Harvey’s Passenger Bill of Rights

Official portrait of United States Secretary o...

Official portrait of United States Secretary of Department of Transportation Ray LaHood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My recent adventures in air travel have inspired a few thoughts I would like to pass along. Perhaps I can inspire Ray Lahood and his successor to incorporate some suggestions into the next official Passenger Bill of Rights.

1) You have the right to be cattle.

With nearly every purchase we make, we apply age-old assumptions that the customer is always right. The theory being that a hard-earned dollar spent gives a consumer leverage with a business, and the ultimate benefit-of-the-doubt in every scenario. I’ll take it a step further, I believe most of us think the dollars we spend make us “special.” In a certain economic stratosphere of air travel (somewhere Up in the Air with George Clooney), where platinum rewards clubs and first-class executive services rule, this may be true, and travelers can purchase themselves some special treatment. But the reality for those of us in coach is that the airline is hauling our butts across the country, or around the globe, at a loss. Almost every economist has a theory about why airlines perpetually lose money, but the bottom line is that if it weren’t for government subsidies, a very large percentage of the population would be going Greyhound. Go ahead and brag about that $150 flight you got to Orlando, but know you are making up the difference to the taxman. And something interesting happens to a business when the commodity in question (in this case, passengers) ceases to be profitable: You go from being something the business covets, to something they tolerate (sometimes only barely). Take heart that you are not alone, the airlines hold your fellow passengers in no greater esteem, so at least you are part of a collective. Welcome to the herd.

2) You have a right to hate other people’s kids.

Now that we have cleared up the fact that you are not special, let’s dispense with the misconception that somehow your children are. The airline isn’t letting you pre-board your brood because they value the family unit. They want you, your kids, and all your accoutrement, the hell out of the way. Turn and burn is the name of the game for the airlines, and they can’t very well open the cattle gate until all obstacles (families with children) are removed. If I’m coming off as insensitive here, I apologize. I don’t hate all kids. I love my own kids very much. I just hate yours. And not just the wee tots either. Every time I connect in Baltimore, I’m somehow booked on a flight returning a plane-load of eighth-graders from a D.C. class trip. The last time I was on this flight, I took a look around me at the mass of greasy, noisy teenagers (including the pit-faced lad sitting next to me who spent the whole flight sucking on his girlfriend’s face like he was one of The Walking Dead), and I wondered how long a Uruguayan rugby team could survive in the Andes on this group. I realize I’m making a mass generalization here, and a lot of kids are perfectly well-behaved on planes. But that look of contempt on my face when I walk down the aisle past you and your kids is simply me playing the odds, and trying to seat myself as far from you as possible.

African Elephant in South Africa

African Elephant in South Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3) You have the right to arrive at the same point at the same time as everyone else on the plane.

African elephants are herd creatures with defined social roles for each member that allows the herd to survive and flourish. Occasionally, an African elephant will “go rogue.” The social gene does not develop in their brain, and instead of accepting their role in the herd, the elephant goes off on their own, running amok, creating havoc, and corrupting other members of the herd. Typically, the remedy for the rogue elephant problem is to shoot it. Which leads me to this point… The person in the gate area with the Boarding Group 7 pass (or Group C if you fly Southwest), who feels compelled to jump in line wherever they see an opening in the groups boarding ahead of them, should be shot. The passenger who, upon arriving at the gate of destination, hears the bell for the seat-belt light being turned off, and has a Pavlovian response that propels them and their bags from the back of the plane to the front of the plane, with no regard for the passengers seated in the rows in front of them, should be shot. The passenger seated on the plane that will spend some time on the taxiway waiting for a weather system to pass over before takeoff, who thinks he can inspire a passenger revolt by loudly lobbing obscene complaints at the flight attendants, should be shot. These social misfits suffer from a delusion of specialness that allows them to think gaining inches and minutes on either end of their journey somehow constitutes victory, or that a disruption to their itinerary somehow needs to be acknowledged above and beyond the disruption to the itineraries of their fellow passengers. I have a theory that most of these types suffer from a specific narcissism that ultimately leads to destructive sociopathic behavior. Best to get to them after TSA has disarmed them.

Cover of "Altered States"

Cover of Altered States

4) You have a right to be an island.

