Friday, September 15, 2017

THE ARCH-DUKE

Northwestern survived a shaky opening game and went to Durham to prove that they would not repeat last year's out of conference nightmare that changed season from one where they hoped to compete for a division title to one that involved scrapping for bowl contention.  Instead, they went to Duke and got run over by trucks.

Foiled once again by the Duke Boys

The 42-17 bludgeoning at the hands of Duke promises a repeat of last year's season where a disastrous start to the season somehow turned into a feisty run through the dregs of the Big Ten to a Pinstripe Bowl Championship.  The revamped schedule only has one more non-conference game that could turn into white knuckle terror before the 'Cats have to face the two most terrifying games on their schedule.  Meanwhile, Illinois has shown alarming signs of football competence and Purdue has thrown away its staid old playbook of painting tunnels on the side of a cliff and then running into it to a series of plays where Purdue runs triple-reverse flea flickers at all times and distributes propaganda leaflets to opposing defenses that sow confusion and dissent while the Purdue quarterback strolls towards the endzone.  P.J. Fleck now coaches Minnesota with the insane stare of a man who has literally paid $100,000 to continue yelling at people to row the boat; I don't know what Fleck means by Row the Boat, but there are few things more dangerous than a football coach with a monomaniacal mantra that is now his intellectual property.

Fleck explains that part two in the Row the Boat Process is The Boat

The Big Ten West looks far more dangerous than it did a year ago, and after two games Northwestern's path to its most important goal, a berth in the Go Ahead and Bite It Attack Dog Arm Protector Bowl has become fraught.

DUKE GAME RECAP

Pat Fitzgerald shouldered past the dial-a-down. Planning on taking it one game at a time. Sound practice advocated by such diverse football tacticians as George Halas, Bum Phillips, Dr M.H.H. Rarritt advertising on the back pages of Football Man's Advocate PO Box 412. One game at a time makes sense, temporally; no madman could possibly play two games at the same time, two fields, two quarterbacks, two head coaches and replay officials, all jumbled in the same corner of space-time, unfathomable. If that happened, Pat, you'd have a much larger problem than the Wisconsin Badgers is what the professor professed at him when he pulled him aside and very quietly inquired about the physics of taking it two or even three games at a time. You can't do that, young men, he told them every day at camp, halfglassesed, chalksmeared. He suspected Mick McCall thought otherwise, but the two had decided not to discuss theoretical physics, not again.

DURHAM-- The blue-clad spectators indulged in their joyous Satanic rituals as they watched their Blue Devils make minced-meats upon the hapless Wild Cat of Northwestern.  They rejoiced as their heftiest Dukemen tossed aside Northwestern's line men, sacked their quartered-backs, and browbeat them with a variety of approved touchdown dances.

The grisly rampage took place in front of a group of Duke notables: the Vice Chancellor, the Bursar, the Acting Bursar, the Landlord Shelden Williams, Three Cameron Crazies, A Duplicate Krzyzewski-- one of many deployed against the numerous attempts to kidnap or poison him upon the Tobacco Road, an Eminent Professor of Semiotics, a Slightly Less Eminent Professor of Semiotics who is preparing a devastating attack upon his colleague in Fightnote: The Journal of Learned Insults, the Committee for the Ducolax Opiod Related Constipation Bowl.

FITZGERALD
(Grabs his wrist, his face in strained gutshot pantomime.) Held. Held. Armpinioned and engulfed.

REFEREE
(Stonefaced. Staring at the dial-a-down.)

FITZGERALD
(Makes a series of pained referee gestures). Rough-tackled. Illegally celebrated. Persecuted for false targeting. 

REFEREE
(A gargoyle.)

AIR WILLIE
(Its tongue lolling, its eyebrows arched. inflated by some sort of sulphurous gas as it sways side to side). HISS HISS

CATPOSTS95
(Logs on.) Unacceptable. Horrifying. Fire him. Siege his office and take his memorabilia.

CHATCAT
(Also logs on.) Fire him. Roast him. Slash him with an iron claw.

FANOFCATS77
(Shimmers through carbon fiber.) Disgraceful. Unimaginable. An appalling and low moment to the program, that this Pat Fitzgerald would present himself in front of America and his God in short pants.

CATPOSTS95
(Whips computer mouse around in a threatening nunchuk pattern). Scratch him. Fight him.

CHATCAT
(Breaks keyboard in half with his forehead). Claw him. Bite him.

FANOFCATS77
The shorts are not only the sartorial choice of a languorous child, they present numerous tactical disadvantages vis. exposure of the knee to the elements.

FITZGERALD
(Rides through the Canyon of Heroes brandishing his Pinstripe Bowl trophy.)

NEW YORK SPORTS FAN
(Throws newspapers. Strains to get a glimpse, dangerously halfway through a window, beckons to a coworker to hold on so he does not go plummeting into the Canyon of Heroes himself.)

VENDOR
(Sells bootleg Pinstripe Bowl merchandise that contains the misprint Pinstripe Bowel to throngs of fans shaking money.)

THE MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY
(Bestows on FITZGERALD  the key to New York, awarded for winning the city's most prestigious Sports Championship.)

MIKE GOLIC
(On the dais, sweating, howling as a MIKE GOLIC buds off of him.) Mike?

BUDDING MIKE GOLIC
(Coming into being.) Thanks, Mike.

FANOFCATS77
I have read that Nick Saban often wears two pairs of pants. Even if, during the course of a game, his pants become ripped, soiled, or otherwise damaged, he has with him an entire extra set of pants.

RON ZOOK
(Waterskis through the Canyon of Heroes). Trousers? Slacks? Hot pants? This isn't haberdashery. This isn't fine Italian silks. This isn't monocle accessories. You go and you get the dang ball. This is football, gentlemen. Page 27, from Gentleman, Comma by Ron Zook.

CATPOSTS95
Impossible.

CHATCAT
Meaningless

A KRZYZEWSKI IMPERSONATOR
(Bites FITZGERALD.)

FANOFCATS77
Knute Rockne never wore regular pants, but had surplus US Army tents cut down and made into specialty Coaching Pants. For it was a different game back then, when spectators would lunge, attempting to take the opposing coach's pants as a trophy. Vincent Lombardi sewed his pants into his legs, and they could only be changed via a painful surgical procedure.

FITZGERALD
We will take it one more game at a time I promise.

AN EMINENT PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS
(Assembles unwieldy mound of charts and books.) R. Deborah Pwy, "Football Time, Football Space," the Journal of Coaching Science; J.A. Shermanesque, "A Theoretical Construct of Two Games at a Time," International Review of Time-Game Literature; Chasen Mantis, "What If They Play No Games at a Time Did I Just Blow Your Mind," No Way/Way. 

