Saturday, October 30, 2010

Other People's Ideas

I don't have anything original to say, so here are some links to people who have interesting ideas:

All that pink stuff you are buying for Breast Cancer Awareness? It's doing only modest good at best, according to the Straight Dope. The article doesn't touch on it, but I say it's worse--the substitution effect (i.e., people feel good for buying pink stuff that ultimately has little effect, and then don't take meaningful actions because they feel like they've already done their part) negates any good that is done. 

Why is Halloween basically a slut-tastic holiday? Blame the Irish, the gays, and the 1970's.

Eliminating the corporate income tax may seem like a rich-folk scheme propagated by evil Republicans, but Megan McArdle makes a pretty good case that the reverse may be true and at the very least is probably neutral. (I suggest reading the article, but the main points: corporate taxes just get passed on to consumers anyway, and since there are reasonably complicated deductions and loopholes for capital gains due to double taxation, eliminating a layer will probably have corporations pay about the same or more, not less, in exchange for simpler tax laws.)

Katy Perry shoots fireworks out of her boobs. Bob Nutting should hire her to prop up attendance at PNC Park.

Fantasy Flight Games has made a board game version of the PC computer game Civilization. This is not the original board game that the first Sid Meier's Civilization was based off of, nor is it the board game that was based off of the game that was based off of the first three Civilization games that were based off of that first game that was based off of the original board game, but a brand new game.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Unfinished Business

Have you ever read a book that you just. couldn't. finish.

I'm not talking about a bad, boring book, or one that is required reading. Those are easily tossed aside. I'm talking about a good book that you know you want to read and is about something interesting, but for some reason you've having problems chewing your way through it. I occasionally have this happen to me, and it's happening right now.

I'm reading a book called Black Shirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Fascism. I'm fascinated by this movement in history--along with the Spanish Civil War--and this is a figure I'm genuinely interested in, and yet...for some reason every time I go to read it, I get through a page, maybe two, in one sitting before I have to quit. It's certainly not a badly written book, nor is there any particular reason why I shouldn't be plowing through it.

 I wish I knew how to start you.

Occasionally, there is a legitimate reason for this. There have been several books that I absolutely love, but for whatever reason about halfway through the book I have to stop--finals time in college, a family situation, etc. Then, a few months later when I go back to get into it, I can't. I'm usually torn between refreshing myself by skimming through the first half of the book, or just picking up where I left off. Of course, at that point, my enthusiasm for reading a book I know I'm going to like has waned dramatically. This happened to me to Team of Rivals, a book I swear I will finish one day.

Of course, not helping me is the fact that I'm a hopeless OCD freak and when I start a book I have to finish it no matter what before I start a new book. I've gotten better,  but I still have a Guilt Pile of books on my shelf of uncompleted tasks. And it still bothers me when I put a book on "hold" like that. Someday the OCD gnome is gonna come and wake me up and serve me with a summons. I just know it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One Week

Well, it's less than one week until the midterm elections are over. As I pointed out here, I have absolutely no idea how things are going to play out, but at least we have a better idea than we did a few months ago. In the House, where polling is scarce and largely inaccurate and politicians and pundits more or less only have bits of data and loads of gut instinct, it appears the GOP will take control. Personally, I still peg it at 50/50--they need 39 seats to flip to gain control, and most polls state that the Republicans will pick up between 30 and 50. (Gee, thanks.) The situation is slightly different than in 1994, when every single Republican incumbent safely defended their seat. This year, there are a handful (about five) seats that were in marginal districts to begin with or had a special election where there is no way they can survive a general election challenge. My feeling is that the GOP will gain control, but not by a significant amount.

In the Senate, it appears that the GOP will pick up between 6 and 8 seats, surprisingly close to what it was late in the summer. There was a brief moment in which it looked like they may pick up 51 seats, but that was in an era when the likes of Washington state were going to go red. Right now the sure things* are Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, and (surprisingly) Wisconsin. A probable pickup is Colorado. The polling in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Nevada all slightly say Republican, but I find it hard to believe all three will. PA and IL are traditionally Democratic states, so it's hard to guess, and Harry Reid's position--for better or worse--will make him hard to dislodge. I'll say two out of three, which will bring (barring a huge disaster for the Republicans) the total to seven. In a no-holds-barred tsunami of GOP support, it would tip those three and probably Washington and West Virginia. That's ten. If they lose any one of these races, the Republicans would have to pick up California--something I highly doubt--to reach the vaunted magic number ten to gain control of the Senate.

Of course, that leads to another question: do the Republicans actually want control of both Houses? Officially, they have to say yes. But if the true prize is the Presidency, they would be better served to gain enough seats to effectively block any major legislation, but not take control so they wouldn't have to take any responsibility for the performance of Congress. In an odd way, the election of the Tea Party candidates helps them--now there are few moderate Republicans but plenty of scared moderate Democrats, making peeling off Senators and Representatives easier. (Of course, the presence of the Tea Party makes things much more uncomfortable in other ways, so I doubt it's a net benefit.) Once in power, though, having new moderate Republicans will become a benefit--and the next election cycle will have many more such opportunities.

The best example to look at is 1994. The Republicans took over, proposed a wide, huge swath of academic but unpopular programs that conservatives had left boiling in the laboratory for four decades, and virtually handed Bill Clinton a re-election bid. The exact same thing might happen this time around if the GOP doesn't keep tabs on its members; the unruly Tea Party will make this doubly hard this time around. Hopefully the Republican leadership will have better image consultants than Newt Gingrich did.

