Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

Last night, while most of us in the US were sleeping, the 2012 Major League Baseball season got Tokyo, Japan.

For whatever reason (I suspect money is among them), the Oakland Athletics played a "home" game versus the Nintendo Mariners, er, Seattle Mariners in the Tokyo Dome.  Whatever.  I'm just happy that baseball is back.

Today, my Toronto Blue Jays beat Baltimore, 9-3.  Now, beating Baltimore during the season is not really news-worthy, so doing so in March is even less remarkable.  But with the win, Toronto is now 21-4 in Grapefruit League games.  They started 2-2, won 10 in a row (something they've not done in many years during the regular season), lost twice on the same day in two split-squad games, and proceeded to run another nine game streak.


The most wins the Blue Jays ever had in any Spring season was 21, back in 1989.  The team went 21-10.  It's virtually assured that Toronto will win one of the remaining games, and top the 21-win record.

That 1989 season was in the middle of a very solid run of success for Toronto.  Between 1983 and 1993, the team never won fewer than 86 games, posted five AL East pennants (should have been six - a historic collapse in 1987 put Detroit into the playoffs) and two World Series championships.

The 1989 Jays went on to win the AL East, and then lost to the Oakland Athletics, who were in the midst of their own powerful run, featuring the "Bash Brothers" of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, as well as future HoF outfielder Rickey Henderson.  Oakland went on to sweep the Giants that fall in the Bay Area Series.

It's only Spring, the standings do not really matter, and the team could come apart faster than you can say "Kyle Drabek just didn't have it (again) today," but looking over the past 25 years, only one other team  has posted a better performance than the 2012 Jays, and that was the 1997 Florida Marlins, who finished with a 26-5 record.

If you're curious, Florida beat the Cleveland Indians in the '97 Series.

It's been a long, dry spell for Blue Jays' fans, but this Spring, I feel a certain optimism that I haven't felt since Roberto Alomar left in 1994.

Let's play ball!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Guns, Guns Everywhere

Robert's got a quick hand.
He'll look around the room, he won't tell you his plan
He's got a rolled cigarette
Hangin' from his mouth, he's a cowboy kid
And he's found a six-shooter gun
In his daddy's closet, with a box of fun things 
I don't even know what
But he's coming for you, yeah he's coming for you. 

The oddly up-beat song "People Pumped Up" describes the story of a teen and a poorly-hidden gun, with not so-subtle, sinister undertones of what is about to happen/what has happened.

I was reminded of it reading the tragic story unfolding in Orlando, Florida. Apparently, a 17-year old kid called Trayvon Martin was out in the early evening to buy a package of Skittles candy and a bottle of iced-tea.  According to the story reported in many locations, a member of the local Sanford, FL neighbourhood watch thought Martin to be "suspicious," called 911, was told to leave the follow-up to the police, ignored that advice and trailed after Martin in his car, gun in hand...

This country has a long history of truly senseless killing, but this one strikes a nerve on several levels.  There are elements of race and class to spice it up (though the alleged shooter, George Zimmerman is Latino), but what it amounts to is one more person, carelessly brandishing a gun, thinking he is Charles Bronson.

I'm personally a lot less concerned in the racial angles (NY Times columnist Charles Blow at the week-end weighed in with his typical equanimity in a piece subtitled "The burden of  black boys in America") than in asking why guns are so readily available, and why this weekend warrior felt empowered to ignore the local police, cruise around his block with a weapon, and ultimately shoot a 17 year old boy whom he outweighed by 100 pounds?  What makes America so reliably violent?

Despite the fact that crime has fallen spectacularly in the past decade to levels not seen previously in my lifetime, we continue to hold on to the fear that The Giggler is lurking in the shadows, and to the fantasy that we are Paul Kersey, with a handgun at the ready to defend against the out-of-control thugs.

Zimmerman, who ironically is the one in the story with an actual arrest record for a previous run-in with the cops (Trayvon Martin has a clean rap sheet), after being admonished by the police to leave the policing to them, grumbled that "these *expletives* always get away."

