Monday, December 20, 2010

Warehouse Robots Featured in WSJ

[Cross-posted with ABA ST-AIRC Blog]

Today's WSJ has a featured article on the tradeoffs for warehouses that are primarily staffed by humans, and those primarily staffed by robots. They compare and contrast a Crate & Barrel (robotic) shipment center with one run by Amazon (humans).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wired Mag: Special Report on AI

[Cross-posted from ABA's ST-AIRC Blog]

The January issue of Wired Magazine features a special report on the use of Artificial Intelligence in various fields, from Wall Street to fraud prevention. The bottom line? "Artificial Intelligence is here. But it's nothing like we expected."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Predator Drones Featured in Wikileaks

[Cross-posted from ABA's ST-AIRC Blog]

Among other tidbits in the Wikileak documents: many countries are asking for the US to sell them Predator drones.

WikiLeaks Reveals Everybody’s Christmas List: The World Wants Drones

By Adam Rawnsley

Only a select few close American allies have the export-restricted Predator B (a.k.a. MQ-9 Reaper) armed drones, but that hasn’t stopped countries from the United Arab Emirates to Turkey from pestering & pleading with America to sell them the shiniest new toy, the WikiLeaks document show...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

DoD Studying Flying Snakes

[Cross-posted on ABA's ST-AIRC blog]

Not directly related to robots (yet), but still interesting: the Defense Department is sponsoring studies on flying snakes.

More here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Give Them a Chance...

When the Celtics failed to close out the Magic last night (losing in OT, 96-92, after having been outplayed by Orlando for much of the game), few NBA observers seemed to be worried.

After all, having seen the pistol-whipping that the Cs administered in Games 1-3, who would think that this Magic team could climb out of the heretofore insurmountable 0-3 hole?

Of the 279 teams across all sports that have gone up 3-0, all but 4 have gone on to win; and three of the comebacks have occurred in the NHL (1942 Toronto; 1975 Islanders; 2010 Flyers.)*

(*-Yes, we all know the other 0-3 winner.)

88 NBA teams have gone up 3-0, and each one of them has gone on to win the respective series. But of those 88, just 14 have been situations where the 'better' team (i.e., the team that held home court advantage in the series) went down 0-3.

So the odds aren't in favor of the Magic. But if you were going to script a comeback -- a young, athletic team (which by the way, had a very successful regular season) that seemed lost for 3 games finding its sea legs when a sloppy, disinterested veteran team already seemed to be looking to get ready for the NBA Finals -- it would look something like this.

If the Magic protect home court in Game 5, the pressure will turn to the Celtics on Friday night.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thoughts on Deepwater Horizon

Earlier this week, AP wrote a column on the implications of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill on the chances for climate change legislation for Mass High Tech.

Here's the text (without hyperlinks):


Even as this column is being written, BP’s Deepwater Horizon continues to spill oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past week, estimates of the rate of spillage have increased by more than ten-fold, to close to 70,000 barrels a day.

In the month since the blowout event took place, if the revised estimates are accurate, more oil has leaked than in the previous largest accident: the infamous Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska.

One might think that the BP spill, which has highlighted the risks and external costs imposed by hydro-carbons, would inspire America to revisit its national energy policy. And to be fair, Congress has been wrestling with climate change since at least as early as 1997 with Kyoto. The current proposal is the “Waxman-Markey bill” – climate-change legislation that has already been passed by the House – and now is being considered by the Senate, under legislation written by U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

The “Markey” in Waxman-Markey refers to U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, also of Massachusetts, whose Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming wrote a significant portion of the bill. Last week, members of the Progressive Business Leaders Network (PBLN) had the opportunity to visit at length with Markey during the group’s annual conference in Washington last week. (Held in the sparkling new Capitol Visitor’s Center, the conference brought more than 75 New England business leaders together with Members of Congress, congressional staff and Obama Administration officials for a full day of policy and politics.)

Back to the BP spill: With the economic and ecological future of the Gulf of Mexico in jeopardy, why wouldn’t the accident help gather political momentum on behalf of a climate change bill that seeks – in part – to reduce the nation’s reliance on oil? After all, the hydrocarbon-based economy is a classic “externality” problem: because the costs of petroleum cannot be accurately measured (or priced), oil appears to be inexpensive vis-à-vis other forms of energy. Further, existing oil reserves are being depleted, which forces exploration out further offshore, with the risks that are now clear.

The key to understanding this fragile deal is in President Obama’s announcement in March that he was “open” to expanded East Coast offshore drilling. The statement surprised many and was met with resistance from some in the environmental coalition. Yet in retrospect, it seems clear that the president’s endorsement of expanded drilling was intended to give political cover to pick up votes in favor of the climate change bill. Politics does make strange bedfellows, and perhaps none more so than a nice, blue-state congressman like Ed Markey getting himself mixed up with the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd. But as Markey himself remarked, the BP spill has stiffened environmental resistance to offshore drilling, even as the politics of climate change seems to require some short-term expansion of the activity.

Markey, who (not co-incidentally) wrote or co-authored three separate pieces of legislation in the 1990s that de-regulated cable and reformed the wireless spectrum, sees energy as a much bigger opportunity than tech was 15 years ago. “The energy sector is four times bigger than tech,” he told the PBLN audience. And the region is poised to receive a disproportionate share of clean-energy grants; Markey stated that in the 2009 Stimulus, 20 percent of all NIH grants were awarded to New England institutions. Like the teaching hospitals that attract health grants, the region has inherent advantages: “the very factors that drive energy costs higher in New England makes the return on energy investments here much better.” Citing examples like A123 and EnerNOC, Markey highlighted local energy innovation: “That’s who we are in New England.”