So the likely scenario is that the Republicans gain control of the House and the Democrats barely control the Senate. Obama won't be able to propose much complex or far-reaching legislation for two years. (Given the huge spending the Democrats engaged in for decades, and the huge amount of spending the Republicans then did for a decade after that, having both sides pull on both ends for a bit may be a boon to both parties--and, dare I say, us.) Obama, as an incumbent and with little recent controversy, will have an advantage for the presidency. (At this point, of course, a thousand unseen factors will have emerged. I'm generalizing here. And people who think that the health care bill and everything that's happened for the past two years will still be relevant in 2012 vastly overestimates the memory of the average voter.) Working for the Republicans is the fact that the next election cycle has an unusually large amount of Democratic senators in deep red states that got elected in the cranky year of 2006, and with a presidential election they will all be in tough battles.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Polls say it will be about 230-205 Republican, and I'm happy with that number. (I'd trend a little higher since voters tend to break for the challenger, and I think that effect will be more pronounced this year. I'm willing to go 240, but I'm doing this not knowing how much the pollsters already took that into account.) The Senate is tricky, but I'll go with 52-48 Democrats. Arkansas, North Dakota, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin will all flip. Nevada and Washington will be close but will remain Democratic. California isn't as close as it seems and will stay blue. And Kentucky becomes a much, much closer fight than anyone thinks but is still retained by the GOP.

The most important thing to note that in nearly all the polling, very few of the "winners" are polling above 50%. Which means that undecided voters still make up a chunk of the electorate. They will tend to go for the challenger (in this case, the Republicans) but they are still a question mark. We will find out next Tuesday.

*I am fully aware that a "sure thing" in politics is akin to "about 52% chance instead of 50% chance."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Paranormal Activity

I am not a huge fan of horror movies. No particular reason; I mostly don't care for the genre and am rarely intrigued by the stories. If anything I prefer suspense--where the excitement and creativity stem from what is unseen more than seen.

I also don't care much for the paranormal. Sure, I listen to Coast to Coast AM and I'm sometimes fascinated by the tales that are told, but I am most definitely more of an armchair enthusiast if anything.

I've never watched the Blair Witch Project. I've seen some previews and I just don't get it. Since it's not something I'm into and I pretty much already know the story, I just can't bring myself to get motion sickness for no reason.

And thus when I was presented with an opportunity to watch Paranormal Activity on Netflix--effectively for free--I decided to do it. So my wife and I watched it on her laptop. I was, shall we say, underwhelmed.

I mean, it was OK--I sort of knew what to expect going in--but I just didn't see what the big deal was. It was suspenseful enough--not a teaspoon of gore in the entire movie, a fact I respected--but by and large it just seemed boring. The first door creak seemed to take almost forty minutes. There wasn't a story. The effects were minimal. And I couldn't bring myself to care about the two main characters. Right after we watched it I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever wasted my time watching. Two nights later when I freaked myself out half-asleep and my wife found me hovering over the blinking red light of her heating pad wrapped up like Batman in my own blanket, I had a little bit more appreciation for it. But not much.

So neither my wife nor I really had any desire to watch the sequel, Paranormal Activity 2. But it was a lazy Sunday afternoon and--more importantly--it was matinee prices, so we decided to run to the movies and watch it.

It actually wasn't bad. I'm still not going to say it's particularly well done and I think a lot of it was pretty boring and predictable. And yet--I didn't care. It was fun. It's not anything new--cupboards flying open and the green night-vision antics have been done by other movies much better. And some of the situations were pretty strained. But they did, in fact, start to weave in a story. It actually answered a lot of questions in the first movie that it never occurred to me to ask--and now I sort of care how things will end up for the characters retroactively. They even set themselves up for a good, solid third story.

Are these the best movies ever? Hardly. I still think they rely too much on boredom punctuated by cheap scares, and the minimalist look is starting to get old; after Blair Witch and this franchise, I'd say it's more or less played out. Part of me wants to recommend that anyone who wants to see it should go to a theater, since I think sound is an important part of the movie. (There's no doubt that watching it on a laptop lessened my enjoyment of the first movie.) But I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it with the costs involved. Still, if you're looking for some good ole-fashioned Halloween film fare, you can't really go wrong with this.

Just turn off the heating pad before you go to bed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Secret Secrets

Here are a few secrets you don't know about me:

1. I really don't like Star Wars all that much.
2. I am a rabid free marketeer, as in I think pretty much 99% of what the government spends is flat-out unconstitutional and you should be allowed to sell your organs and your vote. That doesn't mean I don't want to see certain CEOs strung up by their thumbs and beaten with tire irons within an inch of their life sometimes.
3. My ideal house would be a renovated funeral home. It sounds creepy and expensive, but...well, no. That's it. Creepy and expensive is about right.
4. I never found the Monty Python television show to be all that funny.*
5. I love math but can't comprehend it. I will read articles and theories and be fascinated but I can't make it too very far beyond basic calc.

OK, hardly secrets, but still.

Anyway, I'm working on those reviews for Twilight Struggle and Founding Fathers. I more or less have them done. As in, "I have them done in my head but I haven't written them or taken photos or done any actual legitimate work yet." I should have TS ready sometime next week. I also have some candy reviews to write up, so those should be up soon as well.

In addition, I'm going to try and contribute to National Blog Posting Month, or NaNoMoStoPoBloRoCo. Unfortunately, I have an acute lack of ideas, so if you have any appropriate suggestions let me know.