With apologies to John Donne, and with the right tools in hand, a passenger has the right and privilege to disengage from the social dynamic of the flight – to become an island. This is not the same as going rogue. “Rogues” disrupt the social order of the flight, wreaking havoc, and they should be shot. “Islands” abide by the social code of the flight, while at the same time making every effort to diminish their participation. In fact, with the modern personal technology available to air travelers today, it’s possible for someone to cocoon themselves in so many layers of deep isolation, that given a long enough flight, they could arrive at their destination having devolved to a state of Primitive Man.

5) Weird smells.

I’ve floated these passenger bill of rights ideas around in conversation for some time now, and this is the one with the least absolutes. And technically it’s a responsibility, not a right. You have a responsibility to do your best to limit and contain weird smells on a flight. Air travel is more communal than most church services (tighter confines, and depending on your level of faith, certainly higher stakes), and nothing throws a community into disorder faster than weird smells. It’s a passenger’s responsibility to be hygienic. Everything’s relative of course, and those of us on the early morning return flight from Vegas understand that we paid our money and we take our chances. Just don’t be too funky. But really, when we are talking about weird smells, we’re talking about food – off the plane, and on the plane. Off the plane, the weird smells thing has everything to do with timing. Is that really a day that calls for a big breakfast of Huevos Rancheros and bacon? Or how about you don’t participate in that wing eating contest the day of your return flight? A little advance preparation and consideration goes a long way with your fellow travelers. On the plane, it’s about menu selection. Air travel is often inconveniently scheduled to cross into meal times, and many passengers feel entitled to board a plane with their own pantry in tow. Personally, I don’t do this. I’m just not comfortable having a picnic on a plane surrounded by a group of people I’m not sharing with. But I understand those who are fine with this, I just implore anyone who takes food on the plane to please, please, please take your fellow passengers (and their olfactory perception) into consideration. That little tupperware container of eel soup your grandma makes you that helps you with your motion sickness, increases virility, and smells like hockey gear at the end of a season? Leave that crap on the counter at home.

These are the five biggies I often think about when I’m dealing with the perils of air travel. There are other little rules and guidelines I think about like – Always Know Where You Are Standing. Of course, it should just be understood that in airports and on airplanes, people are trying to get where they need to be – to the counter, to the gate, to their seat – as quickly as possible. Because of this, there are certain places in an airport you just don’t loiter, like in front of the moving walkway, or ON the moving walkway, or especially in front of ANY ENTRANCE TO ANYTHING – ticket counters, security, food counters. If you are the lady waiting for her husband directly in front of the entrance to the men’s room nearest the gate for the flight that just arrived from a 4.5 hour route from Los Angeles where I used up all my free drink tickets – then lady you are standing in an area known as “the crease” – and there’s a good chance I’m going to throw a check into you similar to what Boychuk put on Toews in Game 5 of this year’s Stanley Cup. And trust me, no one’s calling a penalty.

The Case for Edwin Jackson

May 6, 2013

English: Chicago Cubs logo

English: Chicago Cubs logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the final week of September in 2012, the Chicago Cubs lost 5 of 6 to NL West Division opponents, using a starting pitching rotation of Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, and Justin Germano. If you just threw up a little bit in your mouth, and you need to take a minute to rinse and pop in a mint, I completely understand. Rusin, Berken and Germano are back in AAA to begin 2013, with only Rusin remaining in the Cubs system. Volstad is pitching for the Rockies with a robust 8.53 ERA this season. The only one to climb out of that September sink hole was former Reds top prospect, Travis Wood, who one could argue has been the best starter in the 2013 Cubs rotation.

So when the question keeps getting repeated – “Why did the Cubs spend free agent dollars on starting pitchers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva?” – the answer is probably “September of 2012.” Of course, the question isn’t quite that simple. The deeper question asks, why would the Cubs spend roughly $70 million on starting pitchers for a 2013 season in which they have little hope to compete? The answer remains, no matter what phase of a franchise rebuild the Cubs are in, they could not plan to put a product on the field with a starting rotation of arms like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, Wood, and Germano. Say what you will about the Cubs (you have over a century of material to work with), but the one thing you have to give them: They are not the Marlins.

