Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's just like the Internet, only 100 times faster

Good ol' Kansas City, Kansas, was at the center of the electronic universe today when Google announced that KCK would be the first place to receive its Fast Network.
That's great. Even though the city - where John grew up and where I currently live - has been in the midst of an economic boom over the last decade, KCK could still use some good news. It's a city divided - everything east of I-635 is thriving, everything west of that line is run-down and depressed. A lot of it has to do with history. A lot of it has to do with race. A lot of it has to do with politics.

The news of Google bringing its Fast Network here could pull those two sides closer together, which would be terrific.

But I'm dubious about one thing, and it's this claim that the new internet service will be 100 times faster than current broadband service.

Really, Google? A hundred times faster? How can that be literally possible?

I remember the days when internet was dial-up. I remember sometimes waiting three, four, five minutes for a page to load. By the end of dial-up service, internet speeds were down to, I don't know, fifteen-second load times.

But in the broadband world, I can click on a link and I'm at that page almost instantaneously.

Is instant not fast enough for some people?

I haven't seen a single article about this announcement that questions the veracity of this "100 times faster" claim. But I would think common sense would come into play a little bit. If Google said, "Internet speeds twice as fast," then maybe I could get behind that. What kind of super-surfing are people doing? "I can't wait a full second for this page to load! I need it in one one-hundredth of a second, dammit!"

With speeds this fast, Google better be able to take me to a page before I even think about clicking on the link.

All hell is breaking loose in the world... we interrupt this program for an important announcement: Kansas does not win NCAA championship!

The world is in serious trouble. Budgets for education and health care are being cut dramatically. (What’s wrong with this picture?) Nuclear water 100,000 times more radioactive than normal ambient readings, is leaking into the Pacific Ocean. The Middle East is in turmoil, caught in a revolutionary wild fire.

And Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight.

As I said, the world is in serious trouble.

OK, I knew Kansas was in trouble about two minutes into the game when, with a 6-0 lead, the camera caught one of The Twins exhorting the crowd to cheer. Six-zero does not indicate a significant moment in the game. The job ain’t done… the job has barely begun. Had a sense of entitlement set in?

Somebody needed to explain to the players the difference between entitle-ment and title win.

What followed was a disappointing evening for the faithful. Have you ever tried to strike wet matches to light a campfire? You just keep thinking the next one will spark up and you’ll get that tinder going and any minute now the flames will spread.

For a minute it looked like the sparks might catch on, but then a couple of defensive assignments were forgotten and the team with no entitlement came raging back.

Here’s the stunning part. The eight-graph Kansas City Star article – I’m still confused about why a sports writer at such an event could only squeeze out eight graphs before morning – garnered 94 pages of comments within two hours. Today it stands at 1,300 comments despite being retired from the front page of the Web site. Another Elite Eight story garnered more than 900 comments.

Which adds up to more than 2,200 instances of the most vacuous drool the human mind has ever produced.

Yes, the world is in serious trouble. Kansas lost in the Elite Eight. Fifty-six teams, including Ohio and Duke, went home first. And, by the way, pink slips went out in the Kansas City, Kansas school district -- 57 comments --, the Shawnee Mission School District is set to slash million from its budget, six nuclear reactors are in serious trouble in Japan, the United States is participating in a third simultaneous war, the Middle East has come unhinged…

Stay tuned for further developments ... on KU basketball.

--Lofflin -- and if you want to think more about "irony and outrage" read this fine story from today's New York Times (while it's still free...)

PPS: If I were a basketball coach I would put an immediate stop to this habit of raising the arms above the head begging fans to cheer. Everything about this all-too-common WWE-style practice is wrong. It absolutely shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening in the game. Are you actually saying, "Hey, we did something great here but you people in the stands didn't recognize it because you're too stupid?" If I were a coach, I'd tell my players -- let your actions tell the story. If you play well enough, the fans will cheer. If you don't (or if it is only two minutes into the game...) they won't cheer. Your focus is on the game -- or it should be. Let the cheerleaders do their jobs and you do yours.

Reed photo courtesy:

Morris photo courtesy:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

No one, Royal's announcer says, watches baseball these days -- why?

Baseball revenues are growing but no one watched the World Series.


That's the question Ryan Lefebvre raised today as he broadcast a spring training game from Arizona. If baseball is so popular, why were the numbers for the last World Series so low, especially when compared to the Super Bowl? Lefebvre actually used the phrase "no one watched" but it was understood he meant not as many watched baseball as watched football.

He was involved in a long, long conversation with Denny Matthews about changes in the game that might make it more popular to watch. When I say long, I mean long. I drove halfway to the grocery store and didn't hear a pitch called. I could tell something was happening on the field from ambient noise but I didn't know what.

