American Governor

Matt Katz, an accomplished journalist, has authored a new book about presidential aspirant and the 55th governor of our fine state of New Jersey, Christopher James Christie.  It is titled American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge To Redemption.  I’m thoroughly enjoying the book, and highly commend it for a behind-the-scenes look at politics in the state and the making of a presidential candidate.  You can get a flavor of it from Matt’s excellent presentation to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers on January 26, 2016.  I was surprised to learn that the Governor’s approval rating has dropped to 31%, damaged significantly by Bridgegate, and  Matt does his best to preserve journalistic balance within the love/hate relationship that they apparently have.

In case you missed it, Christie delivered some salvos at Marco Rubio during the pre-Super Bowl Republican Debate showcasing the New Hampshire primary players, flashing the Jersey moxie that has made him a larger than life figure.


UPDATE:  Chris Christie drops out of Presidential Race

UPDATE: What went wrong for Christie


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Big Data in Baseball

Just finished reading an excellent book I bought last May, but tucked away for a rainy day.  Okay, it wasn’t raining this weekend, but nevertheless … caught my eye again, and since it’s only 18 days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, time to start gearing up!  The book is Big Data Baseball, and it centers on how the Pittsburgh Pirates turned around 20 years of losing (a North American record for consecutive years of sports futility) through a successful collaborative between number crunchers and old school baseball guys.  If you aren’t inclined to read the book, you can get a flavor for it by watching this video of the author’s presentation to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

In a nutshell, low budget teams can’t buy winning clubs by acquiring star players. So what they’re increasingly doing is applying metrics to gain a competitive edge on aspects of the game that haven’t been widely discovered or applied yet.  It’s no coincidence that aside from aging, for example, the Phillies had three left handed hitters last year who were all dead pull hitters to RF – Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Cody Asche.  Teams used extreme shifts on all three of them, which knocked considerable points off their batting average and OBP.  Okay, Howard and Utley were riding off into the sunset anyway, but this certainly accelerated their hitting demise.  Asche is young enough that if he were able to use more of the field, he’d have a shot at prolonging his career.

So in essence the Pirates acquired hurlers who were ground ball pitchers, heavily employed the shift, and added a third edge which was obtaining a catcher skilled in the art of framing pitches.  The Pirates story centers on Russell Martin, who was the catcher they went after to aid their transformation.  After helping the Pirates to the post-season, he left for the Blue Jays.  But framing has become part of the Pirates culture, and they were at the top of the heap again in 2015 in framing stats with Francisco Cervelli having taken Martin’s place.  (Is it any surprise that the Phillies were near the bottom of the pack?)  Look at the second half of this short video, and you’ll see why it’s so easy to get enamored with these subtleties of the game.

As Travis Sawchik points out in Big Data Baseball, it’s not that these techniques are new.  It’s that with newer technology to record and analyze these nuances of the game and the wealth of data now available for number crunching, sabermetrics can quantify how good the various players are at these skill sets.  When a catcher frames a pitch and steals a ball from a strike, the difference between going 2-1 vs. 1-2 converts a hitter’s count to a pitcher’s count.  The typical hitter posts ups his average by 150 points when swinging on a 2-1 pitch vs. a 1-2 pitch.  And that is *huge*.

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The Lyricist of Longing

When Rita F. Maggio, proprietor of Booktowne, handed me the galley of The Atomic Weight of Love by first-time author Elizabeth J. Church two weeks ago, she had a twinkle in her eye.  “This is already generating alot of buzz.  Take it home and tell me what you think”, was her too-good-to-turn-down invitation.  At first I deferred, reminding Rita that I much prefer fiction to non-fiction and wouldn’t be the best arbiter of whether or not Church’s novel due out in May deserves to be hyped.  It does.

Because I’m not given to reading fiction, I had no idea what a gift Rita was giving to me when she placed The Atomic Weight of Love in my hands. Nor can I draw comparisons for you between this work of fiction and others, as is customary in positioning the narrative voice of debut novelist.  But I’ll try.  As others have noted, there is some similarity in spirit to The Astronaut Wives Club, but that is promoted as a true story.  And the narrative opening introducing Meridian Wallace in her 88th year has the feel of James Cameron’s use of Rose Calvert in The Titanic.  So how fictional is this novel? There are clues from Elizabeth’s upbringing that elements of truth exist in it (isn’t every first novel supposedly semi-autobiographical?).  From a bio sketch:

“Elizabeth J. Church was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Her father, a research chemist, was drafted out of Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing his graduate studies, and was sent to join other scientists working in secret on the Manhattan Project. Church’s mother, a biologist, eventually joined her husband in Los Alamos. While The Atomic Weight of Love is not their story, it is the story of many of the women who sacrificed their careers so that their husbands could pursue unique opportunities in scientific research. Along with other Los Alamos children, Church grew up in an environment that gave her ready access both to nature and to female teachers who had advanced degrees in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and other disciplines. Church practiced law for over thirty years, focusing on mental health and constitutional law issues. After circumstances taught her the brevity of life, she walked away from the law to pursue her original dream of writing. She has written extensively for legal publications and scientific journals. Her short story “Skin Deep” won first prize in Literal Latté’s 2001 fiction contest, and “Lying with Dogs” was published in Natural Bridge in 2002. This is her first novel.”

