Monday, March 31, 2014

Our Democracy in Numbers

Chart comparing ad spending between Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Majority PAC & House Majority PAC
Courtesy of Daily Kos

GOP Renews “Facts are Stupid Things” Discourse

When the data is inconvenient, decry it as skewed. This has been the conservative mantra for years – maybe starting way back in the 80s when Reagan announced that “facts are stupid things.” Two recent examples demonstratre this adherence to blind faith in their ideological commitments; as dangerous a fundamentalism as any in existence.

The first revolves around the growing success of Obamacare enrollments, which have now topped 6 million on their way toward 7. Republicans have decided that these numbers just can be true: TNR. In fact, they went on the Sunday Talk Shows to sell this tale to their millions of minions, claiming the Obama administration is "cooking the books". Fox News, of course, embraces the claim of one conservative Senator, without any foundation, that the numbers are exaggerated but too many other news outlets also allow these lies to go largely unchallenged.

The second involves their continued, long absurd claim that global warming either doesn’t exist or is not caused by human activity. A recent IPCC Assessment report (Slate) showed the essentially universal consensus among scientists that not only is the planet warming, and that this warming is based on human activity, but that we are already starting to feel the effects. Even as population continues to grow, food production rates are already dropping. Million of people will be displaced as sea levels continue to rise and even more extreme weather events are in the offing. But the climate-doubters are at it again, from WSJ’s denier-in-residence Matt Ridley to the silly Daily Mail claim that it will benefit tourism in the arctic circle. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

National Economic Policy: Simplified for the Non-Economist

Arsenal’s Title Hunt Dead – Now the Battle for Fourth Begins

After the results over the past month and a half, Arsenal can be proud of their gritty 1-1 draw with Man City today. But it was still more dropped points in a derailed season that once looked so promising. Sure injuries have played a big role, but it is hard to absolve Wenger completely of his complicity in this turmoil, as the overseer of the team that has more injury minutes per season over the past three years than any other team in the league. In fact, three years ago, when Man City won the title, Arsenal had over three times as much player time off as the champions.

Arsenal started the game on the back foot, but started to settle around the 10th minute and actually had a chance to take the early lead, but for some missed opportunities and below average play in the final 3rd. In the 18th minute, Podolski was dispossessed dawdling on the ball and a quick City counter ensued. Dzeko got the ball free to the left and sent a scorching shot that Szczesny parried into the post, only for the rebound to fall to David Silva, who pushed it past Vermaelen and home. It was bad luck for Arsenal, as Sz’s save was excellent and the rebound just happened to land perfectly for Silva, but they were once again down to a rival.

Rather than collapsing as they have too often against their major rivals, though on the road in each case, Arsenal settled and looked to have equalized in the 35th on a great cross from Podolski finished cleverly by Flamini. But he was clearly offsides and the half finished with City ahead 1-0. Wenger had started the game open again, but only paid for the lost Pod possession, before Arsenal settled into a slightly more defensive, possession-style approach. The duo of Arteta and Flamini actually played decently side by side, as one would attack as the other stayed back on several occasions. However, as Arsenal pushed forward, there were never enough bodies in the box and Giroud’s lack of speed continued to hurt the team, as the best runs of the game came from our deeply-sitting midfielder Flamini.

Early in the second half (52’), that attacking impetus paid off, as Giroud held the ball up well on the right side before sending it across to Arteta on the edge of the box. He passed it on to Rosicky who pushed it to Gibbs who one touched it through to Podolski on the left side. He sent in a great cross that Flamini settled and pounded hard into the ground and the near corner. Suddenly Arsenal were level and had the momentum on their side with the home crowd behind them. Sagna sent in a dangerous cross a minute later that Giroud should have attacked ,but let get through. Podolski then was in on goal in the 59th, but shot at the near post and was well-saved by Joe Hart. In the 71st, Cazorla sent in a free kick that Giroud had a free header on, though he had to reach up and sent it wide. 7 minutes later, after Ox came on for Podolski, a great turn from Giroud saw him free on goal at the edge of the box, but he completely flubbed his shot and it went wide-

A few more chances emerged for each team, but the game ended 1-1 – putting City two games in hand away from first place and giving Liverpool a real chance at the title, if they can beat both Chelsea and City at Anfield. Chelsea was the big loser of the day, after a John Terry own goal saw them lose to Crystal Palace. Mourinho claimed their title challenge was now dead, but that seems a little silly since they still sit in first, at least until the games in hand are played, and still play Liverpool. But Man City has reemerged as the title favorite – if they can keep their nerve and win out.

For Arsenal, it is another late season collapse (3 wins in the last 10) and the real possibility that Everton could nip them to fourth place. The game next week thus become essential, as the Gunners will probably need at least a draw to keep their destiny in their own hands. So while many will claim it is a good point, it is yet another draw at home against a team in the top seven (to match the ones against Everton, United and Chelsea). And for the third year running, our record against our direct competitors is paltry at best (3-5-3 with one to go). After an entire year, 2013, of exceptional defending, Arsenal are returning to the defensive errors of the past, with most of their goals in the past three months coming as the result of errors (today from Podolski). And their injury record continues to be a serious concern. Lastly, Giroud again cost Arsenal points, blowing three decent opportunities to score. While he has improved dramatically this year, his misses are one of the major reasons the race is over for the team. Wenger’s future is up in the air, but I reiterate my point of last week and think it is time for him to go … hopefully with an FA Cup to punctuate a mixed 18 years in charge. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Search of News ...

Courtesy of Daily Kos

A Tale of Two Wengers

Should he stay or should he go? That has to be the thought coursing through the cerebral cortex of any Gooner who has suffered through almost a decade of false hope, failed promises and missed opportunities. Arsene Wenger is a hero who should be hailed by all Arsenal fans. He restored the old aura of winning and a new excitement to a team known for its boring defensive performances (1-0 to the Arsenal) and ended a seven-year drought without a title. But as the trophy drought draws toward nine years and Arsenal’s title challenge again fades in the second half, it might be time to evaluate whether it is time to part ways with a manager who appears to be living on past success alone. And so, a tale of two Wengers …

The Rosy Beginning
The essentially unknown Frenchman who arrived in 1996, turned more than a few heads in an English Football League used to insiders. At the end of his second year in charge, the critics were quelled, as he won his first of two doubles. He would follow that up with near misses the next two seasons, before repeating the same feat in 2001-2002. He won another FA Cup the following year, auguring the greatest achievement of his career – the Invincible team that went an entire campaign without losing a game (going 49 games in total before yet another loss to United). An FA Cup title followed in 2005, with a penalty shootout win over United and the following year Arsenal made it to the finals of the Champions League (losing 2-1 to Barcelona after taking the lead in the first half, even though they were a man down to a controversial sending off of goalie Lehman). During this period, he also added the Community Shield in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2004, and was hailed for his innovative training techniques (including monitoring diet), his importing of quality foreign players, his ability to transform players from potential to world-class and for introducing a more attacking, technical game to the EPL. To sum up, between his hiring in 1996 and the end of the 2004-2005 season (9 seasons), Wenger won seven major trophies and amassed four more, for a total of 11. If we include 2005-06 as a transition year, which included a second lost European Cup final (added to the one in 2000, when it was still called the European Cup) that is 10 years and 11 trophies – though really 7.