Of course, it was a spring training game and why on earth they were broadcasting a spring training game escapes me ... and probably escapes them. (Or, why I was listening...) And to compare the World Series to the Super Bowl makes about as much sense. If the World Series were one game and the whole season of baseball consisted of about a dozen games, the audience for the World Series would be huge. Of course, then it wouldn't be a "series." It would be the World Bowl, or something like.

It might be unfair, but maybe the first place to look for the answer to this question is in the broadcast booth. Maybe people have tired to the current schematic for broadcasting baseball.

Let's start with announcers. Maybe people have tired of listening to announcers prattle on about questions like why more people don't watch baseball, this at the expense of calling the game in front of them. The broadcasts these days, like many other areas of modern life, are more about the announcers than the games. Baseball broadcasters are learning this from basketball broadcasters who learned it from football broadcasters, who learned it from television news anchors and reporters who learned it from MTV. In an effort to shine a light on their own personalities, they provide little in terms of detail or information about what is happening on the field. They need to sit down in front of a second grade class and read a bunch of children's books to the kids and learn what storytelling is and how it works. They need to respect the listener's time. They need to let go when their personal stories and overwrought ribbing of each other threatens to span innings, when their inside jokes get old, and when their cheerleading for management and the organization gets tiresome.

When in doubt, tell us about the weather.

And, for the love of god, lose the damned nicknames.

We get it. You're buddies with the players. You spend time in the locker room. You're part of the team. We get it, so let it go, please. It does get old.

By the way, none of this seems to apply to Denny Matthews. I hadn't expected to write that, but it's true.

So, broadcasters might be part of the problem with broadcasting. I'm thinking the lockstep schematic of televising games might also be part of the problem. The formula is just too predictable to be interesting. Every pitch includes about seven to nine cuts and most of the time they come from the same angles and in the same order. It's enough to put a restless seven year old to sleep before his bedtime.

Suggestions: Stay on one thing long enough for the viewer to understand what's going on. Every pitch can't be cut like a music video. Watching a game would -- and is -- like watching 250 music videos in a row. And, change the camera angles. Station a camera inside the dugout for a few innings and weave in shots of the players on the bench or at the bat rack or watching video in the locker room or hitting off a tee in the tunnel. Move a camera to the stands for an inning. Mount a camera near the roof for a straight down shot. Show us what the game looks like from the bullpen. Just changing the position of the cameras would wake up a broadcast and put some unpredictability back into watching.

It wouldn't hurt to make decisions in the truck based on what's critical in the game at that moment. It might actually add narrative and drama. In fact, it might be good to develop a narrative across the span of nine innings and find ways to photograph that narrative as it evolves.

Also change the play-by-play / color man dynamic. It's old and it's boring. I like announcers like Frank White who can explain what's happening. That makes a difference. Maybe a little more silence would be good when there's nothing to say. Let us hear some of the ambient sounds in the stands once in a while.

The biggest change in the game today is our new understanding of the numbers. Announcers and producers need to spend a little time learning about this side of the game then devise ways to bring these ideas and these numbers to viewers. I saw a presentation at the I-70baseball writers' conference recently of graphs based on the new math of baseball. They were compelling. A clever announcer and an agile production crew could certainly develop such a thing into a powerful illustration of the drama on the field.

I'm sure there are some things about the game that would help. If you want to think radically, why not borrow the one-one count from slow pitch softball? That would speed up the game. Or the one-pitch rules sometimes employed in crazy slow pitch tournaments? Or pinch runners from home plate? Or make balks part of a pitcher's arsenal? Or allow foreign substances on the ball? Or legalize steroids? Or lower the mound and bring in the fences? Wait, they already did that.

Don't get yer panties in a wad. I'm only joking. How do I know that somewhere out there a baseball executive is saying to himself, "Yes, why not?" Shudder...

But if the problem is that the game is growing in popularity but fewer people are watching broadcasts, then it just seems logical for broadcasters to look first for the answers in the booth and the truck, and leave the damned game alone.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ink's hatchet job on Nick Wright simply wrong

I'm no fan of Nick Wright but the hatchet job done by Kansas City Star writer dugan arnett on the 610 Radio sports talker is unconscionable.

No wonder the Star casts dugan arnett's byline in lower case.

That, of course, is supposed to make it look hip. It has to look hip because it runs in the Star's transparently feeble attempt to look hip called Ink magazine. Any parent and most teachers know you don't reach young people by trying to talk or look like them.

If you reach them at all, it is because you find out what they want to know, and what they need to know, and you provide it to them honestly. You don't reach them by condensation, pandering, or all lower case bylines.

