Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yet Another Reason the Death Penalty Should Forever Die

I have occasionally written on my blog about the death penalty and my strong conviction that it should be forever expunged from American life. I have also written here and in one of my books about why I think so many Americans still support this anachronistic and flawed system of the past, arguably relating among other things to our obsession with violent redemption as the dominant visual metaphor for justice itself. The arguments against the continued used of this cruel and unusual punishment are many including 1. It costs substantially more than interning a murderer for life, 2. That cruel and unusual argument I just made, backed by recent research that further solidifies this argument, 3. The reality that innocent people have been convicted and even put to death by the system, 4. The distrust of government should make us seriously distrust its ability to determine who should live and die, 5. If murder is wrong, why is the state-sanctioned variety okay? and 6. The simple argument that it is not a deterrent to murder, and has never been proven to be one empirically.

Now we can add another, thanks to this fascinating article from firedoglake. It recounts the jury selection process and how important it is in a capital trial. And given the details included and the fundamental argument that a trial is largely decided before it even begins, one has to wonder if the resources of the state against the usually poor, and often black, men facing these trials doesn’t put the final nail in the coffin of this barbaric practice?

Three Things: Arsenal Win at West Ham 2-1

Arsenal were outplayed for large stretches of a back and forth affair with West Ham but were efficient with their chances in the first half (though not the second) and held on for the second time in three days, winning 2-1 at Upton Park. It was a heartening end to the first half of the season and the year, pushing Arsenal above West Ham and into fifth place, only a -6 goal difference away from fourth with a showdown at Southampton Friday. Three quick thoughts:

1. Cazorla Cunning Clicks Again: Cazorla has really come back into form and after Sanchez fluffed on a penalty against QPR two days earlier, it was the diminutive Spaniard who stepped up and ensured that the penalty he elicited would translate into a goal (his fourth in the last five). A few minutes later, Sanchez crossed perfectly to a charging Welbeck, who made no mistake giving the Gunners a 2-0 halftime lead against the run of play. West Ham had a number of chances and an early goal disallowed, rightfully, for passive offsides, but goals are what count in the end. Arsenal should have had a third and maybe even fourth, but some good goalkeeping and missed chances kept them on the double.

2. Szczesny, Mertesacker and the Defense: it was good to see Koscielny back on the pitch and though the Gunners defense bended pretty consistency, it was an unlucky deflection off of a poorly positioned Debuchy that led to the only West Ham goal. It was clear to see the increased confidence of Mertesacker, who appears to have some sort of mental block that only allows him to play well when his French partner in crime is on the pitch (insert your own inappropriate WWII joke here). But Szczesny was solid throughout and Arsenal did hold on for all three points for the second game running, after far too many late capitulations this year (including at Liverpool a seemingly long, three-pints before 11 a.m. week ago).

3. Good Day at the Office: West Ham can be proud of their effort and feel aggrieved to have not at least split the spoils, but this is a team that could continue to hang around near the top, with great pace and power going forward and a reasonably solid defense. But Arsenal got all three points on a day when Chelsea, Southampton, Manchester United, Tottenham and Man City (up 2 at the break to bottom dwelling Burnley, before giving both back) all drew. In a statistical anomaly I just noticed, only 7 teams in the league have a positive goal difference, with Chelsea at +27 on top, City only three behind and then a rather large drop to the surprising +17 for a stingy Southampton. Arsenal stand at +11, the result of conceding so many goals when ahead and so many draws (6 already). But a win against the Saints on the road would push them back into that fourth spot, even as that is far from a given this season. And at the time of posting this article, Everton have again given up a lead, this time against Newcastle on the road (though there is still 45 minutes to play). COYG!

Note: Everton blew the game in the end and Newcastle won, though rumours are circling that Alan Pardew will be leaving for Crystal Palace anyway.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Esquire Under-35 World Changers Includes Kim Kardashian

The old notion that youth is wasted on the young appears to be losing resonance in the contemporary world, where the young are succeeding across the cultural, political and particularly economic landscape. And so it makes sense for Esquire to finish the year with a 37 Under 35 “Who Are Reshaping the World” list. Among those included are Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, online magazine Rookie founder and editor Tavi Gevinson (she is 18 and also acts), technological polyglot Sean Parker (Napster, Facebook, etc.), leaker Edward Snowden, Zuckerberg (of course), Jordi Muñoz who started the biggest commercial drone company in the U.S. at 23 and the highest paid black female musician of all times (Beyonce). These young people all seem worthy of praise for their incredible achievements and should serve as an inspiration to those leaving college with few prospects for a decent paying “regular” job.

But what about Kim Kardashian, arguably the worst, most undeserving celebrity in the entire world? Well, let’s see – she has a large tuckus, made a sex tape, has a lawyer father that helped O.J. get away with murder, had the most expensive wedding in history (that turned out to be a huge publicity stunt), was forgiven by her adoring fans, garnered six million viewers for her Keeping Up with the Kardasians wedding special as she tied the knot again, this time with Kanye, and started a mobile app “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” that is expected to make $200 million. Sure she is a great self-promoter that has taken her wealth to become famous and earn a bunch more wealth, but does that make her someone that is “reshaping the world,” or simply someone that is taking advantage of our celebrity-obsessed, spectacle-tinted culture to further undermine the happiness of the average human being on the planet (by setting up absurd expectations and/or making your own life seem trivial by comparison)? I’ll leave that for you to decide …

Friday, December 26, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal Hold on to Beat QPR 2-1

Arsenal have a good record against QPR and QPR are absolutely abject on the road this season, so it was little surprise that the Gunners found themselves up 1-0 at halftime. In fact, it probably should have been more, given a failed 8th minute penalty by Alexis Sanchez, who made up for that by scoring the first goal of the game in the 37th minute (on a header from a fine Gibbs cross). But Arsenal spurned further chances and given the reality that they have dropped 11 points already this season from winning positions (including last weekend against Liverpool, after only 9 all last season), the necessity of a second goal seemed rather acute.

