Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

The Indians at Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.

We

The godfather of dystopia

We

I just finished reading We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could try to sound impressive and say that I read the novel because I enjoyed (is enjoyed the right word for a dystopian novel?) Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and because most literary critics contend that both novels are influenced by We, it was almost my responsibility to check it out for myself. But I’ll be honest: I’ve always wanted to read a novel written by someone named Yevgeny.

I’ve wanted to write a comparison between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World for some time now. And since I now have the so-called godfather of dystopian novels to add to the comparison, now seems like as good a time as any.

Writer’s block

I have writer’s block, and I hate it.

I hate the feeling of not producing anything. For me, writer’s block hasn’t just affected this blog, but all or most aspects of my creative life, which are basically this blog and my programming projects that I like to work on on nights and weekends. I don’t tend to do a lot of partying or going out on weekends, so the fact that I feel so fatigued and unmotivated on weekends means I’m pretty much a waste of space.

It’s why I’m up late on a Saturday night: I’m trying to figure out things I can write about that can get me out of my blogging slump. (One of my topic ideas was this.) One of the things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and months, for me anyway, is that writer’s block doesn’t necessarily mean I’m out of ideas: I’ve had half-formed post ideas in my head for a Catching Fire review, a Lone Survivor review, a healthcare.gov analysis, and even something about Richard Sherman. I actually have unpublished and unfinished drafts sitting in my WordPress install for three of those topics. Each time, I logged in to WordPress and started writing, but either before I could get to my pithy sentences or just after, I’d say to myself, “who cares?” (Much like you’re probably saying now.) Each time, I eventually started to get frustrated: frustrated that I couldn’t phrase an idea exactly how I wanted it to, frustrated that the ideas I had weren’t substantiated enough, frustrated that the ideas weren’t even unique.

That’s what writer’s block is for me: the feeling that my ideas are unimportant and not worth sharing or developing. This sort of follows from how I behave socially: my personality is fairly introverted, and in general I make a conscious effort not to speak unless I feel like I have something to say that’s worth saying, because it drives me absolutely nuts when people say things that they have to know aren’t worth saying. So when I’m writing a post about healthcare.gov, I’m constantly asking myself: “is this worth saying? Has this already been said?” If I’m working on a side project like a static blog engine, I’m asking myself: “is this even worth doing? Hasn’t someone way smarter than me done this already?”

Looking at this objectively, these are fairly impossible standards. On the blog post side, I’m comparing my tiny little blog to pieces and articles I read every week by professional, published writers who do this for a living. Do I really expect my post that took me 90 minutes to write, edit and publish to look and feel like a Grantland.com feature, which take days, or even weeks, with all the research, writing, and editing involved? On the programming side, I’m comparing my tiny little side projects to the work of the best programmers in the world, often working in teams. I’m working on this stuff on the side, but most of the open source software I compare my work to is developed by people who do these projects at least 20 hours a week with teammates.

I’m reading a book called “Every Good Endeavor” by Timothy Keller, and in the prologue the author mentions a short story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote called “Leaf by Niggle” as sort of a side project while he was working on Lord of the Rings. I’ll leave it to you to read the plot summary, but the gist of the story is that it’s not worth getting hung up on small personal projects in this life and that ultimately your time is better served in your community. It was encouraging to me to know that a) the frustrations of writer’s block (or more generally, creativity block) aren’t permanent, and b) that even a writer as prolific as J.R.R. Tolkien was capable of writer’s block.

All of that to say, again: I hate writer’s block. And I think in order to get through it, I’m going to try writing a little less, a little more often, and try not to be so hard on myself. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just switch to writing exclusively on Twitter. (Kidding…ideally.)

“Beautiful, don’t you think?”

The best movies of 2013

Gravity

2013 was another great year for movies. We had the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, the beginning of Phase 2 of the Marvel universe, two movies featuring a terrorist attack on the White House, and seemingly at least 30 movies featuring a futuristic dystopian US government in which nothing is what it seems. I didn’t get to the theater to see every movie I wanted to see, but nevertheless, the best five movies I saw this year are after the break.

The first shot

How Amazon's already winning the Drone War

The talk of the technology sector this week.

The talk of the technology sector this week.