Edwin Jackson

Edwin Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But looking closer at these specific free agent signings, there are many contract factors that help these deals make sense for the Cubs: Feldman is a one-year flyer at $6 million, which opens up all kinds of second-half options in 2013, and Villanueva’s deal equates to $10 million for two years for a pitcher whose stock has been steadily rising for three seasons. The much heavier Jackson deal is the one most often criticized, at 4 years for $52 million, but I honestly think it’s a fair price for the value the Cubs were seeking from the starting pitching market (not easy to say right now, because EJax has been terrible so far in 2013). Edwin Jackson’s market value was set around $11 million per year, which matches his Cubs contract, but their risk is in the 4 years. Where Feldman and Villaneuva are automatic trade targets for a market always starved for starting pitching assets, no team is looking to trade for 2 or 3 seasons of Edwin Jackson starts. Not at $11 million per anyway. So where is the value the Cubs purchased with Edwin Jackson?

Cubs President, Theo Epstein, and Cubs GM, Jed Hoyer, have been very candid about their approach to rebuilding the franchise, and the “bottom-to-top” standard operating procedure they call “The Cubs Way.” Mirroring the front-office strategies they successfully developed with the Red Sox, Epstein and Hoyer emphasize acquiring talent through the draft, and looking for trades that return prospects. Somewhere much farther down the bullet points on that standard operating procedure is the emphasis on acquiring free agents. Epstein and Hoyer are on the record saying they are not looking to acquire expensive contracts on aging players for the Cubs. Call it “The Anti-Jim-Hendry-Way.” Instead, they employ the same combination of scouting and data analysis made famous in the book and film “Moneyball” to identify free agent assets they feel the market has undervalued. So while seven other teams in the last ten years would have told you something different, the Cubs front office believe that Edwin Jackson is undervalued.

There are two areas I believe the Cubs focused on when evaluating Jackson: 1) Reliability. The term “innings-eater” is overused, and broadly-applied to pitchers of varying and debatable skill levels. Jackson is more than that. He’s a consistent performer. He’s thrown close to, or above, 200 innings the past five seasons, and held his ERA between 3.50 and 4.50 along the way. Not great, not terrible, but reliable. 2) The advanced statistical analysis favored by Epstein/Hoyer is all about measuring skill. Trimming away the traditional game-oriented performance metrics for a player, and isolating what the player does or doesn’t do well. The data is telling the Cubs that Jackson is a very skilled pitcher. (I read Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster as a form of bible study, and the Forecaster shows that while Jackson’s ERA went up in his 2nd half with the Nationals last season, his skills actually improved.)

The Cubs are hoping that staying in one place for awhile will give Edwin Jackson the stability he needs to develop his skills and translate them into a better line in the box score. If that actually happens in the future, Edwin Jackson is either a valuable piece on a competitive Cubs roster, or a viable trade asset, regardless of the number of years remaining on his contract. If the skills don’t develop or translate to Wins like they hope (the short stretch of road they are currently on with EJax), the Cubs still have a bona fide starter who can take the ball for 200 innings per season, and help prevent scenarios where options like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, and Germano are attractive.

Assembly Hall: A Rose By Any Other Name…

April 30th, 2013

A lot of data collection is necessary to complete any kind of equation to determine which is cheaper: renovating or building new. When the project in question is on the scale of the Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois, one has to trust the data is not being influenced or controlled by those who seek to gain from the results. Ultimately it was decided, after all considerations, as part of the Illinois Renaissance program, that Assembly Hall would be renovated with an estimated price tag of $157 million dollars. As Finster in The Usual Suspects would say, “Thassa lotta cheddah.”

Assembly Hall

Assembly Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The good news is, for the Illini faithful who have developed a spiritual bond with Assembly Hall over the years, they are keeping the building. The flying saucer that landed in the fields on the south side of the UIUC campus five decades ago will remain, but it will receive a much-needed upgrade to the modern age of sports arenas. The bad news is, for some of the more easily-wounded factions of Illini Nation, they have sold the naming rights. For $60 million dollars (and thirty pieces of silver!), Assembly Hall will henceforth (or for the next thirty years anyway) be named State Farm Center.

Assembly Hall, University of Illinois at Urban...

Assembly Hall, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The announcement was made yesterday, and to the credit of much of llini Nation who received the news, most of the reaction I read was “meh.” Anyone who follows sports in general is likely aware of the trends involved in arena renovations or rebuilds. These are expensive projects that require massive funding efforts (often at taxpayer expense), and a percentage of this funding comes from returns on sponsorship deals. Visit the United Center, US Cellular Park, and in a few years, Wrigley Field (if it will still be called that), and you will see that every available square inch of space that can be used to generate revenue, is being used to generate revenue. The Chicago-based sports venues have many more opportunities to generate revenue compared to Assembly Hall, but one of the most significant differences is the access to corporate sponsorships. Chicago venues have access to a GDP that rivals the entire country of Switzerland, Champaign-Urbana has a couple Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy Johns, some local realtors, and their only real whale, State-Farm Insurance. Certainly one objective of the updated digs will be to attract a few more whales to the Illinois Renaissance cause, and set a deeper tap into that glorious Chicago GDP. “Thassa lotta cheddah.”