*In my defense, I didn't have access to the TV shows, so my exposure was records/cassette tapes and the movies. Since the records were defined sketches with a beginning and an end, that's what I expected. Watching the TV show's odd experimental stream-of-consciousness format just turned me off, and to this day I vastly prefer everything but the television program.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Static and Noise

NFL Violence. I've been pretty quiet about this issue--pending suspensions for particularly violent hits in games--because I don't know what to think about it. On the one hand, getting a debilitating brain injury is sort of the thing I would think as a society we would want to generally avoid, even if it's in a competitive game that encourages it. In addition, I've heard plenty of respected former players basically saying "We did a lot of violent shit back in the day, like clotheslines and horsecollars, but we never saw this." On the other hand--they did do a lot of things that are no longer allowed, so something is always going to seem "too violent," since there's nothing more violent to compare it to. It seems like the ruling is an overreaction; the paralyzing hit at Rutgers, three very hard hits in one weekend, and a general respect for treating concussions with more medical precision all coalesced at once. There's also a lot of conspiracy theories that have a grain of truth--for example, rules are bent to favor the offense, since quarterbacks and wide receivers sell lots of jerseys. (And, of course, everyone in Pittsburgh knows it's to knock the awesome Steeler defense down a few notches.) I am leaning towards just letting the players play football--they signed up for it and are getting paid crazy money to basically get hit for four hours every Sunday afternoon, so one has to expect a certain level of risk. But I also don't think this is a fundamental shift in how the NFL game will be played--rules change every year, after all, and the game is still fundamentally the same.

Cameron 2012! I'm sure any UK readers may disagree, but what David Cameron is doing over there is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing here. He's basically paring government down to the bone and causing a fundamental shift in the role of the government. And--lest you think he's a cold-hearted right-wing nutjob--the military and many other conservative causes are bearing the brunt of it, too. Basically, everyone is getting a little bit of the axe. Compare this to, say, the 1994 Republican congress, who promised to do exactly that and proceed to do absolutely none of it. Time magazine even had a cover with a cleaver on it and the ominous headline "This Time, It's Serious." But it really wasn't. Sure, bits and pieces got sliced off, but any time anyone touched anything popular--or had a small, vocal interest group protecting it--the GOP backed off. Now, Cameron's plan hasn't been finalized, and we haven't seen exactly how he handles the political pressure of doing something so fundamentally unpopular so quickly, so the entire thing may go to shit. But early reports seem to indicate that his coalition can pull it off. And with the support of the Liberal Democrats--the American equivalent of Berkeley Democrats and Greens--it seems almost unreal. Also props to France's Nicolas Sarkozy who is holding out for much-needed pension reform, such as increasing the retirement age. There have been sporadic days of strikes but it seems to have blown up into a full-scale city-wide strike in Paris. Not to be overly dramatic, but Sarkozy's success will determine whether France wants to be a modern, relevant nation or if it wants to mire itself in a stagnant culture; society simply cannot handle the demographic and actuarial problems it has dug itself. I am less optimistic about France than I am about the United Kingdom.

Party Time. It's election time, which means stupid stuff is said by stupid people who should know better. Such as Markos Moulitsas (The Daily Kos) and otherwise-respected debate moderator Gwen Ifill wailing on Sarah Palin for tweeting "We Can't Party Like It's 1773 Yet!" to her supporters. Because, you see, Sarah Palin is stupid and she thought the American Revolution was in 1773 instead of 1776. Absolutely nothing happened in 1773, you stupid girl Alaskan! Except, you know, the Boston Tea Party, to which she was clearly referring in the context of the statement. I'm no fan of Palin, but it's this sort of knee-jerk reaction that makes tea party supports defensive about elitists who automatically assume they're knuckle-dragging book-burners.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Creepy Songs

Ok, so I'm not sure if creepy is the appropriate word to use in this context. I'm not talking about songs that make your skin crawl or make you shiver in the darkest corner of your attic while you fondle your childhood stuffed animal of choice while your eyes dart around looking at nonexistent shadows. If there was a word that captures what I mean it would be "solace-ish," if, indeed, that were a word, which it's not. It's those moody songs you think are the most important song in the world when you are a lonely teenager clutching the latest Anne Rice novel and smell like cloves but in reality is just another Top 40 hit half the teenage population is listening to. Only instead of actually listening to it back then, I am discovering it now and thinking that it would be the exact sort of song I would have gotten all surly-teenager about had I known about that song back then but now just use it to relax in the car after a rough day at work.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I've tried to accompany some of these songs with YouTube videos, which may not may not exist by the time you listen to them, and normally don't do the original song justice. But it's better than nothing.

There are several such songs I've collected in my memory over time. Leonard Cohen seems to be a common theme in my personal creepy song list, although I don't particularly care for Cohen voice. The main reason I'm bringing this up is I recently heard Jonathan Coulton's cover of Famous Blue Raincoat. Don't ask me why, but this song really, really disturbed me, even though it's a pretty standard retelling of the old normal love triangle/murder/letter from the dead saw.

Maybe it's the slow, brooding banjo in the background. Maybe it's Coulton's normally geek-rock voice pulling off some pretty good stand-in-the-corner-at-the-junior-high-dance angst. Maybe it's the vague references to Scientology. In any case, it's an awesome song that makes me want to take a shower afterwards.

Following the L. Cohen theme, John Cale's version of Hallelujah is one of the best versions of this oft-covered song. There are plenty of good ones, but this was one of the first I heard and, I think, the best.

This next song is as close to the appropriate dark emo song that should legitimately called "creepy," and also involves a death. And don't go all scene on me cause I called the Verve Pipe emo. I said it's as close to emo as this list is gonna get.

I wouldn't really consider this next song to be creepy, but it certainly is relaxing. Alison Krauss's rendition of Down To The River To Pray is one of a long line of wonderful Krauss songs. The video below only has the song, but to appreciate it it has to be watched along with the relevant scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou.

