotiating with him and the Sox are still negotiating with the Rangers. We'll see what happens in the next few days.

Monday, December 15, 2003

I saw the most amazing thing today. I had the day off and I took J. to his Tae Kwon Do class today. He's been going for about six weeks and this is the first time I've been to see him. He got his first black stripe on his belt today and that means that they let the kids break boards. So I buy a "board card" and Jeremy goes back in to try breaking the board while I watch through the window. He goes up and puts his hand through it on the first shot! I was literally standing there with my mouth hanging open.

After this amazing exhibition, I made my way to the FleetCenter (or is that the Bank of America Center?) to see the Celtics play the Minnesota Timberwolves. The main attraction of the game was seeing one of my favorite players from the great Celtics teams of the '80's, Cedric Maxwell, have his number retired by the team. The ceremony was very nicely done. 86-year-old Red Auerbach, proving he hasn't mellowed much at all, started talking about how the owners of the Celtics had given Max all these gifts, and that all the other guys there who had their numbers retired must have been thinking that Max wasn't that good - why was he getting all these gifts? It was funny, and you could tell that Red meant it to be funny, but it seemed a little rough. Max said all the right things and gave a nice speech. Several members of the '84 Celtics were there, including Kevin McHale, K.C. Jones, Danny Ainge (who got a serious round of boos) and M.L. Carr.

The game itself was entirely forgettable, with the Celtics getting blown out by the T-Wolves by 19 points. We left with about six minutes left in the game with the Celtics down 21. No doubt the big trade of Tony Battie, Eric Williams and Kedrick Brown to the Cavaliers for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm, Michael Stewart and a draft pick left the team less than ready for the game. Except for a good period in the second quarter, the Celtics really mailed it in tonight.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Well, I know I said I was going to ramble on more about ballparks, but I'm too excited about the Red Sox signing of Keith Foulke!

This really fills in the two big holes in the Sox pitching staff from last season. Another top of the line starter behind Pedro and, maybe even more critically, a reliable closer were really what was needed. With the acquisitions of Schilling and Foulke, they fixed the problems.

Add to that the Yankees issues, including the problems finalizing an agreement with Gary Sheffield, the retirement of Clemens and the loss of Andy Pettitte and maybe, just maybe, the balance of power is starting to shift a little bit in the AL East. I'm not getting my hopes up yet, since there's a long way to go and the Red Sox have a habit of breaking New Englanders hearts, but it looks like the Sox have got their act together and the Yankees are getting a bit chaotic.

The Sox just have to sign a second baseman and get the A-Rod/Nomar/Manny drama sorted out and I think they could start Spring Training today.

Even aside from the Red Sox, the Hot Stove League has been red hot this winter. Big signings like Bartolo Colon by the Angels and trades like the Richie Sexson deal from Milwaukee to Arizona and the big Atlanta-St. Louis deal involving JD Drew today have kept things hopping.

I even bought Red Sox tickets this morning. I got a "Sox Pack" - four tickets to games against the Yankees, Phillies, Devil Rays and Orioles next season. I'm ready to go!

On a completely different topic, we went for a ride after dinner to look at Christmas lights. My kids love seeing the lights on the houses, and we usually take a ride or two around each holiday season to see the lights. Someone at work told me about a neighborhood in Sudbury, the next town over, that he said was amazing. I didn't quite believe the description he was giving it, but it was only a few miles from home, so I checked it out on Mapquest and we headed over there.

Well, these houses lived up to, and exceeded the hype. There were about a half-dozen houses that had more lights than I've ever seen. One house had people in costumes dressed up as a reindeer and a snowman. Another had Santa hanging out on the front lawn - a real guy meeting the kids. Everything was there from Santa in a helicopter made of lights, to "moving" horses and sleighs, to one house that had a big Santa made of lights stuck in the chimney. The kids were practically in ecstasy over this whole scene, and thought that "Santa's butt" sticking out of the chimney was pretty much the funniest thing they had ever seen.

One drawback with this is the amount of traffic in this high-end neighborhood (you'd have to be pretty wealthy just to afford the electric bill!). I'm sure the folks who don't go in for the big decorations are pretty sick of the whole scene by Christmas Day. We'll probably check it out one more time before we take off for Florida. The light displays at Disney World may pale in comparison to what we saw this evening!

Friday, December 12, 2003

I’m in the process of rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Bob Wood’s “Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks”. “Dodger Dogs” is a travel log of Wood’s 1985 trip to visit all 26 Major League ballparks in one summer. Wood was 28 at the time and a junior high school history teacher who had summers off. Starting from his home in Seattle, he makes his way across the country, visiting each ballpark in turn. He also has a report card for each park, grading each on qualities such as layout and upkeep, quality of the ball field, seating, scoreboard, food, ballpark employees, facilities and atmosphere.

