6/19/2010

Very Busy, Please Stand By

I've got deadlines approaching for several projects and will have to focus on those for the rest of the month. Please check back by Drye Goods in a couple weeks for new postings.

6/08/2010

How I Slid Into an Appreciation of Chinese Culture

There's a big fuss out in Hacienda Heights, California because elementary school kids there are being taught the Chinese language and something about Chinese culture, and the instruction is being paid for in part by the government of China.

Some people think the whole thing is another in a series of sinister plots to undermine our sacred American values. They think it poses a serious threat to our very way of life. What better way to overthrow the government of a country and instill communism, they reason, than to brainwash the children who will one day take the reins of that government?

In their view, anyone who studies anything about China is a potential traitor. So I guess it's time for me to confess something -- a long time ago, in that bastion of undisciplined and dangerous free-thinking that is Chapel Hill, I studied ancient Chinese culture. And God help me, I enjoyed it and haven't been the same since.

But the Chinese government had nothing to do with coercing me into taking this subversive course, nor was I bent on fomenting revolution. I swear that the only reason I took it was because I was desperate to get a decent grade in summer school. I signed up for the course -- known at the time as Chinese 50 in the University of North Carolina curriculum catalog -- because it was famous for being, in the student slang of that era, a "slide."

A slide was a class in which you could get a decent grade by doing little more than filling a seat in the lecture hall for a semester. The names of such courses are circulated among the mediocre students on the campuses of colleges such as UNC, where you always seem to find yourself in classes with students who are a whole lot smarter than you and ruin the grading curve for everyone else.

So during that summer session I took a seat in one of the largest auditoriums on campus, joining academically sluggish football players, party-hearty frat boys and other less-than-focused semi-scholars who knew their college careers depended on a QPA-boosting grade in this course.

I wish I could remember the name of the professor who taught Chinese 50, but that's long gone from my memory. But I do clearly remember his appearance and mannerisms. He was a small, wispy, slightly nervous American Caucasian, probably late 30s-early 40s, with a scraggly beard and graying hair. In those days you could still smoke in UNC classrooms, and he chain-smoked throughout his lectures.

In short, he was not a very imposing figure. But he was deeply in love with the culture and history of China, and he intensely wanted to communicate that love to his students -- even though he knew his class was a sort of summer purgatory for those who'd discovered that academics was probably the least-interesting of all the things you could do in Chapel Hill.

On the first day of class, he laid his cards on the table. If you show up for all the classes and do all of the assigned work, you'll get a 'C,' he told us. If you do a little more than the assigned work, you'll get a 'B,' and if you do still more work you'll get an 'A,' he said.

But I'm not doing this so you can kick your mind into neutral and coast through summer school, he said. I'm doing this because I think the ancient Chinese built one of the greatest civilizations in world history, and I'm hoping you'll pick up just a little bit of that from this class.

And then he proceeded, during those muggy North Carolina summer mornings, to tell us a fascinating story of a long-ago people who were sublimely civilized. Like any group of humans, there were scoundrels, wastrels and thieves among them, but their culture was focused on moderation and self-discipline.

The ancient Chinese recognized the deep flaws of human nature, and took that into account in making their laws. They recognized that no human is as powerful as the forces of nature, and structured their lives to be in harmony with their surroundings. They recognized the ceaseless interplay between simplicity and complexity in all aspects of human existence, and wrote poetry and essays to express that.

They even devised a written language that was not intended to be spoken, but was designed to communicate an idea or a passion by creating a series of images in the minds of readers. It was a language that existed only in the mind, sort of like telepathy.

I also learned about Lao Tzu, the ancient philosopher who supposedly scolded Confucius for his pride and vanity and wrote the Tao Te Ching before disappearing forever.

I got a B+ for the course, but more importantly I came away from that class with a lingering fascination for a civilization and a system of thought that was based on reasoning and intellect instead of emotion and acquisitiveness.

It's been decades since I took Chinese 50, but a week hasn't gone by that I haven't thought of that class in some context. And now the story emerges about the frightened people in Hacienda Heights who have freaked out because kids there are learning something about China.

So the adults are upset because the children may become wiser than their elders. I think Lao Tzu might find that amusing.

NOTE: The symbols at the top of this post are Chinese for "change."

6/03/2010

Baseball's "Human Element" Throws Monkey Wrench Into the Game


The phrase "human element" has been used a lot during the past couple of days when people talk about Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga losing a perfect game because an umpire missed a call that would have put Galarraga into the record books.

Umpire Jim Joyce admitted that he'd missed the call on a play at first base that would have ended the game and preserved Galarraga's pitching gem. He even apologized to Galarraga after the game. But MLB commissioner Bud Selig refused to overturn Joyce's blown call and declare that Galarraga had indeed pitched a perfect game, sparking outrage among many fans.

Baseball purists such as I love to talk about the "human element" of baseball. Invoking the human element means that even though baseball has rules that theoretically prevent any sort of advantage for either team, we purists recognize that human frailties often decide the outcomes of games. And we supposedly accept that as part of the game, just as we have to accept that a pebble in the infield can suddenly change the path of a ground ball and alter the game.

