Friday, June 26, 2015

Televised List-Reading

The National Basketball Association has just capped off its five hour list-reading extravaganza in Brooklyn.  The NBA draft has everything a person wants on television: garish suits, extended shots of people talking on cell phones, xenophobic booing of gangly European dunk magnets, and basketball players forced to deceive the American public with disingenuous hats. 
LaMarcus Aldridge and the NBA draw helpless basketball fans into a web 
of lies

In a vacuum, it is hard to understand the appeal of a clumsy, ponderous spectacle where the most exciting thing that happens is some giant dressed like an anthropomorphic blueberry awkwardly shaking hands with a hairless future-man while an off-stage panel publicly describes his shortcomings.  I can't imagine sitting through it live until second-round picks are distributed based on one-on-one pickup games between Darryl Morey and Sam Hinckie.  But the NBA draft and even its overwrought three-day NFL cousin are great because they celebrate hope, intrigue, and developing intractable opinions without any firm basis of knowledge.  Teams and, to a lesser extent, creepy self-proclaimed draft experts, spend hundreds of hours evaluating players, but their picks are in the hands of fate; the only certainties in the history of the NBA draft are the inevitable deaths of everyone involved and the fact that Jan Vesely was not an NBA player.

The Bulls selected Arkansas power forward Bobby Portis with the 22nd pick in last night's draft, even though they have a crowded frontcourt.  I have not seen one minute of Bobby Portis playing basketball.  I am not a basketball scout.  But I am thrilled with the pick because Portis seems to excel at two important skills the Bulls require: making crazy faces and yelling.
Opponents cower in fear from the dreaded "Portis Head" 

Portis will be mentored by experienced bigs Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol in bellowing and scowling.  Nikola Mirotic, in his rookie year offers something no one else on the Bulls has: a great, big, bushy beard.  Many pundits expected the Bulls to get a backup for Derrick Rose, but they thought Portis was the best player left on the board and Nate Robinson is still available.


"Whatever subject he started he always got back to his favourite theme, and he represented Prince Bismarck, however he might be for the moment disguised, as a veritable and authentic Satan of modern Europe."

That is how you start a goddamn book review.  W.T. Stead, the notable British journalist and editor known for, among other things, using his newspapers to suggest sending Charles Gordon into Sudan and then excoriating the government for its failure to rescue him and dying on the Titanic, took a flamethrower to recently-deceased Otto Von Bismarck in an 1898 article in his Review of Reviews.  The quote above is attributed to a conversation he had with Robert Morier, the British Ambassador to Russia (Stead traveled to Russia during the height of British Russophobia and published The Truth About Russia in 1888).  It is fair to say that Stead shared this opinion.  In a review of  German press agent Julius Moritz Busch's memoir Bismarck: Some Secret Pages of His History, Stead opened both barrels on Bismarck and his Boswell, Busch.
Moritz Busch, Otto von Bismarck, and a pyschic portrait for the floating ghost head of W.T. 
Stead, oh yeah I should probably mention that Stead was an ardent spiritualist who wrote 
extensively about his communication with ghosts and telepathy and automatic writing

There are certainly countless responsible histories you can read of Bismarck that analyze Busch's memoir as a historical source and give you proper context with which to read Stead.  But this is not a place for responsible, contextual history, this is a place for taking a look at nineteenth-century invective and luxuriate in the bile and sort of weird insults and curses laid upon one of Europe's most reviled Victorian statesmen.  Here are some headings and subheadings from the article describing Bismarck or Busch:


