Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

I asked for, and did receive from my partner, a subscription to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which has just finished up. Over the last month and a half I've watched a whole lot of rugby, and a whole lot of it was some of the best sport I've ever seen. It's almost more surprising the sport hasn't caught on in the states. You have big hits, displays of dexterity, creativity of play, and feats of endurance, quite often all performed by the same guy. It's like every player on the pitch is a Troy Paulamalu, except he can also pass and kick. And he's not wearing any pads. It's a sport where both a slick passing, smooth running, underwear model like Sonny Bill Williams (pretty sure he's an android,) and an oafish, heavy metal haired, troll like Castrogiovanni can dominate a game. (No really. Castrogiovanni pretty much single-handedly demolished the U.S. He would have eaten their hearts to gain their strength, but he had already ground their will to live into a fine powder, so didn't really see the point.) Hopefully there will be enough of a TV and internet viewership in the states that NBC (or someone, Versus maybe, seems right up their alley) will start to carry more of it. But enough grandstanding.

The United States Eagles played themselves proud. It was clear that in the parts of the game that demand the most intuitive skill--the skill that is developed over such a long period of time that it becomes part of a player's intuition--they were severely lacking, especially in the scrum. To have a successful scrum at the international level, you need to have forwards who have been scrummaging their whole lives, and the U.S. just doesn't have that yet. The same thing goes for the kicking game, though this gap between the U.S and the first tier nations is not so stark. Until we start developing rugby players at a much younger age, we'll be on the outside looking in. (More on this later.)

But, and I can say this because I watched damn near every single game in the tournament, the United States was the best tackling team in the tournament. Their match against Ireland was awe-inspiring. They didn't have the skill or the strategy to beat Ireland, but they tackled so well, they hit guys so hard, that if not for two huge mistakes they might would have made it a very close game. Every time an Irish player touched the ball, he was immediately decked. Their efforts earned the rightful admiration of the announcers. They played their guts out in their other three games as well, beating Russia, running their second-stringers against Australia, and then doing alright against Italy until the game went to the scrum.

I don't particularly want the U.S. to win the World Cup. I can enjoy the sport and root for them, even when they're not #1. (Man, were Bruins tickets easy to get five years ago.) And frankly, I find it annoying and arrogant that we seem to focus only on being the super best at everything in the whole world of the Universe. (Anybody remember the “2010” plan where the best high school soccer players were drafted directly into the MLS in the hopes of fielding a team that could win the soccer world cup by 2010. Yeah, me neither.) However, I think it would be pretty cool for American rugby if opponents made sure to bring extra ice to every match against the Eagles. We might never be good enough to win a cup, but if we continue to hit like this, we'll leave our mark on every tournament we're in.

One for the coaches. Ending a 24 year drought, the favored New Zealand All-Blacks won the tournament. Though they were the most talented, player for player, team in the tournament—and this will make all the youth anything coaches happy—they won the tournament through discipline. Against teams that just didn't have the man-power to play with them, the All-Blacks scored a lot of tries and showed a lot of flash, but against the more talented teams like Australia and France, the All-Blacks won simply by giving up far fewer penalty kick chances than their opponents. They took chances in their offensive end trying to win the ball back, but once they got into reasonable kicking range (you kick penalty kicks from where the penalty occurs) they played it safe. The result of this strategy is they slowly but surely pulled away from their opponents. And when they got the chance to show their flare they did.

I watched a lot of rugby in the last month and pretty much every game offered something spectacular, even for the second tier teams. There was the five minutes when Namibia had the greatest kicker in the world, the Argentina winger who became un-tacklable for ten seconds and broke Scotland, the Tonga defeat of France in the biggest upset of the tournament, the All-Blacks winning it at home, and of course, that first hit the US laid on the Irish, that told Ireland they were in for a game.

(Finally, American commentators are, by and large, an abomination of the spoken word, compared to the commentary offered for the rugby world cup. I don't know where the difference comes from, but it is downright embarrassing.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cooking for Gamers: Stock

Making stock might be the perfect cooking activity for gamers, or really for anyone who has some hobby or enjoys some activity that keeps them in the house for hours at a time. It's easy in terms of technique, it's almost impossible to screw up, and, if you're in to the whole sustainability thing, it extracts the absolute maximum amount of food value from your vegetables and meat. And if you happen to not be the primary cook in your household, this is a great way to contribute to the overall health and quality of your food, because not only does homemade stock taste better than store bought, in liquid, powder, or cube form, there is so much less sodium in it that it actually lowers someone else's risk of heart disease while you eat it.

