MLB playoffs > NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs

It’s 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ division series against the Giants. I am excited to see my city’s team playing in October. And a little nervous. Nats 2014 postseason tickets

The 2014 postseason–the second the Nats have reached since coming to D.C. nine years ago, also the second for a Washington baseball team since 1933–may end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or it may end in the kind of soul-crushing loss that leaves one staring blankly into space until 4 a.m. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that baseball’s postseason–the difficulty of reaching it, the unpredictable outcomes allowed by a quick schedule and five-game division series, and the overall beauty of the national pastime–beats football’s, basketball’s and hockey’s. Let’s inventory what those other prime-time pro sports get wrong:

NFL: The impossibility of multiple-game playoff rounds in a sport as injury-prone/dangerous as football keeps the postseason relatively brief. But teams with a regular-season losing record can get in. And the hype about the Super Bowl–should I call it the “Big Game” to avoid annoying the NFL’s control freaks?–irks me to no end. Get over yourselves already.

(I have other issues with the NFL, but I’ll save those for later.)

NBA: By bloating the postseason to four best-of-seven rounds and then further padding out the schedule with a travel-dense 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA ensures that its playoffs regularly welcome teams with losing records and then grind on for almost two months. Wrong. And then the same handful of teams dominate the Finals. Boring.

NHL: Hockey, too, lets losing teams into its postseason. But my major gripe with the Stanley Cup playoffs–aside from the Caps’ helplessness in them–is the nearly two-month duration that ends with the absurdity of a sport born on frozen bodies of water being played in June.

(As for soccer: MLS, your postseason is fine by me, especially with D.C. United in it.)

About these ads

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

Continue reading

A post-Graham Post

The spectacle of experienced, often cynical journalists getting a little weepy over the prospect of their paper’s ownership changing from a group of rich people to one exceptionally rich person might seem strange.

But it really happened this week when the Washington Post stunned nearly everybody, myself included, by announcing its impending sale for $250 million to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Post in winterWhat was so special about the Graham family owning the newspaper and the Washington Post Company behind it?

This: To us, their stewardship was our rock.

The family had shown it would take punches for the paper. Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, when it was the fifth newspaper in a four-newspaper town, then subsidized its losses into the 1950s. His daughter Katharine Graham took over after his son-in-law Phil Graham’s suicide and stood up to Richard Nixon and much of the military-industrial complexher memoirs show she was an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the title.

And even as the newspaper industry started to slide, the Post’s two-tier stock structure locked Wall Street out of voting control and, we thought, ensured the paper could be managed for the duration while others made cruel and stupid staff cuts to meet short-term earnings goals.

For me and many other under-40 Posties, the family’s role was personified by Don Graham, the paper’s publisher from 1979 to 2000, chairman from 2000 to 2008 and still chief executive of its parent firm. “Mrs. Graham” had her well-earned perch in the 9th floor executive suite, but Don was a constant presence in the newsroom who could be counted on to read every story in the paper.

If you did a good job, you might get a handwritten compliment via interoffice mail, later on an appreciative e-mail. And if you screwed up, Don could understand. In January of 2000, stressed over my aunt’s death the day before, I completely blew up at a cranky caller and hung up on him in a stream of curses, something I’d never done before and never have since; the guy promptly called Don, who heard him out, apparently talked him off the ledge and refrained from having me canned.

In and outside the newsroom, Don declined to play the part of a media mogul. He’d followed Harvard by serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then in D.C.’s streets as a patrolman with the Metropolitan Police Department. He insisted he be compensated far less than his peers, with his salary frozen since 1991. It seemed normal that I’d have the occasional brief chat with him on the walk to Metro at the end of the day.

Up until maybe five years ago, working for the Post seemed one of the surest bets in journalism. But we weren’t doing as well as we thought–even as the apparent security of having the Grahams in our corner probably kept us from taking chances we should have. Circulation figures and ad revenues kept sinking, one round of buyouts begat another and another, and the newsroom leadership turned over more than once. Don Graham’s successors as publisher–Bo Jones from 2000 to 2008, his niece Katharine Weymouth from 2008 on–didn’t have the same newsroom presence.

I’ve wondered what the family members in charge thought about the steady erosion of their legacy. Now we know: Late last year, they began to explore the implausible: If we can’t escape a seemingly endless cycle of cuts and can’t find answers for the questions the newspaper business keeps throwing at us, maybe it’s time for somebody else to take over, somebody with new ideas and enough resources to fund the paper’s reinvention entirely free of the stock market’s concerns.

