BOOK REVIEW: The Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle: The Improbable History of America’s Bird
Jack E. Davis
Liveright Publishing Company
Copyright 2022 by the author

I’ve seen three so far. The first while on a bridge across the Hudson River at Albany, during a road trip with a friend. I was surprised to see one, in part because it was an urban environment. Didn’t think they’d like cities. The second was in southern Westchester County NY, on my way to work one morning. It was perched atop a pine tree at the side of the road, minding its own business. Again, it was a surprise, since it was another “semi-urban” environment. I suppose the golf course in the neighborhood made for prime squirrel and rabbit hunting grounds. The most recent was at a nature preserve on Long Island Sound. I spotted it flying off into the distance. This was a more natural environment for it; plenty of fish in the waters – and ospreys to steal from. I suppose I’ll be seeing more in the future.

In the meantime, Davis has penned a wonderful history of the bald eagle, based on its relationship with America and Americans. Both a “natural history” of Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and the actual history of how it became our national symbol.

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Scott Rolen

Scott Rolen just won election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Playing third for the Phillies and Cardinals (with end of career stints with the Blue Jays and Reds), he made seven All Star teams and won eight Gold Glove awards for his fielding excellence over his seventeen seasons. He earned a World Series title with the Cardinals in 2006, but other than being named the NL Rookie of the Year in 1997, there’s not much else in the way of trophies.

His career numbers are unremarkable. A .281 batting average and 316 home runs is good, but not really exceptional. And you won’t find him leading the league in any offensive stats over the course of his career.

So what makes him a Hall of Famer?

Defense.

Those eight Gold Glove awards are fourth all time for third basemen. Add that to his solid offense, and he comes in with a career Wins Above Replacement of 70.1 – which compares well with the average of 68.3 for the fifteen third basemen already in Cooperstown.

Compared to other positions, third base isn’t a position where defense can really stand out. You don’t see much of the range and “flash” of a shortstop or second baseman; nor does the speed and grace of an outfielder come to the fore. On tough plays at third, a fan’s attention quickly shifts to the first baseman, to see if the out is made. You have to pay attention to the “Hot Corner” to find exceptional glovework.

And Rolen had it in spades.

More than good enough for the bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

“I told him once, my happiest day would be if there’s a game where 27 ground balls get to third base. The way he plays that position, the way he runs the bases, the way he takes his at-bats, he is a complete player.” – Manager Tony LaRussa

A Manifesto AGAINST AI

It probably started with chess.

The fairly simple rule set and even simpler board made it rather obvious that computer programs would be written that could challenge humans. Eventually computing power grew to the point where a computer program could equal or even surpass the best human players. Those are more of “expert systems” than true AIs, since they can do one thing very well, but not create anything new.

Then there were some simple “psychologist” programs, that picked up on words you typed and returned some standard responses that got you to elaborate on what you’d written. Nothing really advanced, but it got people talking and thinking about artificial intelligence.

Music was probably next. Mathematically analyze the works of a composer, and have a program “write” a piece in their style. An amusing little experiment, and nothing that could threaten any contemporary composer.

For years, artificial intelligence was a novelty; something discussed in theory by computer scientists and the like.

But now, things are changing at a dramatic pace.

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MOVIE REVIEW: A Study in Terror (UK, 1965)

It would seem the simplest of things to have the World’s Greatest Fictional Detective come up against one of the most notorious real world serial killers – especially since Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper were “contemporaries”. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a film company created by the Conan Doyle estate decided to actually pair up the two in a serious production.

Obviously, one can’t have the two match wits directly. The known history wouldn’t allow it. And it wouldn’t do to have Holmes fail to solve the case. But you could present Holmes with a puzzle that brings him into the world of Whitechapel around the time of Jack’s bloody reign of terror, and have him “solve” the case that way. Continue reading

2022 in Review

Well, that’s another year under the belt. Fifty two posts, and who knows how many words. Fewer visitors and views than in 2021, but more “views per visitor”.

The year’s most viewed NEW post was “On the Price of Gasoline” from back in March, which actually sits at #7 overall for the year; “Indiana Jones and the ‘Top Men’” is still the most viewed post in the history of this blog. With over five times as many views as the #2 post, it’s not likely to ever be dethroned.

I have to admit that I’m running out of steam. I know I’ve been saying that in each first post for the past few years, but this time it really does feel that this thing is starting to wind down.

I can’t think of much more to say about baseball, the Olympics, or Eurovision. In large part due to the polarization of the country at this point, political essays would be little more than rants. I’m not sure I can come up with another project (like reading the Kama Sutra) that I can stretch out over several posts, thereby padding my total.

I do have a few reviews and essays sitting in reserve, so I’m good for a while.

If I ever do start “reposting” things from the early days of this blog, or I break out that multi-part essay on The Crusades that I wrote for some reason that escapes me at the moment, then you’ll know I’m burnt out.

I hope I’ll at least have the sense to do a proper sign off and not leave you wondering if there’s going to be another post next week or month…

More Holiday Messages from Our Sponsors

I don’t know about you, but I quickly get tired of holiday TV ads telling people to buy their products or else Christmas will be a disaster. Or that the holiday season is not complete unless you give someone one of their products.

I wondered if this blatant hucksterism happened in other countries.

One of the first things I noticed was that holiday ads from Europe and Canada were more like short films, running for a few minutes instead of the 30 or 60 seconds that they do here in the US. Perhaps their TV scheduling rules are different. Or maybe it was just the ones I found when I went looking for “Best Christmas Commercials”.

