Thursday, January 29, 2009

What is nerdy TV, Alex?

Claire and I both took the Jeopardy! online test tonight. We're both well-educated folks and I think we both could have done better. Claire (holder of an A.A., a B.A., a Masters and a J.D.) got 31 out of 50. I (holder of an A.S., an A.A. and two B.A.s) got 39 -- or 38, depending how a poorly phrased question about where "Magellan was from" is graded (he was born in Portugal but sailed for Spain, which we both put).

The test itself wasn't that hard -- getting the answers (or questions in this case) within 15 seconds was. The answers and questions are on the Jeopardy! website in a forum thread.

Neither of us is hoping for much with our scores, especially seeing how people in an online forum were boasting of 44s and higher. But we both had a lot of fun. I'm just happy that all the questions I either got wrong or left blank were ones I actually didn't know (in other words, I'm not kicking myself over any answers I DID know but either couldn't get in time or just answered wrong).

But the best nerdy television exchange of the night came just after "The Office" ended on NBC and a promo for the next show, "30 Rock," aired. The announcer asked, "What's 10 Rock times 3 Rock? That's right, 30 Rock, coming up next!" To which Claire replied, "No, that's '30 Rock Squared.'"

She's absolutely right! You'd need to ask, "What's 10 times 3 Rock?" (or "10 Rock times 3") to get "30 Rock." I guess basic algebra's not taught to promo writers anymore.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Obviously a major malfunction"

Heroes of my youth. NASA photo.

It was a cold morning 23 years ago today. I was in the ninth grade, playing right field on the lower softball field of Crescenta Valley High School. It was my PE "final exam" that day.

The batter, I think he was actually a righty and I was playing him to pull, hit an unexpected opposite-field flare down the right-field line. I took off running and I actually remember seeing the seams on the ball rotate as I closed in. After several seconds of running, I barely was able to stretch my glove hand out and squeeze the ball into the mitt. A run-saving catch, probably the best I made at any level of softball/baseball! I was inordinately proud of myself. It was about 8:45 a.m.

Three-thousand miles away, at that very minute, seven brave men and women gave their lives in the name of science above the Florida coast. The space shuttle Challenger broke apart that day (while it looks as if it exploded, the propellant only ignited after the external tank disintegrated) -- Jan. 28, 1986, one of the seminal moments of my life.

I had long been a huge fan of the space program, probably in an unusual way for someone born after the first moon landing. I fantasized about going into space, studied hard at astronomy and was still thinking I had a decent chance at one day becoming an astronaut (in fact, one of my great regrets in life was that I didn't become an astronaut or astrophysicist -- not good enough at maths past algebra). The space shuttle program, I believed, was one of man's greatest accomplishments and I had been following preparations for this launch fairly closely.

After the PE "final" ended, still oblivious to events at Cape Canaveral, I dressed and walked up to the main part of campus to get a snack. The PA system crackled and a voice requested my attention. "No!" I shouted, not wanting to hear about the latest fundraiser or dance announcement (they over-used the PA back then). I couldn't hear the garbled voice as I trudged along, but I could see the reactions of some classmates outside the student store. They looked up toward the speaker with concern, combined with a bit of shock. I asked what happened -- "The space shuttle blew up!" one replied. I didn't believe him.

At snack, I spoke to a couple people who could confirm the story. I then had to take a typing final -- and we all know how I hate typing class on the best of days. I couldn't concentrate, wondering what had happened to the shuttle. Needless to say, I had to retake the typing class a few semesters later (and actually enjoyed it then).

Once school let out (it was a half-day due to the final exam schedule), I went over to my cousin Marco's house (he was the closest to school of all my friends at the time -- yes Rob, I know you lived closer but we didn't hang out then) and watched the news most of the afternoon. I was upset, in shock and disheartened. I really think I lost a lot of my innocence that day, lost the feeling that things usually turned out good in the end, etc.