My plea is to those wounded, sensitive souls who feel betrayed by the idea of renaming a building. Those struggling with the idea of their own mortality (okay, maybe I’m hanging too much on you here), setting channel markers along the path of their life at places like Chicago Stadium, Comiskey Park, Milwaukee County Stadium, or perhaps Wrigley Field. No one is swooping in with 60 million bucks to purchase your memories, you still hold the rights to those. On top of that, you got to keep the building! I mean c’mon, there was a serious consideration (one that I supported), during the exploratory stage of this project, to just tearing the darn thing down and building a new big-boy arena (one that would likely have been called, State Farm Center). Your precious concrete and metal Jiffy Pop sculpture will continue to rise above 1st and Kirby for the next several generations. I understand nostalgia just fine, but be nostalgic for the object (the building) and not the abstract (the name).

I’m guessing the nostalgia that exists for the name Assembly Hall is already low on gas. The tank is still over three-quarters full with Chief blood, so there’s little room for anything else. I very much look forward to attending Illinois Basketball games in a state-of-the-art venue, and I’m thankful State-Farm is willing to bring 60 million bucks to the effort. Because that’s a LOT of cheddar.

Phil Emery is Bad at Drafting

April 26, 2013

National Football League Draft

National Football League Draft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As much as ESPN and the NFL Network try to make the draft about the players, the truth is all professional sports drafts are about the GM’s. Because of the immediate expectations on these players, in the NFL more than any other league, General Managers and the franchises who employ them, live and die by draft day decisions. Which sounds like it should add up to compelling television drama, but it just doesn’t. It should also be acknowledged that my skewed view of the NFL draft comes from the perspective of a Chicago Bears fan. So I have a long history of mustering minimal interest on draft day, only to have it squashed by that first Bears pick, which is inevitably a desperate reach, a risky gamble on a guy with an established injury history, or a flat-out-crap-your-pants-on-live-television choke job (some of us still remember the Stan Thomas pick). It happened again last night, with the Bears first pick at #20, when they took offensive lineman, Kyle Long, from Oregon.

Roger Goodell at the 2010 NFL Draft.

Roger Goodell at the 2010 NFL Draft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know a thing about Kyle Long, other than he is Howie Long’s kid, and Chris Long’s brother, and I only know that because Chris Berman shouted it at me from my television last night. So if I don’t know anything about him, or anything about the other players available to draft at pick #20, how can I make a fair judgement on the Bears decision to pick Kyle Long? This is where playing fantasy sports, especially auction drafts, provides some fundamental education on the GM’s responsibility for building a competitive roster. Successful fantasy players prepare for a draft with specific roster targets in mind, but their overall objective is to maximize value. They have a pre-determined budget, or a set position in the draft order, and the objective is to get the best return within that framework. Getting the best return comes from knowing the market before the draft, and reading the changes to the market during the draft. And it’s no different for every General Manager representing every NFL team sitting in their “war room” during the draft last night.

The General Manager for the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery, threw up all over himself at pick #20. All market indicators prior to the draft placed Kyle Long in the second round. The progression of the first round up to pick #20 left a lot of market-valued assets on the table for the Bears. North Carolina defense end Sylvester Williams, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, and Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, were a few of the prized players available to Emery. Not to mention that, with those players available, the pick itself at #20 had gained significant value. If the Bears didn’t like the same players as the market (and clearly they didn’t), Emery could have traded the pick for a max return. He blew it by taking Kyle Long, and overpaying for a player the market didn’t value anywhere close to that spot.

NFL analysts often say the draft can’t be graded until a few years later, when the players have had the opportunity to prove their value (or not) to the teams who drafted them. But that’s wrong. That again makes the incorrect assumption that the draft is about the player and not about the General Manager. The NFL is an isolated exercise in the economics of roster construction and franchise management, and it can be performance-graded as such. The objective with every draft, just like every isolated game, is to “win the day.” Phil Emery failed last night. He failed in last year’s draft as well, when he took Shea McClellin, an undersized defensive end from Boise State, who the market didn’t like at that spot either.