Markey remains optimistic – perhaps unrealistically so, as he admitted to the PBLN group – despite the difficulties in getting the requisite votes in the Senate. But he is coldly realistic about the challenges that the U.S. faces in migrating to a clean-energy economy.

He closed his presentation with the story of a recent visit to southern China, where he passed a factory where dozens of brand-new wind-turbine blades lay stacked under tarps, pointed in Markey’s words “like daggers aimed at America. I was reminded of Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the UN in 1962 where he showed the world the photographic proof of Soviet missiles pointed at the U.S. China is ruthlessly targeting the U.S. clean energy field.”

China has identified clean energy as a future growth sector; in wind turbines, for instance, China has jumped from negligible production a decade ago to three of the world’s top 10 manufacturers, and China is now the world’s largest wind market. For energy-consuming New England, properly pricing hydrocarbon energy is both in the region’s and in the U.S. national interest. It would be more than ironic if the BP spill meant the delay in development of a clean-tech industry for a world that is more precarious – and energy-hungry – than ever.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

All Mass. Politics is...Global?

Two items of note in Massachusetts politics:

* Although the opinion polling is all over the map, Britain appears to be headed for an election tomorrow where no party controls a majority of seats in Parliament. In such a case, Labour's Gordon Brown may sneak in to another term as PM, a result that few would have predicted at the start of the campaign.

In a rally on the eve of the election, Conservative leader David Cameron neatly summarized the "trilemma" of a three-party field:
Don't stay at home and let the old guard in. Don't vote for the Liberal Democrats and let Gordon Brown in.

Meanwhile, Brown himself had to tamp down controversy today after two Labour ministers had urged tactical voting against the Conservatives yesterday.

All of which should have a familiar ring to Massachusetts voters: in any three party race, the calculus for victory becomes infinitely more difficult. GOP Charlie Baker has suffered through a slow spring -- including a brutal send-up by Globe columnist Brian McGrory -- and he recently replaced his campaign manager as he tried to determine where to focus his fire: on incumbent Dem Deval Patrick, or Independent (and former Dem) Tim Cahill.

Patrick (and to a lesser extent, Cahill) has had a good campaign so far -- aggressively promoting his own record (including the swift resolution of the Boston drinking water issue this past week) and pushing back against Baker. Baker and Cahill now appear to be fully engaged with each other, which also suits the Governor's purposes.

And finally, the race itself is reflecting larger political trends: the latest round of anti-Cahill ads have been sponsored by the Republican Governor's Association, which itself has emerged as a counter-weight to the scandal-plagued Republican National Committee. The current head of the RGA? Former RNC chief (and Miss. Governor) Haley Barbour.

* Meanwhile, despite a desultory -- and well-documented -- performance in the Senate race this winter, Martha Coakley appears poised to be re-elected to a second term as Massachusetts Attorney General. No opponent filed the necessary signatures to get on the November ballot, which means Coakley will be unopposed (save for a long-shot sticker campaign.)

Just a few months ago, in the aftermath of Scott Brown's victory, many considered Coakley to be "vulnerable."

But one is perhaps reminded of the words of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, speaking to then-State Senator Barack Obama after the latter's embarrassing 31-point loss to Congressman Bobby Rush, a short time after Rush had been defeated by Daley in a mayoral race:
[w]hen the results were in Daley phoned [Obama] -- not to console him but to explain why Obama had screwed up.

"I said, 'Why did you run against him?'" Daley [said].

Obama replied that Rush's loss to Daley had suggested that Rush was vulnerable.

Daley went on, "No, an election doesn't show you're weak. The other person just got more votes. So there is not weakness in your opponent. Maybe it taught you a good lesson."
One that perhaps ambitious Massachusetts pols learned faster than a future POTUS.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

...And at #25

(Note: AP is not a big NFL draft-nik, but tonight's event attracted attention, because of the range of opinions around Florida QB Tim Tebow.)

The Denver Broncos picked Tim Tebow in the first round -- at #25 -- well ahead of where almost every observer expected him to be.

On ESPN, Tom Jackson (a former Bronco himself) was literally speechless -- staring blankly into the camera in the moments after the pick was announced. Even ten minutes later (when he had presumably found his voice), Jackson was saying "it's a question whether he will ever play at all."

Mel Kiper Jr. blasted the pick on a talent basis, saying in effect, that even though he may be a great kid, the skill level is not high enough, and his (flawed) throwing motion will mean an unsuccessful NFL career.

Whether Tebow can be a Pro Bowl quarterback in the NFL is an open question. But it's pretty safe bet that Tebow will never be in an Associated Press story that contains the words: "Member of the Denver Broncos arrested early Sunday morning..."

Here's what Denver gets: a good all-around athlete (who, by the way, dominated the best football conference in the country in college), who is now playing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove to every scout, GM, and fan who doubted him. There are worse combinations.

And there is this Inconvenient Truth: drafting a QB in the first round is clearly a crap-shoot. And if you don't believe that, here are the names of a few of the QBs selected in just the top three picks in the first round in the last dozen years:
Tim Couch
JaMarcus Russell
Ryan Leaf
Akili Smith
Joey Harrington

Ummm....oh, and the jury is still out on Vince Young, who was also a "top 3".

Could Tebow be a bust a #24?