The great thing about the book was that it was among the first of it’s kind to evaluate ballparks as a fan would. Sportswriters or broadcasters talking about ballparks necessarily have a completely different point of view than the average fan would. They get in free. They get free food. They don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking, or how clean the public bathrooms are. They sit in a press box or broadcast booth, so they don’t have to worry about legroom in the seats, or whether a pole is going to be blocking their view. Wood’s outlook is the same as yours or mine. He worries about the things you and I would worry about on a trip like that.

Wood also writes about the trip in a very personal style that makes you almost feel like you were riding around the country in the passenger seat with him. He goes in to great detail about his life growing up in Kalamazoo, MI; childhood trips to Tiger Stadium; how he converted to being a Red Sox fan in his teens; the challenges of teaching a room of hormonally charged 13-year-olds; encounters with especially helpful ballpark employees and many others. Your heart sinks when his car gets broken into on his first night on the road. You are elated for him when the police recover the bulk of his stuff, including his beloved Frank Sinatra tapes.

This trip took place during the 1985 season, which may have possibly been the absolute nadir of ballpark architecture since steel and concrete started to replace wood ballparks in the first two decades of the 20th century. The trip occurs long after most of the classic early ballparks (Forbes Field, Crosley Field, The Polo Grounds, etc) have been abandoned , but before the rise of the Camden Yards-style “neo-retro” ballparks that started in the early ‘90’s. lnstead ugly multipurpose, astro-turfed stadiums rule the day.

In 1985, 17 out of the 26 Major League parks could serve both baseball and football. By contrast, only six (Pro Player Stadium, Network Associates Coliseum, Shea Stadium, Metrodome, Skydome and Olympic Stadium) of the 30 major league homes as of Opening Day 2004 will be capable of hosting both sports. Big, round monstrosities like Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium and Riverfront Stadium ruled the day. Since these stadiums were not built for baseball, sightlines were terrible. Huge amounts of foul ground rested between the playing field and the seats, destroying the sense of intimacy that fans enjoyed in places like Fenway and Wrigley. Accommodating football, these stadiums had upwards of 60,000 seats. Those in the third deck were a long way from home plate. Worse, because of the wear and tear on the field from using the stadium for football and other events, the builders laid down artificial turf in many of these stadiums. Plastic grass changes the game in too many ways to mention.

Fortunately, baseball and city planners grew out of this trend and turned to the Baltimore model upon the wild success of Camden Yards. Ballparks moved back into city centers, where they were surrounded by taverns, restaurants and shops instead of acres of parking. Every new ballpark built since Camden Yards has been baseball only and has combined the great sightlines and nostalgic look of the old ballparks with the most modern amenities.

Wood’s book started a lifelong obsession with me to eventually take the same trip. Since I picked the wrong profession and chose accounting instead of teaching, I don’t get summers off. A two month road trip is going to have to wait about 20 years until I retire. More on my dream trip and my own ballpark travels in the next entry.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Some less long-winded thoughts on part 2 of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series (or BSG2K3, as they're calling it on the 'Net). Major spoilers below, so don't read if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to know!

I liked part 2. There was nothing to convince me that this wouldn't make a good series if they go in that direction. And, most importantly, there was no casino planet! :-)

The fact that Boxey showed up made me a little nervous (with the same haircut, no less!), but the fact that Muffit was nowhere to be seen was a good thing.

The battle sequence and escape from the Cylons was nicely done. I liked the hyperlight jump effect, as opposed to the warp speed/hyperspace type of FTL travel we've gotten used to from other series. It was never really clear on the original Galactica how far/fast the fleet was going. The new show gives you a better handle on it.

The voices screaming at Apollo when the non-FTL capable ships were left behind to the Cylons was effective, but I thought the cuts to the little girl were over the top. The audience understood the stakes here - we really didn't need to have the point pounded home with a child.

In fact, between the little girl on the agro-ship and the baby that Six killed in part one, BSG was pretty tough on kids. Both instances seemed gratutitous to me - we could have figured out that the Cylons were evil without killing the baby (not withstanding the fact that the baby would have been nuked anyways a few hours later.)

The new Starbuck/Apollo relationship is starting to grow on me. It'll be interesting to see where it goes in a series. The fact that Starbuck is a woman obviously opens up a whole new dynamic.

Of course, the one problem with Starbuck's stunt to rescue Apollo at the end of the battle with the Cylons is that I never believed for one second that both of them wouldn't walk away from that. It might have had a little more tension if it had been Starbuck and Ensign Redshirt instead - at least his survival wouldn't have been assured.

