erik lundegaard

Tuesday September 01, 2015

Paul Krugman on GOP Political Poseurs on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

From Paul Krugman's piece yesterday, “A Heckuva Job,” a phrase forever ruined by Pres. George W. Bush and GOP cronyism. The wrong people were put in important positions and the disasters that tend to happen got much, much worse:

Katrina was special in political terms because it revealed such a huge gap between image and reality. Ever since 9/11, former President George W. Bush had been posing as a strong, effective leader keeping America safe. He wasn't. ... It took a domestic disaster, which made his administration's cronyism and incompetence obvious to anyone with a TV set, to burst his bubble.

To quote Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel”: “And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on.”

And it's not just Donald Trump, Krugman tells us. Krugman goes through the slate of GOP candidates and finds not much besides Hollywood-style PR. Chris Christie was supposed to be the straight-talking gov who got things done; Jeb Bush was supposed to be the smart Bush. 

Remember when Scott Walker was the man to watch? Remember when Bobby Jindal was brilliant?

Then my favorite graf:

I know, now I'm supposed to be evenhanded, and point out equivalent figures on the Democratic side. But there really aren't any; in modern America, cults of personality built around undeserving politicians seem to be a Republican thing.

Yes, yes and yes. And why is that? That's the question for Republicans to ask themselves. 

I would argue it goes back to Reagan.

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Posted at 05:46 AM on Sep 01, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday August 31, 2015

Books: Two Authors Rehabilitate the Reputations of Ty Cobb and Billy Martin

Billy Martin and Cesar Tovar, Met Stadium, 1969

Billy Martin, with Cesar Tovar, at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. in 1969.

It's been a good year for well-researched biographies on quick-tempered baseball players with tarnished historical reputations. 

First, we got Bill Pennington's bio on Billy Martin, the fiery skipper of the '69 Twins, '71-'73 Tigers, '73-'75 Rangers, '80-'82 A's, and of course various Yankees iterations from 1975 to 1988. Almost every team he managed had a losing record before he arrived and a winning record once he began to run things. He turned teams around. Every time.

His stint with the Oakland A's may have been the most amazing. By 1979, the once-powerful A's had been depleted by owner Chuck Finley in a rebuke of free agency and fandom, and the team went 54-108. Then Martin got them, recognized the talent (including future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson), and, without much change in roster, the team went 83-79.

Pennington, in fact, argues that Martin may have been the greatest baseball manager of all time, but he spends most of the book trying to rehabiliate him. Martin was known as a drunk, a brawler (see: “marshmallow salesman”), a manager who abused the young arms of his A's staff, and according to some, a racist. Pennington's defense: 1) Martin was alcoholic, so 2) he spent a lot of time in bars, and as a famous scrawny guy with a fighting rep, rarely started fights. He also suggests, 3) was greatly exaggerated, and 4) was just Reggie Jackson and he was full of shit. Both Rickey Henderson and Rod Carew dismiss the charge out of hand. 

Charles Leerhsen, author of “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” has the tougher task. Cobb's negative rep has grown so much in my lifetime that he's almost seen as a monster. The main strikes against him: 1) he was a dirty ballplayer (sharpening spikes, etc.), who was also 2) a virulent racist. Oh, and he might have killed somebody, too.

Leerhsen dismisses the first charge with quotes from Cobb's contemporaries who basically say he fought hard but within the parameters of the game. As to the second charge, Leerhsen breaks down each incident. He sticks to the facts and uncovers others from primary sources. Basically he argues that Cobb had both a high level of propriety and a quick temper. He expected service people, whatever their race, to keep their places, and when they didn't he got angry. He was EOC: an Equal Opportunity Curmudgeon.

So why did Cobb's rep get so besmirched? Because he tried to correct it. He didn't like being known as a spike-sharpener and agreed to a late-life autobiography to set the record straight. His publisher then chose as his ghostwriter a freelancer named Al Stump, who spent some time with Cobb, and who then delivered an autobiography full of wild inaccuracies. Cobb despised it but there was little he could do. He died a few months after publication. A few months after that, Stump published an article in True magazine entitled, “Ty Cobb's Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” which later became the basis for Ron Shelton's awful 1994 film. In it, Cobb is a pistol-packing, pistol-whipping, booze-and-pill-swilling maniac. It's a lurid, sensationalistic tale befitting the magazine in which it appeared. But it took on a life of its own. In the era of “Ball Four,” it began to be believed. 