Earlier this week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos let it slip that his company is working on delivery drones. The premise is fairly simple: small, spartan octocopters that load up your purchase, take off and automatically fly up to 10 miles to your house before setting your package gently on your front sidewalk and returning to the warehouse. Amazon has released a promotional video which looks straight out of a sci-fi movie, but they say it’s indicative of technology that actually exists today. In the couple days since the announcement, the tech sector has mostly scoffed at the idea as at best way more than two years away, and at worst a clever marketing ploy right before Cyber Monday. But companies like UPS and Google have had more interesting reactions: they’ve announced they’re getting into robotics too.

Home stretch

The sun sets on the 2013 season at Progressive Field.

The sun sets on the 2013 season at Progressive Field.

Last night I went to my second Indians game of the year, the last home game of the season for the Tribe. Indians games are always a good idea, but ever since moving to South Carolina I try to get to a game every time I’m in town. I planned this visit home about a month and a half ago, but as the weeks passed and the trip got closer, the American League Wild Card race got closer and more interesting, and it became more and more evident that it’d be important to be at Progressive Field sometime this week. I decided it was important enough to leave a day early to give myself time to get to the stadium before the Tribe wrapped their home schedule.

I should mention that the night before last, the Indians led for most of the game before giving up a one-run lead in the top of the ninth on two White Sox solo home runs. But then in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on second, Jason Giambi, who is 42 and earlier this season slid head first into first base to stretch out at infield single, hammered a 1-1 pitch into the lower deck to give the Indians a 5-4 win. (Reason #1,425,241 why I love baseball: plays like this. Did I mention the score was 14-2 at the time?) It was the Indians’ 11th walk-off, which means that for any given home game this season, you had almost a 15% chance to see a walk-off win (want to see them all?). But it was last night that seemed to say, hey, you know what? We might actually pull this off. And it was for that reason that the Final Day crowd numbered 30,942, not a sellout, but a pretty good night all the same.

I’ve been to over fifty games at Progressive Field. Three of those were Opening Days, two more were playoff games; another was a division clincher and every game I attended before 2002 was a sellout. But last night was unique. I learned that the people at a last home game of the season are a vastly different crowd than Opening Day or even the playoffs. Opening Day, in a lot of ways, is a national holiday. After all the preceding pageantry and ceremony, the game seems almost secondary. People are there because it seems like a place to be that day (and if you can use it as an excuse to get out of a half day of work, why not)? Playoff games are also different: playoff fans are intense, but not necessarily knowledgable; excited, but not necessarily invested. If the Indians were to make the playoffs, the stadium would sell out for each home game. But the odds would be that a good portion of those fans hadn’t been to a game in 2013, maybe longer. Many of them only tune in once things get really interesting (sort of like me and the NBA).

But the last game of the season crowd was really interesting. These were knowledgable fans, who knew when to cheer (I give them credit for the standing ovation for Giambi, but I give them even more credit for the standing ovation for Masterson). When the scores of the Rays’ and Rangers’ games were announced, and both were winning, the crowd knew to boo, because those are both teams that would help the Indians out a ton by losing. There were big roars of approval for strikeouts in big moments. I didn’t ask around, but I bet most people weren’t at Progressive Field last night for the first time in 2013. The difference between the Opening Day crowd and the Final Day crowd can be summed up with the following statement: the Opening Day crowd is glad to have baseball back, but doesn’t really notice it’s gone; the Final Day crowd is dreading the offseason, dreading the long, baseball-free winter.

Last night felt like a final number for the Indians, a band on stage playing their final song of the set. But the way we were roaring, the electricity in the building and the intensity of what wasn’t a particularly close game, it felt like the crowd was demanding an encore. The Indians won last night, extending their winning streak to six overall, fourteen against the White Sox (which is ridiculous), and running their home record to 51-30. It was a typical Indians win: not entirely clean, not entirely efficient, but effective, and it got contributions from everyone.

