Friday Good Reads and Quick Hits

It’s been a busy sort of week at the homefront, but we’ve got some exciting articles in the hopper for next week. In the meantime, to slake the omniscient society-hurdling thirst percolating in your word-hungry oppressed and power-lusting eyes (ed note: I’ve been taking writing lessons from Mr. Sean Penn!), here are some quick hits and good reads.

  • The White Sox, now projected to be among the teams with a 162-0 record, are also on pace to hit over 900 home runs this year, a new MLB high mark! In a year that’s between rebuilding and contending, that was a fun start. Matt Davidson has been the forgotten man, going from a top prospect to bust to a steady player. I don’t really expect him to hit three dingers every game (which I think is generous and understanding of me), but he has undeniable raw power, and could become a genuine steadying surprise. As it is, this is the weirdest and worst off day in baseball history.
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Giancarlo Davidson

  • Sticking with baseball for one more second, read David Roth’s little piece on Rickey Henderson the Involved Landlord. He’s exactly how you’d expect Rickey to be, sweeping the floors with his own nutball perfectionism, even explaining, in the traditional third person, that ‘Rickey needs Rickey’s houses to be clean!” It’s a bit of fluff, but a fun brief look at one of the 10 greatest, and probably 10 weirdest, baseballers of all time. And while you’re at it, take a look at Rickey’s stats. Did you know he led the league in stolen bases in 1998, 18 years after the first time he did? That’s nuts. Granted, 66 wasn’t super high for him, but it still would have led the league last year. Actually, it’s only been surpassed 5 times in the last two decades. That’s partly because we’ve gotten smarter about the risk/reward of a stolen base, but to reiterate my earlier point: that’s nuts.
  • All right, slightly more serious: read Peter Salisbury’s latest in-depth report on Yemen for Chatham House, this time on the Southern Question. I don’t think there is any question that the south is key to all of Yemen, and it is being largely ignored in the Saudi/Houthi/US/GCC/Qaeda-ISIS mix. But the Southern Question is really asking “what is Yemen“, and the answer doesn’t seem to be reflected in anyone’s policy. This piece is comprehensive and important, and you should read it all.
  • As a side note, Salisbury’s piece and a maybe-poorly-worded tweet by me spurred a bunch of private conversations, some angry but mostly civil, with southern Yemenis. I’m working on a long piece about the Southern Question that was born of those conversations, and obviously influenced by Salisbury’s great paper.
  • Alana Semuels has a harrowing piece on poverty and segregation in Chicago, making the what-should-be-obvious-point, often completely ignored in our politics and punditry, that “people at the bottom are struggling as much as they always have, if not more—illustrating that it’s not just the white rural poor who are being left behind in today’s economy.” Chicago is vibrant and wealthy and beautiful, filled with fit and educated people biking along luxurious lakefront trails and eating at incredible restaurants, and it is a scuffling dangerous and violent city, where life can be snuffed out in a flash of an instant, the police are another gang, and opportunity is denied by dint of education, by the misery of geography, and by the willful neglect of history. Something as simple as a rail line means the difference between getting a job and staying poor. These two cities rarely intersect.
  • This was illustrated to me at the March for Our Lives on Chicago’s near west side last week. The rally was held in Union Square, now at the far end of one of the hottest restuarant-and-condo districts in the city, which until recently was a meat-packing district. Beyond it a few blocks, the city becomes the “other city”. The rally was filled with the Good Sign Crowd, as boisterous as we were at the women’s marches. But the students, who live in the forgotten Chicago, weren’t interested in the NRA or in Trump or even, really, in Parkland. They reminded us, without pulling any punches, that they were afraid for their lives every day, and that a vast system, in which the petty bloodmanship of the NRA only played a part, kept them oppressed and poor. Those were the two cities colliding; then half of us walked back east, back toward downtown, back toward the gleaming skyscrapers and cool brunch places and open suburbs. The other went back to their lives.