But will he be a worse choice than Leaf (#3 overall) or Russell (#1 overall) or the others in the List of Shame?


The "best and the brightest" in the NFL came up with those choices. Generally, the experts (like Kiper) looooooooooved those picks when they were made. And all of them were busts that handicapped their respective franchises for years, if not close to a decade.

Which brings us to our point for all the so-called experts (which, ironically, involves another professional sports franchise):

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me...When I'm 68?

The NCAA expanded its Men's Basketball field to...68 teams today.

The surprising news comes after a winter when it seemed almost sure that the expansion would be all the way to 96, allowing the top eight seeds in each region a Bye in the first round, adding a full round for seeds 9-24, and meaning wall-to-wall college basketball for six straight nights.

As part of the new deal, CBS will share coverage with Turner, meaning that every single game will be available somewhere on the dial. Or, perhaps more appropriate, at some triple-digit number on your cable box.

As Deadspin's Dashiell Bennett points out, it seems that -- shockingly -- the NCAA listened to the criticism that was levelled in the month of March: the tournament worked as-is, the expansion would water down the regular season, and so forth. Three more at-large bids will (almost surely) be awarded, but the tournament will have the same look-and-feel, albeit with four "play-in" games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

But Bennett is wrong in one respect when he writes the following:
The field will expand to 68 teams, which means (presumably) that all four 16-seeds will now be determined by play-in game, making the possibility of a 16-over-1 upset even more improbable than it already is...

The expansion of the play-in games means that the worst eight automatic qualifiers will play the 16A/16B games for the right to play the #1-seeds. But assuming that the Tournament Committee seeds teams correctly(*), that means that the #16A teams will be advancing; in years past those teams were also known as "#15 seeds."

(*)-The seeding this year was especially problematic, as was widely observed, especially regard to eventual champion Duke's path to the Final Four, and games such as Temple (5)/Cornell (12).

For example, here are the "weakest" four teams in the 2009(**) bracket, together with actual (post-season) KenPom rating:

Chattanoga (16), 226
Alabama State (16B), 209
Radford (16), 188
Binghampton (15), 165 (***)

Average Rating: 197, or slightly below the median of 344 Division I teams

Here are the next four weakest:

Morehead State (16A - play-in winner) 150
Morgan State (15) 148
Robert Morris (15), 118
East Tenn St (16), 111

Average Rating: 132, or close to top one-third of all D-I teams

(**) - Using the 2009 to avoid the seeding problems in this year's tournament.
(***) - Of course, the Committee still mis-seeded Morehead State. (For the record, the other 2009 15-seed was Cal St Northridge (99 KenPom), who played tough against #2 Memphis, before falling 81-70.)

Thus, the #1-seeds will be playing a team that is -- on average -- sixty places higher on the rankings than they would in the traditional 64-team field.

Slicing the data another way (and perhaps accounting for mis-seeds), here are the averages for the five #16- and four #15-seeds:

#16-seeds: 177
#15-seeds: 132

Closer, but still a material improvement, assuming that the better teams wins the play-in game(s).

Some will counter that the short rest will make the #16's road even tougher. (The play-in game winners will have to play the #1 seeds two days after the opening round games, while the #1 seeds have a week to prepare.) But conference tournaments are rife with low-seeded teams who play on consecutive nights and beat higher-ranked opponents who have had a bye. For instance, in the Big East just this year, #8 Georgetown beat #1 Syracuse; #5 Marquette beat #4 Villanova, #7 ND beat #2 Pitt, and #11 Cincy beat #6 Louisville; in each of those games, the lower ranked team played back-to-back against a rested opponent.

The bottom line: the #1 seeds will be playing materially better teams.

And that makes the chances of a #16 beating a #1 much higher, no matter how you slice it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Ends

The national championship won by Duke on Monday had a feel of wistfulness. Once upon a time, Duke was the up-and-coming college basketball program, looking to break through with its first national title. The break-through happened in 1991, when Duke upended a powerful UNLV team in the semis, and beat traditional power Kansas in the Finals.

This time it was a young Butler team that came out of nowhere to reach Monday night's game. In just seven years Bulldog coach Brad Stevens went from representing Eli Lilly to trading (coaching) punches with a Hall-of-Famer.

But in the end, Coach K won his (and the school's) fourth title, although the current Blue Devils -- with no clear-cut NBA prospects -- are a far cry from the first national title team, which featured three NBA first-round draft choices (Bobby Hurley (#7 overall); Christian Laettner (#3); and Grant Hill (also #3 overall.))

In another way, Monday's game harkened back to that 1991-1992 team. After winning in 1991, the Blue Devils returned all the key pieces, and seemed poised to advance to a third consecutive Final Four. But in the regional final, Duke played Kentucky in what many consider the finest college basketball game ever.

The overtime game ended with a baseball pass from Grant Hill to Christian Laettner, and Laettner's turn-around jumper from 15 feet. By double-teaming Laettner, rather than putting a man on the ball, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino became a cautionary tale for coaches: don't leave the in-bounds passer un-bothered.

Almost twenty years later, Coach K almost became his own cautionary tale. By having center Brian Zoubek intentionally miss the second foul shot with a two-point lead with 3.6 seconds remaining, Coach K risked the unthinkable: Butler's Gordon Hayward would have won the title if his half-court heave had been a quarter-of-an-inch lower on the backboard.

This morning, Coach K went on the radio and defended his decision, saying that Duke's foul situation meant that overtime was "not an alternative."