The Lean Years
Then comes the second half of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal. That arguably starts in the 2006-07 season, when many of his greatest stars have either left or are getting ready to leave and David Dein’s problems with the board culminate in his departure in August 2007. Viera is suddenly gone, Cashley Cole, Henry and all but a few of the players that made Wenger so successful all leave in quick succession together with the man that Wenger worked most closely with at the club. The young guards are left to pick up the pieces as the team moves on to the Emirates and a period of the tightening of the belt. Yet things don’t fall apart immediately. Arsenal actually vie for the title in 2008 (where a late fade leaves them third) and 2011 (for a time), they continue to finish in the top four every season and even beat one of the best teams of all times 2-1 at the Emirates before losing in a heartbreaking second leg. Wenger is actually hailed for pumping out profits every year and for smoothing the transition to a bigger stadium that will guarantee the Gunners long term financial stability. But fourth becomes their perennial position in the league, they keep losing chances at silverware and a second wave of departures occurs – with Clichy, Nasri, Fabergas, Van Persie and Song all leaving within about a year. The replacements seem to be of diminished quality and some serious flops emerge among Wenger’s choices. As the 2013-14 season begins, many wonder if it will be the last of his 18 years in charge.

Yet the signing of Mesut Ozil sparks hope that the Frenchman has finally change his penury ways and that the future might brighten. After a stunning opening loss to Aston Villa 3-1, Arsenal soon jump to the top of the table. A loss early in the Carling Cup was disappointing (to Chelsea yet again), but the Gunners were leading their Group of Death in the UCL and the League heading into a tough group of fixtures. Questions still remained about the squad depth, particularly when Ox and Podolski went down early with injuries that would keep them out for the first half, and the failure to sign a striker. But hope rang anew. And then the first down period of the season emerged in December. In quick succession, the Gunners lost a late lead to Everton and settled for a 1-1 draw, lost 2-0 to Napoli in their final group stage game (sending them to second in the group and to a knock out tie against Bayern), got crushed by Man City 6-3, had a tepid 0-0 draw with Chelsea at home and were suddenly out of the lead. But then another period of victories came and suddenly Arsenal was back atop the league with the chance to forge ahead.

As is too often the case with Wenger teams in the past decade, however, they merely flattered to deceive. After winning seven straight in all competitions, Arsenal travelled to a Southampton team in a tailspin and yet had to comeback to get a 2-2 draw. After a win at Crystal Palace they were again flattened by a direct competitor for the title, this time by Liverpool at Anfield 5-1. At home against a reeling United, sans the Sir Ferguson who has cost Wenger more than a few titles and cups, Arsenal again can only muster a 0-0 draw. The Gunners rebound to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup, though they are arguably outplayed for much of the game, before losing the second leg of the UCL at Bayern (2-0). Yet, after a 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane, the Gunners head to The Bridge with a chance to get right back into title contention. For five minutes that is. The 6-0 thrashing is the third of the season at the others in the top four and, as I’m sure many of you are aware, that was followed yesterday by a game in which they were outplayed by a team that had won 1 of their last 10, suffering a draw in the last minute on a farcical own goal. And so the title race is done and now the Gunners have to compete YET AGAIN for fourth place, with a game against City before what looks like a season-deciding trip to Everton.

Sure Arsenal could and should win the FA Cup this year, ending the drought, but it is yet another late season fade in what is becoming a habit under Wenger. How much more can we fans stand? The question that clearly emerges is how much blame should Wenger take for all of this failure and whether there is some truth in Mourinho’s claim that our beloved coach is an “expert” in it.  On the one side is stability and consistency and the record during the first half of Wengers reign, his ability to find and cultivate young talent and the fact that Arsenal always remain in the top four and generally (until the past month or so) play attacking, beautiful football. Those are all on the plus side. But let’s consider his shortcomings: 1. A stubbornness to change either tactically or in the transfer window (as just one example, Arteta should not have played against this Chelsea team and maybe a more defensive first 10 would have made sense given their recent performances in big games), 2. Serious questions about his fitness regime, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, as the injury list continues to pile up and players stay on the sideline longer than predictions far too often (Ramsey is still 2 weeks away)., 3. Seemingly, an inability to get his team motivated for big games or to keep their cool when things go against them (in recent years), 4. Putting too much pressure on young players that seems to stunt their development (Wilshere and Ramsey come to mind, until the latter’s success this year and Ox appears to be hurting the team in big games as well) and 5. Real questions about his ability to actually motivate his team to win trophies (not fourth place “medals”). So let’s take one final, in depth, look at the mmajor wins and losses of Wenger’s career at Arsenal where one could argue that amount of talent he has had at his disposal should have actually garnered more than 7 major trophies (see here for nice season-by-season synopsis).

English Premier League Titles (3): 1997-1998, 2001-02, 2003-04
FA Cups (4): 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005
Community Shields (4): 1998, 1999, 2002, 2004
Overall Record: 1001G / 572W – 226D-193L (57.4% winning pct.)