  • London could face water scarcity in 2040! As Circle of Blue points out,  “demand for water could outstrip London’s supply by 2040″, by as much as 20%. Maybe when the rich areas of the world start to run out of water, as opposed to just the poor hot places, we might take it seriously. Ah, but 2040 is a long time away, right? There’s no need for…for…
  • Unrelatedly, 2040 from 2018 is equidistant as 2018 is from 1996.
  • But of course, things don’t just get bad the year of projections. It’s steadily worse. Like, when they say the seas will rise X meters by 2100, it’s not like we’ll go to bed dry and wake up deluged. Climate change is already happening, and happening quickly. That’s the point of this Inverse article about the record rate of arctic ice disappearance. The ice disappears because the planet is getting warmer, and disappearing ice means less solar reflection, which means more heat trapped on the planet. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, which is why long-term projections might actually be optimistic.
  • Another stark reminder of that is Noah Sneider’s Letter from Siberia, in this month’s Harper’s. Titled “Cursed Fields”, it is about an anthrax outbreak that slaughtered reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where reindeer are the primary economic driver for the Nenet people. While there are some who think the anthrax (or some other poison) was spread by Gazprom to drive away the locals in order to access the sweet sweet oil and gas of the peninsula, the probable truth is even more terrifying. Global warming is melting the permafrost (as seen in vast sinkholes and methane explosions, another self-reinforcing cycles), and unleashing microbes dormant from earlier outbreaks. And maybe even earlier diseases to which we aren’t immune. It’s a gripping piece, and a great look at a life in a vast and difficult land, an old way of life uprooted, for ill and for good, by oil and gas in the last century. Sneider also points out that Russia stands to benefit enormously from the treasures unlocked by a melting permafrost, which go hand-in-hand with the diseases pouring forth.
  • Happy Easter and Passover to everyone celebrating. Easter isn’t my favorite holiday, per se, but it might be my favorite one to celebrate. We go to my Aunt Marilyn’s house, as we have every year since I was born. She, and my Uncle Leo while he was alive, lived in the same house for that entire time, raised a family, had us over every year. It is in Wheeling, which is now a booming suburb, but when they moved there was past the outskirts of Chicagoland. Even when we were going there when I was growing up, there was farmland all around their little pocket of houses. It struck me as odd and exotic then, and I felt a powerful nostalgia for it that I couldn’t place, even while it was still there. Maybe it was just being there once a year, every spring, in dewy and never-quite-warm days, but I always felt an intense and unspeakable loss for the day even while I was there, even while I was a kid. And every year the farmlands got smaller, subdivisions were built, and now those subdivisions are old, showing their age, part of the landscape. The slow flattening of America caught up to it, homogenized. But I still see parts of the openness I remember, in carved out fields filled with power lines, in old drainage ponds that used to be for irrigation, in cul-de-sacs that seemed designed for Spielbergian heroes in that 80s borderland of sameness and weirdness, of suburbia and the still-wild rural areas in which monsters lurked. That’s gone now. It was fleeting even while it existed. But you know what they say: you can’t stop progress.