Stead attacks Bismarck and Busch for manipulating the press. He quotes his own description of the use of a "Reptile Fund" (money set aside for espionage, manipulation, and other underhanded secret deeds) to influence the foreign press from his own The Truth About Russia because extensively quoting yourself in a scathing review is a power move:
In the journalism of Europe it is the lot of some correspondents abroad to fulfil with automatic and unfailing regularity the useful and, from Bismarck's point of view, the necessary functions of the earthworm.  There are, for example, some supreme types of this species on the Times, whose despatches, telegraphed daily to the leading newspaper in the world, are little more than ill-digested reproductions of the inventions and calumnies of the Reptile press-- their "news" is merely the secretion of the reptile passed through the alimentary canal of the worm.  But it helps to form the compost upon which public opinion is based, and thus from the great central bureau of Berlin are fed all the newspapers of the world.
Stead describes Busch as little more than a tool of Bismarck, rendering him as a sort of attack-butler.  
It would be difficult to outdo in caddish insolence the way in which Dr. Busch suffered himself to write of journalists whom he regarded as outside the official circle.  Jeames de la Pluche(1) himself was less of a flunkey than Dr. Mortiz Busch.  One of his articles in the volume is simply superb as a revelation of the way in which a great man's valet can give himself airs.  Even Lord Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street(2) might take a lesson from Dr. Mortiz Busch.  The good German Boswell is really the most unmitigated snob on record.  It is very amusing, and yet in its way not a little pathetic.  For even Dr. Moritz Busch is a human being.
(1) Jeames de la Pluche is a former footman/railroad speculator character whose rise and fall is chronicled in The Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche, a series of letters in Punch by Thackeray writing as M.A. Titmarsh, Esq.
(2) I don't know anything about Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street, but I am going to assume he  the apex of High Victorian butler snobbery who wore a suite made from tails collected from lesser footmen.

As way of proof, Stead offers up an example of how Busch addressed Bismarck:
Pray excuse me for comparing you to an animal, but you remind me of the picture of a noble stag, which, time after time, shakes off the snarling pack, and then, proud and unhurt, regains the shelter of his forest, crowned by his branching antlers. 
 "It is much to be wished  that Prince Bismarck did belong to an entirely different species, if only for the credit of our common humanity," Stead wrote.

The whole of the article is peppered with attacks on Bismarckian subterfuge and Bismarck's impressions of Queen Victoria and other notable British figures.  Stead's review is not a bad way to spend some time reveling in pointed Victorian insults, a model for all book reviews as the following passage should convince you:

We'll end with a final mention of a bizarre spectacle from early American politics when statesmen settled their disputes by shooting each other in the face with pistols.  In 1831, Missouri Congressman Spencer Pettis and U.S. Army Major Thomas Biddle met in a deadly duel that ended both of their lives.  The dispute arose after Pettis, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, attacked Biddle's brother Nicholas, the president of Jackson's hated Second Bank of the United States. 
A contemporary pro-Jackson cartoon shows him attacking a monster-bank.  Nicholas 
Biddle is wearing the top hat

According to an article from an 1877 edition of the Hartford Weekly Times by a correspondent who claims to have been a close aid to Nicholas Biddle and signed his article "BOWIE-KNIFE," Biddle's character was "assaulted with bitter vituperation."  Thomas Biddle, who lived in St. Louis, and Pettis began to attack each other in the press with insults such as calling each other a "dish of skimmed milk."

The conflict became violent when Thomas Biddle attacked Pettis in a hotel room.  As BOWIE-KNIFE puts it, Biddle grabbed a cow-hide and "inflicted a very severe chastisement upon Pettis."  Pettis recovered before all involved decided it was sensible and manly to shoot each other.

The venue for the duel was settled as an island outcrop between Missouri and Illinois called "Bloody Island," which should be the title for some horrible pirate fantasy novel.  The island got its name from the numerous duels fought on its soil, as explained by the Missouri State Archive's helpful page on Missouri dueling.  According to that page, the Biddle-Pettis duel was the third major political duel fought on its sand.  The existence of a dueling island could not have been unique to Missouri, and I assume other states had their dueling arenas such as:

RHODE ISLAND: Lockjaw Caverns
GEORGIA: Skeleton Corner
TEXAS: Hellfire Gulch
KENTUCKY: Headbutt Quarry
FLORIDA: The State of Florida

Biddle and Pettis chose to duel at five feet, an absurdly short distance (Biddle was near-sighted and we were years away from the advent of prescription dueling goggles), and both fired and killed each other.  Bloody island continued to host duels well into the 1850s before people came to their senses, realized that politicians probably shouldn't murder each other, and decided to settle disputes with honor and skill in the Atlasphere.       