Since Monday’s news, I’ve been hearing anxiety from current and former Posties over what Bezos might have in store–from his history with unions to what Amazon’s done to independent bookstores. I don’t think you can overlook a deeper angst: that the Post is being wrenched off the foundation that had endured for over 80 years.

Accepting that change had to have been a crushing realization to the Graham family too–that you essentially must fire yourself from your life’s work. But it seems in keeping with the history I’ve read and the publisher I got to know. As my friend and fellow ex-Postie Frank Ahrens wrote in an eloquent note shared on Facebook: “After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.”

Don Graham’s work at the Washington Post may be near its close, but he remains one of the most decent, honorable people I have met. Thanks, Don.

This weekend provides an unfortunate reminder of our collective innumeracy

An Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport today, leaving two passengers dead and more than 100 wounded. That is terrible news all around, even considering how many of the 307 people on board seem to have walked away from a hull-loss accident, and upsetting in particular to this frequent SFO flyer.

OS X calculatorBut the really awful news about travel this weekend most likely happened Thursday–when, if recent trends continued, more people died on American roads than any other day of the year. That comparative statistic, or maybe just the average daily toll of 89 people, will get some mention as useful context in every story about the SFO crash, right?

Of course not. News coverage, political debates and popular consciousness tilts overwhelmingly toward the big and unusual disaster and away from smaller-scale but vastly more frequent calamities.

This mismatch is obvious in transportation policy–would that driving had a culture of safety close to what’s made commercial aviation the safest form of travel in America–but the effects may be worse in national-security issues.

Unreasoning fear of terrorism can lead to all kinds of silly rules, like the National Football League’s prohibiting fans from bringing all but the smallest non-transparent bags to games. (I had to observe that the statistics to date show that its own players represent a bigger threat than terrorist acts at NFL stadiums; that was unfair on my part, considering how many people drive to games and what state they might be in afterwards.)

But it can also lead us to accept the slow, silent erosion of our rights.

How else can you explain how politicians and pundits in or aligned with both parties keep defending the National Security Agency’s minimally-accountable surveillance of domestic communications–sometimes with a waving away of even the public’s need to know? Because 9/11, that’s why! Because we choose to view a hateful, contemptible and exceedingly rare crime as the existential threat it is not.

I don’t mean to get into a rant here, so I’ll close with what I hope is an uncontestable recommendation: Drive safely, please.

(Updated 9/7 with correct numbers about the SFO crash, another number about road safety and a few rephrased sentences.)

Raising a glass to liberty and justice for all

My last stop in New York Thursday evening before heading to Penn Station for the train back to D.C. was not a place I would have put on my itinerary anytime in high school or college: I’d decided I’d get a beer at the Stonewall Inn.

Stonewall NY PostThe day before, the Supreme Court had demolished that cruel exercise in bigotry called the Defense of Marriage Act. I’d despised that law not just for how it demeans the relationships of gay and lesbian friends, but also for what it says about straight couples like my wife and I– our marriage is so weak that it must be propped up by a law stigmatizing the unions of other consenting adults?

(It’s remarkable how many of my Georgetown classmates came out of the closet after graduating from America’s oldest Catholic university. I have no idea why that is.)

The logic of raising a glass to the demise of DOMA at the birthplace of the gay-rights movement in America seemed inescapable. I just hoped I wouldn’t be seen as barging in on somebody else’s celebration.

“Somebody else”… that’s a phrase that can come up a lot if you grow up in the majority culture. From a certain warped perspective, a Black History Month or a Susan B. Anthony quarter can seem like a prize for other people. Well, no. As I wrote in another context, our overcoming our worst instincts is part of our story as a country, and we should honor that.

(While I’m on the subject: My fellow white people, please get to know “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and it’s part of our story too.)

So I strolled down Seventh Avenue, crossed at Christopher Street, walked in (note that the current establishment is not the same as the one where riots broke out after a police raid in 1969) and asked for a beer. Did I fit in? You will be shocked to learn that… wait for it… I wound up talking about computers and smartphones with a couple of guys.

I look forward to some repeat of the experience closer to home when Virginia’s constitution is no longer stained by an amendment banning even civil unions for some of my fellow citizens.

How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.