As far as the two big revelations at the end, I have a problem with one and I'm looking forward to seeing how the other works out. Adama's revelation to the president that his story about Earth is a pile of hooey worries me. The original Galactica held out the hope of "a shining planet known as Earth". In the face of a holocaust, there was the promise that the colonists would eventually find what was hopefully a technically advanced Earth that could strike back at the Cylons (forget Galactica 1980, OK? I could never buy Mr. Brady as a top scientist). Now we, as the viewers, know that there is no hope. The only thing I can see is that a series would plant clues that there really IS an Earth out there and the Galactica and the fleet follow that trail.

Boomer as a "sleeper" Cylon? I like the thought that one of your main characters is a traitor and doesn't even know it. If the series becomes a reality, I'll be interested to see how it plays out.

Finally, there's Baltar. He is such a downgrade from the pure evil of the original that I'm not sure what to make of him. He's gone from evil to morally ambivalent, and that's not nearly as much fun. And how does Six keep appearing? Is there some kind of implant in his brain, or is he really just hallucinating?

Summing up, if I was to grade the show, I'd give it a solid B. It introduced the characters, set up the basic premise and had a decent amount of action. We'll just wait to see if Sci-Fi goes ahead with a series.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Well, we survived the big snow over the weekend. We got about 18 inches here. Shoveling out was not fun, and we all got a little stir crazy by Sunday afternoon. We went out late afternoon after the snow stopped, did a little Hanukkah shopping and had dinner at TGI Fridays. The great thing about Fridays is that they have TVs all over the place, so I was able to keep an eye on the Patriots-Dolphins game while eating with the family.

And what a game it was! Another stellar defensive effort by the Pats, even considering the elements. The Dolphins just couldn't move the ball at all, even though you would expect a big straight-ahead runner like Ricky Williams should be tailor made for elements like that. The late interception by Teddy Bruschi sealed the victory, along with an AFC East championship for the Pats.

The amazing thing about yesterday's game was the sight of the 45,000 lunatics who braved the snowstorm to go to Foxboro and managed to throw snow into the air on cue. Because the storm basically lasted right up until game time, large sections of Gillette Stadium were still snowed under, so there was plenty of ammunition for snowballs and such. After a big Patriot's play, the fans threw snow into the air in unison during the playing of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll, Part 2". It looked great on TV, and seemed to stir the Pats to even greater heights.

So, the Pats are playoff bound, won 9 in a row and look like a serious contender for another Lombardi trophy. It's shaping up to be an exciting January around these parts!

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Snow, snow, snow. We're experiencing the first major snowstorm of the season here in Boston. According to Boston.com, we've already got about 5 inches and we could end up with more than 15. So we're pretty much going to hang out at home and eventually go outside and do a little shoveling.

It's way to early for this much snow, if you ask me. Big snowstorms shouldn't really be happening until at least it's officially winter.

Oh, well, I guess there's not a whole lot I can actually do about it but sit here and wait for it to end...

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

WARNING - MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW: if you don’t want to know the details of the new Battlestar Galactica before you watch it, don’t read this until later.

A few days ago, I saw an ad in the Framingham Tab. It was advertising a “sneak preview” of the new Battlestar Galactica mini-series, which is to air on the Sci-Fi channel. I was a fan of the original BSG, which premiered in the late ‘70’s, although I always thought the show had huge flaws. The primary problem, for me, was that the human colonials were so easily duped by the Cylons. The colonies not only sent their primary line of defense (the 12 Battlestars) off to a “peace conference”, but left their home planets undefended, to the extent that there were apparently little or no planetary defenses to stop the Cylons from wiping out most of humanity. Although I liked the basic premise of the mighty Galactica leading the “ragtag fugitive fleet” to find sanctuary on Earth, I always had a problem with how they got into that situation.

I had been following the remake of BSG mostly through the BSG Web site on Scifi.com an some online discussion groups. The more rabid fans of the original series have been completely up in arms about the remake. The executive producer of the show, Ron Moore (who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and , briefly, Voyager) decided to recast and rework the original show rather than making a sequel starring the surviving members original cast. The fans had, instead, been supporting an effort by Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the original series, to do a sequel series and find out what happened after the first and only season of the original show (We’ll ignore the horror that was Galactica 1980, OK? Well, except for the Starbuck episode). Fans were also up in arms about the fact that Starbuck, one of the primary characters in the first BSG, was being played by a woman.

Mostly because of my aforementioned reservations about the original BSG, I was going into seeing the remake with an open mind. If it was good, that was great. I’d enjoy it and hope it got made into an ongoing series. If it stunk, too bad but I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.

