Sunday, March 30, 2014

Once only dimly acknowledged even in the state, Wisconsin Badgers basketball a force to be reckoned with

When I was growing up in Wisconsin, the Badger basketball team was mediocre to the point of making exactly zero impression on me. At the time, the Milwaukee Bucks had gone through their most dominate period in team history, winning an NBA title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, while Al McGuire had turned Marquette into a college powerhouse. It was thus easy to forget that UW even had a basketball team. It wasn’t until the university hired Stu Jackson as coach in 1992 did it appear that it was serious about establishing a presence on the college basketball scene. 

The 1993-1994 team led by future Dallas Mavericks star Michael Finley won its first 11 games and was ranked 12th in the AP poll. Despite the fact that the Badgers lost 10 of its next 17 games that year, it received its first invitation to the NCAA tournament in almost 50 years, beating Cincinnati in the first round before losing to No. 1 seed Missouri in a wild 109-96 contest. Jackson surprised fans by leaving after the season, supposedly for greener pastures that never actually materialized. 

Nevertheless, new coach Dick Bennett continued to improve the program; beginning in the 1998-99 season, the Badgers have appeared in the NCAA tournament 16 straight seasons. The 1999-2000 team became the first to advance to the Final Four since 1941, when Wisconsin beat Washington State to win the national championship. At one point 13-12 during the season, Wisconsin was a surprise entry into the “big dance” as an 8th seed, but proceeded to upset top-seeded Arizona led by Gilbert Arenas, although without leading scorer Loren Woods. The Badgers would beat two more higher-seeded teams before losing to eventual champion Michigan State for the fourth time that season in the national semi-finals.

For the past 13 seasons, the Badgers have been coached by Bo Ryan, who coached four national championship teams in Division III. In the 2002-2003 season, the 5th seeded Badgers lost a tough game to one-seed Kentucky in the regional semi-finals, who would lose to the Dwyane Wade-led Marquette two days later. The following year the Badgers won the Big Ten tournament championship and were ranked in the top-ten in the final regular season AP poll, yet they only received a sixth-seed in the NCAA tournament and would lose to the third-seeded Pittsburgh by four points in the second round. 

National respect was slow in coming, as Ryan’s teams relied more on seasoning and experience than raw, flashy athleticism. In the 2004-2005 season, the Badgers made a surprise run to the Elite Eight, although it was again against double-digit seeds before giving top-seeded North Carolina a game before falling six points short. But respect came in the 2006-2007 season, when the Badgers opened the season 21-1—riding a 17-game winning streak—and eventually were voted No. 1 for the first time in the AP poll three weeks later. 

But consecutive losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, and a loss to the latter in the Big Ten tournament championship game dashed any hope for one-seed in the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, this team turned out to be a mirage; as a two-seed, it had to scramble to escape an upset loss to 15-seed Texas A&M, Corpus Christie, and then was embarrassed by UNLV in the second round. It would pay for this the following season, when despite the fact the Badgers won both the Big Ten conference regular season and tournament championship, the NCAA tournament selection committee gave the 6th-ranked Badgers a third seed. Nevertheless, the Badgers had a golden opportunity to prove skeptics wrong, playing three straight games against double-digit seeds. Unfortunately, the third was Davidson, the tournament surprise team; Wisconsin managed to keep up for a half, and then were blown away in the second half. 

Between then and now, the Badgers were a competent but unremarkable team. This season the Badgers opened 16-0, with notable victories over Florida and Virginia, and had commentators talking the possibility of an unbeaten season. No sooner had that talk surfaced than the Badgers proceeded to deflate that balloon, losing five of their next six games. Still, Wisconsin recovered enough to finish the season with the Big Ten’s best overall won-loss record, and its top-three strength-of-schedule ranking and high RPI earned it a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. One of the knocks against Ryan’s teams was that it could not beat higher seeded teams in the tournament, but this time a retooled offense that was no longer one-dimensional enabled the Badgers to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit against Oregon, crush a defensive Baylor team, and then defeat No. 1 seed Arizona in the West Regional finals.