Meridian Wallace’s mother recognized early on that she was a very bright girl.  The name Meridian confers scientific precision, and Meri was born to parents who set high standards for her -particularly her father, who was rigorous in his demands.  Meri’s father died of a massive heart attack at age 43, when she was only 10, and she immersed herself in her studies as a salve for the emotional wound.  Although math came easily to her, science was her passion.  Her single mother slaved for others so that Meri could attend the University of Chicago to obtain a biology degree with a focus on avian studies, with plans to earn an advanced degree in ornithology.  No bird brain was she.

Self-sacrifice is the central theme of this book, and it intensifies when Meridian falls in love with her professor (Alden Whetstone, 20+ years her senior) and forgoes her pursuit of a Ph.D. to relocate with him to Los Alamos, New Mexico. As Meridian notes in her prologue, Alden is cast as one of the scientists who created the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos along with Oppenheimer, Teller, Bohr, Fermi, and Feynman among others.  But this is not their story; it is the story of a woman who represents other women who were made to feel more as subordinates than partners in marriage.  Church is masterful in her portrayal of Meridian as a feminine trailblazer, and it’s hard not to cheer for her as she confronts male chauvinism at crucial junctures in her life.  Her husband is insensitive to her needs, and he is downright cruel when she suffers through a failed ectopic pregnancy.  The dialogue deftly goes ‘round and ‘round the “he said/she said” blame game leaving you to wonder how much longer the schism can continue before their relationship irreparably fractures.

Meridian is torn at various points in her life by divided allegiances, and Church plays on our emotions when Meridian meets a young man in the wild (Clay, 20 years her junior – turnabout being  fair play) with whom she carries on a torrid affair.  She loses a note with her lover’s contact information, anxiety-laden that Alden will find it, and Church leaves us in suspense about whether he does.  Just as their relationship hits bottom, and Meridian decides to leave Alden and follow Clay to California, she learns that her husband has terminal cancer.  Did she decide to stick it out with Alden to the end so that she would  cash in on the wealth she accidentally learned he had accrued?

There are many longings and misgivings that Meridian suffers along the way, but in the end she triumphs as a mentor for young women who develop their own set of brass balls, to turn a phrase in the novel.  I know it’s a cliché, but once I started turning the pages of this incredible book, I couldn’t put it down until I turned the last one. It is timely because of the push these days to encourage women to enter the sciences, and to stand on their own two feet.  How well Elizabeth Church is able to tell this story through crows’ feet is something that you’ll have to wait until May 3rd to find out.  But you can email to put a copy on order for now; then thank me later.

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Musicology 2.1

While I’m rocking, I’ll continue with some musicology but this time staying current and contemporary rather than rolling around in the usual nostalgia.  Let me introduce you to  Charice Pempengco, though you may tell me that she’s old news.

What a voice, ay?  Turns out her musical muse is David Foster, who is the music industry’s version of Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation.  It is quizzical to me to read an online biography that Foster “erupted” on the musical scene with his band Skylark in 1973.  Sorry if I offend you, but their “hit” song Wildflower doesn’t exactly portend the greatness that he would be destined for as a session musician to the stars.

I admire his principles, as detailed on his website: “Before he became one of the most successful record producers in history — creating albums that have collectively sold in the hundreds of millions — David Foster received a valuable piece of advice from legendary music impresario Quincy Jones. “He said to me, ‘If something isn’t exactly the way you think it should be, don’t put your name on it,’” Foster recalls. “His words of advice had a great impact on me, and since then I’ve always fought for my artistic vision. I don’t always win, but I know when an artist hires me, it’s my job to push them toward greatness, and to get something out of them they didn’t know was there. My personal motto has become, ‘compromise breeds mediocrity.’”

Foster has lived up to his name in encouraging the development of others, with Pempengco being only the latest in a long line ranging from Andrea Bocelli to Michael Buble, the latter having written hits with Foster’s daughter, Amy as performed here with Blake Shelton.

And looking outside at all the snow, why not finish with a Bocelli – Foster – Muppets collaboration on a seasonal classic?

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Musicology 2.0

Owing to Randall Jentzen’s Facebook page, I’ve been skipping down musical memory lane of late.  Late last night Randall’s tour took me to Steve Winwood’s solo version of John Barleycorn Must Die, hauntingly beautiful as ever.

Compare that to Winwood’s onstage version as the linchpin of Traffic, harmonizing with Jim Capaldi, 40 years earlier.

In 1967, Steve Winwood left The Spencer Davis Group (Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m A Man) to join the band Deep Feeling, anchored by Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason.  Capaldi convinced the his mates to rename themselves Traffic.  Though they made sweet music together, Traffic disbanded after a year when Mason went out on his own and Winwood joined Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.  Thankfully Winwood re-formed the band in 1970, the year that John Barleycorn was born.