But I also learned that the advancement of the species comes with risks, and I now admire those that take them even more. I also gained some solace, silly as it might be, in that I had a great catch that day to dedicate to the fallen astronauts. It made me feel a bit better.

(What's scary about this anniversary for me is that on a visit back to Southern California a little bit after I moved to the Bay Area, I dropped in on my old journalism professor at Glendale College. He told me that the writing journal project that semester was to reflect back on Challenger 10 years later. "Ten years? My God, has it been that long?" I thought. What's even more scary is that it's now 13 years after THAT anniversary and it feels even less time has advanced. Dang, I'm getting old.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hoop (game delays Ian's sleepy) Dreams

Ian likes cheerleaders, like every other red-blooded American boy.

On Friday night we had a bit of a child care issue. Claire had a book club meeting (they read John Patrick Shaley's play "Doubt") while I had to cover a game for the San Mateo County Times. Figuring the boy needed to be exposed to some testosterone, I took him to the basketball game at nearby El Camino High School.

Ian's often a little bit wary around crowds and since El Camino was playing cross-town rival South San Francisco High, the place was packed, with the noise spilling out in the parking lot. I thought there'd be a problem.

But no, there was plenty of action, an iPhone and cheerleaders (which Ian enjoyed watching dance) to keep him interested. He even got a kick out of talking to the players after the game during my interviews (we went to a Giants game once and Ian was disappointed we couldn't talk to the players afterward as we do after a game I cover). Ian had fun, although the boy was exhausted and fell asleep within minutes upon getting home.

The story I wrote for the Times is reprinted below, although the editor cut a lot from the end for space reasons (and trimmed my lede, which compared the atmosphere to such epic inter-city derbies as White Sox/Cubs and Liverpool/Everton).
El Camino tops South City in boys basketball rivalry contest
By John Baker
San Mateo County Times correspondent

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Like many good rivalries, El Camino and South San Francisco high schools bring out the crowds and the best in the teams playing.

Friday night's boys basketball matchup at El Camino was no exception. The gym was packed, the noise reverberated out into the parking lot and the teams played at their best.

Or at least one of them did.

Rising power El Camino, buoyed by a raucous cheering section, put on a defensive masterpiece, holding its rival to just three points in the first quarter en route to a 57-31 Peninsula Athletic League North Division win.

"Our student section was fantastic, the stands were packed, it was a great high school basketball atmosphere," Colts coach Anthony Khoo said. "I was proud to see that happen in South San Francisco, which isn't necessarily known as being a hotbed for basketball. It's probably the best, least-known rivalry."

The pace was set early as the visiting Warriors made just 1 of 12 first-quarter shots thanks mainly to a Colts defense that almost completely shut down passing lanes and limited shots from the paint. In total, the Warriors made barely a quarter of their shots Friday.

"We're not going to beat anybody shooting 28 percent, especially a good team like El Camino," South City coach Jorge Chevez said. "We're not a big team, we depend on getting a few shots here and there. When we don't knock them down, we can defend all we want, but it's not going to be our night."

El Camino (15-5, 4-0 PAL North) kept up the pressure and took a 29-10 lead into the halftime break.

"We didn't worry about the offense, just the defense," El Camino guard Jorsen Baysac said. "We let the defense pull us along; that's El Camino basketball."

South City (9-9, 2-2) readjusted its game in the second half, scoring better and finding a few more shots. But the Colts turned up their own offense, driving toward the basket, scoring 16 points in the paint.

"As a program we're kind of growing and getting into some uncharted territory," Khoo said. "We're trying to mimic patterns in successful public school programs like Burlingame and (Menlo-Atherton). They've really focused on defense. We're trying to take a page out of their success story."

Anthony Smith led the El Camino run with a game-high 17 points.
Friday night lights, indoor version.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Fictional History" (In other words, "History") -- Part Two: Louis Riel

A few years back, Claire and I were in a Montréal museum and she noticed me excitedly shooting photos of a hat in a display case. "It's Louis Riel's hat," I exclaimed. She drew a blank, as would most Americans.

