Sunday, March 30, 2008

As the New York Post might say...

Goliath Slays Davidson
Final Four No Longer Selfless

Poetry corner

This would be a haiku
Except for one problem:
I don't know how to count.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jumping into the pool

I know nothing about college basketball.

Most years I don't even enter a March Madness pool. When I do, I'm no better than the office secretary whose picks are based on the colors of the teams' uniforms. I just go with the favorites, throwing in a few upsets based upon what people are saying or for whimsical reasons having nothing to do with the game itself. I round out the bracket with 1 and 2 seeds going to the Final Four and hope for the best.

This year, for example, I have Kansas in the Final Four even though I'm pretty sure they no longer have Danny Manning; took the Tarheels to win the tournament because they're the overall top seed; and picked Memphis to get upset before the Final Four because someone told me their gaudy record (one loss all year) is misleading since their league, Conference USA, isn't very good. Is that true? Hell if I know!

I also forgot to bring my bracket home from work last weekend. Since I couldn't remember which teams I'd picked, I didn't bother to watch any games after my sentimental favorite, Drake, lost an overtime thriller on Friday. As you can see, I'm not exactly a basketball junkie.

Over the years, my handicapping "strategy" has won what it has deserved to win: nothing. I'm usually out of it by the end of the second weekend, at which point I tune out and never bother to learn exactly where I finished.

One time, though, through no skill of my own, I ran away with an NCAA pool. It was my second year of law school at Northwestern (cue wavy video wipe and harp music)...

Because I grew up in the Chicago area, and took a year off after college to work, I had a number of friends in the class ahead of me who'd gone straight on to law school. One of these was a guy I'd gone to Hebrew school with when we were kids. Let's call him Dean, both because he carried himself with the stolid gravitas of a law school dean and because the guy knew more about college basketball than Dean Smith.

A word about law school, the most academically rigorous experience of my life. There's a tremendous volume of assigned reading, mostly lengthy, dense appellate case decisions. Particularly in the first year, the underlying concepts are new and challenging, and there's little time to absorb them since there's so much material coming at you.

Because the final exam determines your entire grade in most classes, there's also an ongoing imperative to distill each course into an overall outline you can use during the test. Although raw intelligence, writing acumen and reasoning ability are of course helpful, the sheer capacity to grind through all the work is arguably the prime determinant of law school success.

In this high-pressure environment, each student must figure out how to study in a way that's effective for him or her. And my friend Dean sure did. Yes, he was bright, but so was everyone at Northwestern. He was also shrewdly analytical, a game theorist of sorts, and applied that skill to the law school environment.

Having aced his way through a top undergraduate business school, Dean quickly worked out an ingenious studying system specifically designed to prepare him thoroughly for law school exams in the least possible amount of time.

His method was to get his hands on the best possible outline for each class, typically from a trusted friend who'd crushed the same course the year before. Dean would then take notes directly onto his friend's outline at each lecture, correcting it slightly from the previous year's model as the same professor taught. While everyone else was frantically scribbling everything down, trying to keep up, writing much and hearing little, Dean would just tweak the proven blueprint as he listened to the lecture.

In this way, unlike so many of his classmates, he was relaxed, locked into the professor's mindset from the first minute of class and armed with all the answers if called upon to engage in Socratic dialogue. He also had the luxury of a broad, comprehensive context for any given lecture. On a macro level, he had a definitive course outline to study for the entire semester, where many of his classmates struggled to complete their own outlines in the final weeks before the exam.

His system not only enabled Dean to condense and absorb massive amounts of material with relative ease, it also made it unnecessary for him to read the actual cases assigned as homework. Since his friends' outlines already held the key concepts for each class, he found the reading to be a wordier, messier version of what he learned in the lecture hall. He thus considered the homework surplusage, a distraction. I don't even know if he bought the books.

You can argue that there's more to law school than grades, that there's inherent value in doing the reading, that hard work builds character, that you get out of it what you put into it, that the academy is about learning for its own sake. And you might be right. But you can't argue with Dean's results; I don't think he got any grade lower than an A after his first year.

By breaking the shackles of law school homework, Dean became that rarest of law students: one with a lot of time on his hands. Unlike me, Dean was a basketball junkie, and during the season he used his prodigious free time to full advantage, spending his nights and weekends on nonstop college hoops.

He watched basketball, taped basketball, attended basketball, ate, drank and slept basketball. Around the law school he blended in with everyone else, but he had a secret life. While the rest of us were sweating over evidence and property law, he was scouting teams and breaking down 2-3 zones, a student of the game. He also found time for more Las Vegas weekends than every other law student I knew, combined.