English Premier League Titles
1996-7: In race but poor February leads to a fade to 3rd (sound familiar?)
1998-9: Lose title by one point to United (and semi of FA Cup as well)
1999-01: Two years of second places as major changes occur
2002-03: Second yet again, though they do win the FA Cup this season.
2004-05: Unbeaten streak ends and lose title to Chelsea. Last major trophy.
2005-06 to 2012-13: Finish fourth in each year except 3rd in ‘08, ‘10 & ‘12
2007-08: In title race before late fade (and lose to Totti in FA Cup semis)
2010-11: Faded badly after being in race going into February

Paltry records against Ferguson & Mourinho to boot

European Cups
2000 Final: lose to Gattasarray in penalty shoot out
2007 Final: lose 2-1 to Barcelona after taking 1st half lead
And losing in round of 16 four straight years (before that: QF, SF, QF, R16)

FA Cup Finals
2001 (to Liverpool)

Carling/Capital One Cup Losses
2007 (to Chelsea), 2011 (to Birmingham)

Should Wenger stay for three more years, or should we take a chance on a new coach now? It depends on who’s available, but it would probably be hard for Roberto Martinez to turn the job down and after the impressive work he’s done with Wigan and Everton, he would be a nice transitional figure in my mind (with the potential to stay for years). Jurgen Klopp would be a great choice as well, if available, and a few others could step in and maybe change the team mentality and training regime. The reality is that Wenger just doesn’t seem to prepare, motivate and create the formations that win enough of the big games in the past 10 years and a change at this point can’t hurt. If he stays for three more years, I’ll keep rooting them on … but I’ll also keep that Gooner built-in sense that disaster looms around the corner of any promising Yellow Brick Road. 

Banks are at it Again

After all the bad press around the 2008 financial crisis, one would think the banks would be careful with their public image. Yet high bonuses, failure to reign in their risky behavior, strong lobbying to ensure they are not regulated, an attempt to charge people every time they use their debit cards and a push against any progressive tax reform have shown the true stripes of both commercial and investment banks. And now there’s yet another PR campaign they are running from – gouging welfare recipients.

In California in 2012 alone, big banks took more than $19 million from poor families on welfare by charging exorbitant fees to withdraw funds from EBT cards (Daily Kos). That essentially means that banks are not only making profits on our poorest families – often young, single mothers with barely enough money to feed their families – but they are taking our tax dollars at the same time. Banks essentially run the world, as access to credit is at the center of capitalism and both doing business and living from day to day. Yet, though it may be idealizing of the past, there appeared to be some ethics involved in the business in the past that has been replaced by a blind allegiance to profits at any cost. This doesn’t seem that different from the way the world works today, but it does make you wonder how far corporate America is willing to go in its endless search for dollars, euros and any other currency they can get their hands on. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nate Silver's Blind Allegiance to Data

Statistical Whiz-Kid Nate Silver made waves last week with the launch of his new FiveThirtyEight website and his proclamation that opinion columnists are useless (The Week). As quoted in New York Magazine, he argued, “They don't permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them... It's people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They're not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking... We're not sociopaths, which means that we look at the world and have opinions. But we're not trying to do advocacy here. We're trying to just do analysis. [New York]”

To many this argument seems completely rationale and hard to find fault with. It is the classic positivist position that has been popular in a certain strand of academia since at least the rise in popularity of Karl Popper on our shores in the 50s. It claims that the only thing we can truly know is what we can discern from sense data. It discounts subjectivity and opinions in deference to what it calls “objective,” empirical research. It discounts Marxism, psychoanalysis, critical theory and any other theory that is not falsifiable (aka able to be “proven wrong.”) And it has benefited from dramatic improvements in econometrics and statistical analysis in general, allowing what is purported to be more reliable and valid research. The press has largely followed this charge in recent years, engaging in a “he said, she said” style of journalism that many critique – simply reiterating what pundits and politicians say without any fact-checking, or even reasonable argument checking.

So does Silver have a point? One could argue that much opinion journalism on the right and left (though the left in the mainstream media is really centrists liberal) does merely reinforce the orthodox ideology of their compatriots. In fact, the talking heads on the right and not that different than many talking and writing heads on the left, suffering in many cases from what statisticians call “confirmation bias” (the tendency to “see” what you are looking for, and ignore what you are not – or as documentarian Errol Morris put it, “believing is seeing”). So, yes, we could argue that we can predict with relative consistency what our most famous pundits will say or write about any given issue. And that is a problem. Yet does that mean we should embrace an objective, data-driven form of journalism instead? This is, in fact, what Bloomberg claims to offer – though many are less than impressed with the results.

I think here we fall perilously close to undermining the very point of the media in a democracy. Edmund Burke arguably coined the term  “The Fourth Estate” in a debate in parliament in 1787. The term has been used ever since to describe a media that challenges government and holds it accountable to the people and the truth. Throughout history, media has taken down politicians and governments (most famously Nixon’s here, but others across the globe), uncovered corruption and provided a platform for social justice and expanded democracy in every corner of the planet. But something changed starting in the 80s here and has slowly but steadily undermined its ability to serve this essential role. This change has, not coincidently, followed the incredible consolidation of power into five (or maybe six, if you count Vivendi) multinational corporations that control over 90 percent of the media Americans consume on a daily basis (following deregulation from first Reagan and then Clinton).

This is not to argue that facts and statistics should be lost in the debate. But opinion journalists are just that – media personalities that can look deeper into the facts and opinions and provide perspectives for the people to consider and debate. If an opinion journalist never shifts their position on anything, they do largely become worthless and if they never include strong evidence of their positions, they are simply storytellers (as, one could argue, David Brooks should be considered). Yet if we become so encumbered to facts that we ignore what those facts mean, then what purpose do the facts really provide. The problems with the positivist position have always been clear, and I’ll conclude with the questions we should all ask when statisticians like Silver come along to tell us objectivity exists and should be our only goal …

Do we really want to live in a world where we only hear about what is, not what can or should be?

What happens to our consideration of things like ideology or even cultural racism, which are all but impossible to measure?

Should we heed the call of Benjamin Disraeli that there are lies, damn lies and statistics – i.e., statistics can lie as well as Fox News pundits?

Who gets to decide what questions are important and whose voices we will hear? What happens to those voices not heard? Isn’t this already a big problem across the media and journalistic worlds?

Is there even such a thing as objectivity?

Nick Silver should be congratulated and revered for predicting all 50 states in the last presidential election, for choosing the Super Bowl winner this year, and for all the money he will make as a great predictor of the future. On the other hand, I’m more interested in those working to change the future than in those who tell me what will happen ceteris paribus. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Arsenal Circus Returns to London (Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0)

I’m too depressed at the moment to recount the destruction that took place at Stamford Bridge today, so I’ll just say that Arsenal was down 1-0 after 5 minutes, 2-0 after 7 and down to ten men and down 3-0 before 20 minutes had passed. And three more Chelsea goals would follow to make it the biggest EPL victory of Mourinho’s career and yet another loss for Wenger in the head to head between these two iconic managers. And thus the Gunner circus that has shown up at Anfield and the Ethiad already this season returned to London for an encore performance that would even leave the happiest clown in tears.