The first ingredient: a bag in the freezer. If you eat a lot of fresh vegetables keep the scraps. Stalks from greens like kale and chard, carrot tops (though we find the carrot greens give a swampy flavor to our stock), parsnip peels, onion skins, parsley stems, mushroom stems, etc. Nearly all vegetables that can be boiled, don't have really strong flavors of their own like peppers, or flavors you don't personally like, aren't so starchy they'll turn the stock into a sludge, like potatoes, and are not somewhat gassy like the various permutations of cabbage (I know, which is like half the vegetable world, but still) can be part of a stock. Just collect them all in a bag and stick it in the freezer. If you eat meat, keep the bones/carcass in a bag in the freezer as well. You can also just buy carrots, celery, and onions, or chicken wings, if you don't generate the raw materials on your own. When you can no longer fit Red Baron's Pizzas in the freezer, it's time to make stock.

Second ingredient: The biggest pot you have. Dump your bags in aforementioned pot with water, some fresh carrots, onions, and celery (everyone knows the French for that, right? Good.) a bay leaf or two and some garlic. Because we usually pressure can our stock in quarts and we've got a big old pot, we'll usually measure out six or seven quarts of water, but there's nothing wrong with just filling the thing up.

Then put the spurs to it and get your game started, but don't go on any quests yet. If you've got a big session planned, this would be the time to lay in supplies at the computer/gaming console, get connected to your teammates or search for any tips or cheats you might want to use. (Well, you might not want to use any, but I'm not very good at video games, so I usually keep a walk through handy.)

Once the stock has reached a boil, set it to simmer and go do something else for a couple of hours. No really. As long as you don't leave it unattended for so long that all of the water evaporates and you start burning the mass of disintegrating vegetation, you really can't screw this part up. Sure you can boil the stuff long enough that it breaks down more than you might want it do, but that just means you're straining will need to be more meticulous. When is it done? I don't know. When you reach a good save point. When you have to go to the bathroom. When you lose your internet connection. But seriously, folks, if the fresh carrots you put in are mushy, they have, in the words Saint Alton Brown (Hallowed be thy multitasker) “given it their all.” We'll often do two or three rounds of stuff in one pot, just to make the stock more flavorful and free up more space in the freezer.

Once the stock is done, fish out all the clumps of stuff and strain out all the bits of stuff. You'll need to cool it down before the next step. In a perfect world you'll be able to get the stock out of the “danger zone” (40-140 F) as quickly as possible. You can put it in a cooler with ice and then transfer it to your fridge. In my world, we have to leave it out overnight and then put it in the fridge to finish cooling. If you're making veggie stock, you'll need to do this in order to season it properly. If you've got meat in it, you'll need this so you can take the fat out. The fat will congeal in the top and you should just be able to pull it out with your hands. (And don't throw that out. It's useful. And healthier than margarine.) For the game, now you can really get into something involved and totally play all night. I guess everybody else can catch up on their reading, or Dr. Who, or sleep, or whatever it is the kids do these days.

Since our stock has been in the danger zone for, like ten hours, we bring it to a rolling boil for at least ten minutes before we do anything else to it. Then we season it. Salt (a lot more than you would think but still way less than store brought). Pepper. Herbiage, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, or really anything that isn't basil, sage, cilantro, or something with its own strong distinct flavor. (Probably would avoid mint, while we're avoiding things). Taste and adjust seasoning. Package how you see fit. You can can it, freeze it, or use it. I'd advise leaving the last 1/8-1/4 an inch in the pot, because there's probably a lot of detritus in it, that even the finest strainer or cheese cloth will have missed.

And there you have it. Your rice pilaf will be so much better. As will all your soups, or hot pots, or really anything that uses stock. And most of the time you were playing video games.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Occupy Wall Street FAQ

Pretty much every mainstream article or other coverage of the Occupy Wall Street actions asks the same few questions. Here are my answers the those questions. And they're just my answers. Others who support the actions like I do, including those actually occupying, might give different answers.

What are you protesting against?

