Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Pirates keep on rebuilding, and rebuilding, and rebuilding

There's been some uproar over the Pittsburgh Pirates' latest trades. For those who don't follow baseball that closely (and that usually includes me), the Pirates have traded away nearly all of their regular players from the past few seasons. It hasn't happened all this week; it's taken a few years. But the point is that they've traded away all of the players who have had any semblance of talent in favor of prospects or cheaper, less talented players.

There are voices of reason in the storm. I understand what they're saying: the Pirates, on the verge of their 18th straight losing season, weren't going to win with the players they had, so why not get something for them? I don't have a problem with that philosophy in the short term. But it's been the Pirates' management strategy for too long to trade away good players with big contracts for lesser, cheaper guys. They've made some terrible free-agent choices too, and their baseball draft picks haven't worked out. You don't have 17 straight seasons below .500 without everything coming together. But the last big-name player I remember the Pirates re-signing was Jason Kendall, and that was ten years ago.

The idea is that the front office is assembling a core of prospects that can contend two to three years from now. I've heard that before, when it was the Pirates' first five-year plan in the mid-1990s, and again a few years later. We've seen how well that has worked out. In order for this team to succeed, the players have to perform on the field, and management must be willing to compete financially for free agents. Pittsburgh isn't going to lure top pitchers with a sub .500 team at all the positions. What incentive is there for a top slugger to come to Pittsburgh if he's going to waste his best years on a terrible team? Management has to make a commitment to winning at all costs. I don't see that from the current ownership.

The Pirates don't have to look far for an example of how to rebuild a team. The Penguins were terrible in the early part of this decade. They were sellers at the trade deadline and fans had few reasons to go to the games. But the team got lucky with their high draft picks and won the Sidney Crosby draft lottery. The labor shutdown in 2004 also had much to do with the Penguins' success on and off the ice. But a few star players weren't enough to get the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row and a championship this year. It took skilled play on the ice, ownership that was willing to pay free agents, and management that made the right trades at the right time to surround the stars with role players.

Right now the Pirates appear to be working on the last item, albeit without the stars. We'll have to see if it works this time. It hasn't worked before and, like many Pirates fans, I'm tired of waiting. I haven't given up on the Pirates so much as I've just given up on baseball. Without a great home team to root for, I can't stay interested. I'd root for the Mets, but somehow that thought is even more depressing. I'll just check out the Steelers training camp reports instead.

Friday, July 24, 2009

No more iPod Classics?

Gizmodo's Wilson Rothman writes about Apple's current iPod product line and the role of the hard-drive-based iPod Classic. There are few hard-drive players on the market now, and even Apple admits that they're selling fewer of them in favor of iPhones, Nanos, and iPod Touches. There's a dwindling customer base that needs a giant iPod to carry an entire music library around. Flash-based players are smaller, lighter, and have more features to offer than their disk-based counterparts. And there's always the longevity factor. A disk-based player has internal moving parts that will break eventually, while a flash-based player is more durable.

Like Rothman, I have a 160 GB iPod Classic and a 32 GB iPhone. Depending on my destination, I'll take both devices with me when I go out. I can't explain why I need to carry my entire music collection with me at all times. It's come in handy at those times when I've had an urge to hear a particular song or I need to look up a song for reference purposes. Most of the time I listen to a handful of podcasts or music I've recently acquired. I can listen to those things on my iPhone, since I've set up playlists that sync new music to the phone. Yet I carry around my now-clunky (by comparison) iPod Classic anyway. I have a few other reasons besides music hoarding for keeping the Classic around. It keeps a backup copy of my photos, and I've used it to move large files from computer to computer as well.

But my Classic isn't going to last forever. I can hear the hard drive clicking when I start playing an album or a long symphony, and my technical experience tells me that hard drive noises are not a good sign. I knew when I bought the Classic two years ago that it would most likely be my last disk-based player. If Apple made a 128 GB iPod Touch, I would buy it as soon as my Classic served up its last song. I could keep all of my music on it and use it as a web browser and mobile computer just like my iPhone. I wouldn't be as skittish about using a Touch at the gym as I am about my phone. I'd be a mess if either one took an accidental flying jump off the treadmill, but a dead music player is easier to replace than a subsidized phone.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I forgot Pat Buchanan went to Georgetown

By now, Pat Buchanan vs. Rachel Maddow on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court is old news, but I've just gotten around to watching the clip (at the bottom of this page, or elsewhere on MSNBC's web site). Georgetown has many famous alumni, among them George Mitchell, Paul Tagliabue, and of course Bill Clinton. Why is it that I always forget Pat Buchanan went there too? I'm sure Pat's Georgetown experience in the late 1950s was vastly different from mine in the mid-1990s. For one thing, he would have had far fewer women and minority students to pass on his way to class.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WQXR changes locations, but won't fade away

The New York Times announced yesterday that they had sold WQXR, New York's major classical music radio station, to Univision and WNYC. Univision will take over WQXR's frequency (96.3 FM) later this year, while WQXR will move up the dial to 105.9 and a weaker transmitter. The Times is dumping assets while trying to "weather a newspaper industry downturn" and WQXR was a property they couldn't afford to keep. The station will become a listener-supported public radio station, which keeps it on the air but with pledge drives. For the moment, the station remains on the air at its current frequency and online at

I've been a fan of WQXR since I moved here ten years ago, listening at work via their web site. So the station's move to a weaker signal doesn't affect me directly, but the potential loss of another classical station does. I understand the Times Co.'s motivation: classical music radio is almost as much of a dinosaur as the newspaper industry. It's a weak genre with a graying audience. It's not popular with young people or advertisers. But I think it's important to preserve stations like WQXR. Even if there's a small audience for classical music, it's a loyal one. And WQXR has relationships with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera that are vital to those institutions. If we lose WQXR, we lose another connection to our musical heritage and history. I hope that the station continues to be the flagship for classical music radio here in New York. It would be a shame for a city as great as this one to lose its only classical station.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What's the deal with fruit?