FITZGERALD
It is the sound conclusion of the scientific community.

BOWLING GREEN 

Here's an interesting and reassuring fact about Northwestern's UNDER THE LIGHTS clash against the Bowling Green Falcons: Northwestern has never beaten them.  They have only played twice-- once in a November shootout that they lost 43-42, and another in the ill-fated 2003 Motor City Bowl, at that point the lowest ebb of Northwestern's bowl loss streak that wasted a 237-yard day from running back Jason Wright.  I expect to see an intimidating flock of Falcons fans descending upon Ryan Field with numerous reproductions of the Motor City Bowl trophy.


There are dedicated football wonks who have film and two-deeps and sophisticated computer rankings about Bowling Green, but these types of games represent opportunities to project the hopes and fears for the coming Big Ten season.  I don't know whether Bowling Green has a good defense, but I do know that if Northwestern continues to struggle running the ball against them it bodes ill for a coming clash with the literal tons of Wisconsin linemen.  I have no idea what Bowling Green's offense looks like, but it will be encouraging if the limping, wounded remnant of Northwestern's flight-suited Sky Team manages to match up with their receivers before Trace McSorley comes to town.  I have no idea if Northwestern can get over psychological mind games that the Falcons will certainly use from the 14-year-old bowl humiliation, but that sort of thing is crucial when it comes to overcoming Fleck's boat taunts not to mention the crucial contest for The Hat. 

Northwestern remains, for some reason, heavily favored once again, when the lights and the cameras of Big Ten Network Regional Coverage will be on them once again as they attempt to defeat the Bowling Green Falcons for the first time.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Northwestern and Duke Face Off Again, I Guess

Football returned to Ryan Field in a fanfare of bands, pyrotechnics, parachutists, and the one red firework they shoot off when they get to the rocket's red glare part of the anthem that always looks like it's going to hit one of the parachutists in a grisly act of errant patriotism. Then the Northwestern Wildcats went out there heavily favored against Nevada and won a football game to a concerned, grim-faced crowd.

Northwestern fends off the Wolf Pack

Nevada frustrated the Wildcats all afternoon.  They took a lead into halftime and the game remained tense until Northwestern sniffed out the last remnants of a Nevada comeback by smothering the quarterback on a fourth-and-one.  The Wildcats won, but had issues up front on both sides and continued to hemorrhage defensive backs.  Marcus McShepard and Brian Bullock both left the game, and the team announced that Keith Watkins will miss the whole season again. Northwestern remained determined to stick with its vague, hockeyish injury reports in the tradition of coaches waging asymmetrical information wars.  Last week, for example, John Harbaugh and Jim McElwain engaged in a ridiculous, petty battle about naming the actual players on their football teams, with Harbaugh suggesting that he might send buses full of dummy players that have never played football before to stand around in terror in kickoff formation before the actual Michigan players who have been living in Arlington Stadium for months building a subterranean tunnel society would burst from the ground, dragging the Gators into a hollowed out cavern because Harbuagh believed his team had the advantage closer to the Earth's Core.

Harbaugh and McElwain continue their mind games, 
with McElwain refusing to look at Harbaugh and 
Harbaugh using a fake hand so that Florida can't use the 
contours of his palm print to divine any information about 
defensive formations

There is no such thing as a disappointing win at Northwestern.  The Committee will not be looking for style points, betting lines, or body clocks when they select the participants for the DoubleWide Extra Large Men's Pant Bowl.  Northwestern's preseason hopes did not instantaneously evaporate like last year in a slow motion football bouncing off a goalpost in a cacophony of FCS cackling.  Northwestern won.  In a sport where wins and losses often turn on a kick here, a pick there, or a quarterback attempting to run for a two-point conversion instead but then opting for a two-cheek conversion when he falls upon his butt, there is no reason not to hoard every win.  Let the pollsters and the committees and the BCS computers that are still in a basement threatening each other with modem noises worry about all of that.  The Northwestern Wildcats are undefeated.

THE BIG GAME DUKE VS. NORTHWESTERN

Duke is probably the closest thing to a non-conference rival the Wildcats can muster.  The teams have played eighteen times since  1985, with the woeful 1980s Northwestern teams supplying an easy W for Steve Spurrier and Northwestern grabbing crucial, Royal George Gout Balm Bowl-qualifying wins over a nominal power five opponent this century.  Despite the frequency of play and the schools similar enough to provoke the narcissism of small differences that fuels college football hatred, the teams have not really built up a decent amount of enmity.  Perhaps it is because the teams remain preoccupied by their own conference rivalries. Perhaps it is because both schools await the appearance of a heroic Beckman figure to inexplicably to come out of the mist with clocks and signs of the team's logo with a slash through it.  Most likely, it is because the entire sports energy of Duke University involves bracing themselves against the endless onslaught of people despising the basketball team more or less continuously for decades, for standing in ad-hoc tent cities to get tickets to an ACC game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and for working on a serum to make sure Coach K's face does not freeze like that.

Northwestern and Duke football don't have much a rivalry because Duke fans don't seem to care much about their football team and Northwestern fans know deep down that the conditions are ripe for any lasting sports success to provoke to type of ire felt by Duke basketball.  Northwestern got a small taste of it last year; their foray into the NCAA tournament sparked in some quarters an almost immediate backlash, not least because of a homeopathic amount of Dukery in the basketball team.  

Duke will not inspire parade floats, memes, or shrieking mania at Wallace Wade stadium this Saturday.  What it will do, though, is determine the course Northwestern's season.  The Wildcats have ambitions to compete at the top of the Big Ten West this season.  A win at Duke and then in an inexplicable night game against Bowling Green will have them at 3-0 heading into games against Big Ten colossi Wisconsin and Penn State.  A win against either of those teams could set the Wildcats up for another run.  A loss at Duke probably means the 'Cats should settle in for another season heroically scrapping their way to bowl contention and clinging to the Hat, the glorious default position of twenty-first-century Northwestern football.

BASEBALL CYBERCRIMES UPDATE



We all thought we could sleep safely at night from the malcontents that have now turned baseball from a bucolic national pastime into a terrifying den of cybercrimes ever since the Cardinals guy got caught for doing elite hacks like remembering that the password was Eckstein123.  But every day baseball's cybercriminals are jacking themselves into mainframes, banging on keyboards, and yelling I'M IN, which is exactly what all of the crusty old sports columnists who are wearing a men's hat in their photos taken in 1987 tried to warn us all about when they got really irate about spreadsheets.