I'm sure it would have more impact for those who have sung this familiar hymn in church, but I hadn't recalled it when I listened to it for the first time. Of course, in the context of the movie it might be considered quite creepy since it involves eating gophers.

It's no Monster Mash, but this is about as close to a Halloween song list as I think I'm going to come up with. And that's probably the creepiest thing about this list.

Update: Talking with my wife, I remembered a song she introduced to me a while ago. As if the song already wasn't eerie enough, a band called Gus did a cover of Don't Fear the Reaper from the movie Scream.

Also under the "calming but not necessarily sinister" department--and also the "I'm not sure why this blatant commercial moved me so" is this three-minute long instrumental for Louis Vuitton. Nothing says "Sell Me Handbags!" than a wordless story about hopelessness and despair.

And this one isn't as much creepy as it is sad: Pancho & Lefty by Townes Van Zandt. I actually dislike the much more famous Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard version; I don't care for Van Zandt's voice, but for some reason it works for this song. This is an awesome live version:

OK, so this list became less a "Creepy Songs For Vaguely Halloween" list and more of a "Somewhat Creepy but Mostly Relaxing And/Or Sad List of Songs That Make Me Want To Buy Overpriced Leather Belts."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Conspiracy is Afoot, Part II

There is a short corollary to the conspiracy that started earlier this week. Last night at around eleven, once again, I heard a loud BANG coming from downstairs. I go downstairs to find that the entire snack container has fallen to the floor. Thankfully, the lid was more or less on, and only a few bits of treats spilled out. And there was Nora--no longer ashamed of her actions--standing over the container eating the dog's treats.

So I picked up all the wayward snacks. Nora kept rubbing up against me, which is strange--usually she is trying to maneuver a way to pry my eyeballs from their sockets and bat them around like a Christmas ornament. I walked towards the trash can to go throw something away, and she raced to the basement where her bowls are at, which is normally a telltale sign that she is either hungry or thirsty. Sure enough, her food bowl is bone dry, so I felt bad that I accused her if high treason and gave her some food. Clearly this is why she was trying to get into the treats--poor girl was starving.

After I feed the cat, I go back upstairs to bed and retell this to my wife.

"I just fed her at noon," she says.

That's right. That stoopid cat got fed twice today.

I don't think this is a proper conspiracy this time. I think this is just my glutton of a cat trying to get more food. Dexter is merely an unindicted co-conspirator.

My wife tried to defend Nora by stating that she is just putting on her winter weight. I say she just got done watching a My So-Called Life marathon on Hallmark and is eating her feelings.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Conspiracy is Afoot

I do believe that my pets have formed an implicit conspiracy against my wife and I.

Last week, I attended a birthday/Halloween party for one of my friends, and my wife played the part of the girl who sang "Mickey" and whose name I have forgotten and am too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia. This, of course, necessitated a cheerleader outfit, complete with balls of yarn on her shoes and blue pom poms.

It's this last item that is the issue. Not only are they good for doing pretend cheers to a thirty-year-old song, but apparently they make excellent snack time for cats. Nora just couldn't get enough of chewing on these little strips of non-toxic plastic and then horking up little blue puddles of ick in inconvenient places around the house (read: anywhere in the house).

If anyone sees Gargamel around, just tell him I ran to the gym. Let me know when he's gone.

So my wife tied up the pom poms in a plastic bag and put them on our dresser.

Later that night, I hear a sound. It sounds like a plastic bag hitting the floor--and I immediately know that it's Nora trying to claw her way into that stupid bag of stupid pom poms. I get up from the computer and storm into the bedroom to see that 1) the bag is still on the dresser, and 2) Nora is not in the room. Considering the fact that I watched Paranormal Activity for the first time two days prior, I chalked it up to the fact that it was simply a supernatural being who wanted to get me off the computer so it could use the Internet to look for victims on craigslist then make me pee the bed later.I then promptly forgot about it.

About an hour later, I go downstairs to get a drink and I see the results of the sound: a certain kitty has somehow managed to knock down a bag of Dexter's treats (Oscar's Gourmet treats, to be exact) from our bookcase and all of the treats in the now-open bag were everywhere on the floor. I got down on my hands and knees and picked up as many as I could.

The next morning, my wife lets the dog out. Now, normally, Dexter is not a morning dog; when I wake him, he refuses to move or react or do anything except let me drag him out on his leash to go outside, fully playing the part of the recalcitrant surly teenager. Today, however, once the door to his crate was cracked open he made a straight shot to the bookcase and stuck his snoot under every piece of furniture, lapping up each treat that I didn't find the previous night with his tongue .

This is the combined equivalent of H.R. Haldeman, D.B. Cooper, and Bernie Madoff of the house

Now, I can't speak for my pets (then again, neither can they, though Dexter certainly tries) but I am firmly convinced this was a clear elaborate setup from the beginning.

This isn't the first time they have engaged in such shenanigans. If I don't keep an eye on them, they're going to take over the house. Soon enough, it will be time to crate them up and send them off to the Boarding School For Wayward Wiener Dogs And Cranky Cats.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Addiction List

My wife is addicted to buffalo chicken salad. In the grand scheme of things, that's probably a good thing. But it got me to thinking about what I, myself, am addicted to.

Now, I'm going to define addiction in my own way, in that addiction is something where you want it more or less a few times a day with the occasional odd day off here and there but if you don't get it immediately when you want it you get very, very cross. Sure, that definitional probably isn't up to Dr. Drew's standards, but Dr. Drew is a publicity whore douchecake, so screw him.

Anyway, here's my current Addiction List, in no particular order:

 I am this diagram's bitch.