Kyle Long and Shea McClellin may turn out to be fine players for the Chicago Bears. It does not change the fact that Phil Emery is not good at this stuff.

The 401K Abyss

April 24, 2013

Social Security Poster: old man

Social Security Poster: old man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I still recall the very first “real” paycheck I received, courtesy of Ray & Kay Eldridge and their Merchandise Mart. Real in the sense that it had entries for FICA and State Taxes and other standard deductions that I had not previously seen while mowing lawns for cash. I remember looking closely at the entry on the check that detailed how much was being deducted from my pay for Social Security, and thinking, “I will never ever see that money.” I was only 16 at the time, but I read enough news and could do enough basic arithmetic to understand that Social Security was a benefit that I was likely never to see. So when a 16-year-old in 1986 understands this concept and makes this assumption, you have to forgive him when, 27 years later, he laughs out loud when he hears someone refer to Social Security as an “entitlement.”

Last night PBS aired an episode of FRONTLINE that focused on the “retirement crisis” we face in this country. The broad message of the program was that an overwhelming majority of Americans don’t have enough retirement savings (newsflash). The more interesting parts of the program, however, were the segments focused on the lack of tools available to the individual retirement investor, and the revelation that an entire financial industry exists to do nothing more than stack cards against their customers. Much of this focus was directed at the 401K, a tool designed to put retirement savings control in the hands of the individual investor, and supposedly make up for a lot of the expanding gap between cost of living expenses and dwindling Social Security. The episode made a lot of good points that I agree with about 401K’s, specifically that they are often the best option available to retirement investors, but also that many 401K’s are junk, and much of the industry delivering the product could be branded as criminal.

On the program, FRONTLINE interviewed Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard and architect of the very first index mutual fund. I had what I would call a spiritual awakening last year when it came to my family’s finances, and if I were to identify a guru who guided me through this awakening (without him ever being aware of my existence), that guru would be Jack Bogle. At some point last year it dawned on me that I had placed unwarranted faith in unworthy sources to make decisions that I trusted were being made in my family’s best financial interest. I was assuming a fiduciary responsibility where one did not exist. It became clear to me that my advisor and plan administrators and I were working at counter objectives: I was looking to place our savings into a healthy nest egg, and they were looking to place our savings into their pockets. Mine was not a unique situation, in fact it’s standard operating procedure for an entire industry. Absolutely no one outlines these problems, and presents solution-based alternatives better than Jack Bogle.

“You put up 100% of the capital, you take 100% of the risk, and you get 30% of the return.” – John C. Bogle pointing out the totally ludicrous nature of most 401K plans.

I would advise anyone with the slightest bit of interest in retiring at some point before their dying breath to watch the FRONTLINE episode. It’s available online here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/

There is an excellent wiki with a tremendous amount of information, as well as a forum of very helpful Jack Bogle disciples here: http://www.bogleheads.org

The message is simple: You can’t control the market. You can’t even predict or time the market. What you can control is cost. Eliminate fees, sales loads, fund turnover. Cut any cost that comes out of your pocket. Index the total stock market and hold shares of business in perpetuity. Keep it simple.

“Don’t do something, stand there!” – John C. Bogle on the proper approach to retirement investing.

A Millionaire by Retirement

A Millionaire by Retirement (Photo credit: mortgagepaymentplan)

Most of us have had that meeting arranged by Human Resources with our 401K plan administrators, where they review our options and show us an impressive bar graph that illustrates a 7% return over 20 years, at the end of which we are a millionaire. This bar graph shows the glory of compounding interest, while ignoring the sh*t sandwich of compounding fees. Compounding interest is a heavenly light that will make your heart glow. Compounding fees are a force of evil in the universe, enslaving civilizations, swallowing planets whole, and they will drag your retirement savings into the black abyss. 401K plans are still the best tool for retirement savings, especially if your company matches contributions (the match is a better return than the market can offer). If the 401K has the right funds (translation: low cost index funds), a participant can set up their own allocation plan to maximize returns and eliminate cost. Funds should be chosen by their expense ratio, not based on past returns.