Whether Dean was betting basketball week in and week out, I don't know, but one thing's for sure: when tournament time rolled around, he knew his stuff cold. He had well-founded opinions about dozens of teams, having seen them all play repeatedly during the season. And unlike many casual fans, he didn't watch games with a rooting interest, but with the cool detachment of a scientist looking at a paramecium in a microscope.

There was a schoolwide March Madness pool that year. It was a penny-ante affair like office pools everywhere, five or ten bucks to get in. Dean just chuckled at my naïvete when I asked whether he was going to enter. It wasn't even worth his time.

He was casting his lots with the big kids, the hardcore bettors down at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. The macho traders there gambled for a living and had a lot of cash to throw around; their pools cost thousands of dollars just to enter. You'd land something like a year's salary if you won.

I told Dean I was going to enter the school pool for kicks even though I didn't know anything about college basketball. As a favor to me, he grabbed a blank bracket and penciled in a set of suggested picks. I was only too happy to play an informed opinion for a change. And wouldn't you know it? His picks won me the school pool.

Actually, they tied for first place. That year, fourth-seeded Syracuse upset #2 Kansas to make a surprise appearance in the Final Four, where they lost to top-seeded Kentucky in the championship game. A recent Syracuse alumna, probably alone among the entire law school, had picked the Orangemen to go deep, so she was showered with an avalanche of points as the tournament ended and caught up to Dean—I mean, me.

First place was worth $500 and second place $100, so we got $300 each. Not a bad result for the two people in the school who knew the least about college basketball.

I could hardly begrudge the 'Cuse fan her piece of the pie. Where some chest-thumping alpha males might resent splitting the pot with the campus hottie who'd picked her school's underdog team and hit her inside straight, I could only laugh at my good fortune. Heck, at least she'd filled out her own bracket.

As for Dean, I never found out how he did in his big-time pool(s), but I thought I saw him driving a new late-model BMW a few days after Kentucky cut the nets down.

Parenthetically, Dean did me another favor the following year when he gave me his rock-star outline for Business Planning, a tough 8 a.m. class with a demanding adjunct professor. He was a brilliant Harvard Law grad who'd made it big with his own elite law firm, and in the classroom a hardass who loved to tear students apart like red meat.

Calling on students in front of everyone and quizzing them on the day's lesson was fair game, but most professors were relatively benign in their use of the Socratic method. This guy was a pit bull whose jaws clamped around your neck for the entire hour.

Plus, the class was full of future Wall Street finance types, nonchalant BBA studs who showed their business mettle whenever they were called on. Me, I was just a humble English major trying to stay awake at 8 a.m.

So I think Professor Swinging Dick was somewhat disappointed the day he called on me and I had every answer just so. Dean's bulletproof outline was just the flak jacket I needed. Even with the goods, it was a harrowing experience.

(cue video wipe back to present day)

And that was my bracket moment in the sun; after that it was back to reality.

Take this year's pool, for example. I understand I'm currently in the middle of the pack, but it's early yet. There's still plenty of time for me to run out of gas and finish three spots from last place.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Birthday wishes

To my brother Justin, my friends Caroline and Liz, my old college roommate Alex "Parliament" Horowitz, and my nephew Charlie.

If you're having a birthday and I didn't realize it, then to you too.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Being John Adams

Just watched the first two episodes of the new HBO miniseries John Adams, based on David McCullough's bestselling book. Like Ray Coleman's Lennon, it tells the tale of a riveting era as seen through the prism of a key figure, bringing to life the founding of America in a way that a history textbook can't.

And like From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, the fellow Tom Hanks-produced HBO history lessons that preceded it, John Adams is a pious, earnest effort. With a keen eye for detail it painstakingly recreates a world, humanizing people that have been deified elsewhere and presenting events not as history but story. Laura Linney shines as the proto-feminist Abigail Adams and Tom Wilkinson charms as Benjamin Franklin.

Don't worry if, like me, you missed the first two installments when they debuted last weekend. HBO is still running them on its various channels and the HBO On Demand service. The seven-part series continues for the next month on Sunday evenings.

I read Alessandra Stanley's New York Times review of John Adams last weekend while I sat waiting for my tennis court to open up. She generally liked it but criticized the casting of Paul Giamatti in the lead role, finding his acting range too limited to encompass the great man. She felt that his screen presence paled before, for example, that of Anthony Daniels in the Adams role in 1776.