The second half began much like the first, with Arsenal surging forward and creating chances on a regular basis, though none that were clear-cut. But then in the 53rd minute, Giroud lost his head, figuratively and literally. After being pushed in the black by QPR defender Nedum Onuaha when he was a step from being in on goal (and thus slammed into GK Green) he rushed up to Onuaha and head-butted him lightly right in front of ref. The inevitable red card followed quickly and Giroud will now miss three important games in this busy holiday season. It was a bone-headed move (couldn’t help myself) that could have easily cost Arsenal, but for the lackluster effort QPR was putting forth until the final 10 minutes of the game.

In fact, Arsenal still had 62 percent possession for the 20 minutes after that red card. Halfway through, they also had their second goal, as Sanchez barreled past five or six QPR defenders before laying off a perfect pass for the charging Rosicky, who got a lucky deflection to score his first goal of the season. It looked like job done, until a questionable penalty was given against Debuchy in the 78th minute, finished coolly by the in-form striker Charlie Austin. And so Arsenal had to defend for dear life, with Flamini saving the day at the strike of regular time. Arsenal did hold on for all three points, though, and have a good chance to reclaim 4th place if they can beat West Ham and Southampton lose or draw against Chelsea Sunday. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Sanchez the Savior: there is little question any longer that Alexis Sanchez is the best signing Wenger has made since the just-retired Henry. He already has 10 league goals (15 in all competitions) and 6 assists and the way he runs around the field, pressures and dribbles is truly something to behold and it must be inspiring to the team. He is also the only player scoring with any consistency so far this term.

2. Welbeck Withering: on the other hand is Danny Welbeck, a player who many were concerned was not a great finisher, even as he has the speed and tools to become an excellent player. That is borne out by the statistics (except maybe with England this year), as he now has only 1 goal in his last 10 appearances in the league and 3 in his last 24, counting his time at Manchester United. True he has been shuttled back out to the wing with Giroud’s return, but he really deserved that after missing far too many good chances since the switch. I also find his holdup play and passing suspect at times, though he did contribute to the opening goal. He will probably get his chance through the middle again in the next three, unless Sanchez moves into that spot with Walcott ready to play again. By the way, Giroud has been playing excellently since his return and will be missed.

3. Corner Conundrum: I mentioned in a post two games ago how abject the Gunners have been on corners this year. Watching the game today, it was again the case that far too many never get past the first defender. This appears to be largely the fault of Sanchez, as Cazorla lofted one perfectly toward the middle of the box when given the chance. It is time to take those duties away from Sanchez and let Cazorla or Walcott, upon his return, try to more consistently get in quality balls that give Mertesacker, Giroud and Welbeck a chance to score.

In the end it was job done for the Gunners, who now play West Ham and Southampton on the road in a week, hoping to reclaim the fourth spot and some momentum, before home games against Hull and Stoke and a trip to Man City on the 18th of January. QPR, on the other hand, are going to have to pick up some points on the road this season, and hope Austin stays in goal scoring form, or they could be facing the drop yet again. COYG!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Public Easily Swayed by Framing of Healthcare Debate

A fascinating poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that information and framing play a huge rule in support for and opposition to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). For example, support for the “individual mandate,” or requirement that all Americans buy health insurance is one of the least popular measures within the bill (only garnering 35 percent support). But when respondents learn that most Americans are already covered by employer-sponsored plans, that support swells to 62 percent. On the other hand, if the question is framed within the context of people being forced to purchase insurance “they find too expensive or don’t want,” the opposition rises from 64 to 79 percent. Not surprisingly, a year into the Act, a majority of Americans also are unaware of many of its provisions (particularly those who still don’t have insurance). As just two examples, nearly 40 percent of respondents believe it provides financial support for illegal immigrants to get insurance (it doesn’t) and more than 40 percent still believe in the absurdly-fictional “death panels.”

It is but the latest example of how a society that pays more attention to the lives of complete strangers than their representatives has allowed the country to be taken over by corporate and elite interests. Cynicism is a disease that eats at the very fabric of democracy, feeding on ignorance and a lack of hope. Many mistake this cynicism for apathy, claiming people just don’t care anymore. But I don’t believe that. I think what has happened instead is that people across the political spectrum have become so disillusioned by the sense that our democracy is broken that they largely or completely disengage from the process, only to act every two to four years based on limited and often flawed information. The first step in overcoming this pandemic of cynicism is to restore that hope and find ways to frame politics and difficult policy issues in ways that the public can understand and that can garner support. If progressives continue their snarky and elitist panning of all those that disagree with them instead, they are essentially serving the very forces they claim to oppose.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

By any reasonable measure, this has been a pretty bad year for Hollywood. One could argue this has been the perennial argument for many moons now, but the best of last year seem to trump the best of this year by a long shot. Most troubling is the lackluster slate of films for the busy Holiday season, usually packed with a cornucopia of Oscar-hungry, art house inspired offerings. One film that does stand out from the crowd, however, is The Imitation Game, a British-U.S. historical film that should remind the industry that quality doesn’t necessarily mean failure (while production costs are unavailable, the film has already made $22 million worldwide).

The movie follows the exploits of renowned British mathematician, logician and cryptographer Alan Turing, focusing primarily on the period during WWII when he and a small team of geniuses built the machine that would crack the German Enigma and ultimately lead to the end of the war. Turing is played by the consistently excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, again engaging a complex, anti-social genius as he has as a modernized Sherlock Holmes, a rebooted Khan in Star Trek and a young MI-5 agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast of British stars including Keira Knightly as Turing’s confidant Joan Clarke, Downton Abbey’s Allen Leach as Soviet spy John Cairncross, Matthew Goode (A Single Man, Watchmen, Brideshead Revisited, Imagine Me & You) as the affable rival/ally and Mark Strong as the secretive leader of the project.