The Sanford DA at first was not going to prosecute Zimmerman, stating that there was no evidence to support an arrest. Florida has recently passed a "stand your ground" law that permits deadly force when one feels threats to person or property.

Predictably, that has drawn an outcry.  I find the reaction to be too close to mob rule for my tastes - the prosecutor should not be goaded into arresting a person whom he thinks is not guilty to placate an angry group.  That is little removed from the sort of vigilanteism that was pervasive in the past.

But the facts in this case cry out for some sort of justice, up to re-examining the ease with which we carry guns.

And use them on each other.

PS - the state of Florida has today impaneled a grand jury to examine this case.  This is one of several steps that we should be taking.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

如果經過不要錯過 ! (Well, I'm Impressed Anyways)

Recently, my wife found and installed on my 'iPhone' a small application that allows me to enter text into various applications (email, instant message, Facebook) in a variety of type faces.  Amongst the available options are Cyrillic (don't speak Russian), accented Latin characters (très utile si vous avez un ami qui parle français), and most amazingly, full-form Chinese characters.

I'm old enough to remember the days when Asian character sets for products like Aldous (now, Adobe software, I think) PageMaker had all sorts of problems using "double-byte" characters to display properly.  Later, Windows OS allowed for alternate character sets using more or less the same platform.

Entering the text required one to enter a phonetic spelling called "pin yin", which resulted in the display of various character choices, and then to select the desired character.  It was slow, cumbersome, and often resulted in text that would get confused when downloaded to your printer, which had to decode the non-native characters.

Needless to say, they were not "True Type" fonts.  (If you're younger than 30, look it up).

Today, my phone allows such an approach, of course.

The really amazing part, to a tech dinosaur like me, anyways, is that one can actually enter the characters by tracing them onto the touch-screen of the phone.  The software will attempt to recognise the word you've "written" with finger tip or stylus, and then embed it.

That in itself is impressive - there are literally thousands of Chinese characters, many with tiny differences between them (for example compare the two words 精 and 情.  The left ("jing") and the right ("qing) mean totally different, unrelated things).  The software does not always get them right, of course.  But I find it is far better than the handwriting recognition software that I encountered on my Palm Pilot a decade ago, which could not reliably detect the difference between the number "4" and the letter "P".

(confession: I've handwriting that fairly could be called "awful.")

I am not sure how this has been accomplished - a simple read is that the fuzzy logic has improved enormously.  Additionally, Chinese characters, unlike English letters, are comprised of small pieces, and there is a logic as well as a frequency/pattern in their use and construction.  For example, the quite complicated word for "bay" ("wan") 灣 is comprised of not fewer than five larger bits - the "water" radical "shui" (氺) represented as the three lines to the left, two instances of the word "mi" (糸) - threads - that "tie together" the character "yan" ( 言) the character "yan" (words), all mounted above the word "gong" (弓), or "bow."


灣 = 氺 + 糸言糸 + 弓

I am not sure that that is how native speakers learnt to read and write, but as a foreigner who is strongly influenced by patterns (my day job is making mathematical models), it made sense to me as I sat with my 遠東漢英/英漢詞典 ("Far Eastern Chinese-English/English-Chinese Dictionary) twenty years ago.

It's an impressive marriage of new technology and a 4000 year old cultural artefact.


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Even back in the time of Shakespeare, the utility and meaning of words was discussed.

Listening to the ridiculous saga of Rush Limbaugh and what he said about professional activist Sandra Fluke (aside: could a better name have been created by the best writers in Hollywood clustered around their Macbooks?  I don't think so), I have become increasingly irritated.  Not so much by the crapulence of Limbaugh's remarks or the faux outrage of the left, though both add a certain additional level of nausea to the mix.

No; by the crushing deployment of silly cliches and talking points.  

So, a modest proposal.  

Let's try a moratorium on the following words and phrases that, I humbly propose, have gone well past their sell-by-dates.

War on :  From the 1960s, we've had "wars on"
  1. poverty
  2. drugs
  3. terror
  4. science
  5. religion
To this lexicon, we've added the "war on women" to the mix, which essentially means, Republican opposition to any policies that involve women and which the speaker doesn't like.  The meme is now in heavy rotation among Democrats and left-wing chattering heads.  It's almost as if Chris Matthews gets paid a dime each time he says it.