Me, I thought Giamatti was just fine. It's unclear how a contemporary reviewer can profess to gauge the accuracy of an actor's portrayal of a man who died on July 4, 1826. Her review was otherwise perceptive, so I'll stop short of suggesting that Alessandra Stanley has been miscast in the role of New York Times television critic.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Show and tell

Even as a broken clock is correct twice a day, so can a lousy photographer occasionally bust off a decent shot.

I took this picture in the Garden District of New Orleans, pre-Katrina.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cinderella story

In law school I spent three years writing for Hoops, the school newspaper. Its unusual name derived from the hoops one must jump through to become a lawyer, but many people assumed it had something to do with basketball. In a sense, today marks the first time I've "written hoops" since then.

As for the hardwood hoops, I used to play quite a bit. From junior to senior year of high school, my height shot up from 5'8" to a little over 6'4", and despite my general lack of skill, I had a great time playing with my friends. Who cared that I missed a layup for every shot I blocked? Or that with my gravity-obeying vertical leap, I still played 5'8"? It was fun. I played a lot in college too.

I've since gravitated to playing tennis and volleyball, and also drifted away from basketball as a fan. What was once an acute sensitivity to the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls turns out to have been a chronic case of Jordanitis; soon after he retired, I was cured. I'd rather play than watch sports, but if I'm going to watch, I'll take baseball, football or tennis.

Having said all that, I would be remiss if I didn't salute the remarkable accomplishments of the 2007-08 Drake Bulldogs basketball team. My brother Ari is a proud Drake alum, and the more I've learned about their season over the last month or so, the more impressed I am. It's a heartwarming story.

Drake is a Division I school but one without a strong basketball tradition, best known for the Drake Relays track meet. They did make a Final Four appearance in 1969, where they nearly upset the Lew Alcindor-led UCLA in the semifinals, but haven't returned to the NCAA tournament since 1971, before any of their current players was born.

After Drake graduated four senior starters last summer, nobody expected them to do much this year either; the preseason Missouri Valley Conference coaches' poll picked them to finish ninth out of ten teams. Heck, their own coach picked them to finish sixth.

And yet. Out of nowhere, with a ragtag group of lightly recruited players, Drake has made mincemeat of everyone this year, reeling off a 21-game winning streak en route to a school-record 28 wins including one over #8 Butler on the road. They've lost only four games (by a total of 13 points) in becoming the story of the year in college basketball.

They've romped, blown out, rolled, outclassed, outshot and outsmarted, winning with three-pointers, brains, unselfishness and aggressive trapping defense. This despite having only two players taller than 6'6". Drake makes up for its lack of size by spreading the floor, starting four legitimate three-point threats. They score in bunches by hitting a lot of threes and create long rebounds when they miss, which compensates for their smaller lineup.

Drake's everyman intrigue is fresh and appealing; several of its star players are walk-ons. That isn't supposed to happen anywhere, much less at a mid-size private school.

The team leader, six-foot-one Adam Emmenecker, epitomizes the feel-good story. A high school baseball standout, he passed on a Boston College scholarship offer to pursue his greater love, basketball. Over his dad's wishes, he also passed on sure playing time at smaller schools to walk on at Drake. He only started two games before this year, averaged 0.9 points per game, and didn't even have a scholarship until this, his senior season. Just another obscure college hoopster.

But the kid knows what to do with a basketball. Promoted to starter this year, he's made the most of the opportunity, confidently running his team's offense and setting assist records. He's also tough, leading the nation in rebounding among point guards. In the nationally televised Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game, Emmenecker looked like a young Bob Cousy or Pete Maravich, distributing the rock with nifty passes and floating delicate, fluttery shots past bigger guys. CBS' Dick Enberg was positively giddy telling Emmenecker's (and Drake's) underdog tale.

Look at him now. Emmenecker's gone from unrecruited benchwarmer to starting point guard to conference MVP to conference tournament most outstanding player to nationally reported Horatio Alger story leading his team into the NCAA tournament.

He's just as accomplished in the classroom. The national Academic All-American of the year, Emmenecker has more academic majors (four) than career three-pointers made (zero). The lone B on his four-year report card ("by two points!") marred his otherwise perfect academic record, but his 3.97 GPA remains impressive. Emmenecker has already accepted a job offer at a financial firm, but his basketball renaissance could lead to a change of career plans.