This week, the New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of stealing their signs by wearing a post-human cyber-watch device.  It remains unclear exactly how they processed the signals, but studies show that the most likely thing that happened is that Red Sox manager John Farrell immediately saw the entire field exactly like how we all assumed computers would see things in the 1980s, and he used the gridlines and blocky text to decode the Yankees' complex baseball stratagems.  The Red Sox  countered with allegations that the Yankees had developed nanobots capable of living within Red Sox players and coaches for the entire season, transmitting all of their biometric data to a supercomputer that could determine what pitch they would throw before they even threw it, before the pitcher and catcher and pitching coach had met on the mound and talked gravely into their mitts about Pitch Selection.  As we speak, every major league team has interns talking to sophisticated AI programs that can at any moment turn sentient and develop opinions on bat flips.

This is what baseball looks like now 

Baseball players have been cheating from time immemorial.  Baseball's cybercheating is easily the best kind because it riles up the sport's stodgerati who have spent more than a century imbuing a goofy spitting sport with all sorts of bogus moral frippery so hoary that they probably use the word "manful" and perpetuating the myth of fake baseball player "Mickey Mantle," who was originally drawn on a cocktail napkin by Bob Costas in 1987. Decades from now, our crusty baseball columnists will look back with nostalgia at how the Red Sox used a smart watch with the sort of rogueish élan that we associate with baseball teams that used binoculars or electric boxes or staged elaborate train robberies as a distraction to steal crucial early baseball information technology such as tobacco covered notebooks that said an opposing player probably had a wicked curved-ball based on the way his brow ridges demonstrated a most unsavory propensity towards deceit and guile and also we heard he has a mustache. 

QUARTERBACK CONTRUBISKY

There are a million articles now on the internet on the grim, foreboding death march of the NFL. It is difficult to tell how much of that is the columnist's solipsism or if the decline of the NFL also fits with larger trends in sports- and television-watching habits and has nothing to do with the league itself.  It is overwhelmingly tempting to point to issues with the NFL, though, because the NFL is the most insane sports league on the planet.  There’s a case to be made that all professional sports resemble a corporate retreats department accidentally showered with billions of dollars; the NFL is the only league that wants to subsume the entire sport into the corporation itself with its dress codes and constant injection of staid legalism and the way everyone involved with it speaks in an incomprehensible business-violence jargon. The league is controlled by 32 men who all demand to be referred to as “Mister” with all of them yelling at everyone at all times that they were sent here by Mitch and Murray.  The NFL is the only sports league in the world that is constantly investigating.

The NFL is rife with problems: the sobering reality of the damage the sport causes to players and the sickening way the league has tried to cover it up, the unending, replay-ridden games, the attacks on anything fun or expressive to the point where a league document has, without further explanation, specifically banned "incredible hulk," and alliance with the absolute dumbest shit imaginable at all times.  All of this has been the problem with the NFL forever.  The major issue now is that your team is almost certainly dogshit because there are like eight guys in the world capable of playing quarterback and without one of them the team you like descends into a stark exhibition of Bortleism.

A solemn Goodell steps to the podium, for another 
press conference about the latest NFL imbroglio. 
"You may not incredible hulk," he says.  "No questions." 

The Bears engineered a ridiculous quarterback controversy by spending a princely sum on shitty backup quarterback Mike Glennon and then, without informing him, traded up in the draft to select Mitch Trubisky as the Quarterback of the Future. Glennon already had a tough road in Chicago; Glennon is the apotheosis of shitty backup quarterbacking not only because he is stiff, inaccurate, and saddled with a remainder pile receiving corps but also because he looks like a gangly doofus. It is not Mike Glennon’s fault that he was put in this situation, paid an enormous and unfathomable sum of money and then more or less instantaneously replaced by someone who has not lurched around the NFL for several years ineffectively, nor is it his fault that he looks to me like the long-necked monster from the little-seen movie Big Man Japan about a guy whose duty it is to step into an enormous set of underpants and get shocked into turning into a giant superhero tasked with battling a bunch of grotesque monsters attacking Tokyo.


Glennon did not help his cause by entering the preseason and immediately performing a Medley of Historical Bears Quarterbacking while Trubisky looked great.  All season long, Glennon and dead-end coach John Fox will hear a nonstop nasal bray about playing that Trubinsky kid (Trubinsky is his Chicago Sports Talk Radio Caller Name, it's in his football contract) every time Glennon comes in and does the type of football fuckup that everyone expects from Mike Glennon.  No one is happier than Chicago's sports columnists, a cottage industry with a job description that is literally complaining about the Bears' quarterback; this has kept them employed long past the existence of newspapers.  At some point Trubisky will get his chance, whether from pressure or from Glennon accidentally wrapping himself around the field goal pole.  Who knows if Trubisky represents an actual Bears quarterback or if he will be, like the dozens of and dozens of men before him swept into the giant dustbin of Bears quarterbacks.  My prediction is that he will be great, amazing for one season before football is immediately and probably rightly banned and we all go around ashamed we ever watched it and him, that Trumbinskly Kid, maybe could have gone to the Super Bowl, if we all didn't immediately decide to stop watching a horrifying bacchanalia of violence designed to sell trucks.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL INTERNET POSTING HYPE VIDEO 2017

Finally, here is your college football internet posting hype video for 2017.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Portents and Signs

There is no shortage of radio callers and message board maniacs that would take a 7-6 football season and berth in the NCAA Men’s Tournament as an invitation to launch an entire wing of prop planes with increasingly unhinged demands to fire a Gary Oldmanish everyone at their school. This is the Golden Age of Northwestern sports.

Northwestern returns with all the pomp one would expect from the Pin Striped-Bowl Champions, with a life-size replica of Justin Jackson erected in Monument Park and Pat Fitzgerald appearing at Pittsburgh, as bowl tradition dictates, to dress like an umpire and scream YER OUTTA HERE (IN REFERENCE TO THE PINSTRIPE BOWL) at the Panthers while doing burnouts on their practice field in a custom-built Pinstripe Champion bullpen car.

Pat Fitzgerald engages in the traditional spoils of the Pinstripe Bowl 
Championship

Northwestern’s triumphant sports mediocrity has not happened in isolation but from an attempt to operate like a major athletic conference sports school instead of a program for wayward youth to build character through getting run over and dunked upon. Scaffolding has sprung up across the campus watered by a money hose. Northwestern is building a ludicrous quarter-billion-dollar luxury sports fortress along the lake. The basketball team has been forced to a suburban arena for monster trucks, wrestling, and people dressed as monster trucks who wrestle at each other in a production of Grave Digger: The Grave Musical to make room for renovations so they can renovate Welsh-Ryan with things like chairs while sacrificing the crucial home advantage that comes from forcing opposing teams to get onto the court by shouldering past the hot dog line.