Apparently Duke's Lance Thomas and Zoubek were much more valuable in Coach K's mind than they appeared on the floor: while they both had 4 fouls, no other Blue Devil had more than 3. Butler, in contrast, had both of its centers with four fouls, with C Matt Howard being hampered by foul trouble all night.

A better test: see how many college coaches instruct their players to miss foul shots intentionally next year.

The guess here: about as many as will allow a passer to be un-guarded.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweet Nothings

It's taken 31 years, but an Ivy League team plays tonight in the NCAA's Sweet 16 round for the first time since a Chuck-Daly-recruited (yes, that Chuck Daly) UPenn class crashed (albeit briefly) the Magic-Bird Final Four party in 1979.

A few thoughts:

* Domes: Tough shooting background? Cornell and Kentucky will play tonight at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, one of the few "true" domes used regularly in the college game (UNC's Dean-Dome, while a large facility, is not a true "dome" with a pressurized roof.)

We'll probably hear the CBS announcers claim more than once that the Dome hurts outside shooters, because of the lack of a 'shooting background' and/or different wind currents in the building. And such a difficult shooting environment is thought to hurt Cornell, with its three-point specialists, much more than slashing Kentucky.

Unfortunately (or for Cornell, fortunately), the facts don't seem to support this theory. The NCAA Final Fours have regularly been held in domes, beginning in 1982 with the historic UNC-Georgetown final. Between 1982 and 2000(*), seven national title games were held in non-dome stadiums, and eleven inside domes.

(*-With increased interest in attending the Final Four games, the NCAA has moved all Final Fours to domes, or in the case of Dallas in 2013, ginormous stadiums that might as well be domes.)

The difference in shooting percentage between the two environments?

00.2% (47.1% in non-dome; 46.9% in domes)

Cornell may have a tough time shooting the ball tonight, but that will have to do with the Kentucky pressure, not the shooting environment.

* Expanding the pool. The NCAA seems likely to expand the pool to 96 teams starting next year, which will mean the demise of the NCAA-owned National Invitational Tournament (NIT) after 72 years. (Presumably the women's tournament will also have to expand to 96; although after watching the UConn women hang 50+ point losses on the #16 and #8 seeds in the last week, one wonders why a #24 seed would fair any better.)

Yes, there is parity in college basketball. Unlike the NBA, where the best, healthiest, teams generally prevail over an 82-game regular season and best-of-seven playoff format, college basketball is famously quirky. Indeed, the NBA's size and strength requires a materially different set of skills than college basketball. Some of these skills do translate -- Davidson's Stephen Curry easily stepped back to the NBA three-point line -- while others, like last year's college-player-of-the-year Tyler Hansbrough has (unsurprisingly) had difficultly getting his power game to earn him minutes in the pros. (Although in Hansbrough's defense, when he has played, he's been reasonably effective, scoring at 17 ppg for every 36 minutes played.)

While having first-round NBA draft picks on your college team undoubtedly helps, it is far from a sure thing. And the charm of the NCAA tournament remains the mid-majors showing the "big boys" how to play. Northern Iowa will have no players in the Green Room in New York in June, but you won't get Kansas to tell you that.

So on to expansion: would more Tournament games be good for college basketball? Perhaps, if the result would more more Mid-Major/BCS matchups like Northern Iowa vs. Kansas. (Or, Ohio-Georgetown or Purdue-Siena.)

So if the expansion of the pool means more mid-major teams getting a chance in the Big Dance, AP is all for it. But it also requires a future Tournament Committee to give us Mid-Major/BCS matchups.

Instead, this year's Committee gave us swing games that pitted BCS vs. BCS and Mid-Major vs. Mid-Major. Here are the #8/#9 games: Texas vs. Wake Forest (BCS vs. BCS); UNLV vs. Northern Iowa (MM vs. MM); Louisville vs. Cal (BCS vs. BCS); and Gonzaga (MM) vs. Florida State (BCS conference, but basketball is a distant third at FSU to football and spring football in fan interest.) The Committee could have easily juggled the regions to give us three or four compelling games in that group, instead of one (UNLV vs. NIU was an exciting game, and one that Bill Self might have thought about before waiting 36 minutes to press NIU for 94 feet.)

Expansion could mean rewarding all the Mid-major teams that win their regular season title, but get bumped out of their conference tournaments, like Memphis. But the reality will be more marginal BCS teams getting in; and with expansion, what we'll probably get is more of the same: #8 in the Big Ten vs. #10 in the Big East (by the way, that match-up this year would have been Michigan vs. Seton Hall, in the midst of a basketball meltdown. That's a game that barely has any interest (outside of Ann Arbor and West Orange) in December, before we know that both teams are mediocre.)

Finally, we have been using the term "BCS" in this section even though in college basketball, there is no a "Bowl Championship Series"; it's a proxy for big-time, big-budget, big-TV conferences and their schools. But it raises the question of a Division I college football playoff.

College Presidents and Athletic Directors have resisted instituting a D-I football playoff for various reasons, including upsetting the current bowl structure, and (most unconvincingly) not disrupting academic schedules. And yet bowl season occurs at the tail-end of first semester for an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities. March Madness, in contrast, spills well over the single week of Spring Break, and the 96-team expansion means that the NCAA Tournament will cover another weekend, and effect an additional 500 student-athletes (32 teams x 15 players per team).

In a world where athletic budgets are being stretch both by the economy and non-revenue sports, it makes all the sense in the world why the Tournament is expanding.

But why is college football different? And why is that decision (not to institute a plus-one playoff system) driven by academics rather than dollars?