The story is told non-chronologically in three interchanging periods of Turing’s life, as a schoolboy in love with a young man named Christopher, a year before his suicide when he is charged with indecency (for homosexual sex) and as he is hired and ultimately succeeds in building the machine that many claim single-handedly cut two years off the war and saved in the proximity of 14 million lives. And it is this multilayered narrative device that lies at the heart of the genius of the film. For it is not just an inspiring tale of triumph against great odds, a biopic of a mercurial, and irascible genius or a political film against homophobia – it is all three wrapped into one. On top of that, it asks fascinating questions about the importance of mathematics and statistics to a modern world where calculations often affect the lives of millions without any democratic processes or even accountability to the masses (no one knew about the Engima codebreaking story for almost 60 years).

Each of these stories is told deftly without the saccharine-drenched ingratiation we have become accustomed to since Hollywood first discovered the importance of the close-up and reaction shot or the base humor that seems to stand in as the only alternative to schadenfreude these days. Serious questions are asked about the costs of withholding the secret information they attain each day, while recognizing that the strategic use of that information ultimately saved millions of lives. Questions are also asked of the military and secret services, with the latter generally shown in a negative light (which does parallel the Hollywood treatment of most institutions as inept and ineffective). Turing himself is not left untarnished by his reputation as a difficult anti-social that treated others terribly, while simultaneously finding the humanity in his struggle against the demons of his sexual desires being illegal and his anti-social mentality causing him to essentially die lonely and in pain. Knightly, in particular, is impressive as the woman who helps him overcome the demons to solve the enigma and learn to play well with others, seemingly having left behind her tendency toward cloying and emotive performances behind.

Turning was perhaps most famous for building the first “computer” and establishing the modern foundation of the idea of artificial intelligence before everyone learned of his work against Enigma. And it is this legacy that will probably make him one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, whose work could well define the next two centuries and beyond. This film doesn’t sit at those heights, but it is a welcome diversion that shows that quality films still can be made about important topics without the need for ingratiating emotional manipulation or endless explosions. Rating: A

Monday, December 22, 2014

Arsenal Blow Lead Again (Draw 2-2 With Liverpool)

Arsenal came into the game against Liverpool on the back of some impressive results, including the 4-1 thumping of a previously hot Newcastle. But Wenger’s record against the traditional Top 4 left many fans, including me, nervous, and the display for most of the first half seemed to justify those concerns. The squad was overrun in the midfield, exposed at the back and unable to string together more than three or four passes at a time. But they held firm until the 45th minute, when a poor back pass from Giroud led to a Coutinho opener. Then two minutes later Debuchy headed in a seemingly unlikely equalizer bolstering the Gunners for the second half.

Liverpool continued to dominate possession (64 percent), but Arsenal were dangerous on the counter. And in the 64th minute, a wonderful cutback from an increasingly in form Cazorla was finished strongly by Giroud. The Gunners had the lead but Liverpool continued to threaten their goal. Then Fabio Borini (remember him?) was sent off for a second yellow, giving Arsenal the lead and an additional man. But as I was saying to my friends at the pub, the Gunners needed a third to seal the game. And even a man up and in the 7th minute of extra time, Martin Skrtel towered over the defense and headed in the equalizer without even being challenged. In fact, the increasingly beguiling Per Mertesacker appeared to duck out of the way of the ball, allowing it to go in. So another two points dropped in a season that is becoming consumed by draws.

Rather than my usual three points or “by the numbers,” I thought I would think a little bit about why they lost the two points and were outplayed for most of the contest. From the onset, Arsenal was chasing the game, with Ox and Cazorla okay going forward (though not great) but unable to provide any challenge to a surprisingly fluid Liverpool passing attack. Flamini had to deputize just behind them and was not fully up to the task, particularly after an early yellow and the back four seemed to sit back far too often, failing to challenge balls in and around the box (a problem for me all season). Up front, the combination of Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez were obviously great against Newcastle, but they seemed to be off all day, with Sanchez largely anonymous (except for the free kick he won and the resultant free kick that ultimately ended up in the Liverpool goal) and Welbeck and Giroud both failing to hold the ball up well or link up play. Overall, it appeared that Arsenal needed more midfield cover, someone to maybe replace Welbeck, who didn’t do much all game. The problem? With all the injuries there wasn’t an obvious choice. Wenger did bring on Coquelin for the second time this season late, but maybe that should have happened a little earlier, as Wenger watched the first half unfold.

In the back, Chambers was less than impressive yesterday, but Mertesacker is the real and growing enigma (or is it carcinoma?). He seems lost when he plays without Koscielny, who is now out with a calf problem, and just generally seems weak and out of position more than usual. It looked like he lost his footing on the equalizer, but then appeared to snap his head away from the ball, rather than blocking it, thus allowing not only a free header but a free path through. Gibbs was okay, as was Debuchy, but neither challenged the players around the box with sufficient vigor and the lack of a real DM meant that it was not terribly surprising to read that Liverpool had 27 shots (and 10 on target; to 7(3) for the Gunners)! That is unacceptable defending and cannot be blamed exclusively on the injuries. One wonders, in fact, why Bellerin didn’t get the start given how impressive he was in the last game, while Chambers has regressed a little in recent weeks?

In any case, yet another game against a rival that seemed vulnerable only for the Gunners to lose points. First it was all three against a injury-plagued United that we outplayed and then two against a Liverpool team that suddenly played their best game of the season, as many note, though not why that might be the case (maybe that Arsenal can’t defend?). Chelsea are already two up on Stoke and thus it looks like the Gunners will be 15 points behind the leaders after 17 games. They currently sit in sixth place, tied with Tottenham, and four points behind West Ham. While Wenger will probably steer them back into the Top Four with wins against the bottom 12 or 14, assisted by a couple of Winter signings that should have been made four months earlier, is that really enough to keep his job? The only good news, and it is worth noting, is that this team can beat anyone in the world on their best days (probably by outscoring them) and have a good shot at the final 8 of the UCL. After that, the injured should have returned and who knows?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dick is a Dick (Liz the Devil); Surprise, Surprise!