Every six months or so the news media likes to point out that something like 60 trillion Americans have a caffeine intake that is in excess of the recommended daily allowance, and every six months no one cares. The United States has gone out of its way to make sure everything fun is illegal, from lawn darts to Bumfights, so most Americans clutch their coffee mugs and cry out, "Please! At least let us have this!

I fall into this category. I drink something like the equivalent of whatever the appropriate measure is in Afghanistan's MRE supply each day. To be honest, I don't even know why scientists try anymore. The government might as well just pop caffeine onto the top of that little food pyramid, above the tiny tree-like vegetables and right below Whoppers.

Fun Crank Crank Revolution Fact: I once stalked and killed a wild boar and sucked the marrow from its bones because I couldn't get my hands on the proper amount of caffeine. 

Crossword Puzzles
I don't think I'm quite as addicted to crossword puzzles, except when I'm bored. Once boredom sinks in I actively hunt and seek out crossword puzzles. I'm a sucker for "gimmick" puzzles with strange rules and weird words. I don't know why, but I absolutely love making myself feel superior to a magazine that had some crossword-puzzle-algorithm program crank out eighty of the things each issue.

What's seven letters long and means "undiagnosed Asperger's tendencies"?

My problem is that I try very, very hard to not look up any of the answers, even when it is blatantly obvious I don't know what 1714 Spanish Opera El _____ is. So I get frustrated and make up letters, knowing full well no one will ever check. Then I feel dirty and have to take a Silkwood shower shower. It's a fine, creepy line between myself and a meth addict, I tell you.

Jonathan Coulton
I've already told you of the wonder of Jonathan Coulton, so I won't go into it here. Suffice it to say I'm still listening to his music. And probably once a day I will just be sitting there and then all of a sudden it's like I need to listen to Skullcrusher Mountain right now. Sure, this happens to a lot of people with a lot of songs, but I'll have to say I've more or less been doing this every day since mid-June. It's hard to find such perseverance when it comes to my unstable musical well-being. 

I have your subconscious, and soon I will have your soul. Which I will then convert into data and enter into a synthesizer to create a music bed for a song I will write about either frustrated lost love or net neutrality. I haven't decided which yet.

The Electoral College
OK, so this one is easy. Every two years, I get a bug up my butt about elections. It's less about my completely ridiculous political beliefs and more about my love of social and demographic change. Yeah, that sounds boring, but it's fascinating to me about why some regions vote for one party when the platforms more or less would say the opposite (I'm looking at you, New England). So during this election cycle, I'm constantly checking various web sites (mostly this site, which has solid data and awesome presentation with some good analysis alongside some head-scratching amateurish writing for good measure) and trying to determine exactly why it is that the Senate race in Wisconsin--a reasonably progressive left-leaning state--is going to vote against a popular Democratic incumbent (Russ Feingold, of McCain-Feingold game) for a no-name businessman that barely represents a majority of their beliefs. Likewise, two years ago solid-Red Indiana voted for Obama, a mystery I have yet to solve. This addiction will disappear shortly, only to crop up again when the 2012 race starts. Which will be the day after this election.

Getting All Worked Up About Controversial Issues That I Have No Standing To Talk About
This is more or less a constant state of affairs for me, so the less said the better. 

Sure, I have other, shall we say, obsessions--Civilization V and board games and grilled chicken sandwiches and who knows what else I've forgotten--but right now if it's a day where I don't get a dose of the above items, I get quite agitated. Which, to be fair, isn't all that much different than normal for me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

32 to 40: My Completely Ridiculous But Vaguely Plausible Master Plan to Expand the National Football League to 40 Teams

Editor's Note: I'll be honest--I cooked up this plan about three or four years ago when the financial stability of the NFL was fairly secure, all the teams were making money hand over fist, and seasons of continual sellouts were the norm. Since the recession, however, gaping holes have sprung up in the viability of some NFL franchises in addition to layoffs at NFL corporate, making my core argument--that the massive popularity and profitability of the NFL in even the smallest markets could easily absorb expansion teams--somewhat shaky. I'm still presenting it here, since I believe many of the current issues are a result of 1) the recession, and 2) owners making themselves look less profitable to put themselves in a better negotiating position for the pending lockout. So while the problems are a little more acute, I also think that the following plan is still fundamentally sound.

It's the bye week here in Pittsburgh, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to dust off a proposal for a restructuring of the National Football League. The NFL is the most popular sport in America, and has by far the greatest television viewers and per-game attendance. Sports media more or less exclusively covers football--with the exception of the World Series and a smattering of hockey games--from the middle of August through the Superbowl. The NFL, like all other major league sports organizations, slowly expanded as television markets expanded and its popularity increased.

My proposal: expand the team to 40 teams from its current 32.

Now, there are a lot of things that could go wrong with this proposal. But I think a lot of things can be properly addressed, and the good far outweighs the bad. So let's take a look at how this could be done.

First, a question. Expanding the league by nearly 25% seems insane from both a purity of sport and a business standpoint. Why?
Well, it's mostly due to the unique popularity of football. Unlike the other three major sports in America, there are only 16 games in a regular season. This is why ticket prices are relatively high; you only get eight chances a year to catch a non-playoff game in your home town.

That said, television revenue has been rising astronomically as live attendance slightly falls. (I expect the reality--live attendance flattens and then ticket prices rise--to occur as the economy gets better.) Money is money, though, so there doesn't appear to be any reason that revenue from ticket prices should fall even as more and more people watch the games.

There is a lot of untapped popularity in smaller markets. Evidence of this can be found with the attendance figures and revenue. While it's true that some of the markets have seen blackouts recently, there was a time in which all games sold out for the entire season for all games. Even those smaller markets-- such as Tampa Bay and Jacksonville--that are struggling with attendance, they are still largely profitable franchises. And as the economy improves, look for all of the current cash flow issues to resolve themselves.