Most commentators were impressed by the Badgers’ run, remarking on the team’s sudden credibility as a team that could play against the “big boys” in the tournament, including that notable early season win against the overall top seed Florida. There were some sour grapes to be sure, as many complained about the late offensive foul call against Arizona’s Nick Johnson; why people thought Johnson should get away with an obvious push-off when Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes was called for the same after an obvious flop by Michigan’s Jordan Morgan—preventing a stunning come-from-behind win in the final moments—was merely being hypocritical. 

Admittedly, I would have preferred to see Wisconsin face Michigan in the Final Four, but they were “upset” by a Kentucky team that apparently had a lot of people on the selection committee fooled. A preseason number one, Kentucky is showing why observers thought they were the best team in the country. One wonders if Wisconsin has the “athletes” to keep up with them, but one of the Badgers’ strengths over the years—seasoned players—may be enough to neutralize Kentucky’s freshmen stars. To be honest, I hope the Badgers end Kentucky’s run in suitably destructive fashion.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Effects of Exxon Valdez disaster may outlive even the BP spill

The BP Deep Horizon oil spill four years ago was one of those catastrophes that fascinated people, insofar that it was a test of human know-how and technology.  Could a runaway oil leak nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface be successfully “plugged”? Many became frustrated by this seemingly too daunting task, and it was only “plugged” months later when relief wells slowed the billowing underwater monstrosity. But as much as the public was appalled by the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem, it was nothing compared to what happened 25 years ago in Prince William Sound in Alaska.

In the wee hours of the morning on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of thick, black goo into the water, which would eventually travel nearly 500 miles down the east coast of the Kenai Peninsula, enter the mouth of Cook Inlet, and continuing west into the Shelikof Strait. Approximately 11,000 square miles of surface would be contaminated. Although it is true that the BP catastrophe spilled far more oil into the ocean, because of the (relatively) more rapid and effective response, it actually caused much less environmental damage than the Valdez spill; despite the media images, only a small fraction of wildlife—birds in particular—were killed in the BP spill in relation to the Valdez spill. 

In the early hours of that fateful day, the regional Coast Guard received the following message from Captain Joseph Hazelwood of the Valdez:

Ah, we’ve— ah, should be on your radar there— we’ve fetched up, ah, hard aground north of, ah, Good Island off Bligh Reef. And, ah, evidently, ah, leaking some oil, and, ah, we’re gonna be here for a while. And, ah, if you want, ah, so you’re notified. Over.

What was curious about this was that it was given in an almost nonchalant manner, as if it was just an everyday annoyance, no big deal. If you want, you can come on over and check it out. What actually happened that night is still a matter of who is telling the story. A Coast Guard officer who boarded the ship soon after the first report claimed that the breath of Hazelwood, “reeked” of “spirits.” That evening Hazelwood is alleged to have consumed up to 9 shots of 80 proof liquor at two bars. 

Once aboard ship and underway, Hazelwood requested permission to navigate outside the proper shipping lane in order to avoid ice. The Coast Guard gave him permission to do so. After the ship sailed beyond the ice, Hazelwood claimed that he gave the helm to the third mate, instructing him to turn the ship back into the shipping lane. The mate, fatigued and unqualified to perform this function, was also operating without a radar that might have helped detect the reef in the dark, but was not functioning—in fact had been broken for a year. Apparently he made the turn late, smashing into the reef only minutes after being given the helm.

The first stories that came out were certainly scandalous. One account was that Hazelwood was in his bunk, sleeping off his “bender” when the accident occurred; then the story was a drunken captain doing a Mr. McGoo impression on the bridge. Hazelwood claims that after he instructed the third pate to turn the vessel, he went to his office to do paperwork and look up the latest weather forecast; he was completely “shocked” by what happened—he “wasn’t there,” so couldn’t tell you what happened. Hazelwood also asserted that he thought the Valdez’s movements were being monitored by Coast Guard radar, which would alert the ship to any abnormalities in its course. But the Coast Guard was not monitoring the ship’s progress.

Hazelwood apparently had previous “issues” with alcohol, including having his driver’s license revoked for drunk driving. Yet Exxon continued to employ him as a supertanker captain. After the incident, he was convicted of negligence, but the verdict was later overturned because since Hazelwood had reported the accident in a “timely” manner, he was immune from prosecution.