Drake, meanwhile, is the only school in the country with a first-team Academic All-American on both its men's and women's basketball teams. The men's starting five boast an average GPA of 3.4 and their coach, Keno Davis, looks pretty smart too. He just celebrated his 36th birthday by being named the Sporting News' national coach of the year.

Another Drake star, Klayton Korver, comes from a family of basketball standouts. His mother once scored 73 points in a high school game and his older brother Kyle, a two-time Missouri Valley Conference MVP for Creighton, led the NBA in three-point baskets a few years ago. Little brother is playing like he belongs there too.

Between Emmenecker's floor leadership and his teammates' raining in threes from all over the court (including 3 of 5 from 6'8" forward and fellow walk-on Jonathan "Bucky" Cox), Drake trounced Illinois State by thirty points in the Valley title game, cruising home after a 19-0 run in the first half. (Amusingly, the St. Louis-based tournament is known as "Arch Madness.") The blowout loss is probably what bounced otherwise solid-looking ISU from the NCAA tournament.

Now, for the first time in 37 years, Drake's heading back to the big dance, where they tip off midday Friday in Tampa against Western Kentucky. If they win, they'll probably get UConn on Sunday.

Drake's long-suffering fans and players have waited a long time for a return trip to March Madness. I hope they get through this weekend unscathed and extend the fun for another week. I mean, I hope they win the whole thing, but let's get them to the Sweet 16 first.

Congratulations, Drake.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Events around town

If you like literary readings and are free Thursday evening, consider this one; if you like symphonic video-game music and have a time machine, try this one.

The passion of Eliot Spitzer

...actually entered the public discourse back in 2006:


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wingardium leviosa

I wish laughing at this were beneath me, but it isn't.

[Top 100 IRC Posts]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Where my nerds at?

Here are a couple of cool tips on the Gmail, uh, tip.

Meanwhile, if you're still using Hotmail, Yahoo or AOL Mail, why exactly?

I am the world's original laggard, inertia-bound and resistant to progress. I hate to change apartments or cars, still don't have an iPod or BlackBerry, and only grudgingly upgrade the discretionary high-tech stuff around me. Heck, I'm typing this on an eight-year-old Compaq Presario. But even I changed to Gmail a few years ago, and should have done so earlier.

When I departed law firm life, I was left with only a Hotmail account. In ways small and large (low storage limits; resistance to saving sent messages; annoying banner ads; slow-loading new screens whenever you did anything; PITA, labor-intensive weeding out of junk mail; non-autosaving drafts; constant plugging of who-cares? MSN products; balky Java-dependent functionality), Hotmail was irritating, but it was all I had. Yahoo wasn't much better.

Like a beaten wife who stays, I gradually learned to tolerate bad email and stopped expecting more. Then, like Richard Gere rescuing Julia Roberts from a sad life, Gmail came along and showed me how good it could be. I now find email a pleasure to use, and it's that happy status quo to which I've grown accustomed. Meanwhile, even today, Hotmail remains a fairly lousy product despite recent improvements specifically designed to keep up with Gmail. Too little too late, Gates.

Gmail is demonstrably superior to every other free email service in every way that matters. It's easy to use, powerful, elegant, and sleek. The highest compliment I can pay is that it's intelligently designed. Gmail radiates the smarts and innovation of the many Google software designers who've worked on it, their mission from day one to design a better email service. They did.

One other thing I like about Gmail is that it's still officially in "beta" stage, i.e. the traditional final testing phase before a product is deemed complete and ready for market. The joke of this is that from the very beginning, Gmail was already a nuclear weapon that blew its competitors away. It has only improved since then. Still, it remains beta even today in what has become a charming misnomer. I read the tiny "BETA" in its logo as "F you, Hotmail; so much better than yours and our product isn't even finished yet."

Switching to Gmail is easy. You can set up an account in a few minutes and bring all your email contacts with you. One mass email to everyone you know, and boom, your life has measurably improved. Heck, in its early days, you could only get a Gmail account by invitation from an existing user, and the power to invite friends was finite. Consider yourself lucky that you're one click away.

The argument I occasionally hear against switching to Gmail is that, because it generates advertising based on the contents of messages, people feel using Gmail would compromise their privacy; they have a sense of being spied on or violated. This argument doesn't hold up.

There are no humans reading users' messages, merely a software algorithm that looks for keywords and reflects relevant ad content. You know, the same automated process that already analyzes your every Google, Yahoo, etc. search to generate you-specific ads? The reason Google is worth 200 billion dollars? Yeah, that one.