The theory today is that you reach the Internet generation by writing very brief, no-holds-barred, crude and rude copy. Now, if that is not an insulting idea, I don't know what is. arnett's piece fulfills all of those criteria except brevity. Tom Wolfe would be proud.

Well, maybe not.

Are there no editors left at the Star?

At some point after the Star directed readers to the Ink link, they decided to include an explicit language warning. That's appropriate, but it doesn't identify what is actually offensive about this story. It is, in fact, offensive because it is needlessly small minded, mean spirited, and shallow, and because it is a transparent attempt to look hip. Hipper than hip, quoth Tower of Power.

Good for the goose; good for the gander, you say?

Not necessarily. Good journalists strive to be better than the people they sometimes write about. It's called class.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Grant Hill on Jalen Rose makes a case for the responsibility of college grads in the world

As a college graduate, what is your responsibility in the world?

Graduate... responsibility? Wait a minute, I paid for that education. That's like the guy at the McDonald's drive-through asking me to pledge to use that hamburger and fries for good in the world.

Well, I just read something I want to pass along. Now, what I read was interesting but it has little to do with the question I posed -- what responsibility college graduates have in the world. The article in the New York Times was by Grant Hill, a rebuttal to some things Jalen Rose said about Duke players in his ESPN 30/30 documentary on the Fab Five. You will want to hear this discussion of the controversy by Chris Broussard who just explodes on the subject on ESPN. Damn!

Hill's rebuttal is even more strongly worded and fiercely illuminating. But, in talking about Duke graduates around the world, and about the charter school Rose has started in his home town, Hill said this:

Just as Jalen has founded a charter school in Michigan, we are expected to use our education to help others, to improve life for those who need our assistance and to use the excellent education we have received to better the world.

That paragraph impressed me. Could I say this to my students? Could I tell them with a straight face they owe the world something for the gift of a college education?

I don't know. I'm not sure graduates look on education as a gift. It costs too much and is too hard fought for them to see it as a gift, I'm afraid. And those of us in academia have participated in the cheapening of a college education by promising to educate people anywhere, anytime, with minimum inconvenience ... not unlike the promise of the drive-through window. Should people really be grateful for the sort of torture good teachers put them through?

That's really a tough question, isn't it?

Grant Hill talks about education as a privilege. I wish I could find the words to explain that to my students.

Image courtesy CBS Chicago / Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Japan, nuclear hocus pocus: Should we fear half-baked terrorists or corporate scoundrels

All along we have been worried silly about some half-baked terrorist with a dirty bomb in a suitcase when we should have been worrying about a handful of corporate culprits driven by arrogance and greed who overestimated their ability to control nuclear disaster, who figured they could get by with dissimulation and, perhaps, outright lies, and if they couldn't, knew they would be far enough away from their own nuclear reactors to escape anyway, should the situation warrant.

And, apparently, the situation warrants.

Because of our terrorist worries, I might add, we've come to the point of nearly abdicating some of the rights of privacy and law we have held dear.

When the chairman of the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission warns Americans in Japan to take caution -- that Japanese officials are playing down the danger -- you get some notion of the scope of the disaster and of the veracity -- the lack of veracity -- of these corporate characters.

Yes, right, what we need to fear are terrorists with dirty bombs...

I seem to be in an unhealthy place with this most recent nuclear nightmare. I need to back off from the coverage some. I can think of two reasons for this. The first is that I was an impressionable child during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I literally had nuclear nightmares for years, into my 20s and beyond.

The second reason, no doubt, is my father. My father died of emphysema. And I remember many times as his life was winding down, my father talking about that mysterious, noxious, black cloud of something that floated over the freight docks in the East Bottoms one midnight, and how he never felt the same again.

I imagine such a fate for the Japanese people tonight.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mike Burke or Sly James: Will either provide a new vision of city government or will it be the same old-school politics yet again?

Thinking about the mayor’s race in Kansas City and what my story about Mike Burke’s father, Jim Burke, might say about it.

True, that story is 30 years old. But, it seems to me a man’s relationship to his father never ages. My father was a union man. He was a Republican then the war in Vietnam made him a Democrat. He had a very strong view on loyalty. He also had strong views on Las Vegas and those who spent their money there. He had strong views on the Methodist church and who should sit in the front pew (us!). He couldn’t sing a lick but he believed everybody should sing hymns loud as they could.

He had an incredibly strong view on responsibility. “Son, if you don’t signal that turn, the guy behind you will slam on his brakes, the stupe behind him who is not paying attention will slam into the back of him and two kids in the backseat may die… all because you were two damned lazy to signal.”