Look, we have a retirement crisis in this country because there is an impossible gauntlet of pick-pockets, highwaymen, cutthroats, and bandits to navigate through on our way to retirement. While we stand their shouting about the bandits in Washington, the pick-pockets at our bank are rounding the corner down the street with our wallet. The 401K absolutely puts the control of retirement savings in the hands of the individual investor, but it also puts all of the risk and responsibility in those same hands. Educating ourselves about our own money is the only defense.

Ebertfest 2013

August 23. 2013

 

Roger Ebert, american film critic.

Roger Ebert, american film critic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week was the 15th Annual Ebertfest Film Festival, held at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, IL. I have an unwarranted sense of pride in the fact that I have attended the festival every year since it’s inception, and an honest feeling of loss that this was the first year without Roger. The festival may go on (I certainly hope it does), but there will never again be the presence and energy Roger Ebert brought to his festival. The pride I take in my past attendance is a selfish appreciation for specific gifts Roger generously handed out to his audience, my favorite of which was a conversation with Werner Herzog that seemed to capture the audience and hold us in place until just a couple hours before sunrise. Beyond his love and passion for film, Roger was a gifted writer and a true newspaperman. A dream of having drinks with both Roger Ebert and Mike Royko would be my greatest argument on behalf of the heaven construct.

With homage paid and inspiration stolen, I offer my humble bite-sized reviews of the films screened at this year’s festival…

Cover of "Days of Heaven"

Cover of Days of Heaven

DAYS OF HEAVEN: According to festival guest and “cinematographer” on this film, Haskel Wexler, Terence Malick is a “weird guy.” He’s stating the obvious at this point, but Malick is also in a weird place. A-List actors want to work with him because he’s branded a genius, so studios throw money at him and give his pictures wide-release. Midwestern housewives buy tickets to the latest George Clooney or Brad Pitt movie, and walk out of the theater (likely before the film’s end) having witnessed a Malick film (and wondering “what the hell was that?”). DAYS OF HEAVEN is early Malick (1978), and tells a traditional story in a more linear narrative than most Terence Malick films. But the seeds are there for what was to come. Malick is a collage artist of cinema. His films are beautiful and poetic, and if an audience can cast aside their false framework of expectations for what they think a movie is, they will find unexpected rewards.

DAYS OF HEAVEN was introduced by a short subject film by Ebert far-flung correspondent (Toronto), Grace Wang, called I REMEMBER. It’s a good pairing, I REMEMBER relies on imagery, tone, and very little dialogue to convey its themes.

VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH: Frequent festival guest (unable to attend this year because of failing health), Paul Cox, made a film about Van Gogh and, as my Uncle Joe suggested, probably somewhere during the filming he said, “Screw it, I’m just going to show slides of the paintings and have John Hurt read the letters.” Because that really was the best possible approach.

VINCENT was introduced by TO MUSIC, a short subject film co-directed by Sophie Kohn, daughter of festival coordinator Nate Kohn. While some would claim “nepotiz!,” the fact is TO MUSIC was one of the best things I saw (and heard) at this year’s festival. It plays to me like a cinematic adaptation of a Jim Harrison story, which is ironic considering all the crappy full-length Hollywood features that have come from Jim Harrison stories, including his own terrible scripts (Legends of the Fall, Wolf, Revenge).

IN THE FAMILY: Roger Ebert has said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” IN THE FAMILY is a three-hour film and worth every minute. Everyone should see it. Everyone should feel its impact, and then think long and hard about who they are and what they offer the world. And while I don’t like to judge anyone by their taste in film, if you have no desire to see IN THE FAMILY, you frankly don’t deserve to live. Just sayin’.

BERNIE: I was not able to attend the screening of BERNIE, so Jack Black and I have something in common.

OSLO, AUGUST 31ST: A Norwegian film about the day in the life of an addict. It’s well made, well acted, and very deliberate in the point it is trying to make (at least I thought so until I heard the audience Q&A after). The director was engaging and interesting, and much more appealing than the character he built this film around.

THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA: A Japanese film from 1958 that tells a folk tale using elements of Kabuki theater. It’s like Logan’s Run in feudal Japan, except you don’t go to Carousel when you are 30, you go up the mountain when you are 70. A much better deal, when you think about it.

Français : 66ème Festival du Cinéma de Venise ...

Français : 66ème Festival du Cinéma de Venise (Mostra), 4ème jour (05/09/2009) Tilda Swinton arrivant à l’Hôtel des bains au Lido (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

JULIA: I really didn’t like this movie. Tilda Swinton seems very gracious and personable in real life, but when she’s on screen she just creeps me out. And somehow I fear Ebertfest is evolving into Tildafest. The horror.