I find it amusing when liberals become apoplectic after the latest detestable Dick Cheney statement. It wasn’t so funny when he was essentially running the White House, but now that he is gone, does anyone take this latest incarnation of the devil seriously? His latest crime? Claiming that capturing the guilty implicitly justifies incorrectly torturing or even killing the innocent. Don’t believe me? Well, from the horse’s ass’ mouth itself (Daily Kos) :

CHUCK TODD: Let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.

DICK CHENEY: --right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. [...] I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.

CHUCK TODD: 25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are-- [...]

CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.

Dick Cheney is arguably one of the worst human beings to live since World War II, and certainly among the worst Americans. The question that we should ask is why the media continues to take his opinion so seriously, beyond Fox. And while we’re on the topic of evil, it is certainly interesting to see Fox already get involved in the Elizabeth Warren potential campaign for President. Fox Business host Melissa Francis claimed that Wall Street would devote all its available resources to quash a Warren run because bankers and traders think she is “actually the devil.” To make sure we weren’t confused, she went on to state, ““I mean, without question, Elizabeth Warren is the devil. So, they’re going to put any money they have behind Hillary Clinton, which should be a help.” (Raw Story). So caring about, like, the people and questioning the greed that has hurt so many over the past decade or three makes one the devil? I am beginning to think we live in some bizarro alternate universe and physicists simply forgot to mention it to us.

And speaking of evil, how pathetic is it that Sony pulled the release of the Interview, essentially allowing North Korea and cyberterrorists to win? I don’t think any of us will really be missing anything by having to rent (or simply ignore) the latest dumb, self-congratulatory Seth Rogen comedy (with perennial idiot savant (minus the savant) James Franco) to come out of Hollywood, but it is a dangerous and troubling precedent to set. Now Sony is questioning their own decision, but I think it’s too late.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Elizabeth Warren Has a Long Mountain to Climb

Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton looked like a lock for the Democratic Presidential nomination. After eight years of Bush, it also looked likely she might have a relatively smooth route to the White House, though any Clinton would be wary of taking anything for granted. But then an upstart Senator from Illinois came along and stole her thunder and chance at history; while making some of his own along the way.

So almost a decade later Hillary finds herself back in the same position more or less, with a strong hold on the nomination and a strong chance of beating out anyone the GOP can muster – though Jeb Bush might give her pause. But many progressives remember Clinton's support for the Iraq War, her positions to the right of her husband (who himself disappointed us on a host of issues from media consolidation and banking deregulation to welfare reform and the criminalization of drug use (aka being a black or brown youth)) and can’t help but notice that she would be one of the eldest Presidents entering office in history. And so enter Elizabeth Warren, a Senator who is one of the few truly progressive voice left in a body that was established to check the will of the people whenever they pushed the elites too hard for rights or equality.

Warren speaks the language of progressives but in a manner that generally quashes the elitism and firebrand populism of the past and includes a measured and intellectual quality that far too many progressives lack (at least since the passing of Wellstone). And so some progressives want her to challenge Clinton for the nomination, at minimum pushing her to the left as Nader did with Gore in 2000. But does she have a chance to win the nomination against such a popular brand? Will her intelligence and liberalism get in the way of a message that far more people in the country agree with than the mainstream media leads many to believe? Early polls seem to indicate the answer is no (TNR), though I think she would certainly have a chance to beat Clinton if she went after her aggressively (and indirectly). We shall have to wait and see …

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal 4 Newcastle 1

Newcastle visited the Emirates today having won seven of their last nine games in all competitions (with a draw in one of the remaining two), including scalps of Liverpool (1-0), Man City (2-0, in the Capital One Cup), Tottenham (2-1) and, of course, Chelsea (2-1) last weekend. Arsenal, on the other hand, continued their up and down season with a 3-2 loss to Stoke before their midweek 4-1 victory over Galatasaray. Fans could not be blamed for being a little nervous, particularly given the uneven form at home this season.

And yet Arsenal started brightly, with the front three of Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez posing a consistent threat. That threat paid off in the 15th minute, when a wonderful dribble and cross from Sanchez was met by Giroud with a towering header into the far corner. It should have been 2-0 a few minutes later, as Welbeck got in on the right and scored a beautiful goal from an acute angle, only to have it waved off for a ghost foul. Welbeck was in again after a lovely Sanchez chip, but sent it just wide. And then Newcastle had a wonderful chance of their own in the 34th minute, as a Gouffran header was saved on the line by Szczesny. Arsenal thus went into the half 1-0 up, having spurned a few chances to make it two, but happy the ninth back line formation of the season (with Debuchy deputizing next to Mertesacker in the center for the first time in his career, and Gibbs and Bellerin sandwiching them) held firm against a relatively hot team.

The second half started with some clumsy play by Arsenal, sending crosses behind their targets, missing passes and giving the ball away. But in the 54th minute, Cazorla made it two in two with his first goal from open play in 29 games. It started with a Gibbs pass forward to Sanchez, who slotted it beautifully into a charging Cazorla. He bundled the ball after slipping, settled it and then chipped it over the Newcastle third string GK from a tight angle (Emiliano Martinez). Three minutes later, Giroud got his second on a great finish in close, following a marauding run from Ox and pitch-perfect cross from Bellerin (3-0).

But then, in the 63rd minute, Newcastle got back in it after a free kick was headed in by Perez (with some terrible defending by Arsenal not covering the closest man to the ball). It brought back memories of the “Nightmare after Christmas” when Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead to this same Newcastle three years earlier. Cazorla almost got it back to a three-goal lead 30 seconds later, with a just-wide shot that should have been better. Flamini and Gibbs came close within the next six minutes or so minutes as Newcastle continued to struggle to create good chances. In the 73rd minute, Podolski came on for Giroud, in his seventh sub appearance of the season, after scoring twice on Tuesday in his first 90-minute game I can remember with Arsenal. More half chances followed for both teams but no goals.

In the 86th minute, Wenger made a surprise move, taking off Sanchez for the more defense-minded Coquelin (called back early from his loan because of all the injuries). Cazorla sent a beautiful pass to Welbeck in the box moments later and Arsenal had their second penalty in two league games. Cazorla grabbed the ball and scored his third goal in his last two, with a nice Panenka, as the hapless Martinez dove right. And then the third Arsenal sub came on in the 90th, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles making his EPL debut for Ox. And so it ended 4-1 Arsenal, for the second game running.

