Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The first chapter of David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter is completely compelling and totally absorbing. Unfortunately, the other 620 pages fail to live up to the promise of the first few.

The Coldest Winter purports to be a history of the Korean War, a story ranging from the lowly privates who fought the battles to the heads of state who sent their young men to fight for a country that no one was particularly interested in.

After spending time with the soldiers who initially fought the Chinese at Unsan, Halberstam goes on to describe the various players involved in this drama - Kim Il Sung, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Chang Kai Shek, Douglas MacArthur, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman. The combined miscalculations, fears and egos of these men lead to five years of war in a country that none of the principal fighters really wanted to fight over.

China wanted to strike at the United States in defiance of its support for Taiwan. Douglas MacArthur wanted to leave the world stage as a great general, Joseph Stalin wanted China and the United States at each other's throats, and Harry Truman had a powerful China lobby and resurging Republican minority at home to contend with.

Needless to say, that's a hell of a lot to cram into a book, and Halberstam does it, but I don't think he did it particularly well. He goes into great details outlining the causes of the war and its early days, but he completely glosses over the last two years of the war. He goes into some detail on some of the battles and completely glosses over others - I would have liked to read how the First Marine Division held off six Chinese divisions while escaping the Chosin Reservoir, but all we get is "it was a magnificent battle." I'll bet it was.

Overall, I would say if you're looking to learn more about Korea, this is a good place to start. I plan to spend a little more time reading about it in the near future, but hopefully, I'll find something with a little more focus.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Some would take earthquakes the morning you were leaving for your bachelor party as an omen. I didn't, mainly because I slept right through the first one. The first indication that something was amiss was when Darcy asked me if I felt the quake in the middle of the night.

I flipped on the TV to see what was up, and I was instantly sorry.

Our local Fox station had completely given in to their worst impulses, so I opened my morning watching the anchors interview a producer who was at the station during the quake. The anchors were trying to get her to talk about the fear, the panic, the sheer terror of standing around as the earth rocked itself apart. Apparently, all they did was stood around looking at each other. The only fear came in when they saw the light fixtures were shaking a lot. So they moved.

Fortunately, they were able to cut away to the scene of a house fire in North St. Louis. The reporter opened by saying the fire started, ironically right around the time of the earthquake. Now, I'm no expert, but I don't think there was anything ironic about that - coincidental, perhaps, but ironic, not so much.

The reporter moved on to talk about how seated behind her was the woman who risked her own life to save her seven children trapped in the house. Now that's heroic, and I'm pretty sure it's also news; however, we never got to hear from her, because the reporter was talking to a firefighter. Here's the gist of the exchange:

Reporter: "Was the fire caused by a gas line that ruptured in the earthquake?"

Firefighter: "No. We think it was faulty wiring in the basement."

Reporter: "Could the quake have caused the wires to break open and start the fire."

Firefighter: "No. That's very unlikely. It would be impossible to prove."

Reporter: "Are you sure the earthquake didn't cause the fire?"

Firefighter: "Yes."

At this point, rather than recover what was left of her dignity and professional pride and either leave or talk to the woman who saved her family, the reporter went on to a charming story of how they heard meowing as they arrived and after looking around, they found THIS - as the camera swung up to show a cat lounging in a window.

Having seen enough, I changed the channel. I could see that the local CBS affiliate meant business - Larry Conners was in studio sans tie - and with his top two buttons undone. He must have breathlessly raced into the studio to make it for the broadcast, and he was waxing poetic about earthquakes in history. Why bother with a geologist when you can find a professional news anchor?

I moved on to breakfast.

After running a few errands, I was goofing off in the sunroom addition to my house. That's when the aftershock hit. At first, I thought it was wind. Then I realized that it was another quake. Then I realized that the sunroom on the back of my house has the structural integrity of a box of kleenex, and perhaps I should get out.