* Dis-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Speaking of mid-major teams, Cornell's Big Red has represented the Ivy League well in this tournament, knocking off A-10 champ Temple, and humiliating the Big 10 by hanging 87 points and emptying the bench on defensive-minded Wisconsin.

But the untold story about Cornell is just that -- the untold story. Despite returning six seniors from a two-time defending champ team, Cornell was an also-ran in the national media to the Harvard basketball story. Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine both ran full-length features on the Crimson. Former Harvard hooper Arne Duncan also made a splash in his new gig as Secretary of Education. Cornell was lucky to get front-page mention in the Daily Sun despite playing then-No. 1 Kansas to the final minute in Phog Allen.

Do Ivy League teams generally expect national media coverage?

Of course not. But if you think the Big Red didn't notice, check out the score the first time that Harvard played Cornell this year.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Thoughts on Olympic Hockey

Although AP is not a "hockey guy", there are a few more loose-ends going into the medal round of the Olympics:

1. The loss to the US likely brings to an end the international career of Martin Brodeur. Earlier this year, the 38-year-old passed Patrick Roy as the all-time leader in both games played and wins-by-a-goalie. But his shaky work in goal on Sunday meant that Team Canada Coach Mike Babcock has "gone in a different direction" and tapped 31-year-old Roberto Luongo (who backed up Brodeur four years ago in Torino), as well as juggling his lines.

2. Thanks to its loss on Sunday, Team Canada slipped to the #6-seed in the medal round. Assuming they get by Germany, that means a match-up with Russia looming. All year, the NHL has tried to hype Crosby-vs.-Ovechkin. Later this week, we'll all get to see it.

3. But we won't (most likely) get to see it in HD. High-def has helped all televised sports, but none more than hockey. But the Canada/US game was relegated to MSNBC, and this week it seems clear that Women's Figure Skating will be the highlighted prime time event on NBC.

4. Also, filed under "That's Incredible": the games are being played at a venue called "Canada Hockey Place," which is also where the NHL's Vancouver Canucks play their regular season games (then it's known as GM Place.)

The Olympics ice surface is 200 x 100. (You can get a sense of it when watching clips from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" game.)

The NHL ice surface is 200 x 85 feet. The GM Place ice remains at that size for the Olympics.

So the Olympic hockey competition will be held on a non-Olympic sized rink.

And a separate Olympic-sized rink (Trout Lake) will be used for figure skating.

Go figure.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shades of... 1992

In the legend of the Dream Team (1992 edition), the game that everyone wishes they had seen was a scrimmage that then-coach Chuck Daly organized between players from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Daly was apparently concerned that too much competition in practice could have an adverse effect on the Dreamers -- but finally, in the lead up to Barcelona, he succumbed and allowed the best in the world to settle things at full speed. It was, it is reported, a game for the ages.

We may have seen another tonight. Thirty years after the Miracle on Ice, the game of the Olympics has changed -- never again will a sports power like the United States send a bunch of amateurs to take on professionals, from the Soviet Union or anywhere else. But the challenge of international competition remains the same.

And tonight, with the pressure on the home team, the US-Canada hockey game was (perhaps) a throw-back to the East/West scrimmage in 1992. For 60 minutes, with end-to-end action, the game was played at the intensity level of a Stanley Cup final -- but with the talent one would see in an All-Star Game. Favored Canada outshot the US 45-22, but US goalie Ryan Miller answered the barrage -- especially in the last few minutes -- and bought his team a bye into the quarterfinals of the medal round. Team Canada will now face tough questions and brutal headlines as it heads in the second week of the competition.

Whether the US can survive to the medal stand (which has happened only once since 1980 (a silver in 2002)), it was the type of game that the NHL can be proud of -- and one that justifies the suspension of the NHL season for two weeks to allow the Olympics to proceed.

Do we believe in miracles?

Perhaps not, anymore.

But we do believe in international sport played at the highest level.

And on national TV, rather than in a closed practice.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Quick Thought: do you have to go back to 1995 (or even 1982?) to find a Duke-UNC game with less meaning?

And less hype?

ESPN effectively launched its first "spin-off", ESPN2 with the Duke-UNC game back in the mid-1990s by broadcasting the game exclusively on "the Deuce."

Today, it's barely part of "Rivalry Week."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I'm Going to Witchita...

This morning in the Globe, perpetual optimist Dan Shaughnessy bemoans the lack of local players in the Beanpot -- the Boston-only college hockey tournament on the first and second Mondays in February. The absence of a local connection, he says, made the building "flatter than Howie Long’s head."

In fact, the Gahh-den was flat during the opening game: a 6-0 shellacking of Harvard by Boston College. It was a game marked by chippy play (especially as the score got out of hand in the late stages), and the absence of legitimate scoring chances for the Crimson.

But even as the BC and Harvard students were preparing to depart for, um, time in their respective libraries (and Shaughnessy likely writing his column), the Northeastern fans showed up amped up. With the Huskies not having won a Beanpot since 1988 -- seven years before the final game in the old Garden -- the Northeastern fans came early and stayed late, trying to will their team on with both traditional hockey jeers ("Hey Goalie -- you [stink]") and more modern updates (chanting in unison the bass line to the Stripes' "Seven Nation Army.")

While the BU crowd also stood for almost all of the game, there was a sense of ennui. After all, when you have played in the Beanpot final in all but 2 of the last 27 years, how excited can you be for a opening-round game? And as BU never trailed, even a 2-man advantage for NU half-way through the third period didn't raise the Terriers' collective blood-pressure.