Welsh-Ryan Arena, shown before renovations began just before a 
Big Ten contest

Northwestern football has been at least consistently decent for nearly a quarter century.  The basketball team appears to be moving in the same direction.  An entire generation of visiting fans may be growing up seeing Northwestern win bowl games and play in a basketball arena without cigarette machines and in a football stadium with gleaming, gilded tarps and actually believe that their team could lose.  At that moment, it is possible that Northwestern will have lost its way, that the entire mission of sports at the university could have faded from its highest ideal, which is treading on its shitty sports history of crappiness to make opposing fans really, really mad.

NORTHWESTERN SEASON PREVIEW

They are supposed to be good.  SBNation has them raked #23.  The AP Poll has them just outside the Top 25.  They return a promising quarterback, a stout secondary, and one of the greatest running backs in school history.  They miss Ohio State and Michigan and the Big Ten West remains the province of dreams where anything is possible.  Illinois has been cowed back to Memorial Stadium after their last attempt to play at Soldier Field, embarrassed by a legion of dozens of Chicago's Big Ten fans in mewling purple showed up to take up several rows.  This is dangerous territory.

If you are like me and prefer to take something as frivolously enjoyable as sports fandom and inject it with doom and dread, then it is not hard to see problems on the horizon.  Northwestern has more often than not sputtered after putting together big seasons. Last year, the Wildcats followed up a ten-win season with an inexplicable 9-7 loss to an Illinois State team clawing at the coffin lid of the Missouri Valley Conference.  The last ten-win season spawned a preseason ranking and ESPN College Gameday matchup with Ohio State  that turned into a horrifying death spiral; the Wildcats lost that game and literally every other game until they managed to walk off with a consolation Hat.
A person with a sign saying that "the Exaltation of Mercury shows that 
Northwestern won't even go to the Meineke Car Care Bowl" was 
escorted from the Gameday set, the warning unheeded

College football remains unpredictable game by game.  Northwestern's disastrous five-win 2013 season involved a three game stretch where they lost in overtime, in triple overtime, and on a hail mary pass by a quarterback named Ron Kellogg III who earned that suffix as Nebraska's third-choice signal caller.  The 2015 ten-win campaign involved close wins from a failed two-point conversion, James Franklin's avant-garde time management style, and referees simply refusing to award points to Wisconsin that incited the Badger crowd into attacking them with a barrage of snowballs.  There's an entire school of analytical thought dedicating to pooh-poohing the results of individual games that are determined by small sample freak events like fumble recoveries, missed field goals, and players falling down and clutching at their hamstrings over the hushed, lilting tones of Fox's injured player version of the Football Robot Murder March before playing a bunch of commercials for truck boner dorito pills.  The entirety of college football is an epistemological project proving that human beings cannot actually determine whether football teams are better than each other.

After a long and fruitful discussion, two college football fans agree on 
the importance of Conference Championships in the Playoff Picture

In this uncertain sports environment, it is silly to try to make predictions.  Northwestern's star linebacker Anthony Walker has gone to the NFL, picked by the Colts through the inscrutable whim of an orangutan.  Clayton Thorson will face a challenge in the passing game without Austin Carr, a receiver who was always open, caught everything, and drew the attention of defenses who by the end of the season were covering him the way Illinois law enforcement covered the Blues Brothers.  These are not cause for panic-- the Wildcats have stalwarts returning like all-everything safety Godwin Igwebuike and exciting up and comers like Montre Hartage and Joe Gaziano, the Scourge of East Lansing.  They still have Justin Jackson The Ball Carrier who has spent the summer attempting to track down wayward Pittsburgh players who have been wandering Eastern Seaboard after becoming too confused by his juking maneuvers to find their way out of Yankee Stadium.

I haven't run the numbers.  I haven't analyzed the schedule.  I have not pored over depth charts, watched filmed, attended practice sessions, disguised myself as Skip Myslanski and attempted to gain intelligence on the team by pretending I am writing an iambic pentameter poem about field goal holding techniques. There is no insight here beyond an irrational sports pessimism.  That is counterproductive.  There's no point attempting to shield oneself from disappointment when it comes to college football, where the worst outcome is have an Iowa fan sneer at you triumphantly in the parking lot.  It is time to be equally irrationally positive.  So here's the season preview.  Wisconsin? Divided in two and run blocked into Lakes Mendota and Menona.  Penn State? Remember when Vanderbilt sort of abruptly canceled a game with Northwestern when the SEC schedule changed and everyone was upset about that for some reason?  Well, the mighty Wildcat will not forget, as Northwestern players burst from the tunnel crying for vengeance, specifically in reference to football scheduling procedures for the 201 and 2014 seasons.  Nebraska?  We will see how the Cornhuskers play under the pressure of playing in front of their fans as opposed to at Ryan field where they also play in front of slightly fewer of their fans.  

The Wildcats will, according to my proprietary HOKUM model, run roughshod all over the Big Ten, leave the Hat safely ensconced in its guarded, climate-controlled Hat Chamber, and be good enough to force irritated college football pundits to have to get yelled at about them when they start inexplicably releasing meaningless Playoff Rankings because the college football media is entirely dependent on yelling about meaningless rankings for weeks at a time and so will I, traveling through American cities with a bullhorn demanding that the Playoff Committee take note of Opponent Schedule, Second-Half Hot Dog Shortages, and Body Clocks.

DRY RUSSIA

Prohibition lives on in the popular imagination as a time of rum-running, bootlegging, speakeasies, and gangsters who all talk like Edward G. Robinson all the time, just a mass of hardened criminals in pinstripe suits all staring at each other through sliding peepholes with hot jazz inaudible under the din of guys saying myaah.  This is a romanticized version of it, but people do get the general sense of the problem of trying to ban alcohol through the rule of law, of trying to enforce it through officials who may like to drink themselves, of creating an entire class of casual criminals who have probably already been punished by drinking corn mash fermented in an old sock.  

The Soviet Union tried to curtail drinking in the 1980s.  Stephen White's 1996 monograph Russia Goes Dry examines the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign with an academic flourish of figures and numbers.  White remains concerned with studying the anti-alcohol campaign as a critique of Soviet campaigns against social ills.  He susses out patterns, examines difficulties of enforcing campaigns over sprawling localities, and looks at societies, journals, and posters.  

Posters from London's Pushkin House exhibition on 
anti-alcohol campaign posters

White and the Russian sources he cites struggle to identify consumption statistics.  Soviet statisticians included alcohol in broad categories such as "other foodstuffs" during the 1960s; White cites scholars that surveyed emigres or extrapolating from earlier categories of expenditures.  The Soviet government found that alcohol had a twin problem-- White estimates that in the 1960s and 1970s, alcohol taxes provided about a third of all government revenues but meted out a staggering cost in lost productivity, health, and even security. For example, White describes a Soviet crew in Czechoslovakia that bartered its tank for several cases of vodka, pickles, and herring; the bar owner then sold the tank to a recycling plant.