Arsenal this season by the numbers …

Record against top seven this season: 3-4-3 (with 2 of the 3 early in season)
Goals per game vs. top seven: .9
Goals conceded per game vs. top seven: 1.9
Goals conceded on road vs. other top 3: 17
Goals conceded in first 20 minutes of those games: 8
Errors Leading to goals in games against top 3: at least 9
Record against Mourinho in EPL: 0-3-5
Record against Mourinho in other comps: 0-3-0
Overall record against Mourinho: 0-6-5
Composite Score of 3 games versus Chelsea this season: 0-8
Composite Score of 2 games versus Man United: 0-1 (and 1 point)
Goals scored on road against top 7: 5
Goals concede of road against top 7: 18

1)  Ox: I mentioned this last week after the Tottenham game, but Ox still has a lot of maturing to do. In fact, it looks like he might need more time on the wing before he can really take over in the middle of the park. The bulging injury list is the reason he got the start in this game, I assume, but his performance essentially gave the game away in the first 10 minutes, first by giving the ball away for the first goal, then handling the third, which appeared to be going wide leading to the penalty and ejection of Gibbs (though it should have been him). After his assist for the goal against Tottenham, he has been playing far too wildly, giving the ball up in dangerous positions that too often lead to counters. Flamini also had an error that led to a goal, but Ox needs to take much of the blame for letting the game get away so quickly today. The other big problem was …

2)  Giroud: since last summer, fans and critics have been calling for Wenger to buy a second striker, and while he came close on several occasions, including the flirtations with Higuian and Suarez and the last second loss of Demba Ba last summer (as Mourinho didn’t want to strengthen a “rival”), he never actually signed anyone. And so it was left to an overworked Giroud, an underperforming wantaway Bendtner and a young Sanogo to carry the load as Arsenal headed into the second half with their best chance to win the title in a decade. As points started to be left on the pitch – against Southampton, Liverpool, Man United and now Chelsea -- one can’t help but wonder what could have been. Giroud has been playing with what appears to be really tired legs of late. He had no shots on goal against Tottenham last weekend and missed a real opportunity in the 4th minute that should have given the Gunners the lead, after Rosicky had sent him through on goal, and might have led to a very different result. But as is too often the case, he missed that opening and the game went against the Gunners. How many of those missed opportunities over the past two seasons would have been taken by a better striker? We’ll never know, but too many points seem to disappear under his faltering shots and near misses. Wenger will probably end up paying for his continued stubbornness with another title to add to his three.

3)  Wenger & the Big Game: Arsene Wenger hit 1,000 games as manager of Arsenal today and that is to be lauded. He oversaw two doubles, a perfect season and 7 major trophies in all. He led the team through the lean times after the move to the Emirates and has essentially ensured their long term financial solvency as other top teams remain mired in insane debt. He continues to impress by making the Champions League year after year after year. But maybe the real leitmotif of the Wenger reign is the near misses. There were trophies that they just missed in 1999, 2000, 200, 2008, and 2010 (among other opportunities that disappeared). There were the two European Cups they lost in the finals (2000 to Gattasaray on penalties), with the painful 2006 2-1 defeat to Barca putting the final nail in the Invincibles. There was the Carling Cup late disaster against soon to be relegated Birmingham, the second leg loss to Barca in 2011, numerous FA Cup losses to United and Chelsea (once with a 1-0 lead they lost to two Drogba strikes), the pathetic capitulations to Bradford and Blackburn last season in the Capital One and FA Cups respectively, the rather paltry effort against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup this season and awful first leg performances against Bayern the past two seasons and AC Milan the season before (which they came a simply finish from RVP from tying in regulation in the second leg). The reality is that Wenger’s entire career at Arsenal has been defined by near misses and almosts. Sure there are the titles, FA Cups and Invincibles. But nine years without a trophy for a club as big as Arsenal is all but unforgiveable. And the way the Gunners have played against their major competition this year, and in the past several, has been downright appalling, as the numbers above show. Arsenal should win the FA Cup this year to end the drought, one hopes, but they need to find a way to win the big games if they are to take the next step and actually compete for titles and Champions League glory. Is Wenger the man to take us there? Real questions remain regarding the answer to that question …

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Oscar Wilde once said, ““Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.” For a man in California, a simple self-search on Google proved the opposite can sometime be true:  Washington Post – a little vanity led him to recognize himself as a sinner, at least within the eyes of the law. The man found that he was on the California “Most Wanted List” and rather than run, like most sane people would do, he decided to turn himself in. Actually, maybe Mark Twain is more apt here: “It is just like man’s vanity to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perception.” But I think Samuel Johnson has the final word on the matter, though serendipity and not intent: “The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Top Ten Sports Films of All Times?

What are the top ten sports films of all times? Hard to say of course, and it depends on both the criteria you use and your subjective tastes. But here is my list, with some honorable mentions below. 

1.  Bull Durham: the smartest, and funniest baseball film ever made
2.  Rocky: the original inspirational, American dream sports film
3.  Hoosiers: a great underdog story with a heart to boot
4.  Raging Bull: violent, disturbing and artistically brilliant
5.  Field of Dreams: anyone who ever had a complicated relationship with their father, can't help but love it (in spit of themselves)
6.  Pride of the Yankees: the sad, but inspiring story of Lou Gehrig
7.  The Natural: though I much prefer the novel by Malamud, hard to ignore
8.  Vision Quest: sort of cheesy, but great wrestling fare about youth & desire
9.  Caddyshack: greatest one-liners of any 80s film (slightly ahead of Fletch)
10.  The Hustler: a young Newman plays the luckless loser with great aplomb

Honorable Mentions: Slap Shot (silly but funny in parts), The Color of Money (the follow-up to the hustler with a young Tom Cruise), Jerry Maguire (really a love story, but funny, moving and a great buddy-love story), Hoop Dreams (best sports documentary by a country mile), White Men Can’t Jump (among the best sports-oriented scenes in a film), He’s Got Game (Spike Lee joint worthy of consideration), Chariots of Fire (great film with an even greater soundtrack), Bad News Bears (Walter Matheau at his cynical best) and Eight Men Out (the story of the fixed World Series with a great cast). 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: The Mystery of the Disappearing Middle Class

Coming to a neighborhood near you ...