Won't a massive expansion dilute the fan base?
Unlikely, if done properly. The main benefit of this expansion is that there will be more games for more weeks--which means more money for everyone, and more football for fans to watch. Unlike the other major professional sports, most people want to watch all of their team's games--again, the NFL's 16-game season is unique in this regard. (And they also want to watch--for a limited amount--other city's teams play as well, as evidenced by the popularity of Monday Night Football.) Expanding this to 18 or 20 games isn't that radical. It's also a plan that is supported by the NFL--they are currently looking to add two games to the season (with the possible reduction of pre-season games to compensate.)

The main trick is that you don't want to take viewers away from one team so they can root for a new team. Depending on demographics and geography, this shouldn't be too hard to avoid.

The other benefit to this is creating NFL fans from college football. There are a lot of smaller markets that are crazy over college football--because there's no pro franchise in their geographic area. From the NFL's perspective, if these eyeballs go from a Saturday game to a Sunday game, they're not losing much of anything if at all. (Most likely, they'll still watch both.)

And don't forget the brute force of numbers--our population has risen by almost 25% since 1990, and there only three new teams have been added since then. If we go by team-per-population statistics, we could expand up to 36 teams and roughly match 1990 levels. 40 teams would put us below 1990 levels, but not by much.

Won't this thin out the talent pool for professional players?
Ah, now we're getting to the more problematic issues. This one, I'm afraid, I don't have a ready answer for, except that I think it's not as big an issue as people think. Sure, with an eight team expansion, you're looking at increasing the total player rosters by 450-500 players, and these are players that clearly weren't good enough to be in the NFL before. And yet the same thing could have been said at any time in the past two decades of major pro sports expansions--and somehow they've all managed to get 30-32 teams in competitive play.

The point above is also valid: with 25% more population, there's 25% more potential players out there. And while they all aren't NFL-quality players, the CFL, AFL, and USFL all have some pretty good players that could shine in a pro setting. And there's always the team dynamic--may mediocre players become stars when placed in the right setting, and sometimes being surrounded by huge stars stunts their own development. Sometimes the opposite is true, of course, but it is a factor.

Why eight teams? Why not four? Or Less?
Mostly because I think the NFL's current way of scheduling is by far the best in pro sports. If you don't have 40 teams, it screws this system up. We'll get into more details below.

How would you get eight teams in play? Won't that upset pretty much everything?
Yes, it will, and no, I don't have a good answer. My preference would be to maintain the eight teams as sort of a minor league, with the top two teams granted NFL status every two years to slowly absorb them into the system. It may throw off the system for a few seasons but it will be doable. Just throwing eight brand new teams clearly isn't going to happen, so I don't know what a clean solution is.

Trust me: I'm certain there are more issues to overcome, but the main ones I've listed above. First and foremost is financial viability, and I think the fan base of football is more than enough to absorb eight new teams. But how do we make certain of that?

Where will the new teams be located?
This is the heart of my argument, and I'll admit that I don't have all the data. For example, I can pull population statistics, but there's no ready access to how likely people will fill up a stadium, or how angry residents will be for funding a new stadium. So I am going to present a few different scenarios.

First, let's look at The List. Here is a list of the current NFL teams with the population rankings. (For my purposes, I'm using the MSA list--Metropolitan Statistical Area, which more or less includes core cities and their suburbs--compiled by the census, which I think is a more accurate representation of population base. My original list was pulled from media market size, but there seemed to be some strange anomalies so I switched to base population. Even if you get data that includes distant suburbs and broadcast ranges and the like, it's not going to be fundamentally different than what is below.) Also note that since Green Bay is a special case, I'm lumping it in with Milwaukee since they roughly share the same media market. Skipped numbers are those without a team.

1. New York: Giants, Jets
3. Chicago: Bears
4. Dallas: Cowboys
5. Philadelphia: Eagles
6. Houston: Texans
7. Miami: Dolphins
8. Washington, DC: Redskins
9. Atlanta: Falcons
10. Boston: Patriots
11. Detroit: Lions
12. Phoenix: Cardinals
13. San Francisco: 49ers, Raiders
15. Seattle: Seahawks
16. Minneapolis: Vikings
17. San Diego: Chargers
18. St. Louis: Rams
19. Tampa: Buccaneers
20. Baltimore: Ravens
21. Denver: Broncos
22. Pittsburgh: Steelers
24. Cincinnati: Bengals
26. Cleveland: Browns
29. Kansas City: Chiefs
33. Charlotte: Panthers
34. Indianapolis: Colts
38. Nashville: Titans
39. Milwaukee: Packers
40. Jacksonville: Jaguars
46. New Orleans: Saints
50. Buffalo: Bills

The easy thing to do is simply to fill in the missing slots until you reach eight teams. That's not necessarily a good idea, but I'll present it here anyway. I'm calling this Plan X, because Plan Stupid was already taken by the Army.

Plan X: Expansions Based On U.S. Population Only (population rank in brackets)
Los Angeles, CA [2]
Riverside/San Bernardino, CA [14]
Portland, OR [23]
Sacramento, CA [25]
Orlando, FL [27]
San Antonio, TX [28]
Las Vegas, NV [30]
San Jose, CA [31]

There are already problems with this--some of the media markets are overlapping and others just aren't good prospects for a football team. This is why we're going to get a little bit more creative with this list.