Riel was a 19th Century revolutionary figure in Canada, who stood up for the rights of his people, the Métis, most of whom were of mixed French-"First Nations" ancestry. His activism helped form the province of Manitoba and advance the cause of French speakers outside of Québec. But his means -- including the support of armed insurrection -- caused him to be labled as a murderer in English-speaking Canada and his was hanged as a traitor (despite vehement protests in Québec) in 1885.

He was also just a little bit crazy. Either that or he actually was on a mission from God. Take your pick.

I first learned of Riel in my study of Canada a few years back. Both Ferguson's Canadian History for Dummies (actually a really good survey of our neighbors to the north) and Riendeau's dense A Brief History of Canada treat Riel rather roughly. A few years back at Comic-Con, I was at the Eisner awards and noticed a Riel biography was nominated for Best Graphic Album-Reprint. I decided to look for it and found it at a local library a couple weeks back.

Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography is a good read, but admittedly takes liberties with the facts. Historical figures are shown at gatherings where they were not present, several characters are composited into one for simplicity's sake, scenes are dialogue are dramatized. In other words, it's much like the movie "24 Hour Party People," which I reviewed earlier this week.

Below: Riel meets with Ulysses S. Grant, then goes nuts (because everyone knows there's no God in Washington D.C. ), in a two-page spread illustrating the typical six-panel layout of Brown's book. Click to enlarge.

Brown for the most part is sympathetic to Riel, showing him as being passionate about his cause, but indecisive and too willing to take bad advice. Despite the revisionism, the book is no hagiography. As stated, Riel is often shown to make bad decisions and despite the style shown in the "religious experience" above, its clear that Brown thinks Riel had a screw loose.

What conservative Canadians might get upset about is the treatment of John A. Macdonald, the Dominion's first prime minister. Now Macdonald is in no way as revered as, say, George Washington, he is certainly considered one of the greatest Canadians. In Brown's book Macdonald is presented as a conniving drunkard, willing to let the Métis suffer if it suits his political goals (right).

Brown offers an intriguing narrative, the simple line art is clean and easy to follow. The historical flow is easy to follow and the many, many characters are easy to keep straight. The story presents an intriguing political tragedy. But while I learned a lot about the North-West Rebellion and Riel's role in it, I don't know if I really learned much about Riel himself. There is nothing in the book before Riel's formation of Manitoba and virtually nothing about the nearly 15 years he was exiled in the United States. It stretches things to call this book a "biography" when it only concentrates on specific events.

History is indeed written not only by the victors, but by those who actually choose to write it. Brown's "Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography" helps remind us of that fact, while at the same time helping us debate if a little historical wiggle room is acceptable over forgetting the whole deal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

False Advertising

If this is Round Table, then why the heck are all the tables rectangular?

History lesson from Barnes and Noble: The Union had F-14s, while the Confederacy only had P-40s. That's why the South lost at Gettysburg.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where courtesy cost you your life

The BBC last night reported the result of a study where the conclusion was, "More British passengers died on the Titanic because they queued politely for lifeboats."

Specifically, the study noted that women with children were 70 percent more likely than men to survive the sinking with the implication that the Brits were more altruistic than might be expected. In an early example of the "ugly American" stereotype, the article quotes university researcher David Savage as saying, "The American culture was set up to be a more individualist culture and the British culture was more about the gentlemanly behaviour."

I'm not surprised an Australian saw it that way. When I was in Adelaide in November, I saw what I can only say were the most well-organized lines for public transit that I had ever seen. People lined up very straight on the sidewalk lines for their buses -- without there being a single sign or conductor encouraging them to do so. I guess some of that Edwardian-era gentlemanliness rubbed off on the colony.

You can bet that if I were in a similar situation, such as being on the Titanic or last week's plane crash into the Hudson, I would definitely make sure every last woman and child got out -- possibly to the point of beating down any adult male who put themselves ahead. After the kids and females are safe, however, I'm pushing, clawing and scratching my way to the lifeboat and woe be unto those who get in the way.