bloom

  • But, on the plus side, I can always say “I remember when this was all farmland”, and feel good and properly old.
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Monday Quick Hits: Berry and Breslin, Exxon, the NCAAs, and More

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Some quick hits and good reads to get us into a shining new American week…

-When I got the alert yesterday that Jimmy Breslin had died, hard on the heels of Chuck Berry, I had a vague notion of writing a piece about how the two men both created an American langauge. They took old traditions, grabbing along the way snatches of different and older languages, different sounds jumbled through the tumult of our history, bouncing around in the vastness of the land, from concrete wisdom to country passions, and in their own way, forged new and more democratic modes of expression. But then I thought: hm, I don’t know if I am really capable of exploring that, and anyway, it seems like something Charlie Pierce will do 10000 times better. He does not disappoint.

Did anyone do more to change American pop culture than Chuck Berry? This isn’t incidental; pop culture is culture. It’s an expression of our desires. Coming up with other names yields a short list, with maybe James Brown at the top of it. The list of musicians who were more awesome than Chuck Berry might be even shorter.

-So there was this commercial, in which a Jessica Chastain look-alike tells us that Exxon Mobil is really nothing more than a big ol’ jobs creator, and all the people they show are model attractive, that ran approximately 360000 times during the games this weekend. It wasn’t advertising anything, per se, other than the idea that Exxon is basically your neighborhood store, giving kids their first job so that Johhny can take Mary Sue to the movies this weekend. It’s basically a way for them to make us vaguely remember that “oil = good”. It’s essentially political, which is very smart.

Anyway, the repetition of that commercial is maybe why I had a dream this morning in which the real Jessica Chastain was giving a lecture where she said “There is maybe no more clear example of the importance of elections than fracking. Think about it: it’s an issue dominated by hydrologists, geologists, engineers, and increasingly, seismologists, yet is determined almost entirely by the people we elect. That makes it up to us. Do we elect the thoughtful, or the cheerfully venal?”

Seriously, those are my dreams with Jessica Chastain. Thanks, brain!

-Speaking of Exxon, that commercial was considerably more accessible than Exxon’s former CEO, who is settling into a quiet job outside the public eye, Secretary of State. On a weekend in which he moved us closer, rhetorically, to conflict with North Korea (a state to which North Korea themselves are also rushing), he also give some limited statements about why he’s not accessible to the press (and why he didn’t bring them along for his Asian trip, save for one friendly reporter).

“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. … When we’re ready to talk about what we’re trying to do, I will be available to talk to people. But doing daily availability, I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that.”

He added: “When I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it.”

He added that there’s plenty of media in the cities where he’s heading, lowering the need for a traveling press. And he disregarded the tradition of the secretary of State spending time with reporters on flights, saying “that’s not the way I tend to work.”

Well…shucks, Rex. It is admirable that you’re not one of those big media persons, always needing to be on the twitter for the kids, like one of those Kardashians or Kissingers. Here’s the thing, though: you’re not a CEO anymore. You don’t get to work in the shadows. You’re on the public dime, and you’re talking about issues of literal life and death, all the time. You don’t actually get to decide when we know what’s going on and when we don’t.

It’s fine that you don’t want to be a celeb SecState, and just want to do your job. But saying “I’ll only talk to the press when I feel like it” isn’t admirably modest or a burst of down-home sensibility. It is, at best, incredibly patronizing and undemocratic, and at worst, sinister. If you don’t want people to think that you’re colluding with foreign powers to help the energy industry, maybe don’t be so secretive.

-Speaking of the NCAAs, while I didn’t watch every game, I had at least most of them on at one point or the other. Yesterday was clearly the best day, though Nigel Hayes’s winner against Nova was bucket of the tournament, for sure. Witchita/Kentucky, which should clearly have not been a Round of 32 game, had that breathtaking sequence at the end, which might have been the most exciting part of the weekend. UCLA showing off their powerhouse offense in a 5-minute blitz against Cincinnati demonstrated everything that’s fun about hoops. And Duke losing in the first weekend makes every tournament worth it.

But, to me anyway, the most impressive game of the tournament was Kansas vs. Michigan State. It was a close one throughout, with a feisty Michigan St trading blows with the Jayhawks, until with about eight minutes left, Kansas methodically and brutally pulled away, winning by 20. In a weekend in which a 3-seed lost by about 900 to an 11-seed, in which Gonzaga nearly collapsed against Northwestern, in which UNC struggled against Arkansas, and in which the defending champ and #1 overall seed lost, to see a team remember they’re great, and play like it, was a sight to behold.

(Although, sneakily, and I might be biased, the best overall weekend went to Butler, which took on a very good Winthrop team and an extremely dangerous Middle Tennessee team, and never trailed in either game. Now their half of the bracket is UNC, UCLA/Kentucky, and most likely Kansas. Let’s take on some blue bloods, Butler.)