So, I mentioned the screening to A. After a bit of schedule juggling, she said I should go and that I needed a night out. So, in the brutal cold of December 2 I ventured out to Jordan’s Furniture in Natick to watch the show on Jordan’s IMAX screen. I was joined there by my friend Dave and, after a quick bite at Kelly’s, we went to see the show.

We weren’t exactly greeted by a huge crowd. The only publicity I had seen for the screening had been the ad in the Tab. Nothing in the Globe, the MetroWest Daily News or on Scifi.com. So, I’d guess that about 40-50 people showed up and took their seats in the theater. The requisite BSG tchochkes were distributed - key chains, a plastic ice cube that lights up in water and pictures of the cast. We also got free popcorn and soda, which has got to be at least a $10 value at any movie theater.

So the show started. The basic plot is very recognizable to anyone who watched the original show. The Cylons stage a surprise attack on the 12 human colonies, wiping out much of humanity in the process. The Galactica is one of the few surviving human warships. No doubt in the second episode, the fleet will be assembled and the Galactica will lead them in search of Earth.

That’s where the similarities end. Much of the motivation and personality of the characters is completely altered from the original series. The primary difference is the Cylons. The ‘70s version was created by some mysterious race, also called Cylons, who were eventually wiped out by their own technology. The mechanical Cylons take a dislike to any biological species and embark on a long war with humanity. The original show’s confict was very simple: the Cylons were the “bad guys” just becuase they were bad. The humans were the “good guys” because they fought the bad Cylons.

The new series changes all of that. The Cylons were sentient androids originally built by humanity, presumably to do the menial, tedious and dangerous work that humans didn’t want to do. Apparently, the Cylons were built without Asimov’s three laws of robotics, because they eventually rebelled against their human masters, resulting in a costly war 40 years before the events in the show. The humans eventually beat back the Cylons, where they haven’t been heard from since.

This is so much more interesting than the original premise. Humanity built mechanical slaves to serve them, and the slaves rebelled. Humans play god by creating a race of sentient beings, and their arrogance comes back to bite them. The premise is so much more powerful than robots created by a mysterious, extinct race.

Most of the main characters are more interesting as well. Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, is a grizzled veteran of the colonial military. He’s not the patriarchal wise man Lorne Greene’s Adama was. He’s just a military man, doing his job.

One thing I like is that the characters have “real” names now. The familiar names from the original BSG are now the fighter pilots call names. Apollo is now Lee Adama. Starbuck is Kara Thrace.

Apollo has been morphed into the angry young man of the show. He holds Adama responsible for the death of his brother, Zac. In the oriiginal series, Zac was killed in the initial Cylon attack. This time, Zac was killed in some kind of training accident. Apollo holds Adama responsible for pushing Zac into the military, something he wasn’t suited for. There’s a nice scene where Apollo confronts Adama about that which I really enjoyed.

Starbuck, other than her gender, seems to have changed least of all. She’s still arrogant, still a gambler, still a top notch fighter pilot. There wasn’t quite enough of her in the episode to get a really good handle on her, but in general I liked what I saw.

The one character I thought suffered in comparison to the original series was Baltar. The original, played by one of my favorite TV “bad guy” actors, John Colicos, just oozed evil. He was rotten to the core, craved power, and didn’t care who he had to walk over to get it.

The new Baltar, played by James Gallus, is the leading computer scientist of his time. Instead of power, he falls victim to man’s other great weakness, sex. A female, human shaped Cylon (Number Six - I guess Seven was already taken!) seduces him and then cons him with a story to get into the colonial defense mainframe. This gives the Cylons what they need to stage the attack.

This Baltar gets really whiney when he discovers that Six is a Cylon, and that he’s responsible for the ensuing destruction. He really reminded me of Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine, both physically and with his condescending attitude (although Baltar is much worse about it than Bashir ever was.) Alexander Siddig could have easily played the part.

Incidentally, there are both human shaped Cylons and more traditional robotic Cylons, complete with the sweeping red eye. They basically look like an upgraded version of the original Cylons.

As far as the ship itself, the Galactica retains the basic shape of the original, but has a much tougher, utilitarian look. It needs to be tough - it takes a direct hit from a Cylon nuclear missile, which leads to a difficult decision for Col. Tigh. I have to admit, though, when someone mentioned that the hull plating had deflected the blast, I started to wonder if it was polarized...

All in all, I thought the new Galactica was a significant improvement over the original. The story was made both more compelling and made more sense, while still maintaining the original premise. The characters, with one notable exception, are as good or better than their ‘70s counterparts.

So, leave your preconceptions at the door when you watch the mini-series. If you do, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Wow. I just got back from a sneak preview of the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries. I was amazed at how good it was. It's late, but I'll work on a full review with spoilers on the train tomorrow and upload it tomorrow night.

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