145755 600 MIssing middle class cartoons

Arsenal Complete Rare Triple Over Tottenham

Arsenal has rarely been able to pull off the double against North London bitter rival Tottenham in recent years. This season they have now done one better: winning the home and away ties together with a big FA Cup win. On the cusp of the three games that will go a long way to deciding the title, Arsenal pulled out an essential 1-0 victory over Tottenham today, reaffirming their contention for the EPL title.

The Gunners took the lead less than two minutes after the whistle blew, with a counter where Thomas Rosicky and Ox combined in spectacular fashion. First Ox pushed a 50/50 ball in his own half out to a charging Rosick, who rushed down the right wing before returning the ball to Ox right outside the box. Chamberlain laid it off the Czech, who rifled the ball across goal past a diving Hugo Lloris. And with 88 minutes plus 4 minutes of stoppage time left, that was all the scoring for the day at a somber White Hart Lane.

After the goal and a few spurned chances, two coming from Ox in very dangerous positions, Arsenal settled into a defensive game where they looked more like a Pulis Stoke team. They lost the possession battle 59 to 41 percent, were outshot 17(2) to 7(3) and had less corner kicks. But the wonder duo of Koscielny and Mertesacker were back to their imperial form of earlier in the season and the Gunners got a necessary victory. With Chelsea’s loss, the title race is back on as all the teams in the top four are still playing one another again (except City and Chelsea). Three thoughts ...

1)  Midfield: with the current injury crisis, Arsenal have to be careful to ensure that they can continue to control the midfield. And for large chunks of the game today that was not the case. Without Ramsey, Ozil or Wilshere (and ignoring the loss of Walcott and the disappearing Diaby), I think it is imperative that Flamini play over Arteta in the biggest games -- as his presence and leadership will be key to keeping the ball and stopping counters. Arsenal were lucky to get the clean sheet today, but will need to perform better against the superior offensive prowess of City, Chelsea and even Everton.

2)  Defense: Koscielny and Mertesacker were excellent today, securing another clean sheet and the needed three points. Sagna played brilliantly as well, though he didn’t get up the line often. Gibbs, on the other hand, had a relatively average game and one wonders if Monreal should get the nod against Chelsea next weekend. Kos and Mert will have to be at their absolute best to stop a Chelsea attack that comes at you from multiple angle with multiple threats (particularly from the midfielders).

3)  Title Race: Liverpool had an impressive 3-0 victory over Man United today, ending any hopes that United will finish in the top four and providing more hope to the Anfield faithful that this could be their year. They still have Chelsea and City to play, both at home, and must maintain their form in their other 7 games – but they might be emerging as the prohibitive favorites. Arsenal also have their fate in their own hands, more or less, if they can beat Chelsea on the road next Saturday and then take care of both Swansea and City at home before visiting Everton. If they do pull out maximum points in those encounters, then finish off the season with winnable games against West Ham (H), Hull (A), Newcastle (H), West Brom (H) and Norwich (A) – the title is theirs. Easier said than done. The good news for the Gunners is both City and Chelsea still play Liverpool. Of course, City will be three points in fron if they win their three games in hand, but that assumes they also beat the Gunners and later Liverpool – both on the road. And Chelsea looks a little vulnerable, even as they were on a great run until the surprising loss to Aston Villa Saturday. In any case, it should be the best finish to a season in a while – or at least since City won with two goals in stoppage time two years ago!! 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why is Scientology So Appealing to Hollywood?

Yet another celebrity. Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, is out hawking for Scientology: Salon. Why is the fake, probably corrupt, clearly absurdist religion so popular among the stars of Hollywood and beyond (even Beck is a member). Is it that Hollywood is full of clueless suckers? Or full of egos so big they want to expand their fan base beyond Earth dwellers? Maybe it’s just the most televised covert infomercial of all times …


Three Things: Arsenal Dumped Out of UCL

I don't think it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that Arsenal have been booted out of the UCL yesterday and that City followed today. Arsenal put up a decent fight for stretches of the game, but were often overrun by a rampant Bayern attack. The first finished 0-0 and the game 1-1, after Podolski equalized Bastian Schweinsteiger's opener (54') three minutes later (57'). Three quick thoughts as Arsenal turn their attention to the league and a very winnable FA Cup.

1.  Ozil: Ozil had a comeback of sorts in the FA Cup last weekend, contributing an assist and goal and helping Arsenal move close to their first trophy in nearly a decade. But in the first half yesterday he looked downright awful, completing only 58 percent of his passes, having only 21 touches and looking lost and below average against many of his compatriots. He left at halftime with a hamstring injury and will now be out for at least 3 weeks. Is this good or bad news? With Ramsey back, Ox playing better than anyone else on the team and Rosicky having a decent year, it might be the case that he is not, though I still think the team will miss him in this run of season-deciding fixtures.

2.  Ox: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be upset that he missed the first half of the season, but one wonders if the break won't do him good in the end. He has been playing at an incredibly high level since his return and now looks like one of the better dribblers in the world. He almost created two goals in the first half and was unlucky to end the game empty handed. It is hard to believe he is so young, but is clearly a big part of Arsenal's future. As noted above, the Ozil temporary absence should give him the opportunity to shine against the best in England over the next few weeks.

3. Injury Record: I'd like to repeat a point I have made in the past, backed up by Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen (, that Wenger's training methods are clearly not ideal for keeping players on the field. Just this year, Ox, Podolski, Wilshere, Rosicky, Sagna, Gibbs, Arteta, Walcott, Bendtner, Vermaelen, Sanogo, and now Ozil have all spent time on the sideline (and I think I'm missing a few more). Many of these injuries, like Wilshere's two years ago seem to last substantially longer than first predicted. Something is wrong here and one wonders if anyone can convince Wenger to do something differently (or hire new fitness trainers, at minimum).

In the end, I do think it's good news, as Arsenal can now focus on the league and FA Cup and had little to no chance to win the Champions League this year, but one hopes they can finally get through to at least the quarters next year!

Monday, March 10, 2014

CPAC Hits of the Week

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is in full swing, and while the Internet seems abuzz with analysis of the True Detective finale (which was, to be fair, an interesting and a fitting end to an odd though compelling 8-hours of television viewing) and the mysterious Malaysian disappearing jet, it is worth considering what is happening among the wing-nut branch of the wing-nut party these days. So on to some highlights from the conference and beyond …

Rick Santorum, in a speech Friday afternoon emphasized that Republicans should not talk about the “middle class,” because that was “class-envy leftist language that divides America against themselves. Classes in America? Do we really accept the fact there are classes in America?”