As for the ads themselves, they're unobtrusive text off to the side, not at all in your face like Hotmail's garish banner ads. I just ignore them and feel gratitude that they make my excellent email service free.

Learn more about Gmail here and here. If after reviewing these, you still can't see why it's worth making the change, then I've said my piece; enjoy your Hotmail fetish. Also, good luck finding replacement nibs for your fountain pen and ribbons for your Underwood.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cue the accordion

Salut, tout le monde!

Break out the baguettes et les moules marinieres, and enjoy a little Ben Bass and Beyond in the French style:

[cliquez ici]

C'est tout.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mesmerizing bashfulness

I had the pleasure of attending the 2004 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne.

That year's promotional theme, "Super Heroes Super Tennis," featured superhero illustrations of various top players, complete with dashing poses, skintight outfits and improbable musculature.

Extending the theme, they also trumpeted each player's tennis-related superpower: Andy Roddick's "Thunderbolt Forehand," Serena Williams' "Intimidating Force," Lleyton Hewitt's "Blinding Speed," Andre Agassi's "Bullet-like Return," etc.

My favorite superpower was that of the top Thai player on the men's tour, Paradorn Srichaphan: "Spellbinding Humility."

Beware, evildoers, lest Paradorn shyly swoop in and blush you into submission!

As I indicated recently in this space, I'm all for humility, but "spellbinding humility?" Beyond its laughable selection as a superpower, does that even make sense? Can humility spellbind? Can modesty bewitch? Can self-effacement entrance? Mmm... no.

I guess "Quietly Impressive Humility Evincing a Placid Self-Confidence, or At Least an Awareness of Tennis Etiquette" didn't fit on the poster.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Be kind rewind

What do you give the friend who has everything?

A DVD rewinder!

Get yours here.

[via Adam Witt]

Friday, March 7, 2008

Why Stern did Letterman

A friend emailed me:

Subject: H Stern

Saw him on Letterman last night. Gained a little more respect for him. He ripped "Dr." Phil and killed other "celebs." Totally awesome. Not that I will subscribe to Sirius yet ...

I replied:

Yes, Howard did well on Letterman. He and Dave have a long relationship, going way back to when they were both young stars at NBC ("Late Night" and WNBC-AM radio). You could tell the Letterman show's esteem for Howard by their giving him three full segments, with only one other guest. That is a pretty unusual compliment paid only to big guests.

When he is booked to do Dave's show, he discusses it at length on the radio, and his behind-the-scenes opinions are fascinating. Stern always delivers Dave's highest ratings and the crowd loves him; Letterman would have him on every week if he would do it, but he won't. At this point in his life, he is somewhat curmudgeonly and has totally made it career-wise. He doesn't need the exposure or the money, nor the pressure of expectations that he do well on TV. He stresses about it for days beforehand, preparing material and deciding what to talk about. (He always delivers the goods, but it takes work on his part.) He's a homebody and doesn't like to appear publicly in the first place, least of all on TV.

He only does Letterman these days to help his bosses at Sirius and pay TV, usually once a year at holiday time to promote Sirius and Howard TV as a gift idea. The appearance you saw was first aired in January. It was delayed by the writers' strike, which had Sirius all upset that they missed the Dec. gift-giving window. Still, they sell a ton of radios whenever he goes on.

With Stern having made the switch from FM to pay radio and from the basic-cable E network to on-demand pay TV, the average person rarely sees or hears from him these days unless he goes on Letterman. All the more reason he feels he has to be great on his rare appearances.

He replied:

Very interesting background. Thanks for sharing.

I now reply:

Pfff... of course it was. We run this.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The unlikeliest wigga

Every morning when I arrive at my commuter train platform, I find a mystery in the form of a fiftysomething lady, tired-looking, eastern European-sounding, a completely unremarkable wage-earning immigrant except for her knit hat repeatedly emblazoned with "ODB."

Even hip-hop illiterates such as myself know this is shorthand for Ol' Dirty Bastard, aka the late rapper and Wu Tang Clan co-founder Russell Jones, who also performed under the names Big Baby Jesus, Dirt Dog and Dirt McGirt when not fathering thirteen children, suing the NYPD, releasing hit records, or being incarcerated. Helpfully, lest there be any confusion, the hat also bears the legend "dirt mcgirt" (see photo).

Questions to ponder: has this lady ever heard of Ol' Dirty Bastard? Is she also into Method Man? Does she know that she is the most awesome person on the train?