There's no "war on women" any more than there is a "war on Christmas."  Let's declare an armistice to the fake battles.  We can have the signing ceremony on the deck of the HMS Pinafore.  Bill O'Reilly and Ed Schultz can attend the signing ceremony.

Occupy :  The "Occupy Wall Street" movement was a silly, though perhaps necessary and relevant protest to the bailout culture, which used tax money to prop up criminals who wrecked the economy.  Setting aside that the "occupation" was in a public park blocks from the NYSE, but OK.

The movement quickly went from poignant and appropriate to ridiculous and cliched.  Watching privileged trust-fund kids "occupying" Princeton down the road was an exercise in narcissism.

Please; occupy a shower, and then a job.

Nuance:  One hears, ad nauseum, about how "nuanced" Mr Obama's positions are.  The dubious attacks on Libya - justified by more or less the same logic that Mr Bush used to back-fill the reasons for the attacks on Iraq (brutal dictator, bringing freedom, coalitions of allies) - are excused by Democratic apologistas. Frank Bruni (a former food critic who has followed Frank Rich from esoteric whiner to policy "expert") described how the president is "infinitely more nuanced" in how he arrived at his decisions than Bush.  Not sure how "nuance" can be quantified - maybe he considers Bush had one, and thus any figure in the numerator, divided by a naught in the denominator yields the figure? Tom Freidman (another NYT columnist) describes the president's policy towards China as "nuanced."  Blah blah blah.

Hemming and hawing and waiting for the poll figures to come in, while your propagandists concoct a logical cover in case things go south is not "nuance."  It's political cynicism.

Double Down: A relative newcomer, slung around by both left and right faster than "Brandi" can shuffle out the cards at Caesar's.  Basically, what is meant here is that your political opponent has made some decision that you don't like, and rather than (surprise surprise) proclaiming how brilliant YOU are, decides to stick with his decision. President Obama "doubles down" on his health care reform in pushing for contraceptive mandates.  Rick Santorum "doubles down" on his opposition to abortion by commenting on JFK.

Politics is not '21,' and neither of these guys as an Ace showing against a six.  Please; let's shuffle another deck and move on.

Doesn't Believe in Science: The most absurd of the lot, IMHO.  It's an attack that's been used both by the left (usually, with respect to climate change or evolution) or recently, the right (to describe President Obama's opposition to the Keystone XL project).  

"Science" is not a matter of faith.  There are axioms.  There are theories.  There is the gathering of evidence.  I do not have to "believe" that addition is reflexive and subtraction is not.  Every time someone accuses another of not "believing in science," I want to make the person kneel and repeat Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem 10 times and ask Alan Turing for absolution.

Hip: It used to mean the bones just below the waist.  Then it entered the lexicon to describe someone who did not live in the suburbs and drive a minivan.  It's used today, frequently, to describe the president.

What, exactly, makes Mr Obama "hip?"  I saw him warbling "Let's Stay Together" with Al Green a while back, and let's just say, I do not think Caesar's Palace is going to build a theatre for his exclusive performances following his exit from the White House.

A guy who wears dark blue denim jeans that look like his mom ironed them is not "hip" just because he happens to be well... you know...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry

The 29th of February has come and gone.  Leap year.

In celebration of that day, I offer the following song from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "The Pirates of Penzance."  It's one of my favourite plays, and one of the threads in the story is that the protagonist (Frederick) has finally come of age.  He was bound as a small child in an apprenticeship to a band of daffy pirates until he reaches his 21st birthday.

Well, as the fates have it, it is discovered that he was born in a leap-year, and thus will not be freed from his indentures for many more birthdays.

Here is a sing-along to celebrate, courtesy of YouTube impressario Lukas McCormack.

A terrible disclosure
Has just been made. Mabel, my dearly-loved one,
I bound myself to serve the pirate captain
Until I reached my one-and-twentieth birthday –

I’ve just discovered
That I was born in leap-year, and that birthday
Will not be reached by me till nineteen forty!