So yes, I survived Quake 2008 and moved on to more important things, like a bachelor party weekend in Chicago.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Statistical Madness

It's that magical time of year when young men's thoughts turn to baseball. Yes, the season's only two weeks old and I've probably watched about 30 hours of it. Over the years, I've developed something of a routine for the season --- follow it fanatically for about three weeks, let it fade into the background until July, then pick it up again for the playoffs.

You would think that given my love for the game, I would also be a fantasy baseball fanatic. But I'm not. About six years ago, I joined my last fantasy league. I spent hours poring over scouting reports and publications, I tinkered with budgeting scenarios left and right, and spent every morning studying box scores with talmudic intensity.

Needless to say, I had my ass handed to me.

But I noticed something else - while willing my players to succeed, I'd manage to completely lose any joy I took out of the game. After that season, I hung up my box scores and scouting publications.

This is the central lesson of Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe. Sam Walker, baseball columnist for the Wall Street Journal, entered Tout Wars, the nation's premier fantasy league in 2004. He thought his insider's knowledge of the teams, players and managers, combined with some statistical analysis, he'd blow away the sabremeticians and (big-time) rotogeeks in the competition.

What followed was a descent into madness. Walker ended up spending close to $50,000, lost track of friends and family, had severe stress-induced back spasms, and finished close to the bottom of the pack. And he chronicles every step of the journey.

If you've ever fanatically followed a sport (or are a fantasy geek), this book is a must-read. Take, for example, Walker's and his statistician, Sig's, statistical breakdowns on the personal lives of players:

The results, unscientific as they may be, are nonetheless fascinating. Marriage has no impact on performance. Players who double their salaries play only slightly better the following season. Those who are arrested for drugs, guns, or lewd conduct show no appreciable change, but anyone who commits assault sees a performance dip. Having a first or second child isn't significant, but 80 percent of the players who had a third child saw their statistics decline more than a player of similar age. As for the impact of religion, Sig's analysis yielded a troubling conclusion: "Turning to God," he says, "costs you 2.5 runs a season."

As the season wears on, Walker's team falls further out of contention. He debates whether he should trade David Ortiz for Jose Guillen. After deciding to pull the trigger on the trade, Ortiz goes on a rampage (this was 2004, the year the Red Sox humiliated the Cards in the World Series) and Guillen gets benched for the last week of the season after throwing a temper tantrum against manager Mike Scioscia. Walker's (and his teammates') reaction shows just how far they'd fallen.

In the end, Walker returns to society, and he still continues to play Tout Wars today, just not with the same religious zeal. If you enjoy learning about a slightly lunatic fringe of the baseball world, this book is well worth your time.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Out of Registration

"Where are you going with that?" Darcy's voice rang out behind me as I slinked away from the dinnerware set aisle carrying the registry scanner. We were registering for wedding gifts one fine Saturday not long ago.

"I just wanted to check something out," I said, smiling (I hoped) convincingly.

"Towards the snack aisle!"

Damn. I'd been made. Time to retreat. I returned the scanner to the cart, foiled again.

You see, I had a plan. All I wanted to do was inject a little life, a little levity into the whole gift registration process. Anyone could register for plates, cookware or tablecloths. After working at Target for years, and seeing couples register for the same things every time, I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be different.

I thought registering for 200 bags of Doritos would do the trick.

Unfortunately, I might have let this plan slip out at a less opportune moment, and by that I mean when Darcy was around. She didn't seem to find it nearly as entertaining as I did.

"If you do that, your friends will buy 200 bags of Doritos," she said.

"True," I said, thinking of salty, nacho cheesy goodness.

"Are you going to be able to return 200 bags of Doritos? Do you want to explain it to the store?"

Granted, it may be a hassle, but think of all the fun the store will have taking them back. Well, most of them -- It would be a shame to not open one, two, or ten bags.

Unfortunately, in the end, my genius was appreciated more by my male friends than the female ones, and I relented and agreed to no Doritos. Or dart guns. Or plasma televisions.

I said nothing about Fritos though. Time to hit the registry . . .