Hey, at least I'm honest about it. It's called "survival of the fittest." (Wanna take bets this post will haunt me politically in the years to come?)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fun with headlines

Just to show how a headline can be accurate and still spin a story, here's an example from the Los Angeles Times politics blog today on the approval of Hillary Clinton's nomination to be secretary of state: "U.S. Senate votes 94-2 for Hillary Clinton to Leave."

The comments beneath the post criticizing the headline just don't get it.

"Fictional History" (In other words, "History") -- Part One: Madchester

Over the weekend, I entertained myself with a couple of a fictionalized histories. Now all history contains a little fiction, but these two works are at least up front about it (as one with a history degree, I can say that). The first work I read was Chester Brown's collected comic strip biography of Louis Riel, which I will review in a day or two. The second work was Micheal Winterbottom's 2002 film "24 Hour Party People."

"Twenty-four Hour Party People" covers the rise of the "Madchester" scene from the mid 1970s through the late 1990s and stars Steve Coogan as Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. If you've seen the later Winterbottom/Coogan collaboration, "A Cock and Bull Story," you'll see a lot of similarities in the story structure, irreverent comedy and fourth-wall breaking.

I was a big fan of Manchester bands New Order and The Smiths in my youth, and had heard and enjoyed music from other artists, such as Happy Mondays (whose story, along with that of Joy Division/New Order helps propel the film's plot). I really had my enjoyment of the film enhanced by my pre-existing fandom, but the story has enough exposition for non-fans to follow.

There's a couple interesting historical tidbits dramatized in the film. The first comes minutes into the movie when Wilson breaks the fourth wall during a 1976 concert at Manchester's Free Trade Hall and points out there are just 42 people attending. But the concert was later called by Channel 4 one of the three most important gigs of all time. For among those 42 were: Wilson himself, members of the Buzzcocks, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (members of a local band, later of Joy Division then of New Order), Mark Smith (of The Fall), Morrissey (although Morrissey was not mentioned in the film) and Jon the postman (he was a postman). On stage? The Sex Pistols.

The creativity of the Pistols inspired Wilson (a local TV personality) to start a nightclub ("The Factory") to showcase exciting local music and then to create his own record label to support those artists (many of whom were inspired at the Free Trade Hall concert). There is a really touching examination of the rapid rise and even more rapid fall of Joy Division and its rebirth as New Order. Much of the same territory was covered in the recent film "Control" about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (it was checked out of the library when I went to borrow it recently).

The second interesting tidbit is about the birth of the Rave scene. At one point, Wilson is in his second club ("The Hacienda") after talking about the unintended rise of the Ecstasy culture and points out the crowd reaction. They're not applauding the artist. "They're cheering the DJ," he says to the viewer. "They're cheering the medium." McLuhan would be proud.

Winterbottom and Coogan created an fun picture that gave a good (albeit exaggerated) background to the music of my youth. It also reminded me (as does the Riel bio) that history is written not just by the victors, but by those who choose to write it -- and future generations will always remember it with that taint.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Go Obama, it's your birthday!

They're having a party at Claire's work today and she's preparing a cake. Ian just asked, "Is it the new President's birthday?"

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Appreciate the gaffer, hail the senior digital compositor

Claire and I caught "Slumdog Millionaire" in Redwood City last night (great flick, it deserved the Golden Globes it won tonight). What was nice is that thanks to a Bollywood dance sequence added on at the end, people were staying through the end and watching the credits.

I've always been one to watch the credits -- these folks worked hard to provide me with entertainment for two hours, I owe them the courtesy of reading their names. I often drive Claire crazy with comments like, "Thanks, Jana Vance, for being such a good foley artist on 'Wall-E!'" or, "Don't you think Stephen Maier's first assistant camera work was good?" after "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."