1. Voodoo Curse?: while the victory was deserved and timely, one has to start wondering if there is a hex on Arsenal this year, as yet another player went down this week – the suddenly super hot Aaron Ramsey, who will be out three to four weeks. He is added to the list that includes Ozil (hopefully back in early January), Wilshere (whose career appears to be in danger of collapsing at this point – out for another long spell after surgery on his ankle), Koscielny (a supposedly minor achilles injury that is starting to look anything but minor, though he has added a calf knock as well), Arteta (calf, already out three weeks), Monreal (foot), Theo Walcott (who picked up a groin injury five weeks ago right after coming back and is starting to train again), Rosicky (thigh), Ospina (back soon), Gnarby (Knee), but not Diaby (not sure where the hell he is these days). And the refs haven’t been helping lately, with the two rather soft fouls on Chambers meaning the Gunners had to complete the comeback against Stoke with 10 men (which they obviously didn’t) and then a few head scratchers today including what should have been a 2-0 lead when Welbeck scored in the first half. Giroud and Debuchy are back though, and with Ozil and Walcott weeks away, along with the Winter Transfer Window, one hopes the second half goes a little more smoothly.

2. Bellerin/Chambers/Monreal/Debuchy: I, among many, have been consistently critical of Wenger for not getting more defensive cover before the summer window closed, criticism that was quickly shown to be depressingly accurate. Yet looking at what Wenger has done to deal with the injuries, further criticism can certainly be meted out. Among the most obvious question is why Monreal, rather than Chambers, played through the middle for long stretches of the period when Debuchy and Koscielny were both out? Bellerin was impressive on both ends of the pitch today and was available to play right back in many of those games, which could have moved Chambers to his more natural role as CB and Monreal and or Gibbs out right. One can think particularly of the Swansea game, where Chambers was being burned down the right most of the game, leading to the 2-1, come from behind, loss. Chambers has also been piling up cards and while the two last weekend were soft, could benefit from playing through the middle, rather than on the right. Yet another question to ask Wenger.

3. Wenger’s Bold Play: on the other hand, one should give credit where credit is due, and I thought it was a bold move to play Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez up top, with only Cazorla and Ox to provide cover in front of Flamini and the back four. Putting all 5’10 of Debuchy at Center Half was also a somewhat bold move, though few alternatives existed with Kos and Monreal out and Chambers suspended for the game. It is clear that the Gunners are starting to play smooth attacking football again, having scored 10 goals in the last two and a half games. But they were lucky not to concede two or three today and really need to shore up the defensive side of the pitch if they are to ensure a top four finish and fight for a repeat FA Cup victory (the only realistic silverware available this season, I think).

Overall, Arsenal have been playing good football since the unlucky loss to United on November 22, except for the first half against Stoke last Saturday. While I think serious questions can still be asked of Wenger, he appears to be settling the squad a bit and getting them to perform well through an endless list of injuries. Next Sunday they play a struggling Liverpool at Anfield before returning home for QPR and then back away against an impressive West Ham team. Win those three games, though, and the Gunners should be closing in or within the Top 4. They currently sit sixth, equal with fifth place Southampton on points (thought 3 goals behind on GD) and only two points behind that same West Ham they will meet on the 28th. COYG!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything has received rave reviews from critics (81% on Rotten Tomato), has been well-received by audiences (84% of RT) with $13.6 million in box office receipts so far and just received four Golden Globe Award nominations (to go with 7 other nominations and 3 wins already). It follows the extraordinary story of one of most famous living scientists – the theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawkins – and his courtship and marriage to Jane Wilde, his growing fame and his triumphant attitude in the face of heartbreaking physical travails. Given that both of the main characters are still alive, this might be the beginning of the problem with the film for me.

To start, it is an extraordinary acting performance by Eddie Redmayne, who has already impressed in My Week with Marilyn (2011), Good Shepherd (2006), Like Minds (2006) and on the London stage. He seems to be channeling Hawkins from one moment to the next, contorting his body as it begins to fail him while finding a way to communicate his humanity and brilliance in the process. And Felicia Jones is also impressive as the wife struggling to keep her love alive as her husband’s body collapses before her. The story starts as Hawkins meets his future wife at a Cambridge party. The two are immediately drawn to one another and have a few lovely dates before the news emerges that Stephen has a motor neuron disease (similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and that he has two years to live.

Jane’s love is so strong that she agrees to marry Stephen anyway, maybe unsure of the reality that he will live for 40 more years and counting. In any case, his body quickly begins its decline and we watch her love and patience taking care of him in a way that begins to appear more like a nurse than a wife. His fame grows after finishing his doctorate, as do the challenges of their marriage. But they have three beautiful children and continue to struggle to make the marriage work (though the majority of that struggle appears to reside with Jane). And while one can certainly find inspiration in the power of love and his triumph over his physical limitations, a question started to plant itself in my head as the movie hit the halfway point – what is the point?

Warning: spoilers to follow

Is this a love conquers all story? Well, no, since the two ultimately part and both remarry others. Is it a story of genius? Maybe, but there are very few moments where we get a glimpse at what that brilliance actually entails (unlike, say, Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind). Is it simply an inspirational story of overcoming obstacles and reaffirming the human spirit? That appears to be the most accurate description, and while the end certainly gives us a final parry on that score, it too often falls flat for me.

I imagine it is the sort of film that will win more awards and continue to be hailed by the majority of critics. Audiences will flock to it and cheer on the love story and Hawkins victory over the worst of odds. But I believe at its heart it suffers from a schizophrenic inability to decide what it is, and instead takes the safe path toward a film that the whole family can enjoy and you will leave feeling slightly inspired, if not tired, at the end.