What awful irony. In trying to correct the record, the record became completely unrecognizable. Cobb began to be viewed as the opposite of the Southern gentleman he always imagined himself to be.

There's a different kind of irony in Pennington's book—one the author doesn't remark upon.

Martin was raised in the “gritty, crowded, downtrodden streets of West Berkeley,” according to Pennington. They were “homes without lawns” with “tattered backyard fences.” Nearby, Pennington says, the hills climbed upwards until you arrived at more stately mansions. The kids from West Berkeley called the rich kids “the Goats,” and there was resentment both ways. Some of Billy's resentment fueled his career. He wanted to prove he was just as good, or better, than the kids who had everything. And how did he do this? I would argue he lent his talents, first as a player and then as a manager, to the richest, most stately mansion in Major League Baseball: the New York Yankees. Billy Martin succeeded by becoming a goat.

Both biographies are highly recommended, by the way.

Ty Cobb and Don Newcombe

Ty Cobb, with Don Newcombe, in the 1950s.

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Posted at 05:54 AM on Aug 31, 2015 in category Books
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Sunday August 30, 2015

Box Office: 'Compton' Wins Weakest Weekend of the Year

The third weekend of a hip-hop biopic narrowly beat the first weekend of an African-American family's tale of Christian redemption, which beat the fifth weekend of the traditional white hero adventure story, which beat the first weekend of a white family fleeing dark-skinned revolutionaries in South East Asia. 

But overall box office was down. Way down. 

“Straight Outta Compton” dropped 50% but won for the third weekend in a row, grossing $13 mil for an overall domestic total of $134. That's the highest gross (unadjusted) ever for a music biopic. 

“War Room,” written and directed by pastor-turned-auteur Alex Kendrick (“Fireproof,” “Facing the Giants”), about an African-American family that finds the right path thanks to an older, wiser woman named Miss Clara, finished second with $11 mil. Would love to see the racial breakdown of its demographics. Did white Christians show up or was it just black Christians? Either way, Kendrick is apparently filling the void left by Tyler Perry, who's mostly on TV now. 

Tom Cruise's fifth “Mission: Impossible” added another $8 mil (for $170 domestic, nearly $500 worldwide), while “No Escape,” directed by horror filmmaker John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine,” “Devil”), about Owen Wilson, Lake Ball and their two girls trying to flee a coup in SE Asia, grossed only $8.2 in more than 3,000 theaters. It got lambasted by Jeff Wells in a great takedown review

But mostly Americans stayed away from the movies this weekend. If the overall gross holds at $85 million, it will be the weakest weekend of the year, beating out March 6-8, which grossed $89 million, and which was highlighted by a battle between “Chappie” and “The Second Best Exotice Marigold Hotel.” Who could forget? 

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Posted at 10:05 AM on Aug 30, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday August 29, 2015

Letters from Corporations I

I have three letters from corporations sitting on my desk that I need to deal with in some fashion. They are from:

  • Bank of America, informing me that my late payment fee is going up to $38 (from $35, but they don't say that), effective Nov. 14, 2015. “Thank you for your business.”
  • CVS/Caremark, informing me that if I insist on getting a particular drug from the pharmacy I will have to pay full price. I can avoid this with a 90-day supply, rather than a 30-day supply, but I can only get the 90-day supply through CVS/Caremark. “Sincerely...”
  • Anthem, informing me that “cyber attackers executed a sophisticated attack to gain unauthorized access to Anthem's IT system,” and that “You are receiving this letter now because Anthem made additional efforts to obtain a current mailing address for potentially impacted indviduals...” Anthem has also hired a company to protect my identity for two years at no cost to me. Additional tips are given.

Fun times.

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Posted at 04:03 PM on Aug 29, 2015 in category Business
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Summer Box Office: Winners, Losers, Lessons

Summer 2015 box office winners

Some of the surprise winners: music, dinos, the life of the mind.

Channing Tatum and Seth MacFarlane need to send Fox Studios a thank-you note.