At the time of the grounding, the Valdez had a draft of 56 feet, yet it had been traveling at such speed that it grounded on Bligh Reef despite it being 30 feet below at low tide. Eight of 11 cargo tanks were ripped open, expending 10.1 million gallons over the next five hours. Three salt water ballast tanks were also damaged, causing the vessel to be very unstable and likely to capsize if allowed to drift into open water.  But the Valdez wasn’t going anywhere, and with the damage below water initial clean-up efforts were mainly to remove the remaining oil before it drained into the sea. 

According to the May, 1989 Presidential Report, the subsequent clean-up operation was hampered by lack of sufficient technology to deal with a significant oil spill in a remote region; by the time the first attempts were made to contain the spill, most of the oil had already leaked out. The closest town to the spill sight was Valdez, but its airstrip could not accommodate aircraft needed to bring all the spill containment equipment necessary, so it had to be trucked in from Anchorage, a nine-hour haul. It took another two hours to reach the spill site by boat—and longer as the spill expanded. Bad weather and tide changes also hampered clean-up efforts. But worst of all was that there was an “absence of a realistic worst case scenario” plan in dealing with such a large spill to begin with. Unrealistic containment plans had merely reinforced a “dangerous complacency.” 

Exxon’s response could be criticized as being tardy, but it cannot be faulted for not expending resources to the spill; it contracted out 250 ships, 1,767 tons of equipment, 18 planes and 1,500 workers to deal with the spill. Yet the failure to adequately safeguard against and prepare for such an incident put clean-up efforts behind the eight ball from the start. Just as impactful was that while what needed to be done was clear, how to go about doing it was much less so, delaying adequate response to the disaster. 

Although human impacts were not readily apparent, given the small population in the region, the impact on wildlife was catastrophic; it is estimated that up to a quarter-million birds died directly or indirectly from the effects of the spill, and untold numbers of fish, including herring whose population has still not recovered after 25 years. One of the two pods of Orcas off the coast remains in danger of dying out. As opposed to the inadequate and slow response overall, the International Bird Rescue Research Center was already set-up to begin a bird rehabilitation site a day after the spill, as well as the Hubbs Marine Research Institute, which started a program to save sea otters. But some clean-up methods merely exacerbated the problem; blasting the seashore with high-velocity steam killed microbes and plankton vital to the food chain, and which would have aided in the natural breakdown of the oil. 

Only about 10 percent of the oil spilled from the Valdez was ever recovered, with at least 25,000 gallons still locked in the beaches and shorelines, biodegrading at a very slow rate, while considerable remnants of the slick cans still be found offshore. Exxon—apparently with the support of Alaska’s Republican lawmakers—still claims that it needs not pay $92 million in damages because everything is “fine” now. But according to a recent story in the UK Telegraph, Rick Steiner of the University of Alaska asserts that the reality is much different: "It's disgraceful. We didn't know it would still be toxic now and no one wants to admit it. Of 32 animal types, habitats and natural resources monitored, only 13 have recuperated fully. The ecosystem will never entirely recover." NOAA is also reporting that residual oil “will linger for decades—or even centuries.”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Opposition to Affordable Care Act too close to "home"

It is certainly not an easy thing being the only “liberal” in a family of right-wingers, whose attitudes are based upon the belief that if you if are poor and depend on government social programs to survive, you are just a lazy bum; fortunately for all involved, I am far away and only in regular contact with my dad. I can’t honestly say that I have not been influenced in some way by this belief, although only insofar as I learned that having money is better than not having money; I haven’t spent more than a month without regular work since I finished school, even if I had to settle for low-paying jobs.

Thus I’m not particularly sympathetic to those who spend their time at food banks and shooting the breeze in public parks or libraries, people who make their living sitting on roadsides petitioning motorists with sad-sack stories, or swellheads who live on unemployment checks waiting for that job that they feel is “worthy” of them. But there is a limit to how far my patience with such views go. I know that we live in a society where superficial considerations are at least half the determining factor in “success,” and so I know that I’ve already lost if superficial impressions are what matter; it is just that some people have much less excuse.