James Marsh’s directing is certainly adept and occasionally inspired, the main players should win awards for their acting and the story is ultimately very nice. But it lacks heart and really a raison d’etre that is truly worthy. One short scene, for me, sums up all of its flaws. Jane takes off Stephen’s glasses and cleans them, wondering aloud why they are always so dirty. It is the perfect metaphor for The Theory of Everything. For while rose tinted glasses provide a wonderful way to look at the world, one hopes a film occasionally takes them off so we can explore the deeper depths of the reality we actually live in, with all its faults and foibles. This film rarely does so. C+

Friday, December 12, 2014

Foodies Beware

Well, people are already quite fond of eating food coming out of trucks (which beyond Mexican, I've pretty consistently found overpriced and wanting here in LA). Why not move on to food that emerges from truck and car accidents, particularly as our real wages continue to fall?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Are there Too Many Penalties in the NFL? And is there too little actual “football” in a football game, for that matter?

I have been a fan of the NFL since I was very young, watching the games with my father, though I remember being mildly confused and bored at first, generally reading the paper or a book between plays. A few decades later (god I’m old!) a question popped into my head that has actually been mulling around up there on and off for some time now – are there too many penalties in the game? I decided to do some research on the historical trends, but even as I found the number of penalties over the past six years has been relatively steady, I can’t shake the sense that the answer is a resounding YES. Maybe it is because I also watch real football (aka soccer) every week, and play is stopped substantially less frequently in most games. Maybe it is because I already knew I was making a three and a half hour commitment for 11 minutes of actual action (WSJ). Yes, that’s right, 11 minutes!!!! Or maybe it is just a sense that any game where someone is doing something wrong so often really needs to think about the rules themselves (sounds kind of like Wall Street, if they had any actual rules).

As to the research – it is extremely hard to find long-term historical data on penalties. I did find these statistics for the past six seasons in several places (best here, I guess: NFL Penalties) and extrapolating the data shows this year being more or less on target with previous ones. The big focus in the offseason was dealing with a decline in defensive holding and illegal contact calls last year (SB Nation), with some believing Seattle was getting away with roughhousing receivers too often en route to a Super Bowl victory. In games I’ve watched, there has been a noticeable increase in those calls, though I don’t think aggregated data is available yet (here it is from 2009 to 2013: Best Ticket).

The challenge system has certainly helped with ensuring refs get the calls right, but it has also prolonged the game even longer and seems to combine with the constant penalty calls to give me what I will henceforth call referee fatigue (definition: seeing and hearing from the officials too often on any given Sunday, particularly long, convoluted explanations of why they are screwing over one of the two teams; not to be confused with Terry Bradshaw fatigue, though the parallels are obvious). That fatigue is only amplified now that the networks have decided to hire full-time ex-refs to explain and question every call and non-call that occurs throughout the games.

When one looks at the breakdown of the three and a half hour broadcast of a typical game, we already have about an hour of commercials (or “beer and dip refresher breaks”), another 75 minutes of watching players huddling, on the sideline or just “kicking it” between plays (“general boredom breaks"), only 30 seconds or so for the otherwise faceless announcers (though I'm not complaining there), about double the playing time for replays, some shots of injured players (generally longer than players celebrating), the occasional crowd shot, all those cool graphics and charts and cut-aways to see highlights from other games. It is a veritable cornucopia of time wasting before we get to the next play, though I believe it has become the essential feature of watching the game. We want to hear the announcers repeat the same all cliches over and over again, listen to the silly 15-second interview with the coaches at halftime (“we need to cut down on the turnovers”), enjoy the completely inane things the sideline reporter will say as they shake hysterically from the cold as we sit cozy in our warm abodes (e.g., Tony Siragusa looking at a child in the crowd like his next meal while he talks about nothing in particular), here the doctoral dissertation like discussions of why that play worked and the other one didn’t, ignore the homophobic references throughout a game largely predicated on saving American masculinity (e.g., tight ends, wide receivers, grabbing the ball between another guy’s legs, penetration, “passing,” etc.) and still sit awe-struck at how they can draw those cool red and white lines on our television screens.

But the refs? They are just those annoying guys from the Halloween party that forgot to take off their zebra suits, interrupting the spectacle with calls that screw our team over, or help us when we don’t really deserve it (though we certainly won’t complain then). They miss the obvious calls, make ones that make us scratch our head or break the coffee table and hide their noggins in a black hole every once in a while, like cats after they did something wrong. Haven’t we had enough of the whole lot of them? Maybe we should send them down to Brazil for some additional training – learning about the ref in a soccer game last year that stabbed a player in extra time and was then beheaded after the game. Now that sounds like something all football fans could unite behind!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal Beat Galatasaray 4-1

Arsenal and Dortmund were already through to the knockout stage of the Champions League before their Match Day 6 games began. But an Arsenal win and Dortmund loss, or an Arsenal victory by six goals would see the Gunners take first. And while that second possibility might have sounded unlikely before the game began, Arsenal found themselves two up before 11 minutes and three up before 30. Suddenly there were chances to do the unthinkable. But the Gunners spurned some good chances throughout the rest of the first half and late into the second, before Galatasaray pulled one back in the 88th, from Wesley Sneider. Podolski then scored in the 92nd minute to give Arsenal their fourth.

It was an impressive performance from beginning to end showing resilience on defense, a more fluid passing game and the creation of chance after chance. It was also a good day for both Ramsey and Podolski, who had a brace each. In the end, the game didn’t change the table standings, but it should be a confidence boost for a team that really needs one. Three points for the game:

1. Rambo Returns: Aaron Ramsey has been in rather troubling form since returning from his latest injury, after a brilliant, though injury-shortened campaign last season (including scoring the winner in the come-from-behind FA Cup). But he has looked his old self in the last two, chipping in three goals, an assist and contributing more on the defensive end. They will need his goals, creativity and work rate going forward and it is great to see him returning to form. His second goal, in particular, reminded of the Welshman at his best, scoring a stunner on the half volley from outside the box. Maybe a fifth movie is in the making?