Calling it the human element sounds more noble than saying that an umpire blew a call. And there's a long history of Major League baseball games that have been affected by that particular human element -- including several perfect and near-perfect games.

New York Yankees' pitcher Don Larsen pitched the most famous perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. But Larsen probably had a little help from plate umpire Babe Pinelli. With two outs in the ninth inning, Pinelli called Brooklyn Dodger pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell out on a third strike that many witnesses thought was well out of the strike zone. Pinelli, the human element in this game, apparently decided that Larsen deserved the perfect game and ended it before Mitchell could spoil the masterpiece.

In May 1959, Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Harvey Haddix pitched above and beyond the boundaries of normal perfection when he didn't allow a runner to reach base for 12 innings. Facing one of the toughest lineups in baseball at the time, Haddix retired 36 consecutive Milwaukee Braves batters.

It was an unprecedented performance, and I doubt that anyone will ever accomplish it again.
But Haddix and the Pirates lost the game in the 13th inning. Since he'd pitched nine perfect innings before losing, he was credited with a perfect game -- until MLB changed the scoring rules in 1991 and wiped Haddix's perfect game from the record books.

In May 1972, Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas retired 26 straight San Diego Padres' batters. Then, one out and one strike away from perfection, Pappas threw two pitches that were close enough to be called third strikes. But plate umpire Bruce Froemming -- that ornery human element -- apparently didn't have the same respect for perfection that Babe Pinelli had in 1956. Froemming called both pitches balls, and Pappas's perfection was lost to human imperfection.


I had mixed feelings when I heard that Bud Selig was going to consider whether to reverse Joyce's call and declare that Galarraga had pitched a perfect game. That umpire-as-human-element thing came to mind, and I thought that maybe Joyce's blown call should not be reversed.

Then Selig made his ruling, and I was angry, and I know why. I just don't like Selig. He could say publicly that his mother loves him, and my instinctive reaction would be to snort and call him a liar. My old friend Chaz Misenheimer has a description of Selig that sums up the opinion of many fans, including me. Chaz says Selig is "a smiling, spineless, gutless jellyfish of a bureaucrat who couldn't pick up Barney Fife's whistle."

Milt Pappas -- still sore that he lost his bid for perfection 38 years ago because of the human element -- was more succinct in his description of Selig's decision. He called the commissioner "Mr. No-Guts."

At the same time Selig announced that he is going to convene a committee, confer with the players unions, yada yada yada, and figure out some way to prevent this from happening again.

I'll admit that I'd probably have complained regardless of what Selig decided. But his wimpy, bureaucratic effort to please everyone and avoid controversy reminded me of why I dislike him. He's breaking his back to avoid having to make a tough decision himself.

NOTE: The screen-grab photo at the top clearly shows that pitcher Armando Galarraga's foot is touching first base ahead of Cleveland Indians' runner Jason Donald. The play should have been the final out of Galarraga's perfect game.

6/02/2010

CSU forecasters predict "very active" hurricane season


There seems little doubt that we're in for a stormy summer. Earlier today, Colorado State University forecasters Phil Klotzbach and William Gray released a statement predicting that the 2010 Atlantic Basin hurricane season -- which started yesterday -- will be "very active." The CSU meteorologists think that 18 named tropical storms will form before the end of the season on November 30. They think 10 of those storms will strengthen into hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph. Five of those hurricanes could develop into major hurricanes with winds exceeding 110 mph.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that 14 to 23 named storms could form in the Atlantic, with 8 to 14 of those storms becoming hurricanes. NOAA also said that three to seven major hurricanes could form.

The news from the CSU forecasters is even worse for the Caribbean Sea. Klotzbach and Gray think this year could be similar to the awful summers of 2004 and 2005, two of the most active seasons on record. Monster hurricanes such as Ivan, Katrina, Rita and Wilma formed in the Caribbean during those summers, and 2005 became the most active single season on record with 28 named storms.

Several factors are expected to contribute to this year's exceptional hurricane activity.

The El Nino weather phenomenon that kept the lid on last summer's hurricane activity is dissipating. El Nino events occur sporadically and are caused by an unusual warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of South America. When an El Nino occurs, it creates strong upper-level winds over the Atlantic, and these winds disrupt hurricane formation.

Largely because of last summer's El Nino, only nine name storms formed in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.


Waters in the tropical Atlantic also are unusually warm this year. Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean water, so this could provide plenty of fuel for the storms.

Klotzbach said that an active hurricane season could affect efforts to contain and clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "If the storm tracks to the west of the oil, there is the potential that the counter-clockwise circulation of the hurricane could drive some of the oil further towards the U.S. Gulf Coast," he said. "We do not expect that the oil slick will have much of an impact on any tropical storm or hurricane that passes over the area."

NOTE: I shot the photo at the top of this post here in Plymouth during the eye of Hurricane Isabel, which struck North Carolina in September 2003.