Anyways, I recently received a letter from my dad, and he was not happy. Apparently his health care insurer informed him that his doctor had been dropped from their network, and he and my mother had been assigned another. My dad actually informed me of his name, as if someone with an Asian moniker was supposed to have some subtle meaning I was supposed to “understand.” I understood alright, just not in the way he does. He went on to say that there were at least two people who were “very unhappy” with the Affordable Care Act, which was blamed for this. Needless-to-say, as a firm supporter of the ACA, I was not going to allow this to pass unanswered. We live in a world of haves and have-nots, and that is the way of the world as long as there are Koch brothers and right-wing lawmakers still living in the antebellum era of masters and slaves (but they sure know how to “hide” that well, don’t they?).  

My parents are retired, and naturally they are conscious of mortality that must come to everyone, especially when one approaches 80. They both have taken to religion quite seriously, and have some expectation that some afterlife awaits them. But mortal life is something that for many people is difficult to give up—especially preachers who make a good living sermonizing hell and damnation if you don’t act right (like contributing enough money to maintain their comfortable lifestyles). Frankly, the fact that the rest of my family is right-wing only sours me more on the moral and ethical value of religion. In any case, if they are on Medicare or a company retirement health plan, the ACA has little or nothing to do with their present coverage—but people with a cynical political agenda have done their best to convince them that somehow this is the case.

The uninformed attitude of far too many people concerning the ACA is based on their antipathy toward Barack Obama, and the people they believe he “represents”—the ones they consider freeloaders, mainly people they assume don’t share their “cultural values.” Being someone who some would peg as being in this group on sight, the patience I have for people who cloud their minds about why the ACA is not necessary in the long term is exactly none. I was one of those who were kicked out of their former medical plan, and am I unhappy about it? Absolutely not; if I have any reason to be unhappy about it, it is that my employer did not take advantage of the opportunity to offer the majority of its employees a decent employer plan, preferring to make us a government “problem.”  

People who have “lost” their former plans (not just their doctors) are merely uninformed about the true nature of those so-called “health” plans.  “Mini-medical” plans and the like are legal scams that in the long run are worse than having no health insurance at all, since they basically take more of your money than they give out. They offer so little coverage that you are loath to use it, and all the while the insurer improves its profit margins. When people have major medical issues, their out-of-pocket expenses are for all practical purposes what they would be paying without insurance. For these people, the ACA does exactly what is says it will do—provide good coverage at an affordable price. Even not having your “own” physician who probably barely remembers you seems to me a small price to pay for that.

It gives me no great pleasure to point these things out, but no matter how much my arguments make sense to me, they make none to my dad—which shouldn’t be surprising, since he gets his “information” from Fox News (which he insists is “fair and balanced”). No doubt he allows bigoted morons like Ann Coulter to pollute his mind. Coulter recently claimed that if Obama wasn’t black, he’d have been impeached by now. On the blog I read this on included wave after wave of offensive reader comments in agreement; I decided to add my two-bit to ruffle some feathers, reminding people that Ronald Reagan was guilty of something approaching treason by allowing his underlings to break the law in order to sell arms to a country (Iran) that we did not even have diplomatic relations with (and still don’t), and use that money to allow the Nicaraguan Contras—little more than a gang of right-wing thugs whose only interest in “freedom” was that which allowed them to pillage, rape and murder—to obtain weapons to carry out that purpose. While Republicans accuse the Obama administration of a “cover-up” in the Benghazi tragedy, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut was a far worse security failure—and Democrats did not cynically attempt to gain political capital out of it.