-Finally, my favorite read of the week was this in the most recent London Review of Books, in which Benjamin Kunkel talks about the “captialocene.” It’s a take on the Anthropocene, the idea that human activity has so changed the planet, in ways that were before only the result of gradual climatic and geologic shifts or sudden space-borne disasters, that it’s a whole new Epoch. This isn’t just a catchphrase, either: by the end of this year, the Anthropocene might be officially established alongside the Pleistocene, Holocene, Miocene, and others.

But the idea of the “captialocene” is slightly different. It argues that the great changes weren’t really the results of all humans, but came about as a result of capitalism, in which the land and the people were converted into capital for the benefit of the very few. That is, we as a species didn’t make a choice to do something, but a select group got rich destroying the planet.

There’s a damn good argument there (and nowhere is it I think more true than in North America, in which literally everything was alchemized into money). There is a counterargument that communism wasn’t exactly good for the environment (see, while you can, the remainder of the Aral Sea), but that was a reaction to capitalism, and still in the essential capitalist framework. The nature of the project is to wring profit out of everything, and if that means using up the world the way it uses up workers, so be it.

The other counterargument is that the process started long before capitalism. Hell, the people that came over to North America set out to immediately wipe out all large mammals save for buffalo, changing the ecosystem almost irreversibly. So maybe capitalism is just the ultimate expression of our nature?

The idea is that the capitalocene can actually transform into the Anthropocene, in which humans more broadly have a say in the environment, and our systems are revised to redistribute both economic and environmental justice. That is: the decisions about the earth aren’t just made by the few, for the few, but finally, for once, by the species as a whole. That does seem to be the only way to solve this mess. All it takes is a complete reordering of all our priorities. I’m guessing another asteroid will hit first.

Baseball History For People Who Like Baseball History

 

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This is the Zapruder film for Angels fans

 

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a White Sox game (note: I don’t know why, either) and, as it will, a third strike was dropped. The catcher easily threw out the batter/runner, as they do. Maybe this one was slightly closer than usual, or maybe it was just because the game was boring and whatever I was reading wasn’t holding my attention, but I started to wonder about the dropped third strike. It’s a strange rule, giving new and unfair life to the batter. Now, as the beneficiary of one of the oddest (and honestly, dumbest) dropped third strikes in recent memory, it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. I vowed to find out why this rule existed, and what in baseball history caused it to be there.

And then promptly forgot about it, probably by the next pitch.

However! There are people who are much better than me, and coincidentally, my great and good friend Brett Kaufman took a break from aiding and abetting terrorism and sent an article from the invaluable people at the SABR Society. It’s from last year, but it pretty timeless, in the same way baseball is. Apparently, the dropped third strike has its roots in a form of German protobaseball.

The story begins in an unexpected source: a German book of children’s games published in 1796 titled Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (“Games for the exercise and recreation and body and spirit for the youth and his educator and all friends in innocent joys of youth”) by Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.2 Gutsmuths was an early advocate of physical education. He is best known today, outside the rarified field of baseball origins, for his promotion of gymnastics. In 1793 he published the first gymnastics textbook, Gymnastik für die Jugend (“Gymnastics for Youth”). His 1796 work extended the scope to additional games. These include a chapter Ball mit Freystäten—oder das Englische Base-ball (“Ball with Free Station—or English Base-ball”).

Gutsmuths wanted people to run, as Germans do, and to exercise, even if they couldn’t hit a loftily-tossed ball (think beer league softball). Through the literal centuries, through the wild and murky past of baseball forming in cities and towns across the nation, as different rules were enforced differently, this idea came and went, and finally stuck. It’s now part of the unquestioned canon.

That’s one of the coolest things about baseball. We know exactly when James Naismith founded basketball. The history of football is pretty understood. But baseball has all these weird quirks, these little foggy twists in time. Researchers are always finding stories about a group of Norweigan tree-fellers in Wisconsin playing a recognizable game in the 1820s, or something (that’s made up, but you know). We keep learning more about it, like it’s some ancient civilization that’s continually being dug up. It’s so cool to see how it influences even what’s happening at Guaranteed Rate Stadium.