But there's an alternative explanation for why the Beanpot started flat: not one of the teams has had a great start to the 2009-10 season. In fact, of the four teams, only one has a winning record (BC is now 13-8-2. BU is now 10-11-3; Northeastern is 11-12-1 after last night; Harvard is 5-12-3, although they had been 3-1-1 in their previous five games.)

While Northeastern fans went home disappointed, BU-BC next week will bring the excitement.

With or without the White Stripes.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Second Thought...

Only one team made a statement in Ithaca Saturday night.

Cornell 86
Harvard 50

Cornell may break into the Top 25 (in the ESPN/USA Today poll -- they are well out of the T-25 in AP) next week.

And in the NBA, the Celts have a made a statement of a different type this week, losing @ORL, @ATL, and to LAL at home.

With KG in the line-up.

(And with Paul Pierce (interestingly) turning down a shot to win at Crunch Time to throw a floating pass to Ray Allen.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Heady Days for Harvard Hoops

Tonight's Ivy League clash in Ithaca, NY may not be the most important college basketball game of the year -- but it may be the most publicized game that won't be on TV.

Harvard (14-3, 3-0) basketball -- thanks to a good loss at UConn followed by an impressive win over Boston College -- has enjoyed a boomlet of publicity in the past few weeks, beginning with a Time Magazine article on Jeremy Lin in late December. Cornell (17-3, 3-0) has been solid all year, and nearly shocked then-Number-One Kansas at Allen Field House a few weeks ago. Tonight, Cornell hosts Harvard in a game that -- with no conference tournament in the Ivies -- will put one team in the driver's seat for the League title.

Just this week, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg all previewed the Crimson-Big Red tilt. KenPom has Cornell winning by 4. With the pressure on Cornell to 'hold serve' at home, the game may be even tighter.

But Lin and the current Harvard players are not the only Crimson in the news this week. Former Crimson player and current US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan enjoyed a generally positive profile in the New Yorker. Two take-aways: Duncan, thanks to a decade of playing hoops with Obama, may be the closest Cabinet member to the POTUS. And his educational agenda is far more centrist than most Obama supporters would have imagined.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Dog that Didn't Bark, and other SOTU Thoughts

President Obama's first State of the Union (SOTU) was delivered last night. A few loose ends and random thoughts:

* A Return to Clinton-ism. Bill Clinton was famous for revising the text of his speeches at the last minute, even on the ride over from the White House to the Capitol. This President, who seemingly won't say "Thank You" without a teleprompter, has (heretofore) been more punctual.

But the embargoed text was not delivered to the cable networks 30 minutes before his speech (as promised, according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.) And unlike previous years, where Members of Congress followed the speech in booklet form, no one was reading; instead they were listening -- with varying degrees of intensity.

And the length of the speech itself -- close to 75 minutes -- indicates that re-drafting was going on to the the last minute. (As Blaise Pascal once remarked, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.)

The lack of a prepared text (for Members, not the POTUS, obviously) meant that the Members were not 'prepared' for when the TV cameras would be focusing on them. Nor the Republicans, in particular, seem to know how or when to react to the various portions of the speech. (For example, the GOP side of the chamber, after the initial ovations during the introductions, seemingly did not stand and cheer for a single proposal or statement by the President until he called for "safe, clean nuclear power plants", which occurred almost half-way through the speech.)

* Joe Wilson II. The South Carolina Congressman who heckled the President during September's health care speech was nowhere to be seen. But stepping into the role, or perhaps auditioning for a larger role later, was Supreme Sam Alito, who responded to Obama's criticism of a recent Court decision but mouthing "That's Not True".

BTW, Obama vs. Alito debating the merits of Citizens United would be "Must See TV."

* The Dog that Didn't Bark. Since at least the Reagan era, it has been a tradition to recognize various Americans (and on occasion foreign dignitaries) in the First Lady's box overlooking the House chamber.) In 2002, newly-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai appeared. In 2004, Michigan grad Tom Brady served as a "visual prop" for President Bush's call to outlaw steroids.

Last night, President Obama recognized no one except for the First Lady and Jill Biden. (The cameras did focus on the Ambassador from Haiti when POTUS was discussing the earthquake.)

Although there appeared to be a number of "special guests" in the audience -- including at least according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, members of the response team from the Fort Hood shooting -- this SOTU was not focused on personal symbolism.

* The (Almost) Missing Bark. At the end of the preoration, it is customary to report that "The state of the Union is strong..." or similar words

(A few randomly-selected examples: Bush 43 (2008) ("The state of our union will remain strong"); (2002) ("Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger"); Clinton (2000) ("The state of our Union is the strongest it has ever been"). Interestingly, the only non-use of the "union is strong" formulation that AP could find was in Bush 41's 1992 address, at the start of his failed re-election year.)

Obama incorporated the word "Union" issue three different times in his SOTU opening (including once in a bit of wordplay: "when the Union was turned back at Bull Run"), before concluding: "I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong."

* Enough with Virginia Governors
. Virginia sits just south of the Washington, the locale of 90% of the nation's political reporters. Virginia's electorate, with its combination of rural conservatives in the south and west, and yuppie urbanites in the north, supposedly mimics the country's as a whole. And perhaps most important, Virginia's Constitution forbids its Governors from standing for immediate re-election.

So, every four years, when a new Governor is elected in the Old Dominion State, the pundit class declares him (or her, presumably) a "new rising star" and revs up the "could-this-Governor-be-the-next-President" bandwagon.