So, I hear his voice in my head all the time, even if I don’t want to.

Now, I’m not trying to guess what Mike Burke, one of the candidates for mayor, hears in his head. But, if he hears his father’s voice, and if my 30-year-old story was accurate in relaying his father’s voice, then my guess is he is guided by some of these principles.

I might venture the notion that he is probably committed to development, the way his father apparently was. I see him as a person who considers development a key element in the health of a city. His father’s work was mostly north of the river, where undeveloped land could be purchased – I would guess his focus might return north of the river as often as possible.

One thing we tend to see in politicians is they tend to be formed by their first political successes.

I think this old article might point to the idea that he is well connected. And, I don’t mean connected to Tom Pendergast, as his father was. I just mean connected to the business and political establishment – as his father was. In that way, his roots run deep in the way things have been done in the city across decades. My guess is a vote for Mike Burke is a vote for political stability. It’s up to you whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing.

For me it’s a bad thing. I’m willing to try almost anything in Kansas City as long as it isn’t the same as what’s been going on since Emanuel Cleaver left office.

On the other hand, I like what his father had to say about Pendergast. In the article, his father allowed that the Pendergast years, “were the greatest growth period in Kansa City history.” Now, I’m not in favor of boss politics but I do think it is good for a mayor to keep in mind what made boss politics work – and it wasn’t always muscle. Sometimes it was the fact that people worked which made boss politics work.

My guess is neither candidate has the background to suggest he will provide something new in the mayor’s office. And if there is one thing the city needs, it’s something new.

Because the old school ain’t working.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Getting organized

Sorry I haven't written much here lately. John's been writing some amazing stuff, as usual, and I hope it's getting well-read. I've been keeping pretty busy with a full-time job, another blog and, recently, a nasty case of pleurisy, which put me in the emergency room yesterday. I'm still in pain, and staying home from work today, but I'll be fine.

In the meantime, I wanted to share this video, which I found at literary agent Janet Reid's blog:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

James E. Burke, the would be mayor's father, and Tom Pendergast... a classic Kansas City story I wish I could remember

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Alder had been working on a piece about mayoral candidate Mike Burke and he needed some information about Burke’s father James E. Burke, a Kansas City lawyer and real estate developer, for the profile. Alder called me because he found a reference to an article I had written about James Burke. I couldn’t find the magazine or my notes in my pack rat boxes – it was 30 years ago – so I went down to the Missouri Valley Room in the Kansas City Mo., Public Library last week to find it and send him a copy.

Turns out I wrote the piece in 1981 for a business magazine called Corporate Report: Kansas City. I was wet behind the ears, having spent just 10 years in journalism, and it was a very long piece, typical of those who are wet behind the ears. Here’s the strange thing: I remember almost nothing about it. Frankly, reading it at the library was like reading somebody else’s words. This other guy, I might add without enough humility, was a darn good writer.

As I read it, some of the situation and the interview came back to me, but not much. Alder and I agreed I should not be considered an expert on James Burke.

Nonetheless, the article is pretty interesting. (I feel like an athlete talking about himself in the third person…) I tried to remember why I went to the 24th floor of the Commerce Towers to interview the elder Burke, who was 73 at the time, and -- I found out from Alder’s article -- died the next year before another birthday. Two reasons for the article emerged: One was his relationship to the World’s of Fun property and to the Hunt Midwest Cave. He once owned that land with partners Lamar Hunt and Frank Carswell. Several months earlier I had done an article about Hunt Midwest which included the intriguing notion that an underground World’s of Fun might be built to keep the park going all year long and to assuage rainy summer days.

The second was Jim Burke’s relationship to Tom Pendergast. Like all green feature writers in Kansas City I was enamored of anything Pendergast. Jim didn’t disappoint. He served as the boss’s attorney near the end of his political career. He recalled the Good Friday he and a bulldog lawyer named John Madden ushered their powerful client down the hall of the fifth floor of the Federal Building after Pendergast had been indicted for income tax evasion.

It was the first time, the elder Burke said, that he had met Pendergast. He was also, on that Friday, placed in charge of Pendergast’s corporations while one of the last of the big city bosses served his time.

The story included an extraordinary excerpt from a speech the elder Burke made in 1976 at the Shepherd’s Center at 5144 Oak. I have no idea, at this distance, how I came upon the excerpt because I probably didn’t attend the talk. It’s likely Mr. Burke gave a copy of it to me during the interview.