I also pointed out that the Bush administration’s fabrications in convincing the country to go to war with Iraq led to the deaths of 4,000 Americans needlessly. Needless-to-say, whenever the Right is confronted with the more egregious crimes committed by their own, they can’t help but scramble for the absurd; one person insisted it was all Bill Clinton’s fault.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nature plays no favorites

Edgar Allan Poe, despite the fact that he was a Southerner by heritage and not surprisingly a racist—portraying blacks in his works in the negative stereotypes typical for the times—in other ways he was aware of class prejudice in American society. This is not surprising, since he lived much of his working life in ill-compensated style, his life ending in mysterious circumstances on a Baltimore street. His story “Masque of the Red Death” told of privileged princes, nobles and aristocrats who barricaded themselves in a castle high above ground in the expectation of escaping the ravages of the “Red Death” that was bringing untold misery in the countryside. Life for them was so idle and pleasant that they decided to put on a masked ball, oblivious to the sound of agony without. Unfortunately for them, Nature was not to be denied. It crashed the party—except that is was wearing no mask: It was the literal figure of the Red Death come to claim its next victims.

There are classes of people who still hope to avoid the consequences of inequality and greed in this country. Right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers attempt to buy elections to ensure that they are never discomfited by feelings of guilt. Others live in gated communities patrolled by security, or in isolated hamlets and villages far from urban “blight” and the “elements.” One of these is the community of Oso, Washington in Snohomish County, along the Stillaguamish River.

Aerial photos reveal spacious homes in large plots, situated in a natural setting. According to the 2000 Census, there were 246 residents, all but 2 identified as “white.” The median income per household was over $75,000 (certainly more now), and none of the 96 households were below the poverty level. While I wouldn’t have firsthand knowledge of the political affiliation of these people, the area reminds me of that around Preston and North Bend, where I worked for a few years in the 1990s. I can tell you from my encounters with state troopers that places like this is where people like me are only tolerated to work in, and not to “hang around” any longer than is absolutely necessary. 

One thing that aerial photos do not show clearly is the Skaglund Hill outside Oso, which has been the scene of mudslides and has been a constant threat to repeat this activity. Yet people only seem only vaguely aware of the danger and any chance occurrence is unlikely to deter them from vacating an ideal location that suits their quest to avoid the “dangers” of urban existence. Unfortunately for many of these people, Nature was insensitive to these expectations.

I’ve talked about how the region had been in the midst of a mini-drought from October through January, and according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the region is still experiencing drought-like conditions because of the lack of snowpack during the peak months of the wet season. But this past February 6.11 inches of precipitation fell in the Seattle area, 2.61 inches above normal. But January was far worse, with 7.69 inches in the first 18 days, more than 5 inches above normal. 

While no significant flooding occurred, probably since at the start of this period water levels were significantly below normal, so much water so soon in relatively mild temperatures could be seen as creating the erosion conditions needed to form a wall of mud on a hill denuded of trees. 

Still, like the Romans living under a “sleeping” Mount Vesuvius, no one seemed to really believe that anything catastrophic was going to happen. The onrushing wall of mud and debris that came down Skaglund Hill wiped out scores of homes in literally minutes, and eventually formed a natural dam in the river. The unpreparedness of the population was such that by current count, the possibility exists that close to half the residents have perished, although at this writing only eight are confirmed dead. 

This grim and tragic occurrence is testimony to the fact that whatever some people think of the failings of certain of the human race, what they fear is nothing compared to awesome power of Nature itself. “Beauty” is just as likely to be the “Beast.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The NFL is no different than society as a whole, Mark Sanchez discovers

The New York Jets released their former “franchise” quarterback, Mark Sanchez, in favor of a new version, Geno Smith. I’ve talked about Smith in the past, and it is clear to me that Jets’ fans who heaped contempt on Sanchez because he was not another Peyton Manning or Tom Brady seem willing to suspend reality when judging Smith’s play. Smith was statistically the worst quarterback in the NFL last season, but a combination of playing good teams having down years (Atlanta), unbelievable good fortune courtesy of blown officiating calls (Tampa Bay, New England), solid defensive efforts (New Orleans) and teams wilting under the pressure of playing for a playoff spot (Miami), the Jets turned an at best a 4-12 team into the mirage that was an 8-8 record. Not that this is anything "shocking"; the Jets have a total of 10 double-digit win seasons in 54 years--even Joe Namath had an overall losing record as a starter with the Jets.