From firebrand Mike Huckabee, who I once remember being a sort of reasonable voice on the right: “If God does not bring a fiery judgment on America, he will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” 

Sarah Palin decided to parody Dr. Seuss for laughs …
I do not like this Uncle Sam. I do not like his healthcare scam.
I do not like these dirty crooks or how they lie and cook the books.
I do not like when Congress steals. I do not like their crony deals.
I do not like this spying, man. I do not like ‘Oh, yes we can.’
I do not like this spending spree. We’re smart, we know there’s nothing free.
I do not like reporters’ smug replies when I complain about their lies.
I do not like this kind of hope, and we won’t take it, nope, nope, nope.

Taking the idea of revisionist history to new heights, James Bowman of the American Spectator wonders why 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen can’t find a story about a nice slaveowner: ““If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr. McQueen does not want us to hear about it.” The very point Gone with the Wind and Birth of the Nation were trying to make, mind you.

The always magnanimous and loving Ann Coulter: ““it’s a cruel and selfish thing…for the upper classes…to refuse to tell poor people ‘keep your knees together before you’re married – that would solve so many of life’s problems.’”

And off the stage, one of the greatest pieces of advice ever offered to those at the bottom of the economic ladder came from Fox Business commentator Todd Wilemon, who in response to being challenged for his erroneous claim that the U.S. has the best healthcare system in the world on The Daily Show, capped his argument with “If you’re poor, just stop being poor.” Of course, the follow-up, “if you’re stupid …” didn’t make it past the editing room floor.

While we’re at it, let’s look back at some of the gems of the past (courtesy of Salon), wondering why conservatives hate sex so much – at least for other people …

“After Hurricane Sandy, we saw the hellish world that the gun prohibitionists see as their utopia.” – Wayne LaPierre, 2013

“Even if an alcoholic is powerless over alcohol once it enters his body, he still makes a choice to drink. And, even if someone is attracted to a person of the same sex, he or she still makes a choice to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same gender.” – Rick Perry, 2008

“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country … It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” – Rick Santorum, 2011

“Probably the most heartwarming experiences I’ve had over the last several days is when naturalized American citizens, who have immigrated here from Germany, Iran, and other countries, they come up to me and they say: Why are we doing what so many have fled from? … [T]hese people who’ve lived under socialist type economies, and totalitarianism, they know where we’re headed if we don’t turn things around.” – Jim DeMint, 2009

“Having a dozen people murdered in a [Aurora] movie theater gets our attention … Ultimately, we don’t have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem. And since we’ve ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military, and public conversations, you know we really shouldn’t act so surprised when all hell breaks loose.” – Mike Huckabee, 2012

“The trend in deregulation, beginning in the early 1980s, is one of the biggest reasons for the sustained economic expansion. I would like to see us continue to deregulate on many fronts, including the financial services industry.” – Pat Toomey, 1999

“A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market …If I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really do believe they have the actual advantage.” – Donald Trump, 1989

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Review: Boardwalk Empire (TV Show)

I’ve been watching the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010-Present) over the past few weeks and a question emerged for me – is this the most tragic show ever on television? There are, of course, thousands of shows I’ve never seen, but among the much smaller subsection I have, nothing compares to the moribund existentialism the show seems to encapsulate each week. There are failed relationships, abuse, rape, prostitution, victims of war and endless, repetitive and graphic death. The Wire and The Sopranos both come to mind as potential competitors, but while the former did show little compunction to eliminate central characters haphazardly, its general tone allowed for shimmers of hope among its rather cynical core. The Sopranos changed television with its riveting look into the heart of a psychopath, though it too offered moments of joy and hope amidst Tony’s struggle to come to grips with his demons. Maybe not surprisingly, the creator of Boardwalk Empire is the very same Terence Winter who was a writer for The Sopranos.

All three series deal with crime, though only Boardwalk Empire takes place in the past. And it is this element of the series that seems most compelling, as a veneer of historical costume drama cloaks the deeper tragedy within. Not only does it capture the music, fashion and popular culture of the time but is based on real characters and historical events, including major political scandals and elections. On a second level, the series is yet the latest example of what I like to call lifestyle porn – essentially shows and movies that feed male desire for power, sex and true friendship (often peppered with gratuitous violence) together with the realization of love in the end. And while those two levels are theoretically compelling, I thought about quitting on it early on. But suddenly, around episode 4 or 5 of the first season, I noticed a deeper statement on existence that existed at that deeper third level. And it is here where the true tragedy of the show exists. For with every glimmer of hope or triumph, every ephemeral moment of happiness a character might find, there is the looming turn that will take that joy away. In some ways, the show becomes a visual instantiation of Jacques Lacan’s warning that we only want something until the moment we get it, at which point we realize it was simply part of the imaginary’s constructed desire and thus unable to make us feel complete.

For those who have never seen the show, it centers around the true-life Atlantic City gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by the excellent Steve Buscemi, who finally gets his chance to shine as the star) and a supporting cast of characters including his brother Eli (Shea Whigham), estranged wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), gangster associates Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a series of compatriots and enemies. Three main side narratives involve a Prohibition Agent turned gangster, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, in the perfect role for this great character actor), a prostitute and showgirl mother Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and a World War I sniper who lost half his face in the war, Richard Harrow (played with incredible empathetic power by Jack Huston). Throughout the four seasons, Nucky always appears on the edge of disaster or death, from the early challenge to his power from Gillian’s son Jimmy (Michael Pitt), to a case mounted by the government, to gang warfare with various competitors to a plot to unseat him that involves his own brother. In the end, Nucky, of course, survives – and generally flourishes.

The big enigma is what to think of this figure, who starts out as a likable though corrupt politicians (the treasurer of Atlantic City) but ends up as a cold-hearted killer and gangster that can rival the biggest mafia bosses of his era. He seems to be hungry for love, friendship and family, but then spurns it whenever the chance arrives. Sometimes he loses that love tragically, as with his showgirl actress or the wife and child he lost before the series even begins (we learn of it in backstory), and sometimes it walks away, as Margaret does on at least one occasion. He turns his back on his own brother and kills a man he essentially raised, but then shows moments of real compassion and humanity. And the same can be said of many of the other characters, who are all shown as flawed and, ultimately, corruptible, but with a desire to give their lives meaning.