In the speech, Jim Burke talked about a request Tom Pendergast made. He was fresh out of prison and still on probation by my account, still in prison by Alder’s. Here’s how Burke described the encounter in the speech:

“He reached into his pocket and drew out an envelope and said, ‘On this envelope are the names of 12 men. They’re the blue blood of Kansas City, as you’ll recognize when I read off their names. They are prominent in civic and banking and various fields. I want to give you in detail my relationship with those men over the years, how I helped them grow in whatever their business was.

“'When I get through, I’d like you to go to each of these men and tell them that I’m intending to apply for a pardon, and I’d like them to write a letter on my behalf. Tell them that once I let go of those letters… they might see them on the front page of the Star.'”

I was probably pretty excited at this point in the interview. I was probably putting little asterisks everywhere in the margins of my notes to be sure I didn’t miss the good stuff later when I started to write.

The elder Burke said he finally secured all the letters. It took four months, the president issued no pardon, and Pendergast died before he could finish the sentence.

I picked out one particular story from the speech for my article. Burke apparently told the audience J.C. Nichols had been one of the men on the list. He said when he went to the pioneering developer and made his request, Nichols told him he didn’t care if the letter appeared on the front page of the Star and to simply tell his secretary what to write and he’d sign it.

“There, in my opinion, was a great man in Kansas City,” Burke told the audience.

I’m not sure how, or if, any of this helps anyone understand candidate Mike Burke. I quoted several prominent Kansas Citians in the article with exceptionally good things to say about his father. Most mentioned how much the elder Burke liked working for the city under the radar. From here on, that won’t be possible for his son.

If you want to read the entire article you will find a PDF of it here.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Mickey Mantle and Jane Leavy: Do you have the guts to know the truth and lose your hero?

Mickey Mantle should never have farted in that 8-year-old girl's face.

Farting in her face instead of signing her program was probably the biggest mistake the great Mick ever made in a life full of mistakes because she grew up to be a fearless journalist and relentless researcher. Then she wrote "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the end of America's childhood" which delivered the unexpurgated story of the ballplayer who was, for many of us, second only to our father as hero and role model.


It’s hard to imagine Jane Leavy left out even one sad, disgusting, tragic story about the boy from Commerce, Okla., but she probably did. Maybe the Mick should not have hit on Leavy when she came to one of his golf tournaments late in his life to interview him for the Washington Post. Or maybe the Mick shouldn’t have passed out with his head in her lap at the table in the restaurant at the end of the evening.

I won’t say it. OK, I will.

Strike three.

Actually, I’m trying to be funny because sometimes it is easier to laugh than to cry. I’m not implying that farting in her face when she was a child or resting his hand on her thigh when she was a woman is why she told his story so honestly. She didn’t go after Mickey Mantle. She went after the truth about Mickey Mantle.

And, if the truth is uncomfortable to a man who grew up with Mickey Mantle on his wall, so be it. I had a hard time finishing this book, to be honest. One reason is I’m nearing the same age Mick was when he died and I’m more than a little uncomfortable with reminders of mortality.

Part of the reason I thought about quitting the book several times is Leavy destroyed the myth I had built around Mantle, who always represented the rebel, the unrepentant man who refused to grow up and put on a necktie, who farted in the face of Yankee brass, not little girls who want autographs.

I needed Mickey Mantle to be my example of raw power, the guy who said of Charlie Hustle, if I’d wanted to dunk the ball in over the second baseman my whole career I’d have worn a dress. I needed Mantle to be my example of triumph despite flaw. I needed him to represent those of us who have problems with authority.

I needed a hero who was so gifted he could live life exactly the way he wanted and still win. That is the myth, really, of Mickey Mantle for me.

And, I needed the poetry of his swing. I needed the image in my head of the guy who never got cheated at the plate, who went all out every time, who never seemed to be calculating what to do but went, not for the fence, but for the street every time.

I can close my eyes right now and watch that swing. I have gotten through more than one deadly boring meeting watching that swing over and over behind my eyes. I’ve been in trouble, sitting across from a fuming dean of students as an undergraduate and across from a fuming college president as a professor, and watched that swing to steady my nerves. That swing was magic.

I needed Mickey Mantle to be the last boy… and for that to be ok.

But, I’m not sure he was the end of America’s childhood. In fact, I’m sure he was not the end, if I represent any significant part of America. He wasn't the end; he was the last glowing ember. What Leavy should have said in the title is after you read this book America’s childhood will be over for you.

This is tough stuff. This is the stuff of tragedy. All of Shakespeare is like a "Saturday Night Live" skit compared to this. If you cherish your Mantle myths, as I did -- if you cherish your childhood and you’ve tried to prolong it into your sixties, as I have – better not open the cover.

If you have the stomach for the truth… it’s somewhere inside.


Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle #311 courtesy The Golden Age of Baseball Cards.