Guaranteed Rate Field: The Nadir Of White Sox Fandom

 

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Just think of this and be happy.

 

 

It’s been a rough year to be a White Sox fan. It started with an unbearable redneck muppet who could barely find the Mendoza line complaining that his kid wasn’t allowed to manage games, and somehow went downhill. The actual season started out great before collapsing into just another mediocre year. Another in a long string of middling and plodding seasons for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and, in that time, only came actually close once. Another year where in June you could squint your way back into contention, but every two or three game streak was followed by a bad week. The emblematic moment of our season was when one of the best pitchers in the game, and one of the best we’ve ever had, cut up the 1976 throwback jerseys because he didn’t want to wear them. That hurt for reasons I’ll explain in a second. The fact that the Cubs are the best team in baseball, with the brightest future, and who are doing everything right, and are genuinely likable, just makes it worse.

But there is a new low now. This is worse than Disco Demolition (which was awesome). This is worse than the Ligue boys (who were Cubs fans). This is way worse than the grand Comiskey name being changed to U.S. Cellular Field. I can’t…I can’t even type it.

BREAKING: Guaranteed Rate has purchased naming rights to U.S. Cellular Field. Will be known as Guaranteed Rate Field thru 2030.

This is just…it’s the worst. It’s the worst name. Worse than Enron, probably, because when the Astros stadium was first named that no one knew that they were a country-wrecking band of criminals. Some shady third-rate mortgage company with a terrible name? It’s disgusting. I like Jerry Reinsdorf, and I get that parks have to have naming rights these days, but this is abhorrent.

Worse, it is embarrassing. Being a Sox fan always means eating some crow, which for many turns into bitter anger and misplaced aggression. We have to listen to fans of a team that hasn’t been in the World Series since the end of WWII talk about how we don’t matter, and for the most part, they are right. Sports aren’t entirely about success. They are about the trappings of fandom, and our trappings aren’t glamorous.

And for the most part, that’s been fine. Many of us actually like it. We have our insularity, and we have our weirdness, and we have our quirks. Our history isn’t illustrious, and it is frequently grimy, but in a cool, late 70s, early 80s sort of way. We like it. We like bad fashion and dumb jokes and an owner who created an exploding scoreboard. We like being the weird cousin that no one cares about. There is an aggressive tribal attitude to it, sure, but there is also a sense of family. We have our family history, and that includes terrible choices, like those 1976 throwback unis. They were dumb, but they were fun, and they were ours. That’s why Sale cutting them up was such a blow. Our best player isn’t one of us, like Beuhrle and Konerko and Jermaine Dye and even (especially) Ozzie were. And more to the point, he shouldn’t be. Why would he? We’re not relevant, and just middling. That’s why this season is so hard.

And now this. “The Cell” was at least a decent dimunitive. US Comiscular was fun to say. There’s nothing here. It’s bland and insulting and a disgrace. No one can ever– ever!– say “let’s catch a game at Guaranteed Rate Stadium” without rolling their eyes. Everyone has every reason to make fun of us. They always made fun of us anyway, but we had our defenses. Now, year by pathetic year, and terrible business decision by terrible decision, those defenses are being stripped.

I’ll always be a White Sox fan, until the day I die, and will be passionate about them. I’ll always love going to the ballpark with my family. I’ll love our traditions.  I’ll still mostly call it “Sox Park”. But others won’t. It’s even more of a joke. This really hurts.

Best Correction: 2016 Olympics

From the Times

Correction: August 17, 2016

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the given name of an American swimmer. He is Townley Haas, not Tommy.

Come on, Times. Think for one second before printing. The hell kind of name for a swimmer is “Tommy”?

(Note: this is probably unfair, as I couldn’t identify Townley from Adam, except that the former is probably in way better shape and has dedicated his life to something impressive. But it just seems perfect)