The Politburo announced an anti-alcohol campaign in 1985.  White stresses that the Politburo remained divided.  Mikahil Gorbachev came on board.  The most zealous anti-alcohol crusader was Yegor Ligachev, a teetotaler who had long desired to curb drunkenness.  The campaign was met with internal opposition from other officials who felt that the campaign was misguided or ill-planned-- one minister resigned, and Boris Yeltsin later wrote that the campaign was "amazingly ill-conceived and ridiculous" and that he "could not reconcile [himself] to [Ligachev's] obstinacy and dilettantism."

The campaign limited the supply of alcohol in stores, cracked down on homebrewing, and released a large number of posters involving bottles being crushed by hammers.  White claims that initially, the campaign did discourage drinking and manage to change some public attitudes.  But, within a few years, the campaign began to wane.  Homebrewing increased and led to vast quantities of sugar bought or even stolen.  Local Party officials varied wildly in enforcement.  In one Ukranian Village, local officials housed their own elaborate brewing apparatus described by Pravda as "45-degree first-grade hooch." The sober lifestyle had not caught on in Novosibirsk, where White notes that fewer than three percent of of Party members abstained; "A Communist is also a human being" was the local slogan.

The campaign faltered after several years.  Like in the United States, the attempt to reduce availability of alcohol sparked an enormous trade in illicit brewing.  The campaign also hurt revenue.  White notes that the government had planned to offset decreased spending on alcohol with increased spending on other goods, but the supply of these goods never materialized, and profits from alcohol sales ended up in the hands of private, illegal brewing concerns.  By 1988, one official critical of the policy had, according to White, referred to it as "a blunder unequaled since the time of the Sumerians."

FOOTBALL SEASON BEGINS
Nevada comes off an uninspiring 5-7 season with new coach Jay Norvell and a new Air Raid-style scheme led by Matt Mumme, son of legendary Air Raid innovator Hal Mumme.  Northwestern is somehow favored by 24.5 points, although I should note that betting lines are meant to encourage betting on all sides and in this particular case to entrap people with gambling problems who would actually wager on a Northwestern vs. Nevada game.  The sun should be out.  The tarps will be gleaming.  Northwestern will be dressed head to toe in purple in a sponsorship arrangement with Dimetapp.  The videoboard is set to show us hundreds of images of Pat Fitzgerald's jaw jutting against an American flag.  It is football season again with all of the joy and disappointment and yelling and complete absurdity that entails.  

Friday, August 25, 2017

Football Flim-Flammery

College football is coming back and at some point some sorry team is going to be swindled, bamboozled, flim-flammed because their opponent is doing something they’re not supposed to and football is the most supposed to sport ever conceived.

There are few things more satisfying than watching your team pull off a trick play and leaving opposition hornswoggled to oblivion; the only thing better is watching an opponent dial up a failed trick play that snowballs into football disaster to the point where the only word to describe a coach's scheme is foiled.


Football's bloated maximalism means that it is not just a sport of people flinging themselves into each other with restless abandon, but flinging themselves at each other with reckless abandon within the strictures of an impenetrable and inscrutable set of ossified rules several of which remain vestiges on the books but unobserved, almost like religion.

Only the fanatics practice the Old Ways as seen in 
this mosaic of abandoned football practice

It is the only sport where the defining coach move is to defiantly rip off the headset because of course the coach is wearing a headset to talk to the coordinators in the booths above, why the sideline is swamped by laminated binders and Official Tablets of the National Football League and elaborate pictograms of Lee Corso and internet memes, why every single play starts with a brief meeting conducted in an insane and incomprehensible football argot codified into Domesday-thick playbooks, why every five minutes the referees gather under daguerreotype camera hoods to look at pixels and the beefiest among them attempts to explain whether something is a catch, the gravest epistemological question of our time.

Football's elaborate Court of the Sun King ruleset allows the slightest deviations to throw an entire game into giddy chaos: an unexpected guy is throwing the ball, a lineman has declared himself eligible (in the NFL, this requires a literal Declaration of Eligibility read over the PA system), a great big fat person handles the ball in any way.  Football coaches seethe and complain when they become victims of trickery-- rival coaches banned the A11 Offense that was entirely based on a high school loophole that allowed teams to ignore rigid rules on offensive line formation by lining up at all times in a punt return formation in a football version of fraudulent accounting; Mike Ditka got so angry about Bill Walsh using an offensive lineman as a fullback that he started giving the ball to William "The Refrigerator" Perry over and over, building an entire gimmick offense off of indignation about the unconventional use of fat men.

With so many moving parts, with roles so specialized that people are constantly running to and from the field of play because they need to install the Third Down Pass Rushing Package, it is possible for teams to dupe their opposition just by counting on them to lose track of all the people punching in and out.  The Ringer's Rodger Sherman had a fun article tracking how teams have had tiny backs hide behind behemoth lineman, unsportingly pretend to get subbed out, and camouflage themselves into the endzone only to pop out like the time Rambo disguised himself as an entire forest. 

Football has its moments of outright cheating as well.  Pop Warner used to hide the ball in secret compartments and sew patches onto jerseys that look like footballs and instantly transform their offense into a hall of mirrors where the defender tackles a guy who stands up empty handed while the rest of the offense taunts him with synchronized cackling. Contemporary football cheating, however, has become stilted and artless.  The most egregious recent case has been the Great Ball Deflation Media Event, a scandal so preposterously stupid that it involved the United States Supreme Court. Other sports have much better chicanery.  The best cheating in any sport right now is in cycling where some enterprising bicycle miscreants have set up hidden motors.  They call this "motodoping," easily the weirdest and most insane possible name for this practice, like robbing someone by threatening to hit them over the head with a 1990s computer monitor and calling it "Cybertheft 2020: Compucrime."

 College football represents the zenith of football chaos.  The staid NFL, with its strict rules on player numbering and overwhelming concern with illegal pants and sock combinations does its best to deliver a uniform product.  College teams, rife with gulfs in talent and resources, will resort to any strategy to gain an edge.  Recruiting is governed by absurd guidelines impossibly byzantine and ineffectual policed by an army of weirdo bureaucrats whose entire life revolves around sidling up to enormous college students and asking them how they paid for that tattoo and unhinged, self-deputized fans on maniacal social media detective sprees, desperate to prove that some player or coach has broken some inane NCAA rule even as every team breaks every rule while hurling accusations at their rivals.