This question usually gets asked in the opening paragraph and what is kinda funny about this question is that the journalist almost always answers the question in the exact same opening paragraph. We're protesting a system of radical wealth concentration that hurts the vast majority of the population. That's it. All the chaos, the ambiguity, the “pet projects” the articles go on to list are just descriptions of particular manifestations of that damage. Recent college grads and college students will focus on coming out of school with crippling debt into an economy devoid of well-paying jobs despite years of increased productivity, substantial corporate profits, and massive (and growing) executive salaries. Unions will obviously focus on the erosion of their ability to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions for their workers. Whether it's teachers, nurses, small businesses owners, or people who don't think big campaign corporate campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists should have so much influence on policy, this system hurts, well, just about everybody, and so everyone describes the particular effect the system has on them. The more accurate conclusion to draw from the many different voices heard at the Occupy actions is not that the actions are disjointed and chaotic, but that our system is so destructive, people are lining to tell the world how it is screwing them.

Why aren't you focusing on the 2012 elections?

Didn't we try the whole election thing before? In 2008, on a somewhat liberal platform, promising to change the system we're occupying against, Barack Obama was elected with 54% of the popular vote, way more than George W. Bush received in either of his elections. More on theelection here. Democrats around the country rode in on Obama's coattails to the tune of a majority in the House and almost a super-majority in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, out loud and in public, said the Republicans' goal for the next four years was, not helping the economy out of the greatest recession since The Great Depression, but making sure Obama wouldn't get elected again. To that end, they used every procedural trick allowed by the Senate; anonymous holds on Obama's nominations, filibusters and threatened filibusters on every single meaningful piece of legislation offered by the Democrats, to delay, distort, and diffuse every attempt to put that extremely popular platform into action. Furthermore, as long as the same lobbyists are in Washington, it really doesn't matter that much who we elect to Congress. Furthermore, odds are that pretty much every campaign took donations, and thus are somewhat beholden to, the 1% at the heart of this whole problem. To use some businesseese, thus far, electoral politics hasn't provided much of a Return on Investment.

What do you hope to accomplish?

Maybe thousands of Americans will decide to move their money from too-big-to-fail banks to locally owned banks and credit unions. (I know I'm thinking about it.) Maybe people will start shopping with the 99%, the locally owned independent retailers who, despite being told over and over again by everyone in Congress that they are the backbone of the American economy, never seem to get tax breaks, subsidies, and bailouts. Maybe the next time Walmart or Costco or Amazon or some other huge company comes to a city begging for tax breaks, direct subsidies, and low or no interest loans, the people of the city will stand up and prevent it. And there could be some policy results. Nancy Pelosi seems to like us, and the Buffet Rule is about as popular as a piece of hypothetical legislation can get. Or maybe some of the 1% will decide they want their children to inherit more than trust funds. Maybe they'll want to help pass on a just and sustainable world where the best succeed, most live in comfort, and everyone lives in dignity.

But perhaps there's something even more basic that can be accomplished. The American economy has been acting like an addict. Through every boom we think we're invincible and after every bust we promise it will never happen again. We tell ourselves that if just stop drinking during the week, we'll be able to get our lives together. And then we say, after the wedding that's it, we're done. But it never works out like that. We forget our mistakes. We mistake a quick high for a full recovery and go right back to buying, selling, and trading with abandon. The first step in any recovery is admitting the full depth of your problem. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is not a movement or a protest, but an intervention.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Let's Get This Over With: 2011 Red Sox Edition

Let's get this over with.

I wrote the bulk of this post last week, not too long after the most statistically unlikely occurrence that has ever occurred in human sport occurred, before Tito left and the pace of Epstein speculation picked up. It doesn't change much of the points I make, but I think greatly decreases the likelihood of some of what I'd like to see happening. Looking forward the 2012 Red Sox are still one of the most talented teams in the league and if their pitching can stay healthy, they should have a successful year. The impact of the 2011 season I think is really going to show in keeping that talent together and in the long term success of the team. They've locked up some important players, but not all of them. With Tito gone, and Epstein likely out, I wonder if they'll be able to keep Ellsbury once his contract is up, if they'll be able to keep Papelbon, or at least, get some kind of value for him in a trade. What about Bard, and some of the other younger players who don't have long term deals yet? And what about Tek and Wake? Will they bother to come back (more on this below)? Will a new GM, pick up their 1 year options? And speculating on other moves, if the clubhouse was as bad as is being implied, will Boston continue to be a team players want to play for.