BLANCANIEVES: Anyone who sees this modern silent film from Spain will recall THE ARTIST, and wonder what all the fuss was about. My favorite film from this year’s festival, BLANCANIEVES tells a familiar tale with so many interesting creative twists, you will never think of Snow White again without also thinking of bullfighting.

KUMARE: At the end of KUMARE, we get caught up with the film’s subjects through familiar AMERICAN-GRAFFITI-style text capsules, and one of the subjects is said to have endorsed the message of KUMARE, but questioned the method. I’m of the same mind. It’s a funny film with an important message, but it made me uncomfortable with how the film used the people in its study.

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW: Anyone who has been to that wretched hive of consumerism and false-fronts in Orlando will appreciate the roasting this film gives Disney, and applaud the subversive tactics taken to film inside the actual park. Anyone who has seen a Guy Maddin film or two, will know just how short of its target this film lands. The judge who reviews the inevitable lawsuit that will stem from this movie has a good chance of being equally as confused as the audience.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW: So someone found the diary I didn’t keep my senior year in high school, and developed it into a script. Hit uncomfortably close to home for me, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’ve already reserved a date with my 15-year-old daughter to see this film when it gets a wide theatrical release (or more likely, becomes available on Apple TV).

NOT YET BEGUN TO FIGHT: This was the Sunday matinee, and I have not attended the Sunday matinee in several years. One, because I’ve usually caught my limit of films by then, and two, because the last Sunday matinee I attended was BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (Roger’s screenwriting credit) with a concert by THE STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK immediately after the screening. Much like THE POLICE breaking up after playing Shea Stadium in 1983, I thought it was never going to get that good again.

At Play in the Fields of Insensitivity.

Jason Heyward

Jason Heyward (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

April 23, 2013

So this morning a thought struck me that those of us who participate in fantasy sports are guilty of mock human trafficking. And while trafficking in human beings in the abstract is certainly more socially acceptable (and less illegal) than trafficking in real human beings, there is still an uncomfortable insensitivity inherent in the game. Fantasy sports, at their core, are a form of commodity trading and speculating. One could argue the commodities are not human, but simply buckets of statistics and metrics that match the scoring of the game (there’s some of that insensitivity for you). But nobody drafts a team of raw stats. They draft players, or you know… people.

This line of thought started this morning when I checked my MLB newsfeed and read that Jason Heyward, an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, had surgery last night to remove his appendix. The human reaction to this story would be empathy. A 23 year old professional athlete had emergency surgery at a hospital unfamiliar to him, Rose Medical Center in Denver, because the Braves are playing an away series against the Rockies (as an aside, Monday’s Game 1 was postponed because of SNOW, so the weather continues to act like Uncle Gary at the Busey Family Thanksgiving). Not an ideal situation for Heyward. Most people would likely project themselves into that scenario and muster some genuine concern for the young man. I’m in that place now, but that was not my initial reaction. I had only read the headline, “Heyward Has Surgery To Remove Appendix” and my immediate thought was of the $37 (real out-of-my-wallet dollars) I paid for the outfielder in my league auction, and how unlikely it would be that I would approach anywhere close to a decent ROI (return on investment) for Heyward. It gets worse. From somewhere in the darkest corner of my reptile brain, some really horrible person was speaking into a megaphone, repeating two words over and over – “SUNK COST.”

Yep. While Jason Heyward recovers in a private hospital room in Colorado, likely lost in a haze of painkillers, with brief flashes of clarity that only punish him with questions about the length of time he will spend on a disabled list, somewhere a thousand miles away, a grown-ass-man in East Central Illinois sits at his computer and curses him for being human. It’s a sick business.

To be honest, I was already pissed with Heyward prior to the appendectomy. It’s early in the MLB season, but a .121 average and only two home runs in 17 games is a very rough start. The early prospectus on Heyward was already shaky, and a fair 2013 ROI was starting to become a long shot. This surgery is simply the black swan event that brings a season into perspective and speaks undeniable truth to a fantasy team owner. Heyward will play more baseball this year. Hell, he may only miss 10 games. But he won’t return full value. He won’t bring good trade returns. Heyward is by all intents and purposes, as far as rotisserie baseball is concerned – SUNK COST.

I wish him the best on his recovery. He seems like a very nice young man.

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