And this brings me back to my original question. Because for all the death, destruction and sexual enticements, even the most callous and disaffected person generally turns to dramatic art for some meaning below all the human wreckage. We want to believe that there is more to life than the glimmers of hope and joy we are occasionally provided, that love does conquer all and good does sometimes win out over evil. None of that seems to ever appear in the show. Again, we have characters like Richard that can’t help but elicit the compassion and allegiance of the audience, but he is a cold-hearted killer himself and his deeper ethics almost always misaligned with his actions. Gillian might show moments of care for her son and grandson, but they are too intertwined with her own solipsism and survival instinct. Al Capone might be likable and show his human side with his deaf son, but it is hard to ignore the beast within. And the same can be said of Nucky, who seems to love Margaret and her children and care for his brother and closest allies, but then turns on them whenever it is to his advantage. With all the death, destruction and unhappiness that 48 episodes have provided, it is hard to argue against its position at the top of the perch of tragic TV drama. 

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Arsenal through to FA Cup Semis (4-1 over Everton)

Arsenal snatched the lead early on Mesut Ozil’s 7th minute goal, his first since December 8. Arteta started the attack with a pass to Ox who flicked it cleverly forward to Cazorla in the middle. He charged straight ahead and then threaded the ball between two Everton defenders to Ozil, who coolly finished across goal. Arsenal looked dominant from here, though they failed to find a second and were twice exposed on the counter, partially due to some sloppy passing in the midfield. Then in the 32nd minute, an Everton counter that started with an Arteta blocked shot was pushed forward by Barkely on the right, chased by Flamini, who couldn’t dive in as he normally would because he had already accrued a yellow. Ozil trailed behind but never caught up and the cross found Mirallas at the far corner. He fumbled the ball, but luckily right to Lukaku who finished from a yard out. That is how the half ended and Arsenal must have felt they deserved better (10 corners to zero and more possession and shots).

The second half started with some nice passing, but Sanogo spurned two decent chances to shoot and the opportunities disappeared. Arsenal got two corners in quick succession, but were beaten in the air both times. In between, another head scratching fumble by Vermaelen allowed Lukaku to snatch the ball and head toward goal, giving it to Barkley who shot just high. The pressure was starting to build as the clock marched on and in the 60th minute, Giroud came on for Sanogo. Six minutes later, Ox faked out a tiring Barry and then shot past him on the byline and Barry put out a lazy leg and a penalty was called. Arteta walked up to the spot seemingly completely aware of the moment, then pounded it into the far corner. But Giroud had moved a moment early and he had to rekick. This time he sent a peach to the top right corner, beating Robles who had guessed right. It was 2-1, but with Everton attacking the game was still in the balance.

Then the Arsenal that is arguably among the best teams in the world started to play their game for the first time in weeks. In the 82nd minute, Sagna passed the ball to Rosicky on the right wing, then charged inward receiving a perfect pass from the Czech, making his way to the line inside the box as Giroud shifted into scoring position. Sagna passed the ball to the French striker and he pounded it into the near post. It was 3-1, but Arsenal still weren’t finished. In the 85th a counter started with Cazorla, who stole the ball on the edge of his own box, charged forward and passed off to Rosicky who ran down the right wing. He waited to the ideal moment and sent it across to Ozil who laid it off an easy Giroud finish. It was the Frenchman’s 18th of the season, and capped a fine performance for the much maligned Ozil, who collected a goal and assist.

Arsenal held on for the 4-1 victory and now head into the FA Cup semis against one of the three winners tomorrow (with Man City the least appealing of the three, obviously). So while the Gunners form in the EPL has slipped in recent weeks, together with the disappointing result against Bayern, they have beaten Tottenham, Liverpool and now Everton to get two games from their first trophy in 9 year (in this very competition in 2005). Next up is the daunting task of trying to beat Bayern 2-0 at the Allianz for the second year running, and then score one more in extra time or win a shoot-out. But if they play as they did in the last 20, it is not beyond the realm of belief. Three things …

1)  Sanogo: the young striker is clearly a work in progress, though his potential appears great. His holdup play and passing is decent, but he seems flustered around the box and needs to work on his movement and preparation for shots. He had a nice shot on goal in the first half, but otherwise flubbed several other half chances and needs to improve his decision-making and composure in the final third. But a talent to watch for the future.

2)  Ozil/Giroud: Ozil has been the recipient of an incredible amount of vitriol from journalists and fans for his performance over the past two months, but this was his coming out party, part deux, and the goal and assist should go a long way toward restoring his confidence. His passing was excellent all game and he ran forward with a resolve that has been lacking in recent weeks. Giroud came on late to score two goals, and almost a hat trick in the end, and it was a much needed performance for a player who has appeared tired in recent games. Let’s hope he takes this form into the Bayern game and then the next three key matches in the EPL.

3)  Defense/Errors/Wilshere: Many fans will disagree with me, but the combination of Arteta and Wilshere has not reaped positive results in recent weeks and Arsenal seemed substantially more fluid with the young Englishman absent. While he has clear talent, I believe he is one of the most overrated players in England at the moment. With him out for six weeks, and Ramsey ready to return next week, the one issue that appears to have emerged in recent games is a dramatic increase in errors from the midfield creating dangerous counters and less defensive organization. The inclusion of Vermaelen, who just isn’t the player he was two seasons ago, played a role, but Arsenal could easily have found themselves down 3-1, if Everton had finished two other good opportunities on counters started by Arsenal errors. Hopefully, the energy of Ramsey will bring Arsenal back to their earlier season defensive form. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Framing Abortion

Abortion just won’t go away as a wedge issue. A surprising new study from the Guttmacher Institute (Press Release), however, found that abortions are at their lowest level since 1973. This would appear to be good news for pro-lifers amd something they would broadcast across their talking heads print, television and Internet network. But they are largely ignoring the report. Why? Because it doesn’t fit their frame and actually challenges several of their long-held, central tenets.

What did the report find? The main finding is that new, more restrictive laws had very little impact on this decline and that it instead appears related to economic decline and improved birth control methods. The five major findings were as follows: 1. A notable drop in rates in several states, including California, New York and New Jersey, that have not enacted new restrictions. 2. Rates dropped in all regions of the country, not merely those in the Midwest and South where new regulations have passed. 3. The decline has been underway since 2008, even though the new laws weren’t passed until 2011. 4. The decrease in abortion has been coupled with a decrease in the birth rate, suggesting that fewer women are getting pregnant in the first place. 5. An increase in the number of low-income and poor women who use long-acting methods of birth control, often provided by pubicly funded birth-control services.