Friday, June 19, 2015

This Post Was Hacked

The sports calendar has climaxed this week, with the NBA and NHL crowning new champions, American Hero Abby Wambach cowing foreigners with the Forehead of Freedom, and the Chicago Cubs contending for a playoff berth or as I call it, pre-disappointment.  The smoke from hockey fireworks still lingers over Chicago.  In Evanston, a confused and desolate community cries into the infinite night for its Hat.


There are five major professional sports teams in Chicago and, at any given time, at least three are bound to be in turmoil.  The Chicago Bears are rebuilding after firing Marc Trestman.  Trestman, sought as an offensive guru after the Bears spent too many years relying on Devin Hester and the defense to score points, failed to qualify for the playoffs and was also the least football coachy-looking person who has ever coached football.  This shouldn't count for anything, but in the weird, quasi-authoritarian NFL, where coaches demand the same respect as a Kipling-esque military officer who has forged his own kingdom and death-cult on the fringes of some nineteenth-century empire, Trestman looked like a man perpetually realizing he was on the wrong train.  

Trestman was instructed to pose as if he just invented hands.  If you didn't want this dude to 
inexplicably become a juggernaut head coach in the face of  the square-jaw, man-bellow 
NFL, then I don't understand you

The Bears replaced Trestman with John Fox, who looks like a first-page google image search result for "professional football coach" and have started a process of dismantling the vestiges of the Lovie Smith era.  They will remain tethered to quarterback Jay Cutler, who is rapidly becoming as popular in Chicago as the guy with the nineteenth-century murder house. 

Across town, the Bulls have made move eerily similar to the Trestman hire two years ago.  They fired defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau to bring in unconventional offensive guru Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State.  The Bulls and Thibodeau reached an impasse; Thibodeau, a basketball monomaniac who spent most games in a purple-faced reverie demanding that Jimmy Butler play more minutes, clashed with a front office that historically spends most of its time scheming against and occasionally punching its head coaches.

Thibodeau's departure was, in some ways, necessary.  It is no coincidence that his teams tended to wear down at the end of the season, and his offenses had grown stagnant.  At the same time, who doesn't want to root for a crazed basketball lunatic?  Thibodeau legendarily has no apparent interests other than basketball.  He spends his days screaming at basketball players, his evening screaming at televised basketball players, and he counts basketball players who don't box out in order to fall asleep, screaming.  He wears a black and white tracksuit every day.  He probably sleeps in a giant, hollowed out basketball chamber like Darth Vader's little Vader-dome.  He reluctantly squeezes into a suit on gamedays, which makes him look like an angry detective who is escorted out of an interrogation room with Carlos Boozer because he can't stand to look at his defense.

BOOZER: And I'll tell you what Coach, when I didn't hustle back on defense, I liked it.
THIBS: (Restrained by five other detectives)

Hoiberg may be a fine coach.  It's not fair to dismiss him only because he is yet another Iowa State guy replacing a successful Bulls coach who feuded with the mercurial front-office cabal.  It's not fair to have a lingering distrust of him because he played for the terrible post-Jordan Bulls teams and may also have tricked us all by using the name "Rusty LaRue."  But what about this clean-cut guy who looks like he could be on a 1940s-era war bonds poster could possibly be more fun than a coach who lives like a basketball monk who took a vow of yelling?


I remember when kids looked up to baseball executives.  They'd go to the ballpark, take in its immensity, the sights, the sounds, Billy Crystal's descriptions of a fictional baseball player called "Mickey Mantle," and the larger-than-life, home run-crushing titans and immediately ask their parents who negotiated the salaries and entered into arbitration with their heroes.

And now, in St. Louis, instead of telling them about finance majors and computer programmers who handled the implications of the luxury tax the right way, parents must look away ashamed.  Because they will have to look their sons and daughters in their innocent eyes and tell them the truth.  That the St. Louis Cardinals weren't a collection of scouts and data analysts and math whizzes, but a vast and ruthless organization of cybercriminals who built their Red Empire on stolen data, mendacity, betrayal, and probably a grisly string of heretorfore undiscovered cybermurders.