Their films (“Magic Mike XXL” and “Ted 2,” respectively) massively underperformed at the box office this summer, but as we're entering September nobody's talking about them in disparaging terms. Instead it's all about “Fantastic Four,” the Fox Studio reboot that was a massive critical and commercial bomb: 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, $50 million at the box office. That's one-third of what Tim Story's “FF” movies made back in the mid-2000s. You know that scene from the trailer (cut from the movie) where the Thing drops from a plane and lands like a bomb on the earth? Like that.

Here's what the two big predictors figured the summer box office would be:

 Rnk EW Prediction BO HitFix Prediction BO
1 Avengers: Age of Ultron $555 Avengers: Age of Ultron $550
2 Jurassic World $295 Minions $310
3 Inside Out $275 Jurassic World $300
4 Minions $240 Inside Out $265
5 Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation $195 Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation $200
6 Ted 2 $190 Mad Max: Fury Road $180
7 Mad Max: Fury Road $180 Ant-Man $175
8 Terminator Genisys $170 Ted 2 $165
9 Spy $165 San Andreas $150
10 Fantastic Four $160 Magic Mike XXL $145
11 Ant-Man $160 Spy $130
12 Magic Mike XXL $155 Fantastic Four $125
13 San Andreas $125 Vacation $125
14 Trainwreck $115 Terminator Genisys $120
15 Pitch Perfect 2 $105 Pixels $100

And here's what it's been, as of Thursday, and including the top 20 to account for the underperformers:

Rnk Summer Movies BO
1 Jurassic World $639
2 Avengers: Age of Ultron $457
3 Inside Out $342
4 Minions $321
5 Pitch Perfect 2 $183
6 Ant-Man $165
7 Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation $161
8 San Andreas $153
9 Mad Max: Fury Road $152
10 Straight Outta Compton $119
11 Spy $110
12 Trainwreck $103
13 Tomorrowland $93
14 Terminator Genisys $89
15 Ted 2 $81
16 Pixels $69
17 Magic Mike XXL $65
18 Vacation $53
19 Insidious Chapter 3 $52
20 Fantastic Four $50

Each of the predictors got the first four right, just not in the right order. Everyone assumed Avengers. Then a dinosaur roared.

EW did predict 13 of the 15, but without the messy variations in box office. They, and HitFix, played it safe, assuming most of the big movies in the $100-$300 million range, nothing below that, and nothing gargantuan. In fact, if you focus only on the rank of the prediction (1-15) vs. the actuality, you get this:

BO Range EW HitFix Actual
< $100 0 0 3
$100-$300 14 12 8
> $300 1 3 4

Basically we gorged on some movies and ignored others.

So what underperformed, based upon these industry predictions?

  • Fantastic Four: EW figured $160, or about the Tim Story “FF” numbers adjusted for inflation. HitFix took the bold movie of assuming a disappointment at $125. But it was the Thing dropping from a plane. 
  • Ted 2: Against the original's $218, EW assumed $190, HitFix $165. So again, they were assuming a dropoff. They got a cliff: $81.
  • Magic Mike XXL: $155/$145 vs. $65. The original grossed $113 and no doubt picked up adherents via home entertainment. But the chicks didn't flock. 
  • Terminator Genisys: $170/$120 vs. $89. I think we're done with this story. Oh, except it grossed $352 worldwide. Damn foreigners. 
  • Entourage: Off of everyone's charts, it wound up grossing $32 mil. Bye-bye, boys. 
  • Avengers: It's weird to say the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time (unadjusted) underperformed, but ... The original took in more than $600 mil, this one was predicted at a safe $550, and it delivered at $100 million below that: $457. It made nearly half (41%) of its gross opening weekend. Not good.

And what overperformed?

  • Jurassic World: Did about twice the business everyone thought. Unadjusted, it's the third-highest-grossing film domestically and worldwide. 
  • Pitch Perfect 2: HitFix didn't even include this and EW had it down at $105. Instead, it grossed $183 for the fifth-biggest movie of the summer. 
  • Straight Outta Compton: Nobody had this. It's at $119. It's already the highest-grossing music biopic of all time (unadjusted), and the 10th-biggest movie of the summer. 
  • Inside Out: $275/$265 from the predicters; $342 in actuality. Unadjusted, that's the second-highest-grossing Pixar movie of all time (after “Toy Story 3”); adjusted, it's sixth-highest, behind only the three “Toy Story”s, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”

So: Lessons Hollywood might learn from this? 