Dave Mason did okay on his own and, speaking of old guys who sound as good as ever, can still do a great rendition of Only You Know And I Know

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An Invigorating Collaboration

Here is the backstory via Israel Video Network:  The one thing that Gad Elbaz and Nissim Black have in common is that they are both well known performers whose parents were well known performers. In terms of backgrounds, it’s day and night. Gad Elbaz, writer and composer of the Hebrew song “HaShem Melech” (God is King), is the son of Israeli singer, Benny Elbaz, and himself a well-known religious singer. Nissim [Damian] Black, born as a Sunni Muslim to rapper parents in Seattle, was a well known rapper at an early age. He and his wife converted to Judaism in 2013 and Nissim (meaning “miracles”) has been rapping Jewish ever since.  What an uplifting cultural synthesis coming together in one of the most multicultural cities in the world to say what they both believe…

And here is more on Damian Black’s background and conversion to Judaism.

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The Affordable Plumbing Act

(Thanks to my buddy, Jake Blatt, for forwarding this parable.  The original source is unknown.)

Only weeks after leaving office, on January 20, 2017, former President Barack Obama discovers a leak under his sink, so he calls Troy the Plumber to come out to fix it.
Troy drives to President Obama’s new house, which is located in a very exclusive, gated community near Chicago , where all the residents have a net income well beyond $250,000 per year.

Troy arrives and takes his tools into the house. He is led to the guest bathroom that contains the leaky pipe under the sink. Troy assesses the problem and tells Obama that it’s an easy repair that will take less than 10 minutes. Obama asks Troy how much it will cost. Troy checks his rate chart and says, “$9,500.”

“What?! $9,500?!” Obama asks, stunned. “But you said it’s an easy repair. Michelle will whip me if I pay a plumber that much!”

Troy says, “Yes, but what I do is charge those who make more than $250,000 per year a much higher amount so I can fix the plumbing of poorer people for free. This has always been my philosophy. As a matter of fact, I lobbied my local politicians to implement this into law.  Now all plumbers must do business this way. It’s known as the ‘Affordable Plumbing Act of 2014’. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it.”

In spite of that, Obama tells Troy there’s no way he’s paying that much for a small plumbing repair, so Troy leaves. Obama spends the next hour flipping through the phone book calling for another plumber, but he finds that all the area plumbers have gone out of business. Not wanting to pay Troy ‘s price, Obama does nothing and the leak goes unrepaired for several more days. A week later the leak is so bad that the former President is putting a huge bucket under the sink.

Michelle is not happy as she has important guests arriving the next morning. The bucket fills up quickly and has to be emptied every hour, and there’s a risk the room will flood, so Obama calls Troy and pleads with him to return. Troy goes back to Obama’s house, looks at the leaky pipe, checks his new rate chart and says, “Let’s see, this will now cost you $21,000.”  Obama quickly fires back, “What? A few days ago you told me it would cost $9,500!”

Troy explains, “Well, because of the ‘Affordable Plumbing Act,’ a lot of wealthier people are learning how to maintain and take care of their own plumbing, so there are fewer payers in the plumbing exchanges. As a result, the price I have to charge wealthy people like you keeps rising. Not only that, but for some reason the demand for plumbing work by those who get it for free has skyrocketed!

There’s a long waiting list of those who need repairs, but the amount we get doesn’t cover our costs, especially paperwork, and record-keeping unfortunately has put a lot of my fellow plumbers out of business. They’re not being replaced, and nobody is going into the plumbing business because they know they can’t make any money at it. I’m hurting too, all thanks to rich people who won’t pay their ‘fair share’. On the other hand, why didn’t you buy plumbing insurance last December? If you had bought plumbing insurance available under the ‘Affordable Plumbing Act,’ all this would have been covered by your policy.”

“You mean I wouldn’t have to pay anything to have you fix my plumbing problem?” asks Obama.

“Well, not exactly,”replies Troy .”You would have had to buy the insurance before the deadline, which has passed now. And, because you’re rich, you would have had to pay $34,000 in premiums, which would have given you a ‘silver’ plan, and then, since this would have been your first repair, you would have to pay up to the $21,000 deductible, and anything over that would have a $7,500 co-pay, and then there’s the mandatory maintenance program, which is covered up to 17.5%, so there are some costs involved. Nothing is for free.”

“WHAT?!” exclaims Obama.”Why so much for a simple sink leak?!”

With a blank look, Troy replies, “Well, paperwork, mostly. And the internal cost of the program itself. You don’t think a program of this complexity and scope can run itself, do you? Besides, there are millions of folks with lower incomes than you, even many in the ‘middle class’, who qualify for subsidies that people like you must support. That’s why they call it the ‘Affordable Plumbing Act’! Only people who don’t make much money can afford it. If you want affordable plumbing, you’ll have to give away most of what you have accumulated and cut your income by about 90%. Then you can qualify to GET your ‘Fair Share’ instead of GIVING it.”

“But who would pass a crazy thing like the ‘Affordable Plumbing Act’?!” exclaims the exasperated Obama.

After a sigh, Troy replies, “Congress … because they didn’t read it.”

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