I also noticed that they weren’t so much for products as they were for stores. Less “Buy this thing” and more “Shop here; we’ve got all you need for a great Christmas”.

Anyway, roll the clips!

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Fred McGriff

The “Whatever They’re Calling it This Year” Committee at the Hall of Fame has selected Fred McGriff for induction.

There’s a very good chance you’ve not heard of him and are wondering what the heck he did that makes him so great. Turns out there are two things that hurt his candidacy – both of which were pretty much beyond his control.

The first was the 1994-95 Strike. It happened right in the middle of his career, when he was at his most productive. Some seventy games were erased from the schedule. Given McGriff’s pace those two years (34 home runs in 113 games in 1994, 27 home runs in 144 games in 1995), it’s a good bet he’d have slugged another ten home runs in those games. As it is, he finished his career with 493 home runs. Those extras would have put him over the “milestone” number of 500.

It interesting and useful in McGriff’s case to see who is in the “500 Club”, and see who is NOT in the Hall of Fame. There’s Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, who are not yet eligible. Gary Sheffield is still on the ballot (though he hasn’t managed to get more than 50% of the vote). That leaves Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero, and Manny Ramirez as the ones on the outside. What is a common thread connecting those players? Right! PED allegations, and serious ones at that. McGriff has never been accused of taking PEDs.

For the record, McGriff has more home runs than Hall of Fame sluggers like Willie Stargell, Vladimir Guerrero, and Chipper Jones.

The other thing that hurt his candidacy was related to the Strike. Afterwards, there was a serious – if not stated outright – effort by MLB to win back the fans. It seems they settled on playing up home runs. The ball may have been “juiced”, ballparks were designed to increase the frequency of home runs, and both MLB and the media “looked the other way” when players started taking PEDs. McGriff stayed clean and continued to hit the long ball, but he couldn’t compete with the likes of Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. And as his career wound down in the early 2000’s, he bounced around from team to team while Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were racking up the home runs, so no one was going to give his “quest for 500” much attention.

You can argue that since he never won any major award, rarely led the league in any hitting category, and only made five All Star teams, he shouldn’t really be a Hall of Famer. But there’s still plenty of room in Cooperstown for the players who show a quiet, sustained excellence.

 

The 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot

It’s that time again! The Baseball Hall of Fame has announced the candidates on the main ballot. It’s a pretty “meh” group; all the superstars have come off (for one reason or another). The biggest names on the ballot are Scott Rolen and Todd Helton. Great players, but not the sort that scream out “Hall of Famer”. When you have to dig into the “advanced stats” because no one really looks like they belong, well….

There are fourteen newcomers to the ballot; let’s give them all their due.

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Marc Fogel

By now you might have heard of Brittney Griner, the American basketball player who, while playing in Russia, got busted for possession of marijuana (she was using it to help deal with the pain from assorted minor injuries) and was sentenced to nine years in prison – a labor camp, specifically.

There’s been quite a bit of justified outrage at her treatment, with much news coverage of her case and calls for her release.

But what of Marc Fogel?

He’s another American citizen who was living in Moscow, teaching history to the students of American diplomats and other VIPs who were there for extended periods. By all accounts, the 60-year-old Fogel was liked and respected by everyone. On a visit back to the US in 2021 for some medical attention, he was prescribed marijuana to help him deal with chronic pain issues resulting from multiple surgeries.

On his return to Moscow in August 2021, he was nabbed at the airport and charged with drug smuggling for the marijuana and cannabis oils he had with him (less than 20 grams in total). At his trial, both the prosecution and judge noted his utter lack of prior record, fine character, and medical need – but he was still sentenced to FOURTEEN YEARS of hard labor in a penal colony.

Given his age and health, that’s pretty much a death sentence.

Where’s the outrage for him? Where are the news articles reporting on his case? Why can’t he even get the State Department to declare him as “Wrongfully Imprisoned”, thereby opening up a lot more diplomatic tools to work for his release?

Is it because he’s pretty much a nonentity? Just another American living and working abroad, and not a star athlete?

I can’t find any mailing or e-mail addresses, but these are the people you should probably contact (along with your representatives in Congress):

Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State

Urza Zeya, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights

BOOK REVIEW: Otherlands

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds
Thomas Halliday
Random House
Copyright 2022 by the author

One of the most underrated works of art is not found in any small gallery or private collection. It is readily available for the public to view, prominently displayed in a well-known museum. It is the “Age of Reptiles” mural by Rudolph Zellinger, in the Peabody Museum at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

An “illustrated timeline” of some 300 million years of Earth’s history, Zallinger depicted not only dinosaurs and reptiles, but plants as well, using the best scientific information that could be had in the early 1940s. It’s one of the first attempts (and undoubtedly one of the most successful) at depicting the creatures of the distant past in as accurate and complete an environment as possible.

Needless to say, since then we’ve learned a lot about the dinosaurs and other living things of the deep past. Halliday, a paleontologist working out of the Natural History Museum in London, has taken all the new findings and has painted not a continuous mural, but rather a set of “dioramas” depicting each of the major geologic eras in Earth’s history. They aren’t collections of “things you might have seen at that time”; rather they are based on fossil evidence at specific locations – locations where, by pure luck, enough was preserved to give a good picture of all the life that inhabited the area.

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