College football returns this Saturday in all its anarchic glory, and someone is going to fake a punt. Some overmatched coach will try a desperation flea flicker, order a wide receiver to throw a pass, line up in Wing T formation, set up a complex chain of events that ends with a 350 pound tackle either thundering triumphantly towards the endzone in a wake of defensive backs trucked beyond recognition or getting too excited, not having any idea what to do, losing the ball in sun flash from a waggling trombone and watching the pass bounce off his helmet and into infamy.  A coach will use two quarterbacks.  A coach will use no quarterbacks.  A coach will storm onto the field, red as a cartoon thermometer, laminated playcards streaming from his coaching pants, to protest the Eligibility of the Downfield Lineman because he has no other recourse, he's been had, it's technically in the rules for that fullback to throw that lateral, there's nothing he and the thousands of slack-jawed, incredulous fans can do about it, and it might have Playoff Implications.  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

On Dreams and Heads

The Crosstown Cup is in full sway, delighting Chicago's fans of interleague baseball and extremely nasal arguments that end with the brandishing of switchblade sausages.  There's even more underlying tension in this year's matchup as Cub fans continue to bask in their team's championship and the White Sox languish in a rebuild. It has been the sad lot of White Sox fans to suffer through decades of historically moribund baseball only to be overshadowed by the Cubs because the Sox have been less famously and catastrophically inept.  Even ESPN got into the act, omitting the Sox's 2005 championship from a list of Chicago sports titles while giving themselves over to the sporting world's unchecked Cubmania.










ESPN's 2005 World Series graphic vs the graphic shown on its 
Oct. 25, 2016 broadcast

The other bit of intrigue floating about the Crosstown classic comes from a rare blockbuster trade between the two teams.  The Sox sent their ace Jose Quintana to the Cubs as part of their scorched earth rebuild strategy, a grand purge of baseball competence.  In return the Cubs sent four prospects headlined by their heralded outfielder Elroy Jimenez.  The front offices hope this trade benefits both teams, with Quintana helping to stave off the grim reaper that has been stalking the Cubs' aged rotation this season and Jimenez joining the Sox's armada of superstar prospects to launch them into contention down the line.  For fans, the stakes are much higher-- if the trade turns out to be lopsided, fans of the swindled team will have to read about the exploits of their lost superstar in the same paper every day and will be unable to move about the city without being confronted by opposing fans sporting their Barrett or Pierzynski jerseys mocking them with fingersnaps and pirouettes.

This year's series has already erupted into fireworks.  John Lackey, the grizzled old Cubs pitcher who looks like he has hunted Tony Robbins for sport and taken his teeth as a trophy, hit four White Sox batters, including an astounding three in the same inning.  Lackey's maniacal beanball rampage provoked the ire of White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, who managed to drag himself to Chicago for the series in case anyone needed to be challenged to a duel.
The venomous way he spits out the word "LACKEY" is his greatest achievement in a long baseball announcing career of threats and grievances. Harrelson further clarified his comments on Lackey on Wednesday, telling a Tribune reporter "“I was hoping that they would drill his ass big time because he’s an idiot.”  "He's full of shit and you can print that," Harrelson continued, adding that Lackey's "gonna look pretty funny tryin' to eat corn on the cob with no FUCKIN' TEETH."

The Cubs-White Sox rivalry has seemed to cool after the novelty wore off; the crosstown series has reached its twentieth year, and interleague clashes have faded into the fabric of the regular season.  Perhaps the Lackey-Harrelson feud can spice things up beyond the Quintana trade and the Rick Renteria Vengeance Quest.  Or they can find a way to drum up excitement beyond baseball by throwing each other off the Reichenbach Falls.

HAULING THE SHIP

Here in 2017, Werner Herzog has been more or less Walkenized, almost entirely engulfed by his own caricature of a grim-voiced German who looks at an idyllic meadow and sees a hissing cauldron of murder.  Herzog is the maestro of the word "murder."  The word murder was invented for Werner Herzog to use it over narration of adorable penguins; in the same film, he repeatedly pronounces the McMurdo research station in Antarctica as "McMurder."

There are elements of that in "Burden of Dreams," the 1982 Les Blank documentary about the making of Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo." Towards the end, after years of fighting the logistical and political difficulties of filming in the Amazon and the impossibilities of shooting a Werner Herzog movie in the Amazon with its attendant Herzogian problems, Herzog breaks down and goes on a Herzog rant:


But the Werner Herzog in most of the movie is not the expected despairing sourpuss.  He's possessed, singularly focused on finishing his movie, seemingly indifferent to the suffering of his cast and crew and workers that will be placed in wholly unnecessary danger by his unwieldy, bulldozer-driven winching system. 


"Fitzcarraldo" is about a 1920s opera buff who hopes to finance an opera house in the Amazon lavish enough to lure Enrico Caruso through a quixotic rubber scheme that hinges on hauling a ship over a mountain between two rivers.  Herzog tries to make a movie about a man's quixotic quest to haul a ship over a mountain by hauling a ship over a mountain, quixotically.  At one point, a frustrated Herzog explains to his engineer that he simply must haul the ship over the mountain because of his metaphor.  But there is no metaphor.  The struggle to haul the ship over the mountain has become completely literal.

"Burden of Dreams" continuously plops viewers down in the middle of various crises-- the departure of his two stars Jason Robards and somehow Mick Jagger; the delicate political situation between his crew, indigenous groups, and various South American governments; a late-night arrow attack; the laws of physics-- but the larger question of Herzog's obsession with hauling a 320-ton steamship up a mud-slicked mountain remains barricaded in Herzog's psyche.  Somehow, the film, which is more or less an unbroken chronicle of calamity, always seems to hint at something stranger going on in the background as Herzog offhandedly explains some other insane, herculean task by pointing out how a ship has been towed through thousands of miles on a map or with snippets of a scowling, jumpsuited Klaus Kinski stalking about the set.  I would watch a documentary about the documentary crew filming this movie, complete with a documentary about that crew in an endlessly recursive pre-taped call-in show loop of televisions until we can get to the bottom of the ludicrous lengths Herzog went to in order to film "Fitzcarraldo."

HEADS

There are a multitude of uses for severed heads: triumphant displays of justice, phrenology, cryogenically freezing them for some sort of future resurrection that I always imagine involves being medically stapled to a robot body and and then rampaging about New England as a terrifying Irving-esque Reverse Horseman, and Frances Larson explores them all in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. Larson has a serious-minded and scrupulous approach for a topic that in lesser hands could lend itself to the pages of “Gross Let Me Look At That Magazine” for summer camp twelve-year-olds. Nevertheless, the book does not dilute the bizarre and macabre element of its subject by including sentences like “Rosenbaum vomited in disgust, but his physical revulsion could not temper his desire to take possession of Haydn’s skull.”