First, I'm going to make some assumptions, which may or may not be accurate:

1) The NFL is interested in going international. This is more or less their official position. We'll shy away from Europe for now, since I think it's impractical; NFL Europa wasn't a success, but fielding one or two pilot teams might not be a bad idea. For now, though, that seems a little bit too ambitious.
2) It's OK if not all the games sell out. I'm sure the NFL feels differently, but there is more money to be made in new markets than there is making sure all the seats are sold. This will require a revision of blackout rules.
3) No relocations--at least yet. We'll see more of that point below.

Anyway, here's what is not on the list:
Anything new in Florida. Florida already has three teams, and two of those teams are struggling. Orlando doesn't seem like a football market, but I could also see Disney liking the idea of Dad stopping by to see the game while Mom is with Princess at the Magic Kingdom. So I'm leaving Orlando off the list under the assumption that if they want a team, they'll just move from Jacksonville or Tampa Bay.

Anything new besides LA in California. Sure, Cali has enough population to support probably three or four new teams, but I'm not a big fan of having more than one team in a city. (I don't even like DC and Baltimore both having teams and NY and Oakland/San Francisco already effectively share a market.) And since the vast majority of the population in California is in the southern part, there would be enough overlap that they might as well be sharing a city. Yes, Sacramento and San Jose are far enough away they could probably get away with it, but I don't envision California with more than four teams. (California has approximately 10% of the population, so having 10% of the teams would peg them no more than four or five at the most anyway.)

Less Teams in the East. Looking at any map of the NFL, the teams are heavily concentrated in the east. The population has slowly been shifting to the south and west over the past few decades and that trend is set to continue. Even though some of the markets missing on the list above are clearly in the eastern/New England area, the future of demographics states this will not be where the lucrative markets will be at--we don't need more Clevelands or Buffalos.

So, based on these halfway respectable assumptions, here is my exhaustive list of new NFL team expansions. I've used a little bit of creativity here, and not all of my choices are sound. I have a "safe" list after my own personal preference list that takes some of the riskier recommendations out.

First off, the obvious: Los Angeles. The second-highest  populated city in the nation needs a team.

Since it seems the NFL is halfway there anyway, Toronto is the next expansion. The market is clearly there. The only obstacles are the Bills and the CFL; the CFL may not want the competition, and the Buffalo market overlaps with Toronto. I am assuming there are no relocations, but this would be the most obvious. A team can probably be supported in both Toronto and Buffalo.  Toronto would be between Miami and Houston on the list above.

Since we are looking internationally, here's the most far-out recommendation: Mexico City. Mexico is mildly popular over gridiron football anyway (there is a reason Inez Sainz was in the Jets locker room, and many colleges have some fairly popular programs). Even if they are only 1% enthusiastic, the massive population of Mexico City--you know, the most populated city on earth--could easily fill a stadium. Granted, there are issues with traveling to Mexico right now, the income of Mexicans may not support high ticket prices, and there's always the language barrier, but there is also the potential for a massive amount of money to be made. I think if nurtured correctly, this could be a very lucrative addition. (I'm open for this team to be in a city closer to the border, but I'm not familiar enough with the demographics of Mexican cities to point out a best option.) Mexico City would be #1 in population in the above list.

My next city is Honolulu. Wait, what? Hawaii? This is a bit of a gamble, but there are two good reasons. First, I can't imagine any owners, players, or media ever complaining about having to travel to Hawaii for games. The Pro Bowl was played there every year, so it's not like they are unfamiliar with holding games there. Second, there is a rather disproportionate affinity for football in Polynesian circles, with American Samoa contributing a small but notable number of players in professional leagues. Honolulu's population ranking is 55--not great, but supportable.

Las Vegas is another risky choice. It's one of the few reasonably large and geographically distinct markets with no major sport team. Of course, there is an obvious reasons for that--all the major sports do not want gambling in any way associated with their sport. While I'm sympathetic to that argument, I think at this point it is overwrought. Las Vegas has become less a gambling haven and more a general entertainment city, and cheap flights and promises of a good time regardless of a team's performance would make this a premium "destination" city for football games. In addition, it's not like gambling stays in Nevada--gambling and football are all so global any team could just as easily be manipulated by bookies; physical presence in Las Vegas no longer matters all that much. The stigma is slowly going away from Las Vegas, and the NFL should capitalize on this, soaking up all of the pro sports glory while the other organizations dither. Ownership may be an issue, since the NFL forbids gambling interests to control a franchise, but that's not insurmountable. Las Vegas is #30 in population.

The five cities listed above are the "riskiest" ones. The only honorable mention would be a city like Omaha or Des Moines to represent the Midwest. They are nuts about college football, but their population is small and dispersed enough that I don't think it's viable. These are cities that may be worth trying out as a pilot and if it doesn't work out move it somewhere else.

I would also not mind if the riskier choices--namely Mexico City, Honolulu, or Las Vegas--be NFL-owned until any issues and/or financial viability can be worked out. The eventual ideal would be to sell it, but having caretaker ownership of the team may be for the best.

The last three slots are rather unimaginative; at this point, it's just a judgment call based on population, geography, and football culture: San Antonio [28] (a third team for Texas, a football-crazy and highly populated state that needs a third team); Oklahoma City [44] (a small but growing market, which has already snagged an NBA team); and Salt Lake City [48] (another small but growing city with an NBA franchise with a seemingly disproportionate number of NFL players from Utah and Idaho).

To be fair, other cities could just as easily be chosen: Portland, OR [23] (a larger market than these others but close to Seattle and not really a football town); Austin [35] (Yet another Texas team, and probably the least football-friendly city in the state); Memphis [41] (does Tennessee really need two teams? Then again, does Missouri?); Louisville, KY [42]; and Birmingham, AL [47] (representing the football-heavy Deep South but with a small, relatively poor, and shrinking population).