So, below is what I wrote last week, tweaked a little bit to reflect the new developments.

I'm pretty conservative when it comes to sports. I'm willing to give players and coaches a chance to prove themselves, even when they've been struggling. I prefer stability in my lineups. I'm a real fan of the home town discount. I was one the people who argued in favor of keeping Claude Julien and Tim Thomas and I think Tito should manage the Sox for many years to come. (Goddamnit!) I think there is something ridiculous when armchair coaches give themselves pulsating aneurisms condemning a player after a bad week.

So the next paragraph is going to be a bit out of character. (Spleen!)

Carl Crawford has no place on the 2012 Boston Red Sox. There are a lot of things about his performance I'm willing to forgive. But something is wrong when a player with far less talent, making far less money, has more big at bats, in far fewer at bats than Carl Crawford did. Under no circumstances, where both players are healthy, should Darnell McDonald come through in the clutch more than Carl Crawford. Did I mention that the rookie Reddick had more big hits and he only came up on any permanent basis after J.D. Drew was injured? Hell, Ryan Lavarnway might have more clutch hits in his three games than Crawford had all season. A .240 batting average can mean a lot of different things, but it doesn't mean much if every time you come up with 2 outs and runners on, your fan base feels a sinking feeling.

But even with the lack of offense I wasn't ready to send Crawford packing until last week. Even though he didn't get an error for it, there is absolutely no reason why a professional left-fielder should have missed that catch. Of course, Crawford making that catch doesn't guarantee the Red Sox win that game, but it does guarantee that we don't go through the worst 64 sports-related seconds imaginable. And the throw to the plate was the kind you tell your therapist about. It was the single most important defensive play in his career and he absolutely wilted.

And he missed the exact same catch earlier in the week. A miss that cost the Red Sox two runs and the game. In case, there is any doubt the level of disdain I feel for Crawford's effort I will say this. Manny Ramirez would have made those catches. Manny Ramirez.

At the moment the Red Sox might be able to pitch a “not the right fit,” deal with someone to send Crawford elsewhere and, in doing so, might actually get a decent return on their investment. But, honestly, I'd be fine just clearing the books of his salary so the Sox could spend that money on somebody willing to, I don't know, throw his body into the center field wall in his attempt to make a difficult catch at the tail end of an MVP caliber season.

Enough of that. Looking forward. The first thing I would do is pick up Varitek's one year option. If there is one important lesson the Sox learned this year that can be applied in the future, is that resting your catchers leads to better offensive production. It makes sense. Catcher is such a grueling position on the defensive side, that very few catchers have the legs beneath them when they get to the plate to make any meaningful contributions. Between Tek and Salty the Red Sox got 27 Home Runs and 92 RBI. (If you throw Lavarnway in there, the numbers go up to 29 and 100.) Imagine what kind of salary that guy would get. (Hi Joe Mauer.) Frankly, I would sign Tek and bring up Lavarnway so the Red Sox carry and rotate three catchers.

The rotation would go 4-1, 3-2, with Salty being the 4, Lavarnway being the 1, and Salty being the 3, and Tek and Lavarnway splitting the 2. This would keep Salty fresh and give Lavarnway a chance to play the game with Varitek around. (Can you think of a better way to develop a young catcher?) And if they want to get Lavarnway a few more at bats, he can DH for a game here and there. And Tek goes right to bench coach in 2013. (Though now, who knows if he or future GM and M would want that.)
Besides the Crawford removal, I actually wouldn't do that much in the off-season at this point. I would still look around for a true starting short stop. I might also see if there are any developing pitchers available. But, we should remember there was a good reason why everyone picked them to win the AL east. Even with losing two of their five starting pitchers and a couple of other key starters, and the under performance of Crawford, it still took a convergence of events that Nate Silver calculated the odds of happening at 1 to 278 million, to keep them out of the playoffs. I would also pick up Wakefield's option, if only to give him the chance to announce his retirement mid-season and get the curtain call he deserves.
One more dire prediction. If the Red Sox start slow, the Fenway sell-out streak ends. For fun, let's just say it ends on June 23. Now to watch the Bruins game and banner raising that I recorded.