Matt at Warming Glow posted this delightful "60 Minutes" clip of Andy Rooney checking out the fruit selection at Fairway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I've sat through many of Rooney's commentaries over the years, and he's long past the point of thoughtful insight. Now he's like the old uncle that you visit at the retirement home, the one with the weird view that the 'guvmint' is stealing his Social Security to pay off Fidel Castro. Last year Rooney opined that Barack Obama didn't sound like a presidential name. In another segment, he talked about ways to save money during a recession and admitted that he pockets dinner rolls from restaurants for use in the next day's lunch.

This time, Rooney talks about all the bad melons he's bought over the years, reveals that he's stolen cherries from supermarkets, and doesn't think green is a good color for fruit. Green is the color of vegetables, he claims. But that's just Andy being Andy. The part that scared me the most was Rooney's shriveled hands. Are my hands going to look like that when I get older? I'd better pick up some hand lotion on the way home.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The continued parting of a fool and his money

I've had the iPhone for a few days now and I haven't installed that many apps on it yet. I'm taking my time, sorting out the apps I definitely need (Tweetie, Facebook, Citibank) from the ones that have only marginal utility for me (iHandy Level, two movie theater apps, Paper Toss). I paid $3 for a Wi-Fi finder app for a possible work project, then when I tried the app I found that it didn't report the information I needed for the job. It's still a worthwhile app, just not for this task. And I was conflicted about paying $2 for a iPhone app that shows you which subway car to use to get off right in front of your station exit or staircase, but I bought it anyway. This information is the sort of stuff a New Yorker should learn over years of traveling on the subways, not from a program derived from a lunchtime project. (The NY Times commenters agree with me.) But I bought it anyway because I wanted to see how well it works. But I'm sure I'll forget all about it the next time I'm running late and I get off at an unfamiliar station.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A man and his toys

When I was growing up, I had no shortage of toys: Legos, Star Wars figures and ships, G.I. Joe figures and playsets, and Transformers, just to name a few. My brother and I would play together after school and after watching cartoons featuring some of these toys. As I got older, I knew that eventually I'd have to give up my toys and become a boring adult. I didn't want to be that kid in my neighborhood who was about five years older than me and my friends and clearly too old to hang out with us while we played with plastic Star Wars toys. But I also didn't want to give up my toys. At 12 years old, I actually worried about this upcoming change in my life.

Then I discovered computers and computer games, and I forgot about Transformers and G.I Joe. Just like that, they weren't cool anymore and I didn't care. Also, I'm sure puberty played some role in this change. It's hard to get the attention of girls when you're still bringing your Storm Shadow GI Joe guy to school. So computers and my Walkman became my new toys. I hauled a case full of cassette tapes to England in 1989 so I'd have music to listen to on the flights. I spent hours in front of the computer writing programs, playing games, and tinkering.

My adult life has featured a succession of computers and gadgets, all of which have fulfilled the role that toys used to play. I've run home from work to set up a brand-new computer. I've stayed up late at night playing games on the computer and on my Xbox. And I've carried my laptop to far more places than necessary, under the pretense that I *might* need it but mostly because I just wanted to have it with me.

My four primary "toys" are my laptop, my camera, my HDTV (and the cable box and Xbox that go with it), and my cell phone. The last one is the newest, as I've finally upgraded to an iPhone. I didn't want the iPhone when it first came out. It was expensive, it wasn't as fast as my Samsung flip phone, it looked fragile, and since it couldn't hold more than a few gigabytes of data or music, I decided to wait. Last summer's release of the iPhone 3G tempted me a little more, but I was happy with my old reliable cell phone. And I was still under contract for another six months. This summer, after another year of frustrated texting on my old phone's numeric keypad, I decided it was time to get into the market. Kate got an iPod Touch as a gift, so I got the chance to play around with it and try out the virtual keyboard. I found that I could deal with that feature and that I really liked having a full version of Safari available. I considered buying a smartphone from another manufacturer and I gave serious consideration to Nokia's E71. But the more I thought about it, the more I just wanted to get the iPhone already. Five years ago I bought a MP3 player that wasn't an iPod, in part because I didn't want to be an Apple guy. Two years later I was tired of dealing with my crappy MP3 player and bought an iPod. When I thought about buying a smartphone from another manufacturer, I remembered my previous experience and I didn't want to spend the next two years wishing I'd gotten the iPhone instead.

So now I've got my iPhone. I've only had it for 24 hours, so I haven't played with it that much yet. But from what I've seen and done so far, I think I'm in love.