Larson writes that she decided to write this book while doing research at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, famous for its collection of shrunken heads. She places the collection at the center of a booming nineteenth-century trade in shrunken heads as curios for the Victorian elbow-nudging set and for museums and other institutions on a worldwide mission to collect and categorize artifacts. As Larson explains, lecturers and museums used shrunken heads to titillate and unnerve Victorian patrons by presenting them as barbarous practices to contrast with Western civilizations. At the same time, Western demand for the heads completely divorced them from any cultural context as they became commodities produced exclusively for export; some British head collectors in New Zealand, Larson notes, became victims themselves, their heads posthumously tattooed to be sold as Maori heads betraying an expression of simultaneous horror and appreciation for grim irony.
 
Augustus Pitt Rivers, a man who could 
not possibly look more like the exact 
person you are picturing when thinking 
of the namesake of a museum known 
for a dubiously-sourced collection of 
shrunken heads

Another important nineteenth-century use for skulls was phrenology, the pseudoscience that I hope influenced numerous plays with stage directions like MRS ORKENNEY dropped her ladle, for she could see in the flash of lightning that MR CAVENDISH had the brow ridges of a monomaniac. Here’s Larson, with one of the greatest sentences ever composed in the English language: “Historian Roger Cooter has described how, by 1826, ‘craniological manica’ was said to have ‘spread like a plague...possessing every gradation of [British] society from the kitchen to the garret.’” Phrenology dovetailed with a general mania for collecting and studying skulls. Larson points out that, like with the collection of shrunken heads, this scientific collection of bones encouraged gruesome behavior; scientists colluded with all manner of tomb raiders and grave robbers to build their head caliper ossuaries then used them as the basis of bogus racial science that these scientists would invariably find proved to them that the most advanced civilization was the one that had the scientists ankle-deep in purloined skulls.

Larson writes that prominent phrenologist 
Franz Josef Gall's "appetite for skulls became 
so well known that eminent men began to 
fear for the safety of their crania."

Larson provides an eclectic and broad, if sometimes scattershot, look at our severed heads and ourselves.  In doing so, she expertly walks a fine line between historical rigor, contemporary resonance, and, let's face it, the type of oddities a person seeking out a book described on the jacket as "an idiosyncratic history of decapitation (the New Yorker)" would be looking for-- grotesque stories involving medieval executioners attacked by bloodthirsty mobs with flaming projectiles for their lack of beheading competence, pictures of frowning muttonchops standing around large piles of labeled skulls (there are few things more unnerving than reading a book about severed heads and immediately being presented with a multipage listing of illustrations), a historian of phrenology named Roger Cooter. Severed does not offer up a Grand Theory of Head Collection; it can be read almost as a catalog of things people have figured out to do with heads including shrinking, guillotining, graverobbing, dissecting, worshiping, and cryogenically freezing them.  Larson displays an impressive breadth of research into these disparate practices raising all sorts of fascinating questions that would have never popped into my head that remains for the time being anchored safely into my neck until I insult the Dauphin. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Inevitable, Ignominious End of the Three Alphas


Lost in all of the losses, the roster upheavals, the endless disinformation campaigns, and the instagram recriminations, there was a cold comfort to the Three Alphas era of Chicago Bulls basketball.  The front office, fresh off of proclamations that the team would become younger and more athletic, signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, two decorated, headstrong veterans with big personalities and collectively two and a half functioning knees between them to a universal chorus of disapproval from the basketbloggerati, and the entire enterprise collapsed exactly along the lines that everyone predicted.  In a year that has seen the entire project of prediction and conventional wisdom fall by the wayside, it is at least reassuring to know that when Rajon Rondo is introduced to a volatile environment of executive sabotage, espionage, and bumbling coaching howdy-doodery, a rational person can still count on the inevitable dysfunction.

The Bulls ended the Three Alphas project by trading Jimmy Butler to their old nemesis Tom Thibodeau, who committed the cardinal sin of winning with enough vomiting Nate Robinsons that people gave him credit instead of John Paxson and Gar Forman.  There is no need to go over the details of the trade-- there is an entire internet of that for the universal condemnation of the hideous return the Bulls got for one of the best players in the league.  That was to be expected.  While there's a decent case to be made that the Bulls should cash in Butler, no Bulls fan wanted the flustered Adam West-era Batman Villain front office to get swindled for a package headlined by a Knee Guy.

Chicago fans once again go into the attic to get the 
crutches for their ironic knee-related art installations

The Bulls are left a smoldering crater of basketball horror, the remnants of poor drafts, lopsided trades, and a bizarre commitment to targeting players despised by fans.  The Three Alphas turned out to be a lone alpha operation.  Rondo, who honed his game into a Shermanesque repudiation of jumpshooting, played competently only in select national TV contests.  Wade disintegrated before our eyes like the guy who drank from the wrong grail in the Last Crusade on numerous dunk attempts.  He will pick up his option and gleefully pocket his $24 million while easing into semi-retirement-- it is possible that he will replace his seat on the bench with a hammock.  With the exception of the time he paid $25,000 to make throat slash gestures at the Boston Celtics, Wade's willingness to put up with the gruesome specter of hoiball in order to take more of Jerry Reinsdorf's money is the only thing he's done as a Bull that I respect.  The Bulls are now left with two vestigial alphas clogging the salary cap and sowing dissent as the team sinks to the bottom of the standings like a rotting ship floating aimlessly because the entire crew has already mutinied and eaten each other.

The Three Alphas devolved into increasingly bizarre social media feuding

The Jimmy Butler trade has ignited a firestorm of fan anger towards the Bulls' front office.  John Paxson, the floppy-haired hero of the 1993 Finals, has transformed into a bald, flinty-eyed executive who runs his front office like a crime boss in an action movie who spends all his time sitting angrily in an overstuffed office chair waiting for someone to be brought in to be either berated or fed to a carnivorous animal.  Paxson holds press conferences infrequently and only after an earth-shatteringly boneheaded move where he irritably fends off questions by people who he clearly thinks are too dumb to comprehend his plan even though he works in a field with the most literal definitions of success and failure possible.   Gar Formans' job is to burst out of ducts and gnash his teeth at people.