I remembered last night that the Indians are more than a team who plays in Cleveland. Back when I was a kid I liked all the Indians, but to me they were always part of a whole and if they weren’t on the Indians I didn’t necessarily root for them. I remember assuming that as the fan, I cared the most, that if they lost it wouldn’t bother them much and they’d just try again the next season. But as the 90s and the yearly playoff visits faded into memory, I came to realize that careers are finite, and chances like this don’t come around all the time. Which is why I want this not just for the organization, the fans and the city of Cleveland, but for the guys on the team. For Nick Swisher, who turned down money from big market teams to play the hometown hero. For Brantley, Bourn, Chisenhall, Kipnis and Santana, who have yet to play in the postseason despite being super talented. For Jason Giambi, who could have retired a long time ago but loves the game so much and just wants another shot. For Terry Francona, who passed up more talented and more wealthy organizations to manage the Indians.

For now, the job at home is done and done. The Indians took care of business on their final six-game homestand, annihilating two teams that they should have annihilated. Their hard work has paid off: the Indians control their destiny. It’s up to them to keep that control.

Four games left. Roll Tribe.

“Wait, there’s a Waffle House here?”

A trip to Turner Field

Turner Field

Going into last night’s game against the Miami Marlins, the Atlanta Braves’ chances of winning were pretty good. First, they had won 13 games in a row, the last six on the road. Second, they were playing the Miami Marlins, a team that has played better of late but is still tied with the White Sox for the second-worst record in baseball. And finally, I would be in attendance. In my previous visits to opposing stadiums, the home team’s record is 8-5, which includes the 2011 Indians’ sweep of the Twins at Target Field. And in the last two games I saw (Detroit and Toronto), the home team’s starting pitchers threw complete game shutouts.

With Turner Field being so close to Columbia I’ve wanted to visit for a while, and after a few years of putting it off and a failed attempt earlier this year, a few friends from work and I finally managed to get out to Atlanta to see a Braves game. Read on for my review.

A problem of scope

A review of Man of Steel

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There's a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There’s a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The genius behind the Back to the Future trilogy wasn’t the nuanced way it dealt with time travel. It wasn’t the casting, it wasn’t the writing, it wasn’t even the music (although the music didn’t hurt, but that’s a topic for another blog post). The genius behind Back to the Future started with a simple idea: what would it be like to see your parents as they were in high school? This idea was the basis of the first movie, and while it had the intended consequence of making a humorous, character-driven story, it also had the unintended consequence of keeping the story scoped. The genius of Back to the Future is that it found a way to address time travel without ever leaving Hill Valley, California. Throughout the trilogy we stay within the same 15-mile radius, and although the trilogy takes place at various points in time over the course of 130 years, to Marty McFly the time-traveler (and the viewer) the events all take place over the course of at most a few weeks.

It would have been really tempting, especially in Back to the Future Part II, to try to make the story bigger. For example, when Biff used the sports almanac to win all that money, marry Lorraine and become the most powerful man in Hill Valley, it would have been natural to ask where Biff stacks up in terms of powerful figures in California, the US and the world. But the movie refused to do that; instead, it kept us focused and confined to Hill Valley.

And this is where Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel falls. For an explanation of that abrupt segue as well as Man of Steel spoilers, read on.

Rule #1: Do not get caught

NSA HQ

In his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a famous speech that over the years has proved eerily prophetic. Introducing the concept known as the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower warned of the dangers of how the military was evolving:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial [sic] complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower
January 17, 1961

Today, this unfortunately describes not only our military, but our intelligence community as well. Recent revelations first reported by The Guardian have revealed that the NSA have been storing records of our phone calls and possibly our e-mails and other Internet movements for at least several years. It’s true that the source in the story, whistleblower Edward Snowden, is (was) a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, and it’s easy to make the connection to Eisenhower’s address and see that we’re exactly where he warned we shouldn’t be. But it’s worse than that: the intelligence community itself is running like an industry, and since our government is in the market for intelligence, the industry is booming and expanding rapidly.

Maybe we were born to run

One year with the Nike+ SportWatch

My trusty shoes, a pair of Air Pegasus+ 29s. These are actually my second pair of this model, since I liked the first pair so much.

A year ago for my 25th birthday, my sister bought me a Nike+ SportWatch to use to track my running. I was a mild to intermediate runner at the time, running a couple miles a few times a week just to stay loose, but I had plateaued; I wasn’t consistent, and I wasn’t improving. Adding the watch to my running routine has nearly tripled my average distance, taken a good 30 seconds off of my average pace, and makes me look forward to getting out and running five or six times a week. In short, the watch and the data it collects and presents has changed my life.