(Since 1982, here is the list of Virginia Governors: Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles, Douglas Wilder, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine. Of these, only Baliles (and Kaine, who left office after Obama's election) refrained from either explicitly running, or attempting to run, for President. All six ended, um, poorly.)

Here's another theory: since the VA Governor's seat is always an 'open' one (i.e., no incumbent to defeat), that means that running a successful gubernatorial campaign in VA is actually a very poor predictor of how political talent will fare in a more traditional setting: with incumbents and re-election campaigns.

Anyways, the latest "new rising star" Bob McDonnell was given the opportunity to respond to the SOTU last night. Although he bested last year's speaker, LA Governor Bobby Jindal, that was not a high bar: Jindal's performance was compared (unfavorably) to that of Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock.

But when even FNC's Charles Krauthammer described your oratorical performance as "workman-like", that may be a sign that your star is rising a bit slower than you might like.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raiding Morgantown, continued

A little follow-up: notwithstanding John Beilein's 41-46 record since arriving in Ann Arbor, his contract was recently extended through the 2015-16 season.

(Actually, the extension seems to be a somewhat curious decision -- at least as to timing -- as a team was preseason #15, and that seems reasonably likely to lose star G Manny Harris (he was suspended(*) over the weekend although reinstated for the Michigan State game) is mired with a bubble-icious 10-10 (3-5) record.

(* - AP doesn't have the bandwidth to research the "percentage-of-preseason-All-American-candidates-who-are-suspended-by-their-coach-but-who-nonetheless-finish-out-their-eligibility." But let's just say that the odds aren't great. You know, if betting were legal.)

Back to Beilein's extension: Whatever.

After all, Notre Dame famously gave Charlie Weis an extension early in his tenure, and look how that turned out. (Of course, Weis was 5-2 and #9 in the country at the time he got his new deal.)

The best-case long-term scenario, at least for Michigan fans, is that Beilein's extension empowered him to challenge Harris, and subsequently suspend him. (Potentially) good for team discipline long-term. Not such a good sign as to how the season has gone so far, which perhaps explains the underachieving record.)

But Beilein is not the only ex-Morgantown resident who is now coaching in Ann Arbor. Wolverine football coach Rich Rodriguez has now finished his second season at Michigan, with a combined record of 8-16, and perhaps more alarmingly, won just three conference games in 16 starts.

Are fans -- or for that matter journalists, commentators, or Jay Bilas -- happy with Rich Rod?

Well, he's probably not talking to the AD about a contract extension.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Elite Pretenders

For the second night in a row in college basketball, a BCS-conference title contender tried to elevate itself. And for the second night in a row, the established order turned away a challenge.

Last night in upstate New York, Georgetown sprinted to a 14-0 start before letting the Syracuse Orange back into the game -- in a big way -- in being outscored by 31 the rest of the way. The Orange, behind G Andy Rautins and F Wesley Johnson, showed that they are well-deserving of their current Top-5 ranking.

A year after the Big East dreamed of sending four teams to the Final Four, it was supposed to be a down year; instead, the conference has six teams in the current AP Top-25 (five in the current KenPom Top-25, but eight (half the league) in the Top-40). The Beast is back.

And Feb. 27th -- Villanova (18-1, 7-0) at Syracuse (20-1, 7-1) -- looms large.

In the Big Ten, meanwhile, Michigan hoped to start on the road back to national prominence when it hosted #5 Michigan State. Armed with a student body seemingly hopped up on Beilein-ball, the Wolverines appeared came back in the second half to take the lead with less than a minute to go.

With 38 seconds remaining, Michigan's DeShawn Sims missed a corner jumper badly. The Spartans' Kalin Lucas drained a 15-foot jumper to take a one-point lead. Sims had a chance to redeem himself with 1.5 left, but a tough layup slipped off the front rim.

And Maize-and-Blue fans wonder if raiding Morgantown was worth it.

It was the Best of Times...

Democrats (and the chattering class) have been, to quote the President, in a "tizzy" since last Tuesday, when Martha Coakley's faltering campaign was put out of its misery by Scott Brown. But while the White House re-calibrates in advance of tomorrow's State of the Union, it is not clear that the Scott Brown victory is uniformly good news for the GOP.

According to a poll conducted shortly after the special election(*), seventy percent of Brown voters were voting "for" Brown, rather than "against" Coakley (25%); in contrast, Coakley's voters were 57% for her/40% against Brown. In the aftermath of the election, Brown voters overwhelmingly (75%) want Brown to get some Republican ideas into Democratic legislation, rather than merely work to stop the Democratic agenda (19%), although when talking about health care reform in particular Brown voters were more willing to have Brown work to 'stop' the Dems (48-50).

(*-There were no exit polls conducted for the Special Election)

Brown famously ran without party identity, and instead linked himself directly to JFK in his first TV ad. Although he campaigned as the "41st vote", he did not have the word "Republican" on his ads (including the JFK ad) or signs. In short, he branded himself as a "Scott Brown Republican," with the implication that he would be independent and moderate.

So Brown's victory should be a road map for other Republicans in this election year?

Well, maybe.

While Brown campaigned (and frankly, legislated) as a moderate, the GOP seems to still be in the throes of a ritual purification: only the most conservative candidates will be acceptable in GOP primaries and caucuses.

To wit:

* Arlen Specter, facing a conservative challenge from Pat Toomey, left the GOP last year to give the Dems their short-lived 60th vote in the Senate.