St. Louis cyberhacker supercriminals in action

The Cardinals' hacking story is one of the greatest dumb baseball chicanery stories in recent memory.  Charlie Pierce argued that use of computers to steal data has robbed baseball thievery of an earthy, pre-digital romance:
Time was, if you wanted to steal some scouting reports, you had to drag your sorry ass to Salinas or Visalia somewhere, and get the busted-knuckle old scout sockless in some local dive so you could steal his spittle-soaked notebook out of his shirt pocket. It was maybe 98 degrees in Visalia and the ceiling fan in the joint didn’t work and, if you had an open wound on your hand, and something from the cover of the notebook somehow got into your bloodstream, you could lose three fingers to an infection the old scout had picked up under questionably legal circumstances in Boise the year before. A baseball thief had to work for a living back then.
But it is precisely the computerized nature of this scandal that makes it so goddamn hilarious.  While cybercrime as a crime is scary and serious, the word "cybercrime" is ludicrous-- to me, it seems like a criminal should have been able to perpetrate a cybercrime only between the years 1995 and 2002.  Cybercrime sounds like the name of a direct-to-video Dolph Lundgren vehicle where a brilliant hacker has to stop an evil computerman from launching nuclear missilesby typing furiously into a computer before the script devolves into 25 minutes of kickboxing.

Jack Quarry was a CIA computer expert who left the agency when he 
accidentally typed too hard, blowing up his partner. But when an evil 
computer mastermind begins overriding American security systems, 
stealing Abraham Lincoln artifacts, and hacking into stadium Jumbotrons 
and regaling terrified sports fans by brandishing computers armed with 
malicious nuclear weapons software, Quarry is reluctantly called into action.  
Cybercrime: how do you stop an enemy who can be anyone with a computer 
anywhere until the last 25 minutes when he is inexplicably within kicking 

And, of course, the allegations are sweeter because they affect the St. Louis Cardinals, a team with a small but irritatingly vocal subsection of fans who act as High Baseball Moralists who have nonetheless rallied around baseball's second-roidiest slugger and a front office dedicated to cutting edge crookedness.  Then again, it is always dangerous to enjoy a scandal engulfing a rival team because it is only a matter of time before the dogged baseball Joe Fridays of the world end up on your team's door.  And the Cardinals remain unreachably entrenched into first place in the National League Central, prepared to close ranks and barrel into the World Series fueled by the adversity of having some nerdy front-office guy load up some floppies with batting averages.  Baseball is America's game.


Nikita Khrushchev famously told the West that the Soviets would bury them.  He boasted of ICBMs and submarines destroying American cities.  He taunted Eisenhower with models of successful Soviet satellites while American versions detonated before leaving the atmosphere.  And he angrily demanded to go to Disneyland.

Peter Carlson's K Blows Top: A Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, follows the madcap adventures of Khrushchev's whirlwind tour of the United States in 1959.  Carlson, a journalist who writes that he became obsessed with Khrushchev's visit during down time while working as a copy editor at People magazine, has assembled a history of the visit .  He tells the story through press clippings and interviews with key players including Khrushchev's son Sergei.  Carlson is interested in the absurdity of Khrushchev's visit playing off against American anti-Communist hysteria and in the ludicrous media attention, which he views as a seminal modern media event.

Carlson remains fascinated by Khrushchev, whom he describes as a consummate politician with a tendency towards purple-faced apoplexy.  The book naturally opens with the famous "kitchen debates" between Khrushchev and his rival Richard Nixon.  The two sparred during Nixon's visit to the Soviet Union, as the American government reluctantly remembered that they were essentially dropping a crate armed with a sweaty, suit-wearing biological weapon against dealing gracefully with communism into Moscow. 