Some movie studios seem to be getting the same idea, adding things that encourage the audience to stay through the credits. I think the trend picked up in the United States when Jackie Chan movies began getting popular -- he runs the blooper reel over the closing credits. The "after credits" scene is also getting popular, check out Samuel L. Jackson's cameo as Nick Fury after the credits of "Iron Man," for example. It's not a new technique: according to Wikipedia, "The 1903 film The Great Train Robbery ends with leader of the outlaw band taking aim and firing point blank at the audience (after having been killed in the previous scene)."

And bully for them. It's important to know that Kevin Tomasiello labored very hard for you -- as a laborer -- on "There Will Be Blood." (Or that John C. Baker was a production assistant on "The Point of Boxes.")

After the movie, Claire and I headed down the street to Siciliano Ristoriante Italiano for dinner -- the first time we'd been there in about six years. The owner, Giuseppe "Pino" Spatola, catered our wedding in 2000, but we figured after so long, he'd have forgotten us.

No sooner do we come in, however, than Pino comes over and warmly greets us by saying, "John, how are you? Still dispatching?" Great service (and memory).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Excuse me while I Google myself in the corner

These days, it is fashionable to "Google" a person (i.e., run them through an Internet search engine -- to discover information about potential boyfriends, babysitters, neighbors, etc. You can often get a good notion of a person's hobbies and interests via the Internet (although nothing of the sort I could potentially get when I was a police dispatcher a few years back -- but couldn't due to privacy laws). Someone trying to track me down might have a more difficult time.

You see, I have a pretty darn common name. If you run "John Baker" through Google, you'd have a hard time finding me. You'd see entries on a British photographer, three baseball players (including John Frank "Home Run" Baker, who led the American League in home runs four times in the deadball era without ever hitting more than 12 in a season)* and numerous others before finally getting a hit on my old, neglected school website in 65th place. Note: This search was conducted in late December. not only do search results change over time, but they've already changed by the time I posted this.

So let's try to nail it down by adding my middle intial. Searching Google with "John C. Baker" doesn't find anything related to me until the 22nd entry (my profile). Even more interesting is that on the second page of the "John C. Baker" results is an old New York Times article about the 38-year-old head of a newspaper's art department committing suicide -- potentially disconcerting for those who know both my age and original career choice who miss the tiny dateline of 1906.

Only if one already knows something about me will they make headway on Google. Searching "John Baker" and adding "Glendale" (my old home town) will get my old webpage third, a story I wrote in 1993 about Rosa Parks 11th, and an old blog entry in 16th.

Adding my name to my current town of "South San Francisco" is productive, getting my website third again, with the 13th result a link to a bunch of old stories I wrote for the San Mateo Times (most with a "South San Francisco" dateline). I used to score higher on this search, but took my resume offline after getting a lot of spam.

If you're a high school chum looking for me, try searching for "John Baker Crescenta," for my old high school, Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, Calif. The first three results are actually related to me: 1. A comment I made on an LA Times blog entry; 2. My link on the Alumni listings; 3. Something related to I was also the subject of the ninth result (a story I wrote about taking public transit from Glendale to San Diego) and the 15th.

If you narrow down the search to "John Baker San Mateo," the first three results referred to me and if you try "John Baker Humboldt," the first two did.

The long and short of it? If you know a lot about with me to begin with, you can find out a lot more with Google. If you know squat about me, Google won't be much help.

* The other baseball John Bakers include former San Francisco Giants (and current Cincinatti Reds) manager John "Dusty" Baker," who sent me a personalized post card when he played for the Dodgers in the late 1970s addressed to the "other" John Baker.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New year, old cliches

Low on gas Thursday, I decided to fill up.

And, since the car was filthy, I figured it would be a good time to wash the car while I was at the gas station.

So, of course, it rans today -- probably for the last time in a while. And no sooner does it rain than it stops -- leaving me with a wet car when the wind picks up.

So all the kicked up dirt sticks to my wet car (above). Now it's filthy again.