In 2011, the US abortion rate reached its lowest level since 1973

So the new laws, much like the Death Penalty, don’t appear to be having the deterrent effect that conservatives want to believe. Poor and working class women are actually making informed choices and taking advantage of government-sponsored programs to better protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies. And women in general appear less interested in reproduction, at least at the mopment. In fact, it appears that the result of some of these new restrictions is to push the very type of abortions most reviled by pro-lifers (late term). Why? Because there restrictions force women to wait before they can get the procedure.

In the end, the data provides yet another case where government intervention appears to have positive social outcomes – in reduced unwanted pregnancies and reducing the abortion rate. But conservatives want to continue their war on women’s bodies and on sex in general by fighting against not only abortions but the very thing that could dramatically reduce them – reliable birth control available at reasonable cost to all women. It is a moral position supported only by the most repressive notions of our deeper desires and the role women play in male desire. When I read about these debates, a question always comes to mind that I never hear anywhere else – has there ever been a pharmacist in the last ten years that pushed his store to refuse to sell condoms? Are any of the right-wing wingnuts railing against easy access to them? Hmm, I wonder why? 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

W.H. Auden, "The Cave of Making"

Three excerpts from Auden's "The Cave of Making." The first two relate to poetry, though in some ways the second verse would be sound advice for all artists. 

After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background-noise for study
or hung as status-trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored. 

God may reduce you
on Judgement Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.

The final one captures something about life in the wake of 20th century totalitarianism, that still seems to ring true today ...

More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan't, not since Stalin
and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we 
know that, subjectively,
all is possible.

Monday, March 03, 2014

New Rule: Billionaire Whining

I have been writing on occasion about the way victimhood has been used by the right for at least the past 30 years, if not longer. This has become particularly absurd with the one percenters, who feel themselves victims (psychologically, it appears) of all the negative press they are accumulating. Here Bill Maher takes on the various groups who scream for self-reliance from government while crying for their own victimhood, at the hands of women, gays, welfare recipients, affirmative action, gun control fanatics and, of course, those ungrateful minimum wage workers ...

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Do Cry for Me, Arsene Wenger! (Stoke 1 Arsenal 0)

Arsenal has held firm against the doubters all the way through to the New Year and into February. And even though there were setbacks at Liverpool, the draw with United and the 2-0 disaster at home against Bayern in the UCL, they still sat just a point below Chelsea coming into their most important March in several years (or at least since that second leg lead they blew at Barcelona in 2011). First they needed to take care of business against Sunderland (done) and then Stoke, before the title-deciding games to come. But something happened on the way to those deciders – the Gunners forgot to show up at the Brittania and paid the price.

Arsenal played the most inept first half of the season so far, though they remained strong on the defensive end until a questionable penalty for hand ball against Koscielny gave Stoke the lead and ultimately the game. In the first half, Giroud had a header from a tough angle that was easily saved by Begavich, Podolski shot wide in on goal from the left and Cazorla shot right at Begavich. And that was about it. At the end of the half, after one poor pass after another under the constant pressure of a well-organized Stoke (particularly from Wilshere and Arteta, who were really off their games), the home team actually had the possession advantage 51-49%.

The second half started with a little more flair for the Gunners, though they were creating almost no chances. And then after a few excellent saves from Szczesny on an increasingly menacing counterattacking Stoke, the penalty call came in the 75th minute. It was dispatched by Jonathon Walters and suddenly Arsenal were in trouble. Wenger had already brought on Ozil for Podolski in the 66th and Ox for Rosicky in the 74th. Ox brought the pace and flair missing from the game the entire time and set up Giroud with a good chance for an equalizer, after cutting in an around the defense on the right edge. Giroud flubbed the shot and the chance was gone. In the 81st Sanogo came in for Wilshere and was provided with an even more gild-edged chance to score from the same move by Ox, though he sent the ball horribly over after leaning back before shooting. And that was it.

Three points gone, falling four behind Chelsea and moving to third place (and will probably be fourth once Man City plays their two games in hand). And the season teeters on the edge of disappointment once again. It is too early to write the Gunners off, as they will play City and Chelsea this month and could thus catapult back to the top, but if this is the level of effort they are going to provide, it could be the second half collapse Gooners had become accustomed to until they did the opposite tango the past two years. Three quick thoughts from the game …

1)  Wenger: Wenger has to take much of the blame here, in my estimation. It was a weird lineup he introduced and several attempts to play Wilshere and Arteta against tougher teams have not gone well. If Flamini was healthy, I would have much preferred him in the game. Both Wilshere and Arteta seemed cowed by the Stoke pressure and physicality and missed pass after pass. Cazorla played farther further alongside Podolski, but neither was really in the game much and Rosicky was largely ineffective as well. It was also clear that Giroud was either tired, still thinking about his publicity/relationship troubled or just not into the game, and should have been subbed out by the 60th minute to me. The fact that he continued to play until the end made little sense to me and provides further proof that not picking up a striker is costing us too many points in the second half (I would argue two against Manchester United, three here and two against Southampton). Wenger’s stubbornness has cost Arsenal for years and the thought of another trophyless season and three more years for the Frenchman is really turning my stomach.

2)  Giroud: while the Frenchman started scoring again in the past few games he really looked off today and should have been subbed out, as I mentioned above. His first touch was too heavy, he kept trying to pass the ball blindly into empty spaces (to no effect), he made no good runs on goal (0 offsides for the game for the Gunners – though Stoke was clearly sitting back) and was weak on his shots and hold up play in general. Al l the other top clubs in Europe have at least two quality strikers – even Tottenham does. Why Wenger thinks he can continue to play with one is beyond me. It is not Giroud’s fault, but every player needs the occasional rest – particularly on the cusp of a feast of big games in the next month.

3)  Trophy Hunting: when a team lacks players who have won trophies in the past, it can have a truly deleterious effect on the present. Sure teams rise from the ashes, as United, Chelsea and others have in the past, but they were smart enough to mix seasoned, winning talent with the young and hungry. Arsenal have a quality team from front to back, but also no recent record of winning anything … unless you count fourth place as a trophy. This summer it might be imperative to not only bring in another defender and striker but also someone who has experienced winning trophies in the past.

It is not hopeless yet, and an FA Cup victory and top three finish would still suffice for me this year, but it’s time for the Gunners to find the form that had them looking one step below the very best in Europe. It truly is now or never.