* In upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District, conservative disaffection with moderate Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, resulted in Scozzafava's withdrawal from the race shortly before the November special election, and a win for Democrat Bill Owens in a seat that had been Republican-controlled for close to a century.

* Finally, in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist's lead in the polls over conservative Marco Rubio has evaporated, with Rubio now up by 3 points.

If the true Scott Brown lesson is for Republicans to move to the center, it's not clear that the national GOP wants to hear it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Head East, Young Man...

With the NBA season approaching the half-way mark, Celtic fans have been squirming as a team that once rashly promised to win 72 games has now been treading water for several weeks (5-8 since Christmas Day, when they stood an impressive 23-5).

This Friday in Atlanta has become a surprising test -- the Celtics need a win to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the Hawks. Although the Cs can point to absence of C Kevin Garnett as a big reason why the defense has been shaky recently, in reality, the Celts' swoon started even before Garnett went down.

Another team that has been slumping lately has been the Lakers. The defending champs looked great early, reaching a high-water record of 28-6 before slipping and losing 5 of their last 10.

But while the Celtics can point to Garnett's legs, the Lakers have a more troubling problem: going on the road. (In fairness, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum are both "day-to-day". But then again, aren't we all, Mr. Costello?)

The Lakers have played the fewest road games in the NBA, save only the SA Spurs. (Actually, both the Spurs and Lakers have played 17 'true' road games, as the Lakers played the Clippers (as a visitor) once this season so far.) And in addition to playing few road games, the LAL have won very few as well -- just 10-8 so far.

The Lakers are at the White House this afternoon, being feted by POTUS for their championship last spring. But with five more road games on their current East Coast trip -- and coming off a statement loss in Cleveland on Thursday night, Sunday's game in the new Boston Garden will take on significance for both teams: the Lakers to prove that they can beat elite teams on the road.

The Celtics just have to show that they are still worthy -- or healthy enough -- for the 'elite' label.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stealing Third

In (what proved to be) pivotal Game Four of the 2009 World Series, Johnny Damon pulled the rare feat of stealing two bases on a single play. In the top of the ninth with the score tied and two out, Damon fell behind 1-2, before working Brad Lidge for six more pitches and singling to left field.

Running on the first pitch to Mark Teixeira, Damon stole second, and barely pausing proceeded to take third as with the Phillies' shift, the bag was uncovered. Several Phils could have covered the bag, and Damon probably wouldn't have gone unless he was absolutely certain he could make it. Lidge proceeded to meltdown (hitting Teixeira with a pitch, and giving up an RBI double to A-Rod), and the Series was gone.

The mistake was actually made by Lidge, as it was the pitcher's responsibility to cover third with the shift on. But Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins said:

"I'm the captain of the infield," Rollins said. "It's my job. … I didn't signal to Brad to make sure he gets to third on a throw. All you've got to do is take two steps in that direction and you stop it right there. But I didn't do my part in making sure he knew the defense we were in."

Why focus on a play that happened four months ago? The same sort of mental mistake just occurred in Massachusetts. As the NYT reported today, as of December 16th, Martha Coakley was leading Scott Brown by 13 percentage points(*); but inside the numbers (or "cross-tabs"), when the respondents were limited to just those "likely" to vote, Coakley's lead shrunk to just 3 points. Scary numbers for Dems, and encouraging ones for the GOP.

(*)-The Times cites a GOP poll, but presumably other public polls (and Dem polls) would have -- or should have -- shown the same results.

As the Times shows, the GOP and Tea Partiers, used the holiday season -- when Coakley went off the trail for at least six days -- to build up momentum quietly behind Brown. By the time the public at large -- and the media -- caught up to the campaign, the "Brown-out" had broken out. Momentum and likeability -- combined with a public race that really lasted just two weeks (shortly after New Years through last Tuesday) -- spelled doom for Coakley.

No one has played the role of J-Roll in the Democratic party. Instead, we saw the incredible scene of dueling quotes on Tuesday -- before the voting booths had even closed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Holiday Traditions

Holiday traditions take years to develop. Turkey, pumpkin pie, and the Detroit Lions have meant "Thanksgiving Day" for millions of Americans.

Christmas Day has long been the NBA's showcase, although never totally obscuring presents, tinsel, and Santa Claus. This past Christmas, the NBA upped the ante by offering almost a full day of games, including Heat/Knicks, Celtics/Magic, Clippers/Suns, and Nuggets/Blazers. And the highlight of the day was the defending champion Lakers hosting King James and the Cavs.

The NHL has taken ownership of New Years Day with its Winter Classic, played this afternoon at the historic park at the Fens. The third Classic is a regular league game played on an unusual surface - the irregular ice of an outside rink. And it seems that the NHL has found a marketing jackpot and put it's product into the national consciousness.

But another sport used to own New Years: College Football. The old Bowl system meant wall-to-wall games, and with a "mythical" national championship at stake, oftentimes three or even four games were "must-see" TV. Starting with the first BCS Championship Game in January 1999, college football has devalued its (erstwhile) signature day, and most (if not all) of the top-5 teams do not play at all on January 1st. (The most competitive game - on paper - is the Sugar Bowl featuring #5 Florida and #4 Cincy. The most compelling (non-championship game is the Fiesta Bowl with #6 Boise State vs. #3 TCU).

There are plenty of problems with the current BCS system - including 3 undefeated teams this year, including one for sure (the BSU/TCU winner) who will be unbeaten at the end of the year. But giving up "ownership" of a National holiday is another issue that the NHL - for one -isn't complaining about.