Well, the underperforming list is full of muscle-bound and/or loutish guys. The overperforming list includes movies that focus on women and African Americans. 

There might be a lesson somewhere in there.

Summer 2015 box office losers

Boys behaving badly performed badly at the box office. 

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Posted at 07:05 AM on Aug 29, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday August 28, 2015

WAR's Catcher Problem, Cont.

I wrote about this a few months ago when I noticed that WAR ranked 3.5 years of Mike Trout higher than 12 years of Yadier Molina. I also noticed that the top WAR ranking for any catcher in baseball history (Johnny Bench, yo) was 48th. Seemed off. Seemed wrong.

I finally decided to run the numbers to see if WAR undervalued any other position. Here's Baseball Reference's tops at each. Excuse the lack of baseball diamond, but I couldn't find a good writable source online:

All-time team by position based on Baseball Refrence WAR

Initially, the corners are a bit undervalued but it's still mostly the backstop. In fact, before we get the best catcher in baseball history, we get the following:

  • 7 first basemen
  • 6 second basemen
  • 7 shortstops
  • 8 third basemen
  • 19 outfielders

And if you add in pitchers?

  • 27 pitchers

Meaning instead of the best catcher in baseball history being the 48th best player in baseball history, which is bad enough, he's actually the 75th. Every other position has at least six representatives before Johnny Bench is called onto the field. This, even though catcher is generally regarded as the toughest position in baseball. 

FanGraphs' version of WAR, on their clunky site, isn't much better. It has Bench as the 42nd-best position player. I can't even calculate it with pitchers. 

Thoughts, baseball fans?

Johnny Bench WAR catcher

Looks easy. 

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Posted at 06:20 AM on Aug 28, 2015 in category Baseball
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Thursday August 27, 2015

Did Neocons, Gun Nuts, Watch Too Many Cartoons as Kids?

Dick Cheney

At least some Popeye anyway.

The following is from Michael Medved's 1992 book “Hollywood vs. America,” during the discussion (or monologue) on whether what we see is what we do. I.e., Do repeated viewings of violent images, thousands of them in a young life, lead us toward violence ourselves? Or, for some, toward fear and paranoia?

Here's the quote. Or quotes:

“Young viewers who watch a lot of TV are more likely to agree that it is almost always right to hit someone if you are mad at them for a good reason,” Dr. Gerbner reports. ... 

Dr. Thomas Radecki, research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence, points out that the destructive impact of the popular culture is “not just a kids' issue. There is overwhelming evidence that adults as well as children are affected by the glamorization and promotion of violence. TV-watching adults are more likely to purchase handguns, support military solutions to world problems, and overestimate the amount of violence in the real world.”

The oddity of this book is that I agree with a lot of Medved's battles but he's constantly losing the war with me. I do think, for example, that there's too much violence on TV and movie screens. I also agree that movie and TV images are influential. Just like anything in life but moreso. They're viewed, after all, a million times around the world.

I just don't blame Hollywood; I blame us. Generally, if these movies didn't sell, Hollywood wouldn't make them. But they make them because we buy them; because we want them. Thus far, Medved only blames Hollywood. 

More later.

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Posted at 03:19 PM on Aug 27, 2015 in category Books
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If You Google 'Trump Mussolini'...

...on Google images, these are the first two photos you see:

Donald Trump and Benito Mussolini

And they're not together. These are separate images from separate sites. You don't even have to work to make the comparison. Hell, Trump looks more like Mussolini than Mussolini does. 

I get the feeling that as the election season progresses, and if Trump's rhetoric stays at the same inflammatory level while his polls stay at the same high level—that he gets ahead by selling to us the worst in ourselves—you'll be seeing this comparison made more and more. Because #ItCantHappenHere.

Recommended reading:

Donald Trump: Making America grate again.

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Posted at 01:02 PM on Aug 27, 2015 in category Politics
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