Eisenhower: This is a delicate diplomatic mission, one that needs someone 
who can go into the Soviet Union and stand up for the United States without 
turning it into a jowly, anti-communist bark-off. 
Dulles: But Nixon's already on the plane
Nixon: Jesus Christ

The State Department intended to leverage an invitation to the United States into Soviet concessions to ease off on his demands that the Western powers leave Berlin.  Khrushcehv knew that Berlin was a sensitive subject. "Berlin is the testicles of the West," Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, "whenever I give them a yank, they holler."  But, characteristically, Khrushchev ignored the diplomatic demands and decided to accept the invitation.  He gathered in entourage and boarded the TU-144, the world's tallest airplane, and set course for Washington.

As Carlson relates, the visit inspired varied reactions, from small towns urging him  to visit (Moscow Idaho, for example, trumpeted the town as the "largest dry pea shipping center in the United States"-- I feel like the good people of Moscow probably could have found another angle) to opportunities for Congressional grandstanding.  The opposition to Khrushchev's visit was not all knee-jerk anti-communism.  Khrushchev, as he frequently reminded Eisenhower and other officials, was capable of unleashing nuclear destruction upon American cities.  He had brutally repressed the Hungarian Revolution just three years earlier.  And, while Carlson clearly relishes the absurdities of Khrushchev's trek across America (for example, a struggle with a national dentist's organization for a New York hotel ballroom becomes a farcically patriotic battle), he does not completely gloss over the horrifying stakes of the Cold War.

According to Carloson, the American media crush completely destroyed 
a supermarket that Khruschchev visited as photographers leapt onto 
checkout counters and stood in deli meat cases to get important shots such 
as this one of him staring at a can of pickles while surrounded by hundreds 
of grim-faced suit-wearers

K Blows Top, though maintains a light tone, focusing on the unthinkably bizarre result of having America's greatest enemy arrive at the doorstep, and having that enemy be Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev charmed his hosts, but also pugnaciously defended any perceived slight to the national dignity of the USSR.  This included bludgeoning banquet crowds with stacks of dubious Soviet statistics, slyly alluding to missiles, and publicly bristling over a refusal to take him to Disneyland because American authorities told him they could not guarantee his security.
"What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there?  Have gangsters taken hold of the place?" ...  Khrushchev was starting to look more angry than amused.  His fist punched the air above his red face.
The New York Post's Harry Salisbury described the Premier's temper while simultaneously throwing in a pithy review of Dostoevsky's works:
This trip is like one of those tea parties in Dostoevsky when everyone meets in apparent comity and then, after three of four minutes, Nikolai Nikolaevich for no discernible reason overturns the boiling samovar on the head of Alexander Alexandrovich...It is a Russian party elevated only by the possibility that the guest of honor may blow his stack.  It is both awesome and deplorable how suddenly Nikita Khrushchev can blow his stack.
Khruschev's visit, though bumpy, did actually appear to foster some goodwill.  He invited Eisenhower to visit him in the Soviet Union.  It appeared that the trip had made some intangible progress to bring some greater amount of understanding between the American people and the Soviet Premier.  Seven months later, an American U2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace. Khrushchev was furious.  He scuttled a Four Power conference in Paris and returned to New York to harangue the United Nations.  Khrushchev's trip had little value as a turning point for US-Soviet relations, but, as Carlson points out, it has immense value as a bizarre press spectacle.


The City of Chicago had a much less bizarre media blitz for the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.  The Hawks won their third championship in six years as sports writers quibbled about whether they qualify as a dynasty and, if they did, whether or not it was an elite dynasty or a sub-elite oligarchy, or whatever the hell other kinds of mumbo jumbo that sports radio people come up with to stop themselves from staring into the void for four hours a day.  The Hawks have improbably rallied from one of the worst-run sports teams in the country to the class of the city.  It remains to be seen whether the Bulls can overcome their space-emperor ownership, the Bears can overcome their incompetent, mustachioed, third-generation football-meddlers, or whether the Cubs can one day transcend being the Chicago Cubs.  

The Hawks used Soldier Field as the site for their championship rally amongst thousands of fans.  But Soldier Field will soon bear witness to a far greater glory.  Beck Man is coming.  Soldier Field will not only be the site of championship celebrations and Chicago Bears perversions of football, but the site of the Great Hat Reckoning.