2. Podolski Ponderings: there has never been a question about Podolski’s finishing, it is more about his work rate, movement, hold-up play (if at the #9) or ability to cover the left back (if playing as a winger). But he did ask some questions of Wenger today, particularly as the Gunners have had some problems putting the ball in the net this season. He had two quality finishes and was unlucky not to score two others – a fine save and the crossbar costing him the hat trick (or more). And he even finished a full 90 minutes effectively, with the second goal coming in extra time. Has he earned a little more time on the pitch? Hard to say, though Sanchez could move to the right or play in the number 10 and let Podolski go back out on the left wing.

3. Wenger Wailing: Quiz – you are three nil up at halftime, having scored five goals in your last two halves, and you need three more goals to win the group (you are close to that average). Do you a) Push the team forward to try and score the needed three additional goals, b) Play on the break, but make sure you have players on the pitch who can finish, or c) Take out the hottest player on the team and put in a couple of teenagers. Any sane person would do a, or at worst b, particularly given the reality they have gone out in the first round of the knock out stage for five years running. But not Wenger! And thus sums up the last decade or so. Any Arsenal fan has certainly heard about the verbal assault Arsene received on the London Tube a couple days ago and few would argue they were warranted or appropriate. But even looking at the victory today, beyond the point I already made, is the reminder that if we had actually done against Anderlecht up three nil what we did today in the second half, we would have topped the group. Those mistakes, of not managing a game where we need goals or one that was turning against the team, is symptomatic of Wenger and of the mediocrity too many fans have accepted for too long. Sure there are other teams that are jealous of Arsenal’s consistency, but even Liverpool has won more trophies in the past decade (including that elusive UCL title). I think the time has finally come, and assume Wenger will leave – or be pushed out – in May. Some continue to make the tired argument that we are risking getting worse under someone else – I, for one, am willing to take that risk.

Arsenal are through to the knockout stage with a little added momentum though, and will hope to get a kinder draw than the ones they have received four of the past five years (AC Milan was the break between Barcelona twice and Bayern twice – the last time they actually won their group). Liverpool, on the other hand, saw their European return end on a sour note, as they could only draw against Basel with a late Gerrard equalizer and are thus on their way to the Europa League. Chelsea will join Arsenal in the Final 16, but Man City’s future depends completely on beating Roma at Roma tomorrow. COYG!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Arsenal 2 Stoke City 3: By the Numbers

Arsenal came into the game today against Stoke having won three games on the bounce, all with clean sheets. But things are never easy at the Brittania and it only took 22 seconds for Stoke to break Arsenal’s scoreless streak. Two more followed by halftime in one of the worst halves of football the Gunners have played in several years (I think back to that 4-0 loss to AC Milan in the first leg of their UCL knockout tie). In the second half, Arsenal came back strongly, threatening the goal several times before pulling two back. But a baffling second yellow of Calum Chambers meant the comeback would need to be completed a man down and the Gunners fell short.

The first stoke goal came from Peter Crouch after truly shambolic defending that looked like a rather impressive Keystone Cops impression. It started on a long ball down the right wing, with Gibbs failing to come out to contest the cross. The ball then fell to the ground with three defenders surrounding Crouch, as Martinez dove to the ground before Crouch had even lined up his shot. Seeing the gaping goal, he passed it straight in. Arsenal did almost equalize in the 11th minute, as Bellerin ran to the line to surprise everyone by getting a cross to the far post, where Giroud really should have scored. But his header went just wide of the post and the chance was lost. Few others came for Arsenal and Stoke made them pay for their profligacy and casual passing with a second in the 34th minute as a fine cross by Walters, again uncontested by Gibbs, was well finished by the impressive Spaniard Bojan. Then simply hoping to get to halftime with a chance, Arsenal conceded a third in the 45th minute as Stoke scored from a corner for the first time all season, as Crouch headed a high floater forward to Walters, who pounded it into the roof of the net.

It was a truly pathetic defensive performance, with very little happening on the offensive end either. But Welbeck came on for Bellerin at halftime, with Flamini moving to the right, and Arsenal looked better from the whistle. Sanchez, in fact, had a wonderful chance to score in the 51st minute after intercepting a bad pass, slaloming forward, getting around three defenders and sending Begovich to the ground before hitting the post with the goal completely open. In the 57th, Arsenal did get their first goal, as Flamini was clipped in the box by Dioff, with Cazorla scoring the resulting penalty for his first goal in almost a year. This came a few minutes after a fourth Stoke goal was disallowed for a passive offsides right in front of Martinez (a good call, I think). In the 70th minute, Arsenal made it a one-goal game as a Sanchez corner was well finished by Aaron Ramsey, on a powerful volley from near the edge of the box. Game on, until a bizarre and completely unwarranted second yellow was given to Calum Chambers (both for foul close to midfield) in the 78th minute. That seemed to take the steam out of an increasingly dangerous Arsenal attack and they were unable to get the late equalizer.

The only good news for Arsenal was a loss by Chelsea and draws by both Liverpool and Tottenham at home. But let’s look at the contest by the numbers:

1 of 9: the number of wins by Arsenal at the Britannia (last win in 2010)
3: the number of consecutive wins Arsenal had, and losses Stoke had coming into the game
2: the number of goals Stoke scored in those three games
3: the number they scored in the first 45 minutes today
2 in 118: the number of goals Arsenal have scored off of corners this year, including the Ramsey goal today
112: the number headed out by the first man (or something along those lines, it seems …)
13: the number of months since referee Anthony Taylor has given a red card until today (23 games)
28: the number of games between Santi Cazorla league goals
13: the number of games Ramsey went without a goal, before today
3: number of offsides by Arsenal, all by Flamini
57%: possession by Arsenal, again winning the battle but losing the war
15-13: shots by Arsenal and Stoke, respectively
6-4: number of shots on target for each
14-20: the number of tackles for each
14-17: the number of fouls by each
13: the number of points Arsenal are still behind Chelsea after 15 games
14: number of games Chelsea dreamed of matching the Invincibles
3: the number of points City might be behind Chelsea if they keep their one-goal lead against Everton

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal v. Southampton (1-0)

Arsenal were back home tonight attempting to revitalize an EPL season where they have yet to beat a team in the top 11. Early in the game, Welbeck was sent in on goal by a beautiful pass from Cazorla (6’), but blew a really good chance to open the scoring (again calling into question his finishing) for not the first time this season. In the 14th minute, Southampton had an excellent chance to take the lead themselves, though the shot was over from close range. The rest of the half was back and forth until the 46th minute, when a free kick by Cazorla fell to Welbeck, who sent a glancing header off a Southampton defender and seemingly into goal – until a last second save by GK Fraser Forster saved the day.