Former teammates complained that Sanchez allegedly carried himself as if he was “entitled.” What does that mean, and who are the players claiming that? Head cases and divas. As they say, it takes one to know one—except in this case, they should speak for themselves. What do they make of Smith? Isn’t he the guy that scouts were warning teams from drafting because he was an even more obvious self-involved swell-head? Wasn’t he the player who when he wasn’t drafted in the first round, he fired his agent? Whoever invented the phrase “best chance to win” obviously never considered the fact that players like Smith with obvious decision-making limitations masked by “athleticism” would use it to increase their already bloated conceit? 

Before jettisoning Sanchez, the Jets signed Michael Vick supposedly to “mentor” Smith, although I suspect that how Vick and Smith weigh the situation may be two entirely different things.Vick is clearly a more polished quarterback whose principle problem is an inability to stay healthy. Smith can no doubt benefit by “mentoring,” but only if he finds himself humbled, warming a seat on the bench and wondering how he is going to improve his play enough to win “his” job back.

In acquiring Vick, the Jets management obviously wants to avoid the kind of mistakes it made with Sanchez, simply inserting him in a position that he was not ready for. The Jets had no backup quarterback with long years of experience to “mentor” Sanchez, nor an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach to provide the kind of “tough love” that characterized the mentoring provided an undisciplined Brett Favre by Mike Holmgren. Rich Cimini of ESPN pointed out that real blame for the Sanchez self-fulfilling prophecy was the Jets organization:

 “The timing never was right for Sanchez. When it was time for him to go from little brother to head of the family, his supporting cast was virtually gone. The front office didn't do a good job of replenishing the talent, sticking him with Plaxico Burress  and LaDanian Tomlinson--both diminished players--and the diva of all divas, Santonio HolmesIt's sad because it didn't have to be this way. Sanchez has talent. Anybody who witnessed his six playoff games, especially the two conference championships and that magical divisional win at New England, knows he has the physical ability to do the job.  But the whole thing got messy and complicated because the , perhaps, the Jets were doing other teams a “favor” by not usetting theirplayers, building his beloved defense and letting his quarterback—the Sanchize—erode with the rest of the offense.” 

The Jets organization also, as John Clayton pointed out, wrecked any chance of Sanchez of joining an organization willing to give him another opportunity by releasing him until other teams had already signed free agent quarterbacks or traded for one. Perhaps the Jets are afraid if Sanchez actually excels elsewhere and Smith goes to pot, fans will wonder who was really the problem. Or, perhaps, the Jets were doing other teams a “favor” by not “upsetting” their fan base by the possibility that Sanchez might be the starting quarterback on their team. The attitude of more than a few people is probably not unlike one twitter post after a 2012 loss to the Tennessee Titans:


What is the truth of why Sanchez became the “butt” of jokes and contempt around the league, despite solid play in the playoffs; it is no “surprise” that a quarterback with the sixth highest playoff quarterback rating would win four road playoff games? Sanchez was having his way with the Steelers’ defense in the fourth quarter of the 2010 AFC Championship Game, and if the Jets’ defense had made a third down stop late in the game, it is likely that it would have been the Jets losing to Green Bay in the Super Bowl. If that had happened, fans would likely be more receptive to the fact that in 2012, Sanchez was playing with essentially the same cast of characters (sans the diva head case Holmes) that commentators were complaining were insufficient “weapons” for Smith, in absolving him of any blame.

In my mind, Sanchez is a pariah because in the back of people’s minds, they don’t know what to make of a Latino in a prominent position on an NFL team, since there are so few of them. You trash the one player from a vastly underrepresented  “ethnic” group and the attacks seem vicious and unfair to the up tenth degree. They are subject to ugly stereotypes. They don’t “belong.” The players who accused Sanchez of acting “entitled” while offering lame excuses for their “brother” are really making a political comment that is all too common in society as a whole. The same people who are sensitive to the stereotypes of black quarterbacks are quick to degrade a Latino one in offensively personal terms—because they are somehow a “threat” to whatever “privilege” comes with being the “top” minority group. 

The truth is, of course, that the Latino community is too “ethnically” fragmented to be a solid ideological and political block; what all this does suggest is that being Latino in the NFL is no different than being in a country in which you are forced to run between a gauntlet with brickbats flying from all sides.