So Plan 40 is the following:
1. Los Angeles
2. Toronto
3. Mexico City
4. Honolulu
5. Las Vegas
6. Salt Lake City
7. Oklahoma City
8. San Antonio

If you want to excise out the riskier options, a brute-force Plan Safe could be:
1. Los Angeles
2. Salt Lake City
3. Oklahoma City
4. Portland
5. Birmingham
6. Memphis
7. Louisville
8. San Antonio

That said, there are a lot of iffy teams towards the bottom of the Safe List. Even OKC and SLC are gambles on Plan 40, though I think it could work. I'm all for letting things sort of shake out--i.e., if Birmingham or Louisville doesn't work out, let them move to a city that's willing to take them. I realize it's a lot easier said than done--no city is going to build a stadium for a team that's going to move in four years--but it can all be worked out.

What about relocations?
This may reduce the attractiveness of the plans listed above. Some teams are more or less move-ready, but I would prefer they more or less stay where they are. Obviously if a market can't fill up a stadium, it needs to go, but having owners race to the biggest cities should be something to avoid. The only exceptions are the ones noted above: Buffalo can move to Toronto, and one of the Florida teams can move to Orlando.

Because this proposal is a bit risky, I wouldn't mind having some sort of flexible arrangements with the new teams. Creating a team in, say, Portland, might be a tough sell. It's expensive to get a franchise and build and staff a stadium, and owners are going to want a commitment. On the other hand, I would like to see a test-market approach, where most teams will stay where they are at, but those that struggle can sort of shift around until they find their place. I don't know if that's practical or not, but a dialing-down of expectations and possible NFL ownership might help.

Won't this change football too much?
Probably not, but there can always be problems. It won't matter from a gameplay standpoint, and I think sports purists are a little bit too powerful in the industry. Times change, and the game has to change with it. Look at baseball; it is old and creaky and permeated with scandal. Hockey needed a top-down reboot after the lockout, and now it's one of the fastest-growing sports. The NFL is popular now, but that could change dramatically, even in the space of a decade. At the very least, demographic changes--mostly with a population shift to the south and west--will be huge. New teams will need to be added; the east will simply be a bunch of post-industrial cities having issues filling up a stadium, but strong and popular enough that no one will be willing to move a franchise. Unless the NFL wants to have a conference full of Buffalos, they are going to either have to create new teams or relocate old ones; and relocating teams is immensely difficult.

Probably the biggest change is to change the perspective of attendance and profitability. The model will have to be maintained that smaller markets can not only survive but thrive. The salary cap helps, but a rethinking about blackout policies and revenue sharing will need to occur. The NFL has done remarkably well so far, but one of the main sticking points is going to be managing small markets. I can't imagine why Jacksonville, for example, has to close off seats to avoid a blackout. Why not adjust ticket prices? The NFL and owners don't want to do it, but it's a perfectly reasonable mechanism to use. Teams will have to become more adventurous with their pricing models; and with the increase television viewership, the focus on live attendance should be changed to general revenue maximization.

What would be the new schedule?
Since the entire point of expanding to 40 teams is to maintain the NFL's nearly perfect scheduling arrangement, we now have to look at how the schedule would be maintained. We have two options that will have two different results: adding a team to each of the existing teams, and adding a whole new division.

Here's how adding a team would look. Note that I'm using the teams from Plan 40, and it doesn't really matter where the new teams will fall. Let's take the NFC:

New York
San Francisco
Green Bay
Tampa Bay
New Orleans
St. Louis
Oklahoma City
San Antonio
Los Angeles

Following the standard rules as of now, we'll look at Dallas as a representative team.

Within division: 8 games (NY, DC, Philly, and OKC twice each)
Rotating Division within conference: 5 games (We'll take South: Atlanta, Carolina, TB, NO, and SA)
Rotating Division in other conference; 5 games (We'll take AFC West: Denver, KC, Oakland, SD, and Honolulu)
Within Conference of same-ranked teams: 2 games (Chicago and Seattle).

Total: 20 Games

The other option is to add a whole new division. For our purposes, I'll just lump all the new teams into one conference called "Central." We'll go with Dallas again.

Oklahoma City
New York
San Francisco
Green Bay
San Antonio
Tampa Bay
Los Angeles
New Orleans
St. Louis

Within Division: 6 games (NY, DC, and Philly, twice each)
Rotating Division within conference: 4 games (Atlanta, Carolina, TB, and NO)
Rotating Division in other conference: 4 games (Denver, KC, Oakland, and SD)
Within Conference of same-ranked teams: 3 games (Chicago, OKC, and Seattle)

Total: 17 games

I think either one is an acceptable plan. The latter is probably more realistic; 20 games is probably too many for gridiron football, and adding one new division will disrupt things much less than tacking a new team onto each division--in the example above, an existing team would only play one of the new teams in a season. (Granted, one team would have to play the whole new division within the rotating schedule for each conference.)

So there it is. Certainly, the main issues remain unresolved: mostly getting current owners to extend the marketplace at the risk of diluting their own revenue base. Personally, I don't think that is likely, or at the very least the amount of revenue they lose from fan base is offset by the overall increase in the popularity of football; with things such as team licensing and television revenue, this is a real benefit. Obviously, I do not have all of the internal accountings of either the NFL or the individual teams.

This is, of course, more or less an academic exercise. I think the long-term viability of the plan is reasonably sound, but the objections of owners and the uncertainty of the future of the sport will most likely grind any reforms to a halt.

So I submit this to you, the reader: Thoughts? Issues? Recommendations? I, of course, am aware that there are probably mountains of legal reasons why this plan may not work, but I also assume that when there is money to be made by-laws can be amended.