For much of the rest of the match, it was Arsenal against Forster, with the Southampton goalkeeper seemingly unbeatable with an increasingly impressive string of saves from Welbeck, Giroud and others. Unbeatable, that is, until a lovely cut back pass from Ramsey, after a clear handball in the box, led to an easy finish for Sanchez (89’), who now has eight in his last eight. The goal punctuated a spell of great pressure from the Gunners, though they did have the advantage of playing against 10 men, after a hamstring sent a Saint off after all three subs had been used. But that should not take away from another late goal to gain points, even as Arsenal have lost more points from winning positions (9) of anyone in the league so far.

After the tough draw with Anderlecht and losses to Swansea and United, it was a nice bounce back week for the Gunners, who now have a very winnable list of fixtures that includes Stoke, Galatasaray, Newcastle (H), Liverpool, QPR (H) and West Ham. None of the games are easy, particularly Liverpool on the road, but the Gunners could certainly find themselves firmly back in the Top 4 if they get through the holiday season relatively unscathed. Three thoughts on the game …

1. Sanchez the Hero Yet Again: Sanchez is starting to make a serious claim for player of the year, even with the early success of Chelsea’s Costa and Fabergas. He now has 14 goals in all competitions this year, and eight in his last eight. More importantly, he appears to be the only one the team can count on to score with any consistency, though Giroud again looked bright when he came on in the 65th minute, unlucky not to score from a lovely header in the 85th minute, with one of Forster’s best saves of the night. But Ramsey, Cazorla, Ox and Welbeck continue to spurn far too many chances, putting a lot of pressure on the Chilean. Luckily, he has delivered so far and hopefully the rest of the team will start to contribute with more regularity.

2. Three’s a Charm? Not really, at least in this case. One of the most surprising narratives of the season so far is how average Arsenal have been at home. This was only their third victory in the league out of 7 games (with three draws and a loss), though they have now beaten Dortmund and Southampton in the past week, with the West Bromwich road win sandwiched in between. Arsenal will have to do much better at home if they are to charge back up the table in the future, with some chances to build on this lead coming up soon.

3. Traditional Powers Back at It: Liverpool, United, City, Chelsea and Arsenal were all winners this week, while Tottenham lost yet again and Everton blew a one-goal lead against Hull, in a season that appears to be falling apart for both clubs. Southampton, obviously, lost as well and now head into a group of tough fixtures that could see them drop out of the Top 4 (against United (H), Burnley (A), Everton (H), Crystal (A) and then Chelsea (H)). Looking at the table, Chelsea, Man City and United are back in the Top 4, with Arsenal in sixth, only two points behind United. And Liverpool stand in 8th, five points off the Top 4, after a rather terrible start to the season. So after the early narratives, we could be seeing a return to form for the traditional power teams in the league.

On a completely unrelated note, Real Madrid won their 17th game in a row in all competitions in what is becoming an incredible run for a team that many think might be the greatest offensive forces ever assembled. Can they take it all the way to the treble? Well, we’re a long way from that possibility, but I wouldn’t bet against it just yet.

NPR Doesn’t Care About the Environment Either

The right has been trying to defund NPR and PBS for years, arguing the government should not be supporting their “partisan” perspectives. And while they continue to receive a little federal funding, the declining percentage has meant increased fealty to their corporate sponsors. Starting in the early 2000s, it was clear that NPR was starting to move toward the middle, with more stories reported from a conservative perspective, more conservative voices and less leftist presence on the airwaves. That has only worsened over time, at least to an old leftist like me, and now they have made their latest parry in the struggle to undermine any progressive voice in American mainstream media, cutting their staff to a single part-time reporter on climate change (from three full-time reporters and an editor). Not surprisingly, we are already seeing a decline in that coverage this year and it should only get worse going forward.

The good news is that most news on climate change is bad news, and we can thus save ourselves from the increasingly depressing reality that we have all but killed the planet. Better to ignore the crisis and instead focus on the lives of the rich and famous, our favorite sports team and the continued inability of our politicians to do much beyond calling each other names.

Monday, December 01, 2014

NFL Stands with Michael Brown (Kind of)

The NFL will never be mistaken for a progressive organization, given its record on domestic violence, the damage it appears to do to most of its own players, its monopoly/tax-free status and its undying support for the military and militarism. And yet four players from the St. Louis Rams did provide a progressive message yesterday -- displaying signs of racial solidarity and support for Michael Brown by holding their hands up right before their game. It was a nice gesture and, for once, the NFL decided not to punish players for a political statement. Good for the players and good for the league!

Not surprisingly, around the time this was happening a black man in Pontiac, Michigan was stopped by police. Why? Well he was apparently engaging in “suspicious behavior,” as reported by an unidentified caller. And what was that behavior? He had his hands in his pockets. Hmm, that does sound suspicious, you might say. But what if we added the fact it was cold? Apparently mitigating facts like that don’t get in the way of the Johnny-on-the-spot Pontiac Police Department, who did in fact stop him (YouTube video).

The man, a little flabbergasted, said: “There’s got to be 10,000 people walking around with their hands in their pockets.” The police officer responded, “There’s been a lot of robberies.” The two men then had a standoff where both of them have their phones out, aimed at each other to record the incident, while they discuss the absurdity of their predicament. The police officer explains that they got a call about “suspicious” behavior.

So we can add another item to our list of things that are suspicious when black men do them: walking around with your hands in your pockets on a cold Fall day in Michigan.