Bulls fans secretly hope for a Terminator incident to prevent Paxson 
from sinking that shot in the 1993 Finals in order to prevent him from 
trading Jimmy Butler for a guy who is going to be dunked into a Wile E.
Coyote accordion

There is little to look forward to.  A team with Butler and the largely incompetent roster from this season would battle again for a brief playoff cameo.  The Bulls acquired no additional draft picks and sold their second-round pick, a pick so old that it's riddled with those s that look like f letters for straight cash to the Golden State Warriors.  That money should, at the very least, go to upgrading the fleet of t-shirt blimps, hiring dozens of playwrights to come up with a new Stacy King catchphrase, or at least lowering the free big mac threshold to 99 points.  The Bulls are a sclerotic organization run by people who seem to have given over the entirety of their jobs to petty feuds and contracting exotic gouts. Thank goodness the city has an entire Big Ten team to fall back on.

FORD'S RAINFOREST

There are few things in the world more unnerving than a wealthy, powerful industrialist who decides that it is time to do something especially if that industrialist has enough money to buy a tract of land the size of two Delawares and has a vision of society includes strict and specific ideas about folk dancing.  By 1927, Henry Ford had developed a company powerful enough to try to industrialize the Amazon rainforest while indulging his belief that he could also build a community based on his own bizarre beliefs in a non-existent idealized America in the heart of the jungle.  Greg Grandin's Fordlandia follows Ford's disastrous Amazon rubber plantation between its founding and abandonment in 1945.  Grandin argues that, in Fordlandia, Ford saw the rainforest as not only a source of rubber but a blank slate upon which he could project his interpretation of American ideals that were, he believed, under increasing attack in the United States from forces like the government, unions, Jews, and as Grandin suggests, the very forces of consumerism unleashed by his own ubiquitous automobiles.  Grandin shows how this grand Amazonian Fordism fell apart in the face of remote and incompetent management, workers who chafed against Ford's strange and exacting behavioral expectations, and the jungle itself, which laid waste to millions of rubber trees and rendered the entire enterprise futile.

Ford's foray into Brazil came from a concern over the rubber supply.  Brazil had been the world's foremost rubber supplier.  That all changed when a bumbling, hard-luck British man named Henry Wickham managed to spirit a cache of rubber seeds back to Kew Gardens.  British cultivators brought them to Sri Lanka and Malaysia where the trees thrived with no natural predators.  Soon, Asian production outpaced the less efficient Brazilian supply and brought rubber under British control.  Wickham's story is chronicled in Joe Jackson's The Thief at the End of the World, which ends with a brief section on Fordlandia, and which I reviewed although I focused mainly on a brief passage that involves one of Wickham's ancestors getting cheated in a horse race by the slovenly George IV.  As Grandin describes it, Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone resented that the British government had the ability to tax and restrict their access to such a precious resource and began to scheme to grow their own rubber, free from taxes and restrictions and the grubby fingers of Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill.

Grandin describes how Fordlandia from the start had problems with managers who were hired to build cars and then found themselves shipped out to carve an America from the rainforest.  One early manager, an overmatched ship captain, turned to drink as disease claimed three of his children.  His successor, a Ford engineer from Detroit, left after the heat made him swell up.  He did two stints, and I like to imagine that he returned, fit, and glowing with health only to step off the gangplank, blow up like a parade float, and get rolled back into a cabin.  Willis Long Reeves Blakely, the first manager and an acolyte of Ford's enforcer Harry Bennett, established himself by repeatedly subjecting the port city of Belém to his naked ass:
Blakely quickly gained a reputation among the rogues and expatriates as a drunkard and exhibitionist.  He stayed in the best corner suite on the second floor of the Grande Hotel, Belém's finest, with a veranda an floor-to-ceiling windows, the shutters of which he left open as he walked around naked and made love to his wife.  The hotel, since demolished, was located on the city's central plaza, and Blakely's room faced the majestic Theatro da Paz, where the city's gentry promenaded every evening, coiffed and bedecked in formal wear.  "Everyone on the street could see," complained the hotel manager...
When Ford came to a region, whether it was a Michigan lumber town or millions of acres of rainforest, it brought the promise of investment, infrastructure, hospitals, and high wages. The price, as anyone clamoring for Ford involvement found, was a demand for conformity with Henry Ford's ideas about how to live. These ideas included enforced temperance, refraining from jazz age "sex dancing," and not unionizing; Ford unleashed Bennett's Service Department, a violent, cudgelous goon squad, to intimidate, infiltrate, and physically attack any group with a whiff of union about it.
 
Bennett (l) with Ford (c) sporting his signature bow tie 
look that he wore because of its strategic value in fistfights. 
 Bennett's most interesting role in the company was in a 
bizarre Ford family psychodrama where Ford set him up 
as a rival to his son Edsel.  Ford delighted in taunting and 
insulting Edsel, who he saw as weak and unable, unlike 
Bennett, to call in swarms of violent goons to render violence 
against his enemies and hammer them with his fists 
probably with weird nineteenth-century boxing stances

In Fordlandia, the Ford proscriptions extended to Main Street USA style houses wildly unsuited to the climate; Grandin's interviewees and archival sources described them as "hotter than the gates of hell," "galvanized iron bake ovens" and "midget hells, where one lies awake and sweats the first half of the night, and frequently between midnight and dawn undergoes a fierce siege of heat-provoking nightmares."  A switch to a sweltering mess hall and buffet system so incensed workers already pushed past exhaustion clearing brush through a maze of biting insects and poisonous snakes provoked an uprising in late 1930 that could only be quashed with help from the Brazilian army.

Ford's greatest folly was his belief that industrialization could be brought to bear on the Amazon. The grand economies of scale that had turned Ford into an automotive juggernaut could not produce rubber.  The company's attempt to mimic the enormous plantation production in Asia failed Brazil, where an entire ecosystem had developed around destroying tree clusters.  As Grandin describes it, the rubber tree canopies became highways for blight as waves of insects, fungi, and caterpillars leveled the trees year after year.  Ford's management figured out how to perform elaborate tree grafts, but production remained dwarfed by Asia and, by the late 1940s, petroleum-based synthetic rubber. In 1945, Ford's grandson Henry Ford II took over the company and sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government for the cost of back wages owed the workers.

Grandin trawled through archives and traveled to Brazil to chronicle a largely forgotten monumental enterprise.  Parts of Ford's settlements and factories still exist with roads and water towers and homes and possibly stacks of mildewed newspapers with strong a strong editorial voice in favor of the fox trot.  The strength of this book is its profile of Ford as a man with the resources and will to not only bring a Fordlandia into existent but to suffuse it with his various monomanias, to send armies of people to clear and plant and build and die, and to try to control how hundreds of thousands of people ate and dressed, learned, and thought about time itself. The whole enterprise invites an inevitable comparison to Fitzcarraldo on a massive scale, Werner Herzog's movie about a madman trying to move a boat against the unyielding rainforest while yelling and making Klaus Kinsky faces. If Ford yelled at the rainforest, though